There's something about a barroom brawl that we like. The easiest way to choose a clear winner is to look for the last guy standing. That's what we decided to do after listening to public-relations reps, marketing experts, and ad-agency wanks tell us their vehicle (sometimes their client's vehicle) was the toughest, roughest, and most capable thing on four wheels. We wanted them to prove it. In fact, more than proving it, we wanted them to give us the vehicles so we could punish them, push them to their limits, and find out, once and for all, which of these self-described SUV champions could be the Ultimate 4x4.

The Players
Our players include the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon--because of its impressive Rubicon option package that offers larger tires, a small suspension lift, better shocks, stronger live axles, locking differentials, and a special transfer case with a very, very low-range gear of 4.00:1.

Next is the Hummer H1, for obvious reasons (there's probably no one in the auto industry that's louder about its respective 4x4 prowess).

We also opted to invite the new Hummer H2 SUT, which offers center and rear locking differentials and a sophisticated traction-control system that acts like a locking differential on the front wheels. Besides, we like the fact that you can drop the rear window and bulkhead, drop the window, open the moonroof, and feel like you're in the outdoors while driving through it.

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.

On the Road
Once on the road, dodging big-rigs and scouting for "smokeys," our wagon train of hardcore 'wheelers ran straight into the funneling high winds of the Tehachapi Mountains. Nothing like being in high-profile, slab-sided SUVs during a windstorm. Not surprisingly, the mammoth H1 seemed to win the impromptu stability/crosswind test as we headed through canyons on Interstate 5 toward the San Joaquin Valley; however, since our H1 had a soft-top, the noise inside was deafening. Meanwhile, testers in the Lexus and Range Rover sounded like they were speaking from a quiet living room. Throughout the week, the Lexus was the clear "on the road" winner, as each test driver seemed to get out of the vehicle more refreshed than when he went in, whatever the terrain.

Once settled in our touring modes, we decided to safely see how each vehicle competed in a standard at-speed passing maneuver, with a head-to-head twist. This is where the bigger-horsepower players could stretch their muscles. Interestingly, there were no real surprises on the top and bottom ends, but some odd things happened in the middle. We knew the weight of the H1 and size of the Wrangler's motor were going to be liabilities for both, with the extra gearing and size helping the Jeep a small amount. We also knew the Mercedes-Benz G55 AMG had the most horsepower and the sweetest-sounding purr at wide-open throttle. But with the biggest gas engine of the bunch, the H2 was beaten by the hard-breathing GX 470. Later, the Range Rover and Nissan Titan put down the H2 and GX without much drama. And in probably the biggest surprise of our head-to-head, the much bigger and more powerful Nissan Titan couldn't stretch ahead of the Range Rover. Of course, the Mercedes engine and transmission combination, not to mention almost 50 more horsepower than its nearest competitor, was just too much.

After a quick lunch stop, we headed through 60 miles of farmland, pastures, dirt paths, vineyards, and wooded coastal mountains. After reaching the town of Hollister, we ran up to the Ranger station to let them know we'd be exploring their toughest trails the following day, and then did a little scouting. The Hollister Hills SVRA is a beautiful adventure park in central California with hundreds of miles of motorcycle trails, 4x4 obstacle courses, and too many 4x4 trails to count, running throughout the hills and valleys.

Track Testing
Empirical testing has always been one of our hallmarks, so we've included off-the-line acceleration, as well as mash-the-pedal stopping power. We awarded points based on the two separate categories. Low numbers win.


Measurements
Ramp Travel Index is a measurable score of a vehicle's suspension flexibility, and thus, clear evidence of how serious the engineers were about building in real-world trail capability. The higher the number, the better a vehicle's suspension can articulate over rugged terrain.

Off the Road
Our first event of the day was running over the "Frame Twister," aptly named because of the strategically placed logs criss-crossing a narrow path, finishing up with several deep, off-camber water holes. Earlier, we had measured all our vehicles on our custom-built 18-degree ramp to see what kind of Ramp Travel Index each one could achieve. We found the Jeep and Lexus (our two shortest wheelbases) to have the best scores. But that score is not an infallible predictor. Each of our first three vehicles that attempted the Frame Twister had to be yanked out with the Hummer H1's heavy-duty winch. Of the three, the Wrangler Rubicon did the best because it was able to skirt along the edge of the logs and not dip a tire into the goopy slop. Apparently, the night before, the Rangers thought it would be funny to soak the Frame Twister with water, creating a type of bottomless quicksand between each of the logs. Actually, it turned out to be a mud-throwing good time as we positioned the H1 ahead of the obstacle and winched most of the trucks through. Near as we could tell, we didn't bend a single frame or break any parts (sidesteps are another story).

