Comparison Test: Ultimate 4x4 Challenge

Four little pigs: the dirty version

G.R. WhaleOct 1, 2006
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Remember as a kid jumping in mud puddles instead of walking around them? Well, we've matured only enough to substitute trucks for white sneakers-a perfectly good mudhole seldom goes unnoticed on Truck Trend's Ultimate 4x4 Challenge.
The Contenders
Every year, we round up a new batch of challengers, and this mix is particularly interesting. Just as we were leaving for the trip, GM announced a cease-fire on H1 Alpha production, but there are plenty left for sale, and this model is the civilian H1 to get. The No Fear Titan is a sensibly modified pickup you can buy at select dealerships. The proven Xterra and new FJ Cruiser also came along. In addition, we asked for a Jeep Wrangler (all-new for 2007), but none were available in time for our test.
In the unintended spirit of previous 4x4 Challenges, breakage is becoming part of the routine-read on to find which trucks came home with battle scars.
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Test Track
Our first task at the Hollister Hills State Vehicle Recreation Area was acceleration testing on a packed dirt road in 4-Hi, where results followed power-to-weight ratios and the Xterra excelled. None exhibited more than a tire scuff at launch, the H1 Duramax's full boost countered by static and rolling mass, and traction aids could be heard and felt cycling on the FJ and Xterra.
We did the same for 40-to-0 braking and, as expected, the heavier-tired Hummer and Titan required more space, using the distance a decent 'ute covers going from 60-to-0 on pavement. The H1's distances were longest but generally repeatable, and the Titan's kept getting shorter as its aggressive tires carved out canyons, piling dirt ahead of them. The lighter FJ had the best pedal feel by far and it braking distance averaged just a foot more than the Xterra-easily attributable to its street tires (the spare cover "tread" is more aggressive)-but the Xterra's identical and shortest stopping distances gave it the advantage here. Not bad for the only drum brakes in the test.
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The last exercise was a slightly rutted and inclined creep, run up- and downhill at idle in low range since crawl ratio doesn't account for tires, torque converter, idle speed, or engine compression. Both H1 and Titan automatics took the most time going uphill and each required a momentary nudge on the accelerator at one dip, and the H1's lower idle speed and shorter overall gearing proved best. Gliding downhill, the big-tired Titan (which runs stock gears) has the least mechanical resistance for descents, but the six-speed manual in the FJ went almost as quickly. The H1 ranked second, about 5.5 seconds behind the FJ, and the Xterra's best crawl ratio and compression was a similar margin behind the Hummer.
In back-to-back experiments between the FJ and Xterra, both engines would lug down below 300 rpm (indicated), but only the FJ in this group lacked an oil-pressure gauge that might define the ticking noise as fuel injectors or rod knock.
  Hummer H1 Alpha No Fear Titan Nissan Xterra Toyota FJ Cruiser
0-40 mph, sec 8.9 7.4 6.5 7
40-0 mph, ft 104 101 84 85
Creep ascent, sec 58.7 50.2 41.7 38.7
Creep descent, sec 27.7 17.3 33.1 22.2
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Rock Garden
Boulders aren't strewn around Hollister Hills so much as carefully placed to inflict maximum pain, so we crept each truck through a rocky section and attempted the dusty concrete stairstep for crawling agility.
No surprise, we liked the H1 here. It's nearly impossible to hurt anything underneath-thanks to the H1's on-board air, you frequently adjust tire pressure to match the conditions, and even with the minimal windows it's easy to see the corners. That didn't stop us from scraping the paint off one, but we could see exactly how much we were taking off.
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Dropped to 20 psi, the H1 laughed off or crushed anything in its way, without requiring the winch that decreases approach angle by 25 degrees-more than some 4x4s have to begin with. Even before it gets full boost the Duramax/Allison combo has plenty of grunt and lockers at both ends route power to the ground, but the silly exhaust pipe is pointed straight down, which blows up a dust storm. The H1 waltzed up the stairstep in less time than it took to maneuver around the tight turn on the exit, just one of many situations where the steering assist felt beaten, and we wondered if the pulley was properly sized for the slow-turning diesel engine. The front locker had repeatedly disengaged on its own schedule, without us selecting "Park," switching off the key, or any other common denominator we could identify.
Without airing down the rest of the other trucks, the Titan was the only other vehicle to top the stairstep and with no rear locker did so because of big-edge tires and a lot of wheelbase. It also fared reasonably well in the rocks, with no rear anti-roll bar countering the limitations of IFS, and had power to spare. The quiet and lack of body groans and squeaks surprised us, as it equaled the Xterra and FJ in that regard; then again, there was no noticeable frame twist between cab and bed to cause any problems.
