Day 1: Hungry Valley - It Begains
"We'll have none of that high-school stuff out here," crackles Williams over the radio. "We're heading through some rough terrain, way out in the boonies, so it's important that everyone pays attention and follows directions," he continues.
Truck Trend editor Mark Williams' preamble takes place at the base of the Tehachapi mountains in a spot known as the Hungry Valley State Vehicle Recreation Area. Each member of his crew is piloting one of today's most capable off-road SUVs, an assemblage that includes the Hummer H3 Alpha, Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, Land Rover LR2, Nissan Xterra, and Toyota FJ Cruiser. Along for the journey are Julia LaPalme and trusted Truck Trend lieutenants Allyson Harwood and Thomas Voehringer. Trip rookie is the guy with too much product in his hair, dressed like he just robbed an REI. Me. Our mission: Determine which of this collection is the most capable, least compromised off-road machine.
First up is the Sluice Box, and as torture devices go, it doesn't look medieval, it looks prehistoric. Boulders the size of La-Z-Boys line both sides of this 50-yard stretch of manmade madness, while matching granite ottomans litter the interior at uneven intervals.
Hip-deep in this rock box, Williams makes the first tough call of the trip. "I'm concerned about the LR2's ride height and undercarriage. I'd hate to wreck it so early on in the trip, so we'll leave it out of this one," he says.
"It's a car," mutters Harwood, clearly bemused by the Land Rover's low ground clearance. But wait, what does he mean "wreck it so early in the trip"? What else are we going to do? Before that thought can trickle any further, a squawk over the radio signals go time.
With Williams spotting the way, I send the Jeep creeping through the sluice. No drama here-click the lockers on, engage low range, lift off the brake, and the Rubicon's knobby BFGs immediately begin biting into the rough stone furniture. Though it has the least horsepower (202) and torque (237) of this group and the worst power-to-weight ratio, the Wrangler is otherwise made for this kind of stuff. It has the shortest wheelbase, best approach and departure angles, highest ground clearance, and is the only one here with a live axle in front and back.
Is all this really necessary? After the Jeep's initial run, all the others, Land Rover aside, claw their way through with no problem. The only casualty: a bit of plastic mudflap ripped off the Xterra.
Next up is another manmade obstacle course that looks like a skatepark built into the side of a hill. Black tire marks show where lesser drivers in lesser vehicles have spun wheels in frustration.
As though to give it a chance at redemption, Williams sends the LR2 up first. Even with no low range or locking differential, the LR2 skips right up, with little wheelspin. The others make minimal use of their crawler gears and fancy electronics (like brake-assisted A-TRAC in the FJ) and still make quick work of the hill; braggadocio ensues.
When the quintet pulls up at the base of Hungry Valley's real hillclimb, all chest-puffing stops. Sandy, beige, hardpack dirt on the bottom gives way to intermittent patches of chalky-looking rock with a few deep gravelly ruts near the top. The grade doesn't look so steep until you hit the middle and beyond; as curves go, this one is mostly exponential.
"The idea here is to pick the line that provides the most traction," advises Williams. "I'll ride shotgun."
The invincible feeling returns as we begin our assault on the hill. This is why we brought the Jeep -- it's the default choice for prerunning situations like this. Only when the wheels begin to slip near the top, does my confidence also begin to give way. Williams is cool and unconcerned; as the Rubicon digs itself in deeper and begins to slide sideways, he issues the halt order for evaluation.
Next thing you know, he's meditatively balancing on the Jeep's front bumper to help load the front wheels. But it's not good. I pick the wrong line and pay for it by having to back down the whole way.
Williams hops into the Xterra and takes a different line, straddling the ruts avoided on the first attempt. No problem; with the rear diff locked and low gears engaged, the Xterra walks right up.
Brow furrowed, Williams heads down to jump back in the Jeep and rolls right up the hill with even less drama than in the Xterra. No need to even gas it at the end. No problem with the hardware -- just driver error. My error.
After using the Jeep's ultralow 4.00:1 gear to creep down -- no hill-descent mode needed here -- Mark hops into the LR2.
This is going to be good -- no low range, no lockers, no chance, right? But what do you know, that green badge does mean something. With tires spinning, the LR2 steamrolls the hill. Downhill is no problem, either, though its brake-based descent control sends it down awfully fast.
"Looks more like roller-coaster mode," joke Harwood and Voehringer.