Next came the hillclimb--the steepest trail in the park, and we needed to get all the vehicles up it to tackle our next trail. One at a time, our fearless test drivers locked their rigs into low-range and first gear, then headed up the face. (Editor's note: One of the many tragedies in automotive magazine journalism is that it's incredibly difficult to get a photo that shows the reader how steep something is.)

This obstacle basically comes down to gearing and tire choice. In some cases, depending on the grip you can get on a hillclimb, airing down can help give you more tire surface area to claw at the earth. Mud tires seem to work well, and so does extra weight pushing down on the tires. For that reason, the ultra-low-geared (63:1 crawl ratio and knobby tires) Wrangler Rubicon and Hummer H1 (7200 pounds with 37-inch deflatable tires) had the easiest time up the mountain. Five of our competitors had crawl ratios right around 33:1 (about standard for good 4x4s), with much of that determined by the low-range gear in the transfer case. A typical low-range is between 2.56:1 and 2.72:1. The special Jeep Wrangler Rubicon package offers a 4.00:1 low-range.

Top of the World
At the top of the hillclimb, we were rewarded with a spectacular view of the towns of Hollister and San Juan Bautista. From here, we spent hours exploring the mountainous trails that forced us to lock each and every locking differential available. Off-camber climbs, steep low-range descents, skid-plate-testing ridges, and treacherous rockcrawling washes were like hurdles we had to run in slow motion, one after another. Vehicles like the long-wheelbase Titan were making plenty of noise as the rocks, logs, and debris scraped and banged the undercarriage skidplating. Some of the trails, just fine for a full-size SUV, were barely as wide as the Hummer H1, causing its driver to comment that this was the first time he'd been so far out in the boonies yet felt so claustrophobic, with brush and trees constantly chafing both sides of the vehicle. The vehicle that seemed to have the easiest time was the G55, because of its narrow width, tall stance, good ground clearance, three locking diffs, and a silky smooth five-speed transmission you can use like an automatic or manual. All surviving the trail ride, we took a few last-light photos to close out our day.

Headed for Sand
There are only a handful of places in the U.S. where you can drive on sand dunes or sand areas of any size. One such place, and another excellent spot to test our vehicles' four-wheel-drive systems, is the Oceano Dunes SVRA, about three hours north of Los Angeles, on the central coast of California. The 15,000-acre complex is open for overnight camping, ATV riding, sandrails, motorcycles, and 4x4s. Unfortunately, on the afternoon we arrived, there seemed to be gale-force winds coming off the ocean (almost like the ones we had on the highway canyons two days earlier), forcefully blowing fine particles of sand into every personal and vehicular crevice imaginable. Although it took most of us a little while to figure out that driving on sand was different than rocks or mud or hillclimbs, eventually we all started to keep our eyes open for hard-pack sand, we always parked downhill, didn't use our brakes much, and got out to air down the tires (all except for the H1, where its driver could control his tire pressures from inside). A wider footprint stays on the sand, and doesn't dig a hole. The vehicles with bigger, high-profile tires like the H1, H2, and Nissan Titan did exceptionally well because of their large tire contact patch (especially after taking out about 10 to 15 pounds of tire pressure). Those vehicles with low-profile tires like the Range Rover (255/55R19) and G55 (285/55R19) had to use brute horsepower to keep their tires on top of the sand, because even airing down didn't bring any more tire to the sand.

Red Flag Drop
For our final contest, we set up a straight drag run: about 1000 feet long, down one hill and up another. The Hummer H2 did very well at 13.56 seconds, mainly because it has a traction-control switch that allows the driver to select whether or not he wants to allow more or less wheelslip. In "more spin" mode, it will allow the 300 horses to move the wheels and tires quickly without any interference from the throttle control or brake system. In other cases like the Lexus and Range Rover, there is no way to fully defeat the electronics that pull out engine speed or wheelslip when on sand. Even in the G55, when ESP and traction control are turned "off," there's still a program in there working to keep you safe from yourself. Highlights in our Sand Drag run were the Hummer H1 beating the Range Rover by 0.2 second, and the H2 beating the G55 by 0.13 second. But the winner of our sand race, by a healthy margin, was the big-motored/big-tired/basic-tech Nissan Titan (with a "traction-control off" button, which seemed to work) that was able to get the power to the sand-gobbling tires to scoot the truck across the finish line in 12.0 seconds flat--more than a second and a half faster than second place.

And the Winner Is...

In the end, numbers don't lie. Usually. For now, we've chosen nine scored categories, seven with empirically-based results that we translated into raw scores (the 60-to-80 was observational, not time measured), and two others were completed by consensus among the test drivers who moved in and out of each vehicle over all sorts of terrain and locations. That agreed-upon order allowed us to award points.