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The FJ and Xterra have locking rear differentials that work only in low range and defeat ABS. They both feature electronic traction control all around, but you can't use it with the locker engaged-eventually, you'll know which devices match terrain. The physically larger FJ has the advantage in suspension flexibility with a coil/link rear, yet the Xterra's more aggressive tire tread and greater sidewall enables it to match the Titan or go even further. The Xterra also is much easier to see out of in close quarters, as you almost need to climb out of the seat to see the FJ's left front tire and have only a vague idea where the ends are.
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Mud Madness
With 37-inch tires and torque to turn them, the Hummer was as good in the mud as expected. It also makes a generous bow wave that tends to crest its recommended 30-inch maximum fording depth, but the air intake stayed dry, and we never used the massive tow loops.

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Instead of going through like the Hummer, the one-ton-lighter Titan, with the same width mud tires, tended to stay on top of the mud, and all that Endurance power simply drove the truck through faster. Another 1000 pounds lighter but not nearly as tall, the Xterra was aimed at slightly shallower mud and emerged unscathed; you might need low range sooner than in the Titan, but the Xterra engine has no qualms about revving to spin the tires and free you. The FJ's M&S-rated Dueler H/Ts didn't inspire confidence heading into the mud, but with three wipers we could take a good run at it and still see the way forward. It, too, emerged under its own power, a credit to traction management given the inappropriate tires.
As for the Titan, with ample power, good mud tires can do a lot-add a locker and it might match H1 performance in the slop.
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Basic Boonies
Hollister caters to versatility with roads and trails of all flavors and angles. Wanna hang the tail out like a prerunner? It's got your turn-but the full-time FJ and H1 aren't as tossable as the others. Dry wash can be duplicated on some of the SVRA's well-traveled roads, as can washboard that will separate the good shocks from the bad. None of these vehicles has bad shocks, but the Titan's front end clearly performed the best.
Varying degrees of drama punctuated the hillclimb. In the name of research, we tried the Titan first in 2WD and progressed exactly two lengths, at which point the 70/30 weight bias caused the front to overtake the rear as the truck slid down. Then we engaged 4WD, straightened out, and drove up. On descent, the big tires cushion the ride and you're well off the ground, so you don't immediately realize this Nissan creeps downhill about twice as fast as the others.
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With weight and traction conspiring to move the mountain out from underneath it, the Hummer climbs well and then descends (no feet on the pedals) with equal aplomb. Earlier, we'd climbed with the transfer case unlocked in high (diffs open) throwing a lot of dust to manicure the course; later, we used both lockers and crept up ever so elegantly, with time for a beverage on the way.
The Xterra and FJ exhibited similar manners here, using traction control to help the light front ends. It cycled less on the Xterra than on the FJ-likely due to the FJ's tires, but it's more audible and results in a stronger tug on the steering wheel. At the bottom of the hill, the Cruiser's overhanging roofline compromised the view, up and forward.
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Elsewhere, the nasty Tank Trap beckoned. We brought the appropriately tank-shaped H1A to see if it should even be attempted. Bad idea. Walking in to check ahead would've been a much better option than having to back the 86-inch-wide truck down a loose 96-inch-wide canyon. But the Xterra and FJ aren't that wide, so we made an attempt to match the Hummer's progress. Of course, this was just as unsuccessful, but the FJ did get a bit further than the Xterra, the pilot citing rear articulation and four-wheel traction control working better than a locked rear diff.
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An aspect of this part of the park are sidehills, angles, and the simple areas where things that shouldn't go wrong inevitably do. Climbing out of a hole, right at the point where the airborne front wheel was at full extension and full lock, the driver's side inner CV-joint tripod broke-on the H1. Since the lockers weren't engaged, the shafts had been upgraded for Duramax power, and this has happened before (not just to us), we can't blame the 520 pound-feet on tap. Wearing the oldest clothes, the editor crawled under to hammer the shaft free of the spring and zip-tied it up for the drive out. An H1's commendable traction made the loss of one front-drive wheel a minor issue, but with one inboard disc brake no longer connected to a wheel, it made for some entertaining braking.
We cajoled the park mechanic into torching off the shaft remnants to ensure they wouldn't cause any problems. We suspect the adjacent ABS sensor wire got singed in the process because in certain conditions the H1 now locked the rear tires during panic stops; conveniently, we maintained steering control, and the brake pedal never felt better.
