Given the fact it won a few 4x4 awards, we knew we had to get some seat time in the new Lexus GX 470 with its new, Australian-designed Kinetic Dynamic suspension option. The setup is smart enough to force a wheel down for traction when it senses other tires spinning in the air or slipping on slick surfaces.

In addition, we had to make sure we invited the 25-year-old Mercedes-Benz G-Class, and we felt it fitting to take the vehicle in its fully dressed AMG 55 garb (our 2004 model came with a normally aspirated 5.5-liter V-8; 2005-model AMG G55s will be supercharged). This is its final year of production before it gets a major redesign.

Next in line is the Nissan Titan Off-Road package. This is the first full-size pickup to offer Rancho shocks, a Dana 44 rear axle, and an electronically controlled, selectable locking differential option.

Last, we decided to toss in the Range Rover because of its long history of all-terrain capability and luxurious interiors.

We'll travel by major highways to the Hollister Hills State Vehicle Recreation Area and end up near the Pacific at Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area. Round trip: 882 miles, not counting all the miles we'll be doing in four-wheel drive. Scoring will be simple. We've set up several tests throughout the event. The nine scoring categories are spread throughout the story, with a final scorecard shown at the end. First-place winners were awarded 10 points per contest; seventh-place finishers received four.