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.
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.
The Rock Garden
Affectionately known as the Rock Garden, our 50-yard boulder course has claimed its share of rocker panels, wheels, and suspension parts over the years, where many rocks wear some shade of metallic paint--badges of honor from vehicles past. With the help of a spotter, our goal was to test rockcrawling abilities and make it out without damaging anything.
Hummer's H3 is an incredible rockcrawler, literally idling over any obstacle in its way, utilizing its best-of-the-bunch (and maybe the industry) 68:1 crawl ratio. A third of the way into the course, we stalled the engine on a large rock. It's here we wish the H3 were fitted with a clutch interlock disabler, which would've allowed us to use the starter to get us over the obstruction. Restarting with a slip of the clutch, we were again underway.
Our Toyota tester provided a surprise for us. We expected to have issues on the larger rocks, given the Land Cruiser's street-style shoes, but it had no trouble in the grip department. Its departure angle, lowest in the test, came into play several times, as its trailer hitch scraped over many a rock, cementing its nickname of "Tail Dragger."
Born and bred on the Rubicon trail, the Jeep has plenty of torque to get the job done, but its street tires had difficulty finding grip on large weather-worn rocks, and it could've used additional suspension articulation when traversing multiple boulders. Meanwhile, the Power Wagon reduced the Rock Garden to mere stepping stones, obliterating each challenge in its wake, due in large part to its tall tires and giant stance. With its front stabilizer bar disconnected, the Dodge's articulation is nothing short of incredible, posting a ramp travel score of 534, some 30 percent better than with the bar engaged.
Placing the Touareg's suspension in maximum ground-clearance mode makes it easy to tackle the rocks, but it also locks the suspension at full extension, making for one jouncy ride. Like the Jeep, its lack of aggressive treads made smooth rocks more challenging, with the traction control system hunting the fine line between power and grip. Placing Terrain Response into rockcrawl mode, the LR3 elegantly strode across our course with nary a slip or slither, its myriad sensors instructing the host of electronic nannies on the best action to keep the Rover on its course. The 4x4 LCD display was helpful to determine wheel placement and allowed us to see how much articulation was dialed in over every rock.
Half a mile up the trail, a series of steep hills is usually a motorcyclists' playground. We, however, would use all four hills to test how well our six vehicles handled a descent down a 37-degree slope of silt.
Over the Ledge
Curious how the techno-wonder vehicles would do, the Touareg was the first to point its nose over the ledge. With 4-Low engaged and Hill Descent Assist selected, the VW slithered down with only a hint of drama, its ABS pulsing the brakes like a drummer in a speed-metal band, and only near the end of the course did we need to apply the binders when a section of loose topsoil gave way, confusing the system.
Fitted with a slightly more sophisticated Hill Descent Control, enhanced with algorithms embedded in its Terrain Response system, and making noises resembling the Titanic going down, the LR3 literally was a "hands-and-feet off" experience. While it didn't sound pretty in the cabin, the Land Rover tiptoed down the face at a touch under four mph.
Traditionalists, like the H3, throw high-tech out the window in favor of gearing, relying on a stunning crawl ratio (first gear x axle gears x low range). Hummer's latest 'ute walked its way down at a scant three mph. No muss, no fuss, no brakes required. Equally at home was the tried-and-true Land Cruiser. Though not geared nearly as well as the Hummer, the Toyota's ABS kept the Land Cruiser well under control with minimal skidding.
The Pucker Power Award was handed to the Dodge. Even with its 37.2:1 crawl ratio, its front-biased weight distribution and high center of gravity made for a quick and slippery ride, with the tail bouncing out of line and skidding. The 'Wagon shows its yin and yang: Ascents are a cakewalk while descents, especially with an empty bed, require rosary beads.
Obstacles and Slides
We blasted across the open highway and watched the green of trees and grass give way to the bleached tan of sand and scrub; million-dollar homes are replaced by dilapidated trailers that haven't moved in 30 years. Our destination: California's largest lake, the Salton Sea. Formed between 1905 and 1907 when the Colorado River burst through the poorly built irrigation controls south of Yuma, Arizona, the Salton Sea is a saline lake in the Sonoran Desert, a remnant of prehistoric Lake Cahuilla, and is roughly 228 feet below sea level--its bed is only five feet higher than the lowest spot in Death Valley and its salinity is slightly higher than the Pacific Ocean's.
