Comparison Test: 48 Hours In Hell

The biggest, most excruciating Death Valley Torture Test ever!

John Kiewicz
Oct 25, 2002
Photographers: John Kiewicz, David Newhardt
Basically, he set us up. Yes, our Editor-in-Chief, C. Van Tune, had us believing it would be fun. His plan was grandiose, yet strangely appealing. Fifteen of us would make this year's torture trek to Death Valley behind the wheels of the latest trucks and SUVs. We'd travel from below sea level to above 8000 feet in elevation, explore some hidden ghost towns, shoot a few photos, do a few tests, roll a little videotape, and then hang out by the sparkling warm spring-fed pool at the luxurious Furnace Creek Inn at the end of the two-day test. Our editorial army would be the biggest group of people we've ever taken to Death Valley, as we'd simultaneously be generating coverage for Motor Trend magazine, "MT TV," "MT Radio," MT Online, and Truck Trend magazine. A big undertaking, to be sure, especially in the 120° temperatures we were expecting. And, call us crazy, but no one wanted to miss his chance to go.
But Van failed to mention one salient point: That this was, in fact, intended to be a 48-hour non-stop off-road death march. He'd later describe it as (once it was too late to turn back) "the ultimate test of man and machine: sleep deprivation, food deprivation, shade, shower, and shave deprivation." Not exactly appealing brochure copy. We'd end up at Furnace Creek Inn, all right, but not before Van had lived out his sadistic fantasies on us for 48 continuous non-stop-torturing hours. (There's obviously a little DeSade DNA in the Tune family bloodline.)
Okay, so this 48 Hours in Hell test wasn't without an upside: We did have a great cross-section of new trucks and SUVs in which to slide, churn and climb our way through the valley of death. Three pickup trucks and five SUVs were ours to play with, including the Chevrolet Avalanche 1500 4WD, replete with its vaunted Z71 off-road package, innovative midgate body design, and aggressive styling. Our 2001 Truck of the Year, the Chevrolet Silverado HD also joined the fray, in the form of the giant 3500 LT 4WD (actually 6WD!) Crew Cab Dualie pickup, motivated by a smooth and powerful 6.6L turbodiesel V-8. From the compact pickup segment, we chose a lone entry, the versatile crew-cab-bodied supercharged Nissan Frontier 4x4 SCV6. Each pickup was loaded up with survival supplies and looked the part of desert runner.
On the SUV side, we opted for Cadillac's ultra-luxurious Escalade. With its sumptuous leather interior, 6.0L/345-hp V-8 engine, and high-tech driveline, this was one contender everybody wanted to pilot first. Another high-end full-size SUV with a V-8 (albeit a smaller 4.7L/240-hp version) was the Toyota Sequoia Limited 4x4. This particular vehicle is also our newest One-Year-Test vehicle and would be soundly put to the lux-trux test alongside the Caddy. Representing the midsize sport/ute class, the all-new '02 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer 4x4 came with its standard 4.0L/210-hp V-6 engine and made it equal in cylinders (if not in power) to GMC's all-new Envoy SLT 4WD, which boasts a 4.2L/270-hp inline-six. On the small and nimble end of the SUV spectrum, Jeep's new sporty looking replacement for the square ol' Cherokee is called Liberty, and we chose the upscale-yet-rugged Limited Edition 4x4 model outfitted with the optional 3.7L/210-hp V-6.
This is a diverse group of machines that spans a wide range of prices, but they share two main similarities: four doors and the ability to send power to all four corners of the vehicle. And all but the Cadillac came equipped with some type of dual-range four-wheel drive. (The specifics on each vehicle are covered in more detail in the accompanying sidebars.) The Escalade's street-oriented all-wheel-drive system has no low range and isn't intended for serious off-road use. Neither is the towing-oriented Chevy Silverado Dualie. That's not a problem for thinking people, because covering large distances off-road is all about taking care of your vehicle, not banging through rock gardens with the throttle wide open. We were confident about our vehicles of choice, at least so far.
Cadillac Escalade
You learn a lot about a vehicle when you're 50 miles from the nearest paved road-things that suddenly become really important as you lie there stuck, lost, overheated, or with two flat tires in your just-a-minute-ago way-cool new 4x4. In Death Valley, we quickly learned there's no way to fully appreciate Caddy's big, comfy, and super-powerful SUV unless you venture off the beaten path. However, to save you from having to duplicate our little "48 hours in a convection oven" summer vacation, we'll just tell you now how the Escalade really performs.