  Hummer H1 Alpha No Fear Titan Nissan Xterra Toyota FJ Cruiser
Approach angle, deg 47 43 33.2 34
Departure angle, deg 37.5 25 29.4 30
Breakover angle, deg 32.5 33 23.8 27.4
Turning circle, ft 48.5 45.3 37.3 41.8
Overall length, in 184.5 224.2 178.7 183.9
Width, in 86.5 78.8 72.8 74.6
Ramp travel index 369 390 405 463
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Sandbox
Three-wheel drive put the Alpha at a slight disadvantage in the damp sandbox that is Pismo Beach. However, aired down below 20 psi, it still got stuck once (thanks to that self-switching locker), but a small tow strap and gentle tug were all that was needed to free it. It's eerie how easily the H1 works on sand considering its weight, and if you buried it you might simply floor the throttle and use the exhaust to clear a hole behind the back tire, then reverse yourself out.
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Everything else was great fun in the sand. The Titan used high range and big flotation (we didn't air down the front-the valve stems are hard to get to, and the rear could stand some softening) to overcome any issue and the Pro Comp suspension provided a velvety landing whenever it was aired out. As is common with leaf-sprung solid axles, rear chatter is its primary detraction, and in light enough sand that may be what eventually stops it.
FJ pilots had been salivating for the sand because it has street tires that won't dig in. This is a decent dune buggy with enough chatter-free rear travel for surfing the bowls or landing gently on smaller off-camber lips. Traction-control intervention was minimal, but the vague shifter, which we attribute to soft driveline mounts, gets even more vague in low range, giving you a one-in-three chance of getting the right gear. It's better to start in second-or third downhill-before surfing in fourth and fifth, taking advantage of the engine's midrange. It also beeps when Reverse is engaged, though even the most distracted tester knows if he's going backward rather than forward.
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The Xterra is also a good dune toy and the solid axle never chattered, probably because the only time it lost traction with those big bulging sidewalls was when it got buried around a rug left in a deep bowl in the dunes. Too windblown to bother digging out the tow strap or anything else, the primary test pilot hopped in and finessed it out in three-foot increments, the Xterra clawing away steadily at 500 rpm in second-gear low.

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Getting There
We had to give due consideration to daily liveability: Most of us aren't fortunate enough to live in 4WD-land. As the least compromised vehicle here, the Hummer is also the least civilized. The new powertrain has given it the grunt necessary to use the big tow rating, cruise the Interstate at 75 mph, and deliver 15 mpg on occasion for a 700-mile range. However, it's unwieldy (like a dualie), smooth only on showroom linoleum, and apart from a great sports-car steering wheel and its seat/pedals relationship, is an ergonomic nightmare. Because the driveline is between the seats, communicating with passengers may be best done by intercom. Also, each front rider gets two speakers directly overhead, and the soft-top installation shouldn't be attempted without your own troop battalion.
Suspension squirm may be common at this altitude, but the No Fear Titan is plenty stable for street use. The main clues that the truck has been modified are the heavier-than-normal required pressure on the brake pedal and the tire noise. Tire noise is predominantly overcome by the exhaust tone, amped up substantially from the already sporting Titan soundtrack, and the drone can become grating at times. Save for fuzzy warning lights, reflective gauges, and carpets not suited to mud and sand, the cabin is as useful as any Titan's, as is the bed. The bad part here is a non-matching spare tire (there's probably not enough room between the rails for the right size) and too much flash for our tastes.
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The Xterra is the sportster of the group on the highway. It has a smooth, free-revving V-6, decent six-speed shifter, roll stiffness that offers relatively crisp transitions and ample cornering limits, and stability control that can be disarmed in the unlikely event it becomes intrusive. After anything but the FJ it's downright quiet inside until the Rockford Fosgate fuse is lit, instrumentation is complete and responsive, and visibility is excellent. The monochromatic interior is easy to clean and has tiedown locations all over, including four in the roof of the cargo bay, but you'll have to lay in whatever you've just driven over to get the spare out.
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The FJ Cruiser acquits itself well in the rough stuff yet can't be considered a replacement for an FJ Land Cruiser by any stretch. Eye-catching styling and the outside spare take a toll on outward visibility and make the taillights vulnerable to tree branches or narrow rocky trails, while the rear-hinged rear doors are pleasantly squeak-free and offer good access to the roomy back seat. Shorter gearing than on the Xterra gives midrange performance on par, but the Toyota's 4.0-liter wants premium fuel (and more of it) and gives up 26 horsepower and 700 rpm to the Nissan's, and you can't get part-time 4WD with the manual gearbox. A separate (not illuminated) switch activates the sci-fi-look rear-side-mounted subwoofer, where others deliver better sound just by turning up the bass.
