Basically, he set us up. Yes, our Editor-in-Chief, C. Van Tune, had us believing it would be fun. His plan was grandiose, yet strangely appealing. Fifteen of us would make this year's torture trek to Death Valley behind the wheels of the latest trucks and SUVs. We'd travel from below sea level to above 8000 feet in elevation, explore some hidden ghost towns, shoot a few photos, do a few tests, roll a little videotape, and then hang out by the sparkling warm spring-fed pool at the luxurious Furnace Creek Inn at the end of the two-day test. Our editorial army would be the biggest group of people we've ever taken to Death Valley, as we'd simultaneously be generating coverage for Motor Trend magazine, "MT TV," "MT Radio," MT Online, and Truck Trend magazine. A big undertaking, to be sure, especially in the 120° temperatures we were expecting. And, call us crazy, but no one wanted to miss his chance to go.

But Van failed to mention one salient point: That this was, in fact, intended to be a 48-hour non-stop off-road death march. He'd later describe it as (once it was too late to turn back) "the ultimate test of man and machine: sleep deprivation, food deprivation, shade, shower, and shave deprivation." Not exactly appealing brochure copy. We'd end up at Furnace Creek Inn, all right, but not before Van had lived out his sadistic fantasies on us for 48 continuous non-stop-torturing hours. (There's obviously a little DeSade DNA in the Tune family bloodline.)

Okay, so this 48 Hours in Hell test wasn't without an upside: We did have a great cross-section of new trucks and SUVs in which to slide, churn and climb our way through the valley of death. Three pickup trucks and five SUVs were ours to play with, including the Chevrolet Avalanche 1500 4WD, replete with its vaunted Z71 off-road package, innovative midgate body design, and aggressive styling. Our 2001 Truck of the Year, the Chevrolet Silverado HD also joined the fray, in the form of the giant 3500 LT 4WD (actually 6WD!) Crew Cab Dualie pickup, motivated by a smooth and powerful 6.6L turbodiesel V-8. From the compact pickup segment, we chose a lone entry, the versatile crew-cab-bodied supercharged Nissan Frontier 4x4 SCV6. Each pickup was loaded up with survival supplies and looked the part of desert runner.

On the SUV side, we opted for Cadillac's ultra-luxurious Escalade. With its sumptuous leather interior, 6.0L/345-hp V-8 engine, and high-tech driveline, this was one contender everybody wanted to pilot first. Another high-end full-size SUV with a V-8 (albeit a smaller 4.7L/240-hp version) was the Toyota Sequoia Limited 4x4. This particular vehicle is also our newest One-Year-Test vehicle and would be soundly put to the lux-trux test alongside the Caddy. Representing the midsize sport/ute class, the all-new '02 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer 4x4 came with its standard 4.0L/210-hp V-6 engine and made it equal in cylinders (if not in power) to GMC's all-new Envoy SLT 4WD, which boasts a 4.2L/270-hp inline-six. On the small and nimble end of the SUV spectrum, Jeep's new sporty looking replacement for the square ol' Cherokee is called Liberty, and we chose the upscale-yet-rugged Limited Edition 4x4 model outfitted with the optional 3.7L/210-hp V-6.

This is a diverse group of machines that spans a wide range of prices, but they share two main similarities: four doors and the ability to send power to all four corners of the vehicle. And all but the Cadillac came equipped with some type of dual-range four-wheel drive. (The specifics on each vehicle are covered in more detail in the accompanying sidebars.) The Escalade's street-oriented all-wheel-drive system has no low range and isn't intended for serious off-road use. Neither is the towing-oriented Chevy Silverado Dualie. That's not a problem for thinking people, because covering large distances off-road is all about taking care of your vehicle, not banging through rock gardens with the throttle wide open. We were confident about our vehicles of choice, at least so far.