Off Route 86, a lone dirt road works its way into the erosion-carved foothills. Slots in the hillside at Truckhaven Hills provided the venue for our shale trail test: The ground is soft and crumbles under our feet. Walking the trail requires steady footwork, as we noted obstacles and crevices our tires could easily slide into.
Before saddling up, editor-in-chief Mark Williams shuttled photog Brian Vance to the other side of the canyon in the Jeep, and we were all reminded how the trail can bite back: While ascending the east face, the Grand Cherokee started to slide sideways towards a ravine. Keeping cool, The Boss spied a slot at the base and decided to back the Jeep into it, where the Power Wagon's winch could haul it out. Cameras trained on the action, Williams, in a perfectly controlled slide, put the G.C. at the bottom of the slot and was hoisted out 10 minutes later, none worse for the wear.
The H3 was the first to navigate the narrow slot in the canyon, its small size and ultralow gear ratio enabling it to finesse its way around hazards and keep to the high side of the trail. Dodge's Big Boy took the trail with the grace of a sumo wrestler performing Swan Lake, its less-than-svelte proportions putting the front tires off the high side of the trail, while the rears clambered to stay out of the ravine on the low side. With the help of dual locked diffs, the Power Wagon narrowly pulled through.
We prefer the rigidity of traditional body-on-frame construction to unibody rollers. We were reminded of this in the Touareg, whose groaning doors sounded like the timbers of a tall ship in a gale as it negotiated the 20-foot-high canyon walls. Two-footing through a gulley proved a challenge, as the technique confused the brake-by-wire system, alternately cutting power when we wanted to climb errant rocks in our path. That wasn't an issue in the LR3, though we found Terrain Response's grass/gravel/snow mode worked better than rockcrawl mode under the varied conditions. Slip was minimal, though the locking differential kicked too slowly for our liking.
The Jeep and Toyota were pros on the shale, the Jeep's invisible lockers and Toyota's center lock tossing traction when and where needed. Stuck with a less-than-average departure angle through the dips, dragging the tail of the Toyo eventually caused the trailer light receptacle to part ways with the chassis. Filing out of the canyon, we made our way to the shores of the Salton Sea for a sunset photo shoot, followed by a banzai run to our hotel in Anza-Borrego, making it with minutes to spare before the kitchen closed.
Scrapes and Bruises
Day three greeted us with clear skies and 92-degree temperatures at 6:30 a.m. Slathering on the SPF45, we headed to Ocotillo Wells for testing, reaching the back side of Devil's Slide, a 200-foot-high granite and sand island, where nature has carved a rock wall of sand and decomposed granite. We set out a cone course to test approach and departure angles, ground clearance, and traction on a slippery surface.
First out of the gate was the Grand Cherokee, and we were amazed at the level of grip the Goodyear Wrangler tires afforded on the degraded surface. But the GC certainly could've used another inch of ground clearance as it scraped its way over the rocks, leaving no skidplate unscathed. Similarly, the Land Cruiser was in need of a lift and was the only vehicle in the test to high-center. Trying to cut the Toyota loose was a chore, as after chocking one of the rear tires with rocks, the diff refused to lock up. A few more stones and some strategically applied muscle got us over the hump.
Sometimes old school rules, and that was the case of the Power Wagon and H3. Fully locked and loaded, they both negotiated the course without breaking a sweat or scraping a skidplate. The Land Rover almost provided the same experience, the only difference being a slow-to-lock rear diff that robbed the LR3 of valuable momentum over a series of stepped rocks.
We heard a "scrrrrape!" as the Touareg cleanly tore off one of its plastic undertrays on a hump on the trail--with the suspension fully extended in off-road mode. Although the Touareg exhibited great gobs of grip, we wished for more suspension flexibility and a few steel skidplates under the 'Egg. It doesn't help much to gain all that ground clearance if a suspension is as stiff as a board.
Surfing the Sand
Leaving The Slide, we caravaned to our next venue, Blow Sand Hill, for a romp in deep, soft, powdery sand--probably one of the most challenging surfaces for a heavy SUV to navigate--it's a barrel of fun and, oh, so easy to get stuck in. Seeking out the desert's powder, we quickly learn that the Touareg isn't a happy camper on the beach: With both differentials locked, the ESP nanny off, in low-range, shifting manually, the stability program still kicked in, pulsing the brakes and cutting power until the Touareg stopped dead in its tracks. A voice over the radio crackled, "Who's got the tow strap?" The Grand Cherokee found itself in a similar dilemma, a victim of inefficient tread and big torque that allowed the Jeep quickly to dig four holes.