That stated, the winner of the first annual Ultimate 4x4 Challenge goes to the Range Rover in first, M-B G55 AMG in second, and the Nissan Titan in third. And although the Range Rover did pretty well in most events, it clearly didn't crush the competition. In fact, the Range Rover only won two of the nine events, the G55 won two, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon won three, and two other vehicles won the remaining two contests. Fairly well spread out among an amazing group of competitors. Clearly the Range Rover has impressive technology and competence, making it our first winner of the Ultimate 4x4 Challenge. And though each vehicle possessed its own strengths, there is only one Truck Trend winner, and we crown the mighty Range Rover king of all 4x4s for 2004.

Flat Score Results
 Wrangler RubiconH1H2 SUTLexus GX 470M-B G55Nissan TitanRange Rover
Price10478596
0-6064571098
60-045679810
RTI10469758
Crawl Ratio10547869
Sand Drag57948106
60-8054671089
On the Road54710689
Off the Road98567410
Point Total64455565706775
Finish OrderFifthSeventhSixthFourthSecondThirdFirst

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Special features Locking diffs, live axles, extra-low low-range, larger tires
Price $28K
Engine 4.0-liter OHV I-6
Horsepower/torque 190/235
Transmission 5-speed manual
First-gear ratio 3.85:1
Axle ratio 4.11:1
App/dep angle, deg 46/32
Ground clearance, f/r, in 8.8/8.8
Fording depth, in 40
Power-to-weight ratio 19.6:1
Weight, lb 3716
GVWR, lb 4600
Payload, lb 809


Hummer H1
Special features Locking diffs, geared hubs, tire-inflate/deflate system, military pedigree, built-in winch, air compressor, exceptional ground clearance, dualfuel tanks, diesel power
Price $112K
Engine 6.5-liter OHV V-8 turbodiesel
Horsepower/torque 205/440
Transmission 4-speed auto
First-gear ratio 2.48:1
Axle ratio 2.56:1 (1.92:1 hubs)
App/dep angle, deg 68/35
Ground clearance, f/r, in 16/16.5
Fording depth, in 52
Power-to-weight ratio 35.4:1
Weight, lb 7263
GVWR, lb 10,300
Payload, lb 3037


Range Rover HSE
Special features Height-adjustable suspension, traction control, hill-descent control, cross-link suspension control
Price $74K
Engine 4.4-liter DOHC V-8
Horsepower/torque 282/325
Transmission 5-speed auto
First-gear ratio 3.57:1
Axle ratio 3.73:1
App/dep angle, deg 33/23
Ground clearance, f/r, in 10.5/10.5
Fording depth, in 34
Power-to-weight ratio 19.1:1
Weight, lb 5379
GVWR, lb 6724
Payload, lb 1345


M-B G55 AMG
Special features Three manual locking diffs, live axles, military pedigree
Price $98K
Engine 5.5-liter DOHC V-8
Horsepower/torque 349/387
Transmission 5-speed auto
First-gear ratio 3.59:1
Axle ratio 4.38:1
App/dep angle, deg 25/33
Ground clearance, f/r, in 9.2/9.5
Fording depth, in 33
Power-to-weight ratio 15.9:1
Weight, lb 5540
GVWR, lb 6834
Payload, lb 1411


Lexus GX 470
Special features Kinetic Dynamic suspension system, hill-descent/ascent control, traction control, height adjustable suspension
Price $49K
Engine 4.7-liter DOHC V-8
Horsepower/torque 235/320
Transmission 5-speed auto
First-gear ratio 3.52:1
Axle ratio 3.73:1
App/dep angle, deg 29/29
Ground clearance, f/r, in 8.5/9.5
Fording depth, in 34
Power-to-weight ratio 20.2:1
Weight, lb 4740
GVWR, lb 6000
Payload, lb 1180


Nissan Titan
Crew Cab Off-Road
Special features Electronic rear diff
Price $37K
Engine 5.6-liter DOHC V-8
Horsepower/torque 305/379
Transmission 5-speed auto
First-gear ratio3.83:1
Axle ratio 3.36:1
App/dep angle, deg 27/30
Ground clearance, f/r, in 10.0/10.5
Fording depth, in 37
Power-to-weight ratio 17.5:1
Weight, lb5341
GVWR, lb 6486
Payload, lb1200


Hummer H2 SUT
Special features Locking rear diff, air compressor
Price $53K
Engine 6.0-liter OHV V-8
Horsepower/torque 316/360
Transmission 4-speed auto
First-gear ratio 3.06:1
Axle ratio 4.10:1
App/dep angle, deg 37/36
Ground clearance, f/r, in 10.5/10.0
Fording depth, in 44.5
Power to weight ratio 20.2
Weight, lb 6412
GVWR, lb 8600
Payload, lb 2000