Tow straps--check. Fix-a-Flat: half a dozen cans...where's that portable air compressor? Water? A couple cases should do the trick, and don't forget a case of sport drinks, a box of energy bars, and the first-aid kit. Facing our team was a three-day flogging of the best off-roaders on the market today: the old-school grunt and mechanical lockers found in the traditionally crafted Dodge Ram Power Wagon, Hummer H3, and Toyota Land Cruiser against the techno-wizardry in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Land Rover LR3, and Volkswagen Touareg. With our supplies in order and fuel tanks filled, we left the security of the city for the California desert. Services would be minimal, cellular service spotty at best, and mistakes could be costly.

The Getaway
Busting loose from the office and rolling along the freeway to our favorite SVRA haunt, our radios started to crackle with comments of on-road behavior. We heard tell of the throaty roar and wide torque band from the Power Wagon's Hemi V-8. The Dodge was fortified with a suspension to take a pounding on the rocks, and the truck's ride was equally punishing on the highway, with axle hop at times becoming downright violent. The polar opposite was reported from the Touareg, especially when the air suspension was in Comfort mode, which effectively quelled most road irregularities.

Word came from the Toyota: Novocain-laced steering and high crosswinds make straight-line driving a challenge; also heard was a wish that the Land Cruiser's interior were as up to date as sibling Sequoia. Meanwhile, claustrophobia was setting in behind the wheel of the H3, and concerns arose that its box-with-cut-out-viewing-ports design might pose an issue when cresting hills. Our driver further noted that the I-5 seemed barely up to our highway-speed (with crosswinds) needs.

The Grand Cherokee passed the group in the left lane, its Hemi V-8 in full song, the driver radioing that the Jeep was incredibly poised in the corners, had oodles of power, and sported the best interior ever placed in a Jeep product. The editor in the LR3 begged to differ, citing the Rover's commodious cabin, supple suspension, and a 4.4-liter V-8 that plugs along at a buck-thirty without breaking a sweat.

Arriving at Hungry Valley SVRA, we headed to the off-road training course, where we could prep our novice drivers and tackle a few obstacles under controlled conditions.