2001 Caddilac Escalade front Interior View
  |   2001 Caddilac Escalade front Interior View
1. With its 6.0L OHV V-8 (Corvette-derived, baby!) pumping 345 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque, this is the most powerful SUV you can buy. And it rocks! Zip-to-60 in 7.4 sec is quick enough to run with plenty of big-name '60s musclecars. At 5809 lb of curb weight, it takes a lot of grunt to move this mass, so don't expect award-winning fuel economy (12 mpg city, 15 highway.) By the way, the 26-gal fuel tank seems just barely large enough when you're exploring the hinterlands.
2001 Caddilac Escalade engine View
  |   2001 Caddilac Escalade engine View
2. High-tech electronic goodies abound in the Escalade. Stabilitrak, traction control, speed-sensitive power steering, and road-sensing suspension (electronically adjusted shock absorbers) combine with full-time all-wheel drive (no two-speed transfer case as in a true 4x4) to provide a very stable and serene driving demeanor. However, in really deep sand, we discovered that the automatic torque split of the AWD and the safety-first brain programming of the Stabilitrak can team to render the vehicle effectively frozen in place-each system doing its damnedest to prevent wheelspin-which translated to not allowing the truck to move more than an inch in reverse, drive, or even low (which supposedly defeats part of the Stabilitrak system). "Get the tow strap!" It was the only vehicle in our test to get stuck.
3. But, hey, this is a luxury rig, not some downscale desert rock crawler. And the amenities abound: soft leather seating areas, real Zebrano wood, power folding and heated side mirrors, ultrasonic rear-park assist, and a great-sounding Bose premium audio system with six-disc CD changer. But where are the air-conditioned front seats like the Lincoln Navigator offers? When you're traveling in nature's equivalent of a blast furnace, an air-cooled bum counts for a lot.
All in all, we loved driving the $51,540 baddy Caddy. Especially when we called the friendly OnStar operator from the middle of a desolate alkali flat (amazing reception!) and ordered up T-bone steaks for our well-deserved dinner two days later at the Furnace Creek Inn.
Chevrolet Avalanche
The concept of merging the toughness of a truck with the practicality of an SUV makes a lot of sense-and Chevrolet seems to have pulled off the feat with its all-new Avalanche.
Visually, the Avalanche offers rugged looks and fresh styling, but may have gone a bit too far with its Aztek-like space-age-looking plastic body cladding. Stylistically, you'll either love it or hate it-the MT staff is clearly divided. Inside, however, the Avalanche 1500 4x4 provides excellent craftsmanship, ample room, easy-to-read instruments, and outstanding A/C to chill occupants during 120° summer driving. But the Avalanche's raison d'&ecurc;tre is its Convert-A-Cab that allows for a quick change from a five-adult people-mover to a cargo hauler that can accept 4x8-ft sheets of plywood. To take advantage of the vastness the Convert-A-Cab offers, simply flip down the rear seats, lower the composite midgate, and remove the rear glass. A near-water-tight bed cover combines with a locking tailgate to provide a secure rear-storage area, or it can be removed for hauling bulky items such as a pair of dirt bikes. However, a lock malfunction prevented us from opening the tailgate during our trip, which required the skinniest staff member to frequently crawl through the midgate for cargo retrieval.
2001 Chevrolet Avalanche front Interior View
  |   2001 Chevrolet Avalanche front Interior View
Despite its 5678-lb curb weight, lengthy 130-in. wheelbase, and 73.6-in. overall height, the Avalanche proves smooth and stable during on- and off-road driving. Its hydroformed frame rails, independent-style torsion-bar front suspension, and five-link coil-spring rear suspension team to perform much better than expected over the broken rock and craggy surfaces that plague Death Valley. Its computer-controlled Autotrac 4WD system is almost seamless in operation, yet the manually actuated 4LO is much appreciated during a few treacherous hill ascents. The optional Z-71 off-road package was a wise choice and included such items as skid shields, heavy-duty suspension, and more aggressive wheels/tires.