Time for my redemption, and with its beige body and white top, the FJ looks more than ready to assist. Its 4.0-liter V-6 makes plenty of torque (278 pound-feet) and the Bridgestones seem to have just enough grip. The only white-knuckling occurs up top, as the FJ lightens up front, its weight tilted far to the back. "Straddle the hump," commands Williams, "and give it some more gas to keep the momentum up." Dirt flies and just like that we're on top of the world. Redemption is sweet. I want more.
On the same climb, our Hummer H3 Alpha is equally unstoppable, despite a 5100-pound curb weight. No surprise why; its 5.3-liter engine is the largest (and only) V-8 in this group, and it pumps out the highest power (295) and torque (317). At 4.03:1, this H3 also has the best low-range gearing, which makes descending down the hill just as uneventful as the climb.
Highway sprints to our photo location and then dinner in Death Valley's Furnace Creek reveal few surprises; naturally, the topless, live-axle Jeep receives little praise. "On-road, the Wrangler is a handful at highway-plus speeds where the solid front axle is particularly unimpressive. Numb doesn't even begin to characterize the handling at speed," says Voehringer, and he's a Jeep fan.
Though quiet and reasonably smooth, the Hummer gets dinged for a leaden, slow-shifting four-speed. "This old-tech transmission is slow to respond, and as a result, acceleration from a stop happens with a lurch after a noticeable delay," says Harwood.
King of the Road is clearly the LR2. It's quick, responsive, with a carlike ride. "Everything about this Rover reminds me of butter. The suspension absorbs bumps and dips so smoothly, transferring little of the disturbance to the driver," says LaPalme.
"On-road, this is the vehicle of choice. It's quick, the steering is wonderful, and that transmission is like silk," Harwood adds.
The battle for second-most roadworthy comes down to the FJ versus the Xterra. While neither isolate secondary judders as well as the unitbody LR2, more responsive steering and excellent outward visibility give the Xterra the nod.
Day 2: Death Valley
Decked out in hot-weather gear, our crew motors quickly across the floor of Death Valley to beat rising temperatures by climbing to elevation. After a couple hours driving on the two-lane highway, mid-90-degree temps, and sub-sea-level elevations are far behind, replaced by cool breezes and 75-degree temps at 5500 feet.
After descending 3500 feet, it's almost noon before the turnoff on Saline Valley Road and up again onto Lippincott Mine Road. From here it's only 10 miles to the Death Valley's famous "Racetrack," but seven of those miles require serious 4x4 vehicles, with high clearances and experienced drivers.
"Stay close to the vehicle in front of you and pay attention to where they are placing their tires," comes sage advice from veteran Williams, who's taken the wheel of LR2 -- again concerned about the limited ground clearance and lack of low range and underbody protection.
I rotate through the Xterra, then the Jeep, then the FJ. All low ranges and crawl gears are engaged, all dash lights are on -- diff lock, A-TRAC, you name it -- yet despite the rough terrain, none put a tire wrong during the slow and serious climbing.
Turn after rock-strewn turn reveals breathtaking views of Panamint Valley below. A few warts are revealed as well, like the limited visibility in the FJ and Hummer. Both are compromised by their chunky, adventure-inspired styling; the view forward is fine, but rear-mounted tires and small windows inhibit back and side visibility. Not so in the LR2, which boasts the largest sunroof opening after the Jeep's convertible top. This Land Rover continues to impress through this mountainous traverse, it doesn't just keep up, it leads the way-taking our convoy past the Racetrack, Ubehebe Crater, to a steak dinner and beds in Furnace Creek.
Day 3: Dumont Dunes
"Dumont Dunes is not a place for revelations," comes Williams' disembodied voice over the radio, "if anything, it'll reinforce what you already believe." That's deep, downright Yoda-esque. Problem is, in terms of pure off-road ability, four in this quintet could walk away as the winner right now.
He's right -- the dunes do reinforce beliefs, and the first one solidified is that the Hummer has a serious weight problem. Even with all tires aired down to 22 psi, the Hummer never seems to float above the dunes like the others, but rather bogs about sluggishly. She never gets stuck -- nobody does -- but never elicits the whoops and hollers of the Rover, either.
"On the sand, the LR2 blew me away. I knew it would be good, but I wasn't prepared for how good it was. Engine and trans seem a perfect match for scaling up the shifting sand walls and diving back down over steep wind-blown cornices. It was like racing in a glass-protected ATV," comments Williams.