With an unladen bed, the Dodge exhibited plenty of axle hop over the sand dunes, but the combo of Hemi power and aggressive tread easily kept the Power Wagon on track, especially after we let out about 30 psi. We quickly learned that judiciously blipping the throttle while turning transformed the big BFGs into sand paddles, tightening up the turning circle. Piloting the Toyota required little finesse on the fine particles. It was content to respond to driver input and the ever-changing surface as though it was another day in the park.
In sand mode, the LR3 was unstoppable and never quibbled about skiing down the face of a dune or clambering back up for more, seemingly finding traction in well-trafficked areas where we expected momentum loss. Stable and predictable, our H3 was perfectly geared for the soft stuff and remained tractable in deep ruts, keeping its cool on the sand, even while taking flight.
Driving deep into the park, Shell Reef, a series of hills thrust up from a four-million-year-old sea reef--includes a face with a 64-degree incline; it's the perfect locale to set up a 150-foot run to see how far each vehicle could go without losing traction.
With both diffs locked, the Power Wagon made a full pull to the top, blasting past our makeshift finish line, and would've kept going over the crown if we'd let it. Kudos to the grip-ripping BFGoodrich All Terrain T/A tires that even found traction once we stopped. Selecting the Rover's rockcrawl mode, the LR3 made an equally impressive haul all the way to the top, brake-sensor nannies assisting along the way.
We expected the H3 to be the billygoat of the hillclimb test, hopping beyond where the Dodge and Land Rover stopped. But even with its great gearing and 33-inch tires, the Hummer mustered only a 142-foot run before it ran out of steam and traction (here, the manual transmission made it difficult to quickly find the right gear). Had the Touareg been shod with more aggressive tires, we're certain it would've made it to the top; but its street-derived Continental 4x4 Contact tires started slipping early on, kicking the stability and traction control into overdrive and quelling the power needed to travel up the grade. Its fourth-place finish: a decent 140.5 feet.
Even in low range, with Vehicle Stability Control switched off, the Land Cruiser could manage only 131 feet. Its traction-starved Bridgestone Dueler tires were no match for the slippery slope, and the ever-present VSC nanny didn't help things. We had high hopes for the Jeep, especially when it blasted off the start line, Hemi screaming. However, the driver quickly learned that copious amounts of horsepower, mixed with a 3.73:1 axle ratio, a 2.72:1 low range ratio, and axle hop equal loud banging noises and blown CV joints. Yes, we found the weakest link, and it left the Grand Cherokee with a DNF on its scorecard for the final event.
Off-Road Traction Tech
Dodge Ram Power Wagon: Old-fashioned 4x4, with manual-shift 2.72:1 low range and no super-sensored, computer-controlled traction strategy. But there are electronic switches for locking the front and rear lockers, and, to keep you out of the dirt at both ends of the trail, an electronically disconnectable anti-roll bar. That means no more unhooking and reconnecting the bar yourself, while providing maximum articulation for the front end. In addition, the anti-lock brakes switch to a different algorithm for off-road braking when in low range. And finally, if all else fails, a 12,000-pound Warn winch is standard with the Power Wagon package.
Jeep Grand Cherokee: Jeep's Quadra-Drive II features an electronic paddle-shifted 2.72:1 low range with a variable center differential that can go from completely open to completely locked through an electronically controlled clutch pack. Front and rear diffs are similarly controlled, continuously providing the maximum traction to each axle shaft without crow-hopping during tight turns. The result is more traction than a four-wheeler with tires this small (the smallest of the bunch) has a right to enjoy. Electronic stability control is available.
Hummer H3: The H3's primary feature of interest is an available tractorlike 4.03:1 low-range gear in the transfer case for incredible control during low-speed rockcrawling. A more conventional 2.64:1 low range is standard equipment. The full-time four-wheel-drive system can be manually shifted between high and low ranges, with a neutral setting for towing. Locking center and rear differentials help put all the H3's power to the large 33-inch BFGs. Electronic traction control will adjust throttle and braking, depending on gear and speed.
Land Rover LR3: Purists imagine that solid axles and locking diffs are all a good driver needs for off-roading, but Terrain Response has made a quantum leap the world of four-wheel-drive technology. Adjustable ride heights, sophisticated traction control, hill descent, automatic locking differentials, and a screen that keeps you informed on all the technology you paid for, are just a few of the impressive pieces of the LR3.