2001 Chevrolet Avalanche top Engine View
  |   2001 Chevrolet Avalanche top Engine View
Underhood, the 5.3L OHV V-8 delivers a smooth 285 hp, while complying with strict ULEV smog standards, but the staff raved about how the engine's 325-lb-ft torque output (90 percent of which is available starting at 1600 rpm) can haul the big Avalanche up steep mountains without wheezing. All said, this unique vehicle delivers comfort, flexible utility, and excellent off-roading in one real-world package.
Chevrolet Silverado HD
Most will ask the obvious question: "Why would you bring a 1-ton dualie to a Death Valley test?" Our answer is simple: If one of the biggest, strongest, and most ferocious pickup trucks out there doesn't belong, what does? Our test unit was a maximum testosterone-packing Chevrolet four-wheel-drive dual-rear-wheel 1-ton Silverado HD 3500 Crew Cab, equipped with the LT option package (electric everything, leather, and bucket seats), Duramax 6600 diesel V-8, Allison five-speed automatic transmission, and locking rear differential. The intercooled, turbocharged, 32-valved Duramax is rated at 300 hp at 3100 rpm, with a whopping 520 lb-ft of torque at 1800 rpm. With that kind of torque so low in the power curve, most of our off-pavement tour of duty was spent being very careful feathering the throttle, trying not to spin the tires. Base priced at $36,904, our player was delivered with an as-tested price of $43,674.
2001 Chevrolet Silverado Hd front Interior View
  |   2001 Chevrolet Silverado Hd front Interior View
Several of our drivers were a little intimidated with the Silverado HD's mammoth size, especially on the narrow trails that usually lead up to remote mining canyons, but the six-wheel-drive and all-conquering demeanor gave us the maneuverability we needed to carve through the canyon washes, navigate the tight two-tracks, and claw up rocky terrain (although adding tires better designed for off-road use would make it a real champ). The heavy-duty 4WD system offers both low- and high-range choices and, with the easy push-the-button engagement, it never let us down. Truth be told (and don't tell Chevy this), it's our guess many of the trails we explored have never seen a 1-ton dualie before.
2001 Chevrolet Silverado Hd top Engine View
  |   2001 Chevrolet Silverado Hd top Engine View
Turning to creature comfort, it should be noted the never-got-close-to-overheating Silverado HD proved a stellar A/C warrior in our air-conditioning test. In fact, it became the cavern of choice when there wasn't a mineshaft to investigate, easily keeping temperatures a frosty 30-40° cooler inside.
Not surprisingly, if we had a complaint, it had to do with the obvious. When empty, the Silverado HD is a harsh beast to ride in, even more so on rocky, rutted, and jagged dirt roads. It's impressive to note that if we'd loaded 40 or 50 bags of concrete, our tester would've had a smoother ride and probably better traction. It made us realize, in most ways, we really weren't anywhere near the capability limits of this maximum strength Chevy HD.
Ford engineers could not have seen Explorer's tire troubles on the horizon when they commenced its '02 redesign several years ago, but the all-new Explorer's timely introduction should provide a much needed shot in the arm for its image. And rightfully so. Although Ford hasn't sold millions of previous-generation Explorers since '91 by building a bad vehicle, the new Explorer is a significant advancement in many respects.
2001 Ford Explorer front Interior View
  |   2001 Ford Explorer front Interior View
A redesigned frame and a new suspension are the most noteworthy improvements. Ford claims the new fully boxed frame is 350 percent stiffer than the one it replaces, and our experience on the rough trails of Death Valley revealed that the '02 Explorer rides a tight, firm platform. The most noticeable change from the old Explorer's handling is due to the new fully independent coil-spring suspension. Driver swapping from the Frontier into the Explorer on a long stretch of washboard gravel road was like going from, well, a truck to a Town Car. At speeds of 40-50 mph, the Explorer felt smooth and connected to the uneven road, with none of the skittishness and side-stepping the old live-axle suspension design is prone to exhibit.
2001 Ford Explorer top Engine View
  |   2001 Ford Explorer top Engine View
For '02, pushbuttons replace a rotary knob for the Explorer's Control Trac four-wheel-drive system, with selections for 4x4 Auto, 4x4 High, or 4x4 Low modes. The Auto mode normally delivers all torque to the rear wheels, but progressively sends power to the front when it detects rear-wheel slippage or heavy throttle application. The High and Low ranges effectively lock the front and rear driveshafts together for optimal four-wheel traction, but aren't recommended for dry pavement use. There's a slight delay when switching from one mode to another; a gauge panel lamp indicates when the Low or High ranges are successfully engaged. The pushbuttons make for a smooth integration into the redesigned dash layout, but we prefer the more obvious tactile and at-a-glance mode reference a knob provides.