These heavy-duty SUVs prove to be like ATVs in more ways than one; though not all emerge without damage after we find a few safe jumps on the dunes. The Jeep Rubicon suffers two damaged rear struts, which are promptly removed -- despite the 200-mile drive mile home -- and the Toyota FJ gets a bent front quarter-panel, which causes some interference when opening the front passenger-side door. Maybe this makes sense, since these are the two fun-buggies on the sand. Still, Xterra and LR2 run with the wolves and come out unscathed.
Late in the day, winds pick up and send forth a sandstorm the likes of which even veteran off-roader Williams has never seen. It looks like the sand monster sequence in "The Mummy." Despite being saddled in the windowless, strutless Jeep and facing a 100-mile drive to dinner, I can't get enough.
Mad Greek Musings
Two hours later, at the Mad Greek near Barstow, our bone-weary group makes the last meal stop of the trip. Over the three days, we've burned a staggering 300 gallons of gas, charging over 800 hard miles and thousands of feet in elevation. It's late, and though skin and nerves are raw, the debate rages as to which off-roader is best.As fearless and capable as the Land Rover proves to be, it's fundamentally hamstrung by its lack of true off-road hardware. Its carlike features, including smooth ride, excellent transmission, and 16.1-mpg fuel-economy average, receives oodles of praise, but poor ground clearance and the lack of low range raises eyebrows and nix it from at least one of our tests.
"The LR2 chassis feels surprisingly stout to me. On the sand, this is the champ. I've never had so much fun on the dunes," says Harwood, before turning up the heat. "But this is a car. I know it did well on the washboard, and Mark babied it up and over some obstacles, but it doesn't have the off-road prowess the Land Rover badge and name promise. And it's way too expensive."
Cost fells the mighty Hummer H3 Alpha as well; its as-tested price of $44,535 is more than $13,000 higher than the FJ Cruiser's and Xterra's. That money could buy a lot of gas, especially with the H3 Alpha's 12.1-mpg fuel economy-the worst in the group.
"Why on earth is this thing so damned expensive? It doesn't use a new engine, and the transmission is just as old-tech. When it comes to creature comforts, there are no redundant steering-wheel controls, no iPod jack, and the tire-monitoring system doesn't even specify which tire(s) are low. Feels like you're paying for a brand name," says Harwood.
Yet it's tough to put such a capable off roader in fourth. "The Alpha's V-8 brings the H3 to life. On the gravel-strewn trails, the Hummer muscles over and through everything in its path. Tough, strong and solid, this thing feels like it can handle anything; for confidence behind the wheel, the H3 is king," says Voehringer.
On paper, the Toyota FJ Cruiser is tough to beat. It's the most affordable, one of the best at the track, and returns the best fuel economy of the body-on-frame bunch: 15.5 mpg. Behind the wheel, it's smooth on the road and unstoppable off of it. It's a serious off-roader, but one marred by serious packaging flaws. Flip-out rear doors make second-row seat-loading difficult in tight situations.
"Perhaps the smoothest combination of software and traditional mechanicals to get the most-and most efficient-traction to the right wheel," says Williams. "It's handled everything we've thrown at it, but it's difficult to reconcile the interior and exterior designs. Looks great, but it's not functional. Visibility is restricted from almost every seat." After all, spotters are great when you're out on the trail, but you shouldn't need them in the Home Depot parking lot.
To no one's surprise, the battle for first comes down to the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and the two-time SUV of the Year award winner, the Nissan Xterra. There's a lot to love about the legendary Jeep, but there also are some nagging problems. "The front and rear lockers and swaybar disconnect are cool tech, but about as old school as it gets, yet they get the job done. Nothing compares with the front and rear electric locking differentials. Ultralow low-range gear [4.00:1] transfer case also helps with crawling, but lightness and shovel-like tires almost have it digging into the hillclimb too much. On-road it's a handful; so little contact patch to the tires and a light steering feel allows it to get blown around quite a bit on pavement, especially highways. Engine and trans are the weak links here when they should be better," says Williams.