Almost too many variables to list are automatically controlled and adjusted with a twist of a console-mounted knob--not to mention it has one of the best crawl ratios around.
Off-Road Traction Tech cont ...
Toyota Land Cruiser: The venerable Land Cruiser extracts impressive results from its traditional and theoretically out-of-date full-time four-wheel-drive system. The equipment includes a manually shifted 2.49:1 low-range transfer case with an electronically locking center differential to split torque to the front and rear driveshafts. The Cruiser also features a smart traction control setup, stability control, and antilock brakes that detect rough surfaces and steep slopes, reducing the nanny intervention when necessary, for more control.
VW Touareg: The Touareg has all the electronic bells and whistles in a full-time four-wheel-drive package only slightly less sophisticated than the Land Rover's. The air suspension offers six electronically selectable ride heights to go with the 2.66:1 low-range transfer case. Electronically lockable center and rear differentials, combined with traction control, stability control, anti-lock brakes, hill-descent control, and hillclimb assist maximize available grip to the rear tires, offers tremendous traction in right circumstances; however, the computer sensors are quite intrusive.--Dan Carney
Hot Under the Collar
To assist Truck Trend with the Ultimate 4x4 Challenge, our friends at Wolverine provided some of their finest outdoor boots and apparel for the editors. With over 200 years in the leather business and known for quality leather shoes and boots, Wolverine has more recently ventured into rugged work and sporting apparel. The California desert makes its own seasons. It can be summer by day and winter at night. The microfleece lined heavy-duty nylon jackets ensured that we could remain comfy despite chilling wind and plunging mercury. For rock, mud, and sand adventures our feet were shod in Trecker Wolverine Gore-Tex hikers with our rogue female editor sporting the Julia Wolverine waterproof mid-cut hikers. Wolverines are Michigan natives known for their rugged appearance and tough, tenacious nature. Sounds good to us. We appreciate their support.
Putting a grade to these capable off-roaders is akin to splitting hairs. Each is fully capable on tough terrain, and we wouldn't hesitate to take any one off the beaten path in a heartbeat. But the one you choose will depend on the type of off-roading you typically do and how much you're willing to spend. In our book, here's how they finish.
Sixth Place: Toyota Land Cruiser
With 50 years of heritage, the Land Cruiser has conquered uncivilized terrain in over 150 countries. Compared with its current competition, today's Land Cruiser, not surprisingly, is a dated piece of machinery. Its years of production have paid for the tooling, and you can bet Toyota still makes a generous profit on every $60,000 unit. Shod with more aggressive tires and without the trailer hitch dragging, we're sure the Land Cruiser would've placed higher. While it lacks refinement, the L.C. still has the goods to get the job done, but in light of the advancements its competition has made, in this test, it sits at the end of the line.
Fifth Place: Jeep Grand Cherokee
As a testament to how competitive this test was, a fifth-place finish for the Grand Cherokee by no means shows this isn't a tremendous vehicle. Regardless, it would've been nice to have a Grand Cherokee Rubicon edition with additional ground clearance, underbody shielding, a 4:1 low-range gear, and larger tires. As it was, our Limited model was more suited for medium off-road duty, and not the hard-core stuff we experienced. That said, the Grand is certainly that--it's capable of taking any family off to the boonies one weekend and still provide a comfortable ride for the daily drive.
Fourth Place: Volkswagen Touareg
The Touareg is an amazing first shot from VW into the 4x4 arena. Developed and mostly tested in Europe, the Touareg's computer knows implicitly how to react in icy conditions, but it seems lost on sand. Capable enough to make it through moderate trails with ease, but a super-sophisticated nanny system will take you only so far. Sure, it lacks serious skidplates, traction-oriented tires, and a defeatable stability system, but it does offer enough high-powered computer controls to give it a slight edge over the Jeep.
Third Place: Dodge Ram Power Wagon
Dodge's Power Wagon just barely slid from second place, based on price, functionality, and size. True, it has all the right parts, and it scales hurdles all day without thinking twice, but its $43,262 price makes one pause, compared with the more capable second-place finisher's price of $33,675. With the money saved, we could purchase a quad on a trailer and really have some fun in the backcountry. Although we like the swaybar disconnect and electric lockers, we didn't like that they take their sweet time in engaging and disengaging. In fact, the lockers sometimes required driving short distances to lock (kind of hard to do when you're stuck).
