This is going to be good -- no low range, no lockers, no chance, right? But what do you know, that green badge does mean something. With tires spinning, the LR2 steamrolls the hill. Downhill is no problem, either, though its brake-based descent control sends it down awfully fast.

"Looks more like roller-coaster mode," joke Harwood and Voehringer.

Time for my redemption, and with its beige body and white top, the FJ looks more than ready to assist. Its 4.0-liter V-6 makes plenty of torque (278 pound-feet) and the Bridgestones seem to have just enough grip. The only white-knuckling occurs up top, as the FJ lightens up front, its weight tilted far to the back. "Straddle the hump," commands Williams, "and give it some more gas to keep the momentum up." Dirt flies and just like that we're on top of the world. Redemption is sweet. I want more.

On the same climb, our Hummer H3 Alpha is equally unstoppable, despite a 5100-pound curb weight. No surprise why; its 5.3-liter engine is the largest (and only) V-8 in this group, and it pumps out the highest power (295) and torque (317). At 4.03:1, this H3 also has the best low-range gearing, which makes descending down the hill just as uneventful as the climb.

Highway sprints to our photo location and then dinner in Death Valley's Furnace Creek reveal few surprises; naturally, the topless, live-axle Jeep receives little praise. "On-road, the Wrangler is a handful at highway-plus speeds where the solid front axle is particularly unimpressive. Numb doesn't even begin to characterize the handling at speed," says Voehringer, and he's a Jeep fan.

Though quiet and reasonably smooth, the Hummer gets dinged for a leaden, slow-shifting four-speed. "This old-tech transmission is slow to respond, and as a result, acceleration from a stop happens with a lurch after a noticeable delay," says Harwood.

King of the Road is clearly the LR2. It's quick, responsive, with a carlike ride. "Everything about this Rover reminds me of butter. The suspension absorbs bumps and dips so smoothly, transferring little of the disturbance to the driver," says LaPalme.

"On-road, this is the vehicle of choice. It's quick, the steering is wonderful, and that transmission is like silk," Harwood adds.

The battle for second-most roadworthy comes down to the FJ versus the Xterra. While neither isolate secondary judders as well as the unitbody LR2, more responsive steering and excellent outward visibility give the Xterra the nod.