"I love this thing. Overall, compared with the other vehicles, the Rubicon has the most personality. It's short, squat, and narrow, with ample ground clearance. The ride is a bit rough, transferring a lot of road-surface imperfections to the driver, but a Jeep is not about a cushy ride, it's about utility," says LaPalme.In contrast, the Nissan Xterra is the strong, silent type; one that evokes less emotion. "It doesn't stand out, but I mean that in a good way: It does everything right when asked, with no complaints. If it were my money and this were my daily driver during the week, off-roader on the weekend, I'd have an Xterra in the garage, no question," says Harwood.
The Xterra is a surprising value, too. Our OR-V6 model is only a couple hundred dollars more than the price-leading FJ, but consider what you get in return-better tires, a roof rack, four real doors with powered rear windows, and excellent overall visibility.
The Xterra's no-fat, no-frills approach is why it wins this test. Williams sums it up best: "The exterior design matches its pure capability and functional personality. It's fun to toss around and really holds up well at highway speeds. The 4WD system is pretty basic but does offer an exceptionally compliant and flexible chassis. Tire and chassis combination are about the best all-around match as I've ever driven-for extreme high- and low-speed cruising. Inside and out, the Xterra makes a promise that its power and performance completely deliver."
1. Nissan Xterra: Like it says on the door, off-road is where this one thrives. Low-key but as capable as the Rubicon, and far less compromised.
2. Jeep Wranger Rubicon: As always, excellent off-road, but others have caught up -- and don't have quite as many compromises in comfort or driveability.
3. Toyota FJ Cruiser: Great value, outsanding track performance, and excellent manners on road and off. Too bad butch styling hinders visibility and practicality.
4. Hummer H3 Alpha: Biggest, baddest, and most powerful, but also heaviest, thirstiest, and most expensive.
5. Land Rover LR2: Best on the road and dunes, but ground clearance and no low range mean this is not a serious off-road machine. Goes almost everywhere the others do, but almost doesn't cut it.
|2008 Hummer H3 Alpha||2008 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon||2008 Land Rover LR2 HSE|
|Location of final assembly||Shreveport, Louisiana||Toledo, Ohio||Halewood, England|
|Body style||4-door, 5-pass SUV||2-door, 4-pass SUV||4-door, 5-pass SUV|
|EPA size class||Special purpose||Special purpose||Special purpose|
|Drivetrain layout||Front engine, 4WD||Front engine, 4WD||Front engine, AWD|
|Airbags||Front, front side, side curtain||Front, front side||Front, front side,|
|Engine type||90o V-8, alum block/heads||60o V-6, iron block/alum heads||I-6, alum block/head|
|Bore x stroke, in||3.78 x 3.62||3.78 x 3.43||3.33 x 3.78|
|Valve gear||OHV, 2 valves/cyl||OHV, 2 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|Fuel induction||SFI||Sequential multiport||SFI|
|SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm||295 @ 5200||202 @ 5200||230 @ 6300|
|SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm||317 @ 4000||237 @ 4000||234 @ 3200|
|Transmission type||4L60 4-speed automatic||42RLE 4-speed automatic||6-speed automatic|
|Final drive ratio||2.87:1||5.13:1||2.59:1|
|Indicated rpm @ 60 mph||1800||1850||1800|
|Transfer-case model||NV241||NV241OR Rock-Trac||N/A|
|Crawl ratio (1st x axle gears x low range)||50.6:1||46.6:1||N/A|
|Recommended fuel||Regular unleaded||Regular unleaded||Premium unleaded|
|Track, f/r, in||65.0/65.5||61.9/61.9||63.0/63.5|
|Headroom, f/r, in||40.6/39.9||41.3/40.3||40.2/39.4|
|Legroom, f/r, in||41.9/35.0||41.0/35.6||41.9/36.4|