Second Place: Hummer H3
Hummer's H3 is a humdinger. It's incredibly capable, tackling nearly everything we put in its way, and seemed to beg for more difficult terrain. The H3 misses the absolute 4x4 mark by a hair: It needs more power. Saddled with an incredible set of gears, it works wonders in low range, but in 4 High or on the highway, the H3 feels like a baby Hummer. We're sure with a turbodiesel or V-8 option, the H3 would be a spectacular performer. Our other gripe is in the visibility department. The view out is about a poor as looking out the port of a Rose Parade float, and we would've had serious problems if we didn't have a spotter for trail runs, or cresting hills.
First Place: Land Rover LR3
Behold! The champion of the 2005 Truck Trend Ultimate 4x4 Challenge. Land Rover's LR3 did nothing but impress our troupe from the get-go. Its $53,245 price point was one of the most expensive of test, but spend some time on varied terrain and let the Terrain Response do its thing, and you can't help but be impressed with the value the system carries. The LR3 was equally at home at triple-digit highway speeds and crawling over boulders. It conquered everything we put in its way without sniveling, and delivered it all in a comfortable cabin--off-roading has never been better.
| ||Dodge Ram Power Wagon||Hummer H3 ||Jeep Grand Cherokee|
|Price as tested||$43,260||$33,675||$43,570|
|Engine||5.7L OHV Hemi V-8||3.5L DOHC 20-valve I-5||5.7L OHV V-8 Hemi |
|Horsepower/Torque|| 345/375||220/225||330/375 |
|Transmission|| 5-spd auto||5-spd manual||5-spd auto|
|Power/Weight|| 16.9:1||22.2:1||14.9:1 |
|Actual payload, lb|| 2656||966||1148 |
|Max. towing, lb|| 11,100||4500||7200|
|GVWR|| 8510||5850||6050 |
|Axle gears|| 4.56:1||4.56:1||3.73:1|
|Crawl ratio|| 37.2:1||68.9:1||30.4:1|
|App/Dep angle, deg|| 35.0/27.7||42.0/35.0||34.1/28.0 |
|Ground clearance, in|| 8.3||9.1||8.0 |
|Fording depth, in ||38||24||27 |
|Ramp travel index|| 534*||503||377|
|Acceleration, 0-60 mph, sec|| 8.64||11.13||7.18 |
|Braking, 60-0 mph, ft|| 151||138||136 |
|Tire type|| BFG All-Terrain T/A M+S|| Bridgestone Dueler A/T M+S||Goodyear Wrangler SR-A M+S |
|Tire size|| 285/70R17 118 Q||285/75R16 113 Q||245/65R17 105 S |
|Wheelbase, in|| 140.75||112.0||109.5 |
|EPA fuel econ|| 13/17 (est)||16/20||14/19 |
|*Swaybar electronically disconnected|
**At full suspension extension
| ||Land Rover LR3 ||Toyota Land Cruiser || Volkswagen Touareg|
|Price as tested||$53,245||$60,141||$54,225|
|Engine||4.4L DOHC 32-valve V-8||4.7L DOHC 32-valve V-8||4.2L DOHC 24-valve V-8|
|Transmission|| 6-spd auto||5-spd auto||6-spd auto|
|Actual payload, lb|| 1401||1379||961|
|Max. towing, lb||7716||6500||7716|
|Axle gears|| 3.73:1||4.10:1||4.56:1|
|Crawl ratio|| 45.6:1||35.9:1||50.3:1|
|App/Dep angle, deg|| 37.0/29.6**||33.0/19.0||33.0/33.0**|
|Ground clearance, in|| 9.5**||9.8||11.8**|
|Fording depth, in ||27.6||34||23|
|Ramp travel index|| 519||548||389|
|Acceleration, 0-60 mph, sec|| 9.23||9.35||7.63|
|Braking, 60-0 mph, ft||121||135||125|
|Tire type|| Goodyear Wrangler HP M+S||Bridgestone Dueler H/T M+S||Continental 4x4 Contact M+S|
|Tire size|| 255/55R19 111 V||275/60R18 111 H||255/55R18 109 V|
|Wheelbase, in|| 113.5||112.3||112.4|
|EPA fuel econ|| 14/18||13/17||14/18|
|*Swaybar electronically disconnected|
**At full suspension extension