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.