|Shoulder room, f/r, in||54.4/53.5||55.8/61.6||57.6/57.3|
|Cargo vol beh 1st/2nd row, cu ft||55.7/29.5||56.5/17.2||58.9/26.7|
|Ground clearance, in||9.1||10.2||8.3|
|Approach/departure angle, deg||39.4/36.5||44.3/40.4||29.0/32.0|
|As-tested curb weight, lb||5100||4221||4343|
|Weight distribution, f/r, %||52.0/48.0||49.0/51.0||58.0/42.0|
|Max payload capacity, lb||1150||1000||1100|
|Max towing capacity, lb||6000||2000||3500|
|Fuel capacity, gal||23||18.6 (est)||18.5|
|Construction||Ladder frame||Ladder frame||Unibody|
|Suspension, f/r||Independent, SLA torsion bar/, solid axle, multi-leaf, anti-roll bar||Live axle, leading arm, coil spring/live axle, trailing arm, coil spring||Strut, coil spring, anti-roll roll bar/strut, coil spring, anti-roll bar|
|Steering type||Power rack-and-pinion||Power recirculating ball||Power rack-and-pinion|
|Turns, lock to lock||3.3||3.5||2.6|
|Turning circle, ft||37||34.9||37.6|
|Brakes, f/r||12.4-in vented disc/12.3-in vented disc, ABS||11.9-in vented disc/12.4-in disc, ABS||12.5-in vented disc/12.0-in vented disc, ABS|
|Wheels||16x7.5-in alloy||17x7.5-in cast alum||19x8.0-in cast alum|
|Tires||LT285/75R16 Bridgestone Dueler AT||LT255/75R17 BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/AKM||P235/55R19 Continental 4x4 Contact|
|Quarter mile, sec @ mph||16.5 @ 82.0||17.1 @ 77.7||16.7 @ 83.2|
|Braking, 60-0, ft||148||145||131|
|EPA fuel economy, city/hwy, mpg||13/17||15/19||16/23|
|As-tested fuel economy, mpg||12.1||12.8||16.1|
|CO2 emissions, lb/mile||1.33||1.17||1|
|Price as tested||$44,535||$32,190||$41,400|
|2008 Nissan Xterra OR-V6 4x4||2008 Toyota FJ Cruiser|
|Location of final assembly||Smyrna, Tennessee||Hamura, Japan|
|Body style||4-door, 5-pass SUV||4-door, 5-pass SUV|
|EPA size class||Special purpose||Special purpose|
|Drivetrain layout||Front engine, 4WD||Front engine, 4WD|
|Airbags||Front, side, f/r curtain||Front, front side,|
|Engine type||60 V-6, alum block/heads||60 V-6, alum block/heads|
|Bore x stroke, in||3.75 x 3.62||3.70 x 3.74|
|Valve gear||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm||261 @ 5600||239 @ 5200|
|SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm||281 @ 4000||278 @ 3700|
|Transmission type||5-speed automatic||5-speed automatic|
|Final drive ratio||2.82:1||2.69:1|
|Indicated rpm @ 60 mph||1800||1800|
|Crawl ratio (1st x axle gears x low range)||33.9:1||33.7:1|
|Recommended fuel||Regular unleaded||Premium unleaded|
|Track, f/r, in||61.8/61.8||63.2/63.2|
|Headroom, f/r, in||39.9/39.3||41.3/40.3|
|Legroom, f/r, in||42.4/34.4||41.9/31.3|
|Shoulder room, f/r, in||58.3/58.3||58.4/53.9|
|Cargo vol beh 1st/2nd row, cu ft||65.7/35.2||66.8/27.9|
|Ground clearance, in||9.5||9.6|
|Approach/departure angle, deg||33.2/29.4||34.0/31.0|
|As-tested curb weight, lb||4485||4346|
|Weight distribution, f/r, %||52.0/48.0||54.0/46.0|
|Max payload capacity, lb||1004||1272|
|Max towing capacity, lb||5000||5000|
|Fuel capacity, gal||21.1||19|
|Construction||Ladder frame||Ladder frame|
|Suspension, f/r||Control arm, coil spring, anti-roll bar/live axle, leaf spring||Control arm, coil spring, anti-roll bar/live axle, coil spring, anti-roll bar|
|Steering type||Power rack-and-pinion||Power rack-and-pinion|
|Turns, lock to lock||3.5||3.1|
|Turning circle, ft||37.3||41.8|
|Brakes, f/r||11.7-in vented disc/11.3-in disc, ABS||12.6-in vented disc, 12.3-in vented disc, ABS|
|Wheels||16x7.0-in cast alum||17x7.5-in cast alum|
|Tires||P265/75R16 BFGoodrich Rugged Trail||P265/70R17 Bridgestone Dueler H/T|
|Quarter mile, sec @ mph||15.8 @ 86.8||15.8 @ 86.6|
|Braking, 60-0, ft||137||137|
|EPA fuel economy, city/hwy, mpg||14/20||16/20|
|As-tested fuel economy, mpg||13.8||15.5|
|CO2 emissions, lb/mile||1.2||1.1|
|Price as tested||$30,940 (est)||$30,868|