There's something about a barroom brawl that we like. The easiest way to choose a clear winner is to look for the last guy standing. That's what we decided to do after listening to public-relations reps, marketing experts, and ad-agency wanks tell us their vehicle (sometimes their client's vehicle) was the toughest, roughest, and most capable thing on four wheels. We wanted them to prove it. In fact, more than proving it, we wanted them to give us the vehicles so we could punish them, push them to their limits, and find out, once and for all, which of these self-described SUV champions could be the Ultimate 4x4.
Our players include the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon--because of its impressive Rubicon option package that offers larger tires, a small suspension lift, better shocks, stronger live axles, locking differentials, and a special transfer case with a very, very low-range gear of 4.00:1.
Next is the Hummer H1, for obvious reasons (there's probably no one in the auto industry that's louder about its respective 4x4 prowess).
We also opted to invite the new Hummer H2 SUT, which offers center and rear locking differentials and a sophisticated traction-control system that acts like a locking differential on the front wheels. Besides, we like the fact that you can drop the rear window and bulkhead, drop the window, open the moonroof, and feel like you're in the outdoors while driving through it.
Given the fact it won a few 4x4 awards, we knew we had to get some seat time in the new Lexus GX 470 with its new, Australian-designed Kinetic Dynamic suspension option. The setup is smart enough to force a wheel down for traction when it senses other tires spinning in the air or slipping on slick surfaces.
In addition, we had to make sure we invited the 25-year-old Mercedes-Benz G-Class, and we felt it fitting to take the vehicle in its fully dressed AMG 55 garb (our 2004 model came with a normally aspirated 5.5-liter V-8; 2005-model AMG G55s will be supercharged). This is its final year of production before it gets a major redesign.
Next in line is the Nissan Titan Off-Road package. This is the first full-size pickup to offer Rancho shocks, a Dana 44 rear axle, and an electronically controlled, selectable locking differential option.
Last, we decided to toss in the Range Rover because of its long history of all-terrain capability and luxurious interiors.
We'll travel by major highways to the Hollister Hills State Vehicle Recreation Area and end up near the Pacific at Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area. Round trip: 882 miles, not counting all the miles we'll be doing in four-wheel drive. Scoring will be simple. We've set up several tests throughout the event. The nine scoring categories are spread throughout the story, with a final scorecard shown at the end. First-place winners were awarded 10 points per contest; seventh-place finishers received four.