Next up is another manmade obstacle course that looks like a skatepark built into the side of a hill. Black tire marks show where lesser drivers in lesser vehicles have spun wheels in frustration.

As though to give it a chance at redemption, Williams sends the LR2 up first. Even with no low range or locking differential, the LR2 skips right up, with little wheelspin. The others make minimal use of their crawler gears and fancy electronics (like brake-assisted A-TRAC in the FJ) and still make quick work of the hill; braggadocio ensues.

When the quintet pulls up at the base of Hungry Valley's real hillclimb, all chest-puffing stops. Sandy, beige, hardpack dirt on the bottom gives way to intermittent patches of chalky-looking rock with a few deep gravelly ruts near the top. The grade doesn't look so steep until you hit the middle and beyond; as curves go, this one is mostly exponential.

"The idea here is to pick the line that provides the most traction," advises Williams. "I'll ride shotgun."

The invincible feeling returns as we begin our assault on the hill. This is why we brought the Jeep -- it's the default choice for prerunning situations like this. Only when the wheels begin to slip near the top, does my confidence also begin to give way. Williams is cool and unconcerned; as the Rubicon digs itself in deeper and begins to slide sideways, he issues the halt order for evaluation.

Next thing you know, he's meditatively balancing on the Jeep's front bumper to help load the front wheels. But it's not good. I pick the wrong line and pay for it by having to back down the whole way.

Williams hops into the Xterra and takes a different line, straddling the ruts avoided on the first attempt. No problem; with the rear diff locked and low gears engaged, the Xterra walks right up.

Brow furrowed, Williams heads down to jump back in the Jeep and rolls right up the hill with even less drama than in the Xterra. No need to even gas it at the end. No problem with the hardware -- just driver error. My error.

After using the Jeep's ultralow 4.00:1 gear to creep down -- no hill-descent mode needed here -- Mark hops into the LR2.