Four Wheel Drive
Dashboard control of front and rear tire pressure gives the H1 pilot a head start where the pavement ends or when the cargo bed gets filled. Another less apparent benefit is knowing how hard the tires are working (heat builds pressure). The highest numbers came when flinging it down a winding two-lane at 20-30 mph less than highway cruising.
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Both Nissans use electric-switch part-time 4WD systems that prefer to be stopped to find low range, while the levers in the full-time H1 and FJ like a slow roll. The FJ and Xterra have a locking rear differential (an option on many Titans), and the H1 goes one better with the addition of a locking front diff. We could engage no locker in high range (except the center diff in the FJ and H1) and ABS and most stability control goes off with the locker engaged.
Photo 28/36   |   Nissan Xterra
Photo 29/36   |   Nissan Titan
Photo 30/36   |   Toyota FJ Cruiser
Photo 31/36   |   Hummer H1
Blue Ribbon
One could argue that the Xterra's versatility should make it the winner, but that's better suited to SUV awards than top 4x4 performance. A similar argument could be made for the FJ if it had better tires and flair was paramount. Few bone-stock civilian vehicles match the 4WD ability of a Hummer H1 and the 300-horsepower Duramax/Allison has only made it better. Finally, a base Titan is a good place to start, and with an effective lift and bigger tires, the only thing missing on this is the factory-option rear locker.
When it came time to name a winner, it boiled down to the Hummer and No Fear. The H1 is a practical tool if you've got your own ranch, but it isn't something you'd want to drive long distances in (and towing a 7200-pound truck is pointless), and it costs more than the other three combined. And you can't win if you don't finish.
The No Fear Titan went almost everywhere the H1 did, is a fraction of the price even if you add a locker and winch, is civilized on the street, roomier, and carries almost as much payload as the Hummer in its larger bed. It's the champion of the 2006 Ultimate 4x4 Challenge.
  Hummer H1 Alpha No Fear Titan Nissan Xterra Toyota FJ Cruiser
Engine type 90 TD V-8, iron block/alum heads 90 V-8, alum block/heads 60 V-6, alum block/heads 60 V-6, alum block/heads
Displacement, ci/L 403/6.6 342/5.6 241/4.0 241/4.0
Valve gear OHV DOHC DOHC DOHC
SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm 300 @ 3000 305 @ 4900 265 @ 5600 239 @ 5200
SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm 520 @ 1500 379 @ 3600 284 @ 4000 278 @ 3700
Transmission 5-speed auto 5-speed auto 6-speed manual 6-speed manual
Low-range ratio 2.72:1 2.60:1 2.63:1 2.57:1
Axle ratio 2.56:1 (hubs 1.92:1) 3.36:1 4.37:1 3.91:1
Crawl ratio 41.4:1 33.5:1 42.4:1 41.9:1
Weight/power, lb/hp 24.0:1 17.4:1 16.6:1 17.9:1
Wheelbase, in 130 139.8 106.3 105.9
Ground clearance, in 16 10.5 9.5 9
Curb weight, lb 7213 5300 (est) 4387 4290
Payload, lb 3271 1322 (est) 1113 1280
GVWR/GCWR, lb 10,300/17,300 6700/14,600 5400/9656 5570/9500
Max tow cap, lb 9303 9400 5000 5000
Fuel capacity, gal/type 51.5/diesel 28.0/regular unleaded 21.1/regular unleaded 19.0/ premium unleaded
Range (w/10 percent reserve) 695* 454 399 325
Airbox height, in 51 41 34 36
Tires Goodyear Wrangler MT/R Pro Comp Mud Terrain BFG Rugged Trail T/A Bridgestone Dueler H/T
Tire size LT37/ 12.50R17 129P 35/ 12.50R17 119Q P265/ 75R16 114S P265/ 70R17 113S
Wheels 17 x 8.5 forged alloy 17 x 8.5 forged alloy 16 x 7.0 cast alloy 17 x 7.5 cast alloy
EPA fuel econ, city/hwy N/A 14/18 17/21 16/19
MSRP tested $135,846 $47,855 $28,365 $29,351
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Nissan Xterra

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