Our Eddie Bauer Explorer included the new optional third-row seat. We didn't need more seating, though; we needed cargo room for survival gear. A quick flip and the seat hid into the floor, unlike in the Escalade and Sequoia, whose extra seating had to be removed and stored in our garage before we hit the trail. Yes, Ford has every reason to expect another sales success.
Before the test began, many considered the Envoy the off-road marshmallow of the group. However, it proved to be the test's biggest surprise, gaining high marks for a cold A/C system, cushy seats, and great traction. The Envoy easily went everywhere we asked it to go and never faltered-a sure sign of a worthy sport/utility vehicle.
2001 Gmc Envoy front Interior View
  |   2001 Gmc Envoy front Interior View
GMC Envoy
Redesigned from the ground up for '02, the Envoy shares its platform with the Chevrolet Trailblazer and Olds Bravada. Common items include hydroformed frame rails, an all-new high-tech 270-hp I-6 engine, and five-link rear and short/long arm front suspension setups. While each brand has unique equipment, trim levels, and styling, the Envoy (formerly the Jimmy) may be the best. It rides better than the Trailblazer, thanks to the optional air rear suspension, which isn't available on the Chevy. Also, while the Bravada is equipped with an all-wheel-drive system only good for light off-roading, the Envoy can be ordered with a true 4x4 setup complete with a low-range transfer case and locking differential. An electronic dash switch allows the driver to shift on the fly between 2WD, automatic 4WD, 4WD high, and 4WD low.
2001 Gmc Envoy top Engine View
  |   2001 Gmc Envoy top Engine View
While the previous-generation Jimmy was showing its age, the replacement Envoy is poised to take on the new-for-'02 Ford Explorer, the category's sales leader. The '02 Envoy is 8 in. longer, 4 in. wider, 7 in. taller, has 12 cu ft more cargo space, and has a 6-in.-longer wheelbase than its predecessor. It's larger, but doesn't feel like it when driving. While it rides well on rough dirt roads, the doors rattle against their latches on washboard gravel. As our tester was a very early-build unit, we hope GM can fix this on regular production models.
The smooth-running 4.2L Vortec inline-six features four valves per cylinder, runs on regular gas, and pumps out a healthy 275 lb-ft of torque at just 3600 rpm. It's backed by the venerable GM 4L60-E four-speed automatic transmission and, most important where we were, the all-new engine never got hot despite hours of constant flogging in triple-digit heat.
Jeep Liberty
In my purely subjective, I'm-hooked-on-Jeeps-anyway opinion, DaimlerChrysler has a hit on its hands with the all-new Jeep Liberty. I'll bet it may rival the company's extraordinary success with the PT Cruiser. The Liberty sports a 3.7L SOHC V-6 rated at 210 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque in a chassis using a brand-new independent front suspension. It boasts such sophisticated amenities as both part- and full-time four-wheel drive (or choose optional two-wheel drive), multistage airbags, heated front seats, and an especially neat rear deck design called the "Flipper Swing Gate"-as you open it, the rear glass automatically swings up.
2001 Jeep Liberty front Interior View
  |   2001 Jeep Liberty front Interior View
On-road, the Liberty feels small but nimble and capable under all driving conditions. Off-road, the short wheelbase is an enormous asset. But ground clearance is limited, and the skidplate and differential protection are constantly in use-the clanging from obstacles tinkling its underside becomes downright annoying in pretty short order. However, the new independent front end, coupled with Jeep's decades-old expertise in designing four-wheel-drive systems that really work, produces an off-road package that's otherwise efficient, confidence-inspiring, easy to drive, and extremely comfortable-though we wish it packed just a bit more power.
2001 Jeep Liberty top Engine View
  |   2001 Jeep Liberty top Engine View
The Liberty's clearance deficiencies, which, of course, only show up off-road, can be cured in a number of ways. But it probably matters little, as this new Jeeplet seems clearly skewed toward on-road comfort. Which leads us to the Liberty's one flaw that can't be fixed. The short wheelbase and overall package length that work so well off-road also create limited cargo space, which may not meet the size needs of some buyers.
The Liberty is, in a sense, a civilized Wrangler, and that's the brilliance of its concept. You know it's a Jeep from 100 yards off-and for a lot of people, that's important. It's the same nostalgic power that sells Harleys, even when the competition is as good-or better. DaimlerChrysler has created an SUV that's an outstanding balance of old and new, with lots of appeal. Kinda like the PT Cruiser.
Nissan Frontier
No longer an underdog player in the compact pickup market, the Frontier was treated to a dynamic makeover for '01, transforming the once-conservative pickup into an extroverted adventure machine offered in 14 different model variations. We flogged the top Frontier offering-a supercharged Crew Cab 4x4-to the valley of death and back.
2001 Nissan Frontier front Interior View
  |   2001 Nissan Frontier front Interior View
Starting at $24,000, our test truck edged near $27,000 with a smattering of popular options. Although it stood as the most affordable vehicle on our trek, it lagged behind its trailmates in refinement and, in some cases, acceleration. With the Frontier in its element, however, none of that seemed to matter as we negotiated tight canyon passes and traversed the Funeral Mountains.
The flared fenders, massive roof rack, modern front visage, and Hummer-like attitude that seem overdone in suburbia are right at home in the desert where the Frontier's confidence-inspiring appearance encourages exploration. On the roughest trails, with sharp, loose rock surfaces, the aggressive tires grab tenaciously in even 2WD. Only for sand dunes and extreme hillclimbing did we need to engage the 4WD system. Off-road performance is impressive, especially when surrounded by luxo SUVs with sophisticated AWD systems. Notably, it was this mountain goat that made the daunting climb up to the Inyo gold mines, while laden with spare tires, fuel, and passengers, while all but one of the others stayed on level ground.
2001 Nissan Frontier top Engine View
  |   2001 Nissan Frontier top Engine View
The Crew Cab acts more like a handy extended cab, providing convenient storage for luggage and gear. When needed, passengers can squeeze inside, but space is a bit tight for full-size adults. Our test truck was optioned with stitched leather buckets, contrasting silver trim, and a grippy leather steering wheel. Even with a healthy roster of standard equipment, the Frontier remains a basic truck in this diverse group.
Over hundreds of dusty miles, the Frontier served as an eager and capable dirt-eating mule, though its modest-on-pavement acceleration left us wanting more from a $27,000 supercharged truck.
2001 Toyota Sequoia front Interior View
  |   2001 Toyota Sequoia front Interior View
Toyota Sequoia
With the introduction of the Sequoia for the '01 model year, Toyota has jumped with both feet into the full-size SUV segment. Competing head to head with the Chevrolet Suburban and Ford Expedition, the Sequoia brings the high level of quality and attention to detail that Toyota is known for. The 4.7L i-Force V-8 engine employs DOHC and variable-valve-timing technology to generate 240 hp. But in off-road situations, torque is appreciated, and the Sequoia's 315 lb-ft work well with the Vehicle Skid Control and Active Traction Control. Planting the accelerator into the carpet lets the computers figure out which wheel has grip over the hardscrabble, while the driver simply steers.
2001 Toyota Sequoia top Engine View
  |   2001 Toyota Sequoia top Engine View
Speaking of steering, the rack-and-pinion setup allows the driver to feel what the front tires are clambering over, while maintaining quick response to avoid rubber-hungry rocks. The generous ground clearance of 10.6 in. let us straddle small boulders that could've played havoc with the underside components. With a double-wishbone independent front suspension and five-link rear suspension, the ride over some really atrocious trails could only be described as plush.
Maintaining a comfortable interior environment is important any time, and doubly so in the wilds of Death Valley. This Sequoia Limited was used as one of two craft service vehicles, and the outstanding dual-zone air-conditioning system meant that critical road food stayed fresh, even if we didn't. Access to the munchies was eased using the power rear window that slides into the rear hatch. With a total cargo volume of 128.1 cu ft, we packed a lot of stuff into our $44,875 mechanical mule. The Sequoia is a vehicle that everyone looked forward to driving, whether on the road or off. Toyota's taken the best of the domestic large-SUV makers and put its own spin on it. No-brainer off-roading doesn't get much more comfortable than this. I wouldn't hesitate to take the Sequoia back to D.V. -- or anywhere else.

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