One thing we know about four-wheel driving is that if you ask 10 different people to define it — especially if you ask people from different parts of the country — you’re likely to get 10 different answers. Likewise, as we discovered, when you look at different truck makers trying to make “the best 4x4,” the types of vehicles will vary quite a bit as well.
Each of our competitors uses a unique strategy, offering their particular customers the best four-wheel-drive package possible; however, how they achieve that goal can be very different. In this category, we take a closer look at exactly what parts and pieces each 4x4 package includes and how they compare to the others.
To score this event, our judges examined what technology from a given manufacturer is the most useful and how successful those off-road engineers were in achieving their goal. Keep in mind this is an overall score for the specific trucks and is no reflection of what we think (good or bad) about the individual parts. For full disclosure, we like locking differentials, big tires and lots of ground clearance.
Ford SVT Raptor
A partial list of special 4x4 parts on the SVT Raptor includes unique "wide-mouth" fenders, 35-inch tires, Fox Racing shocks, wider lower control arms, rear electronic locker, front Torsen limited-slip differential, front camera, Off-Road mode and a 2.64:1 low range.
The Raptor uses an electronic-shift four-wheel-drive system with a 2.64:1 low-range ratio, and it offers a crawl ratio (1st gear x axle gears x low-range) of 45.1:1. It rides on 35-inch BFGoodrich all-terrain tires, and the vehicle’s rear locking differential is activated by pulling the 4x4 dial on the dash when in either high or low range.
For 2012, the Raptor sports a new Torsen front limited-slip option, as well as a front wide-angle camera to offer the driver incredible visibility (with guide lines, depending on where the tires are pointed) when crawling a trail.
The Raptor’s biggest assets are in the suspension tuning with four Fox Racing shocks (the rear ones have remote reservoirs), where the front and rear springs are specially tuned and the front A-arms are uniquely sized and positioned to better deal with higher-speed impacts and bigger tires.
Likewise, the front and rear fenders are unique to allow as much wheel travel as possible, and the Raptor offers a smart hill descent control. Finally, almost like a secret weapon, the Raptor’s dedicated Off-Road mode gives the traction control system special parameters to better adapt to faster or slower four-wheel-drive speeds.
Nissan Frontier PRO-4X
A partial list of special 4x4 parts on the Nissan Frontier PRO-4X includes 31-inch tires, rear electronic locker, Bilstein monotube shocks, hill descent control and a 2.63:1 low range.
Nissan is having some success with its PRO-4X option package in the full-size Titan as well as its function-first Xterra SUV. There was a time when Nissan tried to use its street performance brand, Nismo, to promote a more aggressive off-road package. Let’s just say the results were mixed. Thankfully, Nissan started to invest more energy and engineering into its PRO-4X brand, but there might be room for more aggressive advances.
Clearly the least substantial of the four off-roaders here, the Frontier offers a solid wheel and tire package (265/75R16 BFGoodrich Rugged Trail T/A tires), a set of four heavy-duty monotube Bilstein shocks, hill descent control and an electronic rear locking differential. No suspension modifications are included, and (oh, yeah) there are stickers, too. The Frontier PRO-4X uses a dial-shift four-wheel-drive engagement, with a 2.63:1 low range. The crawl ratio is 33.9:1.
Ram Power Wagon ST
A partial list of special 4x4 parts on the Ram Power Wagon includes 33-inch tires, Bilstein monotube shocks, front swaybar disconnect, front and rear electronic lockers, 9,000-pound winch and a 2.72: low range.
The Power Wagon uses a Ram 2500 HD chassis, which means a stout set of front and rear live axles. In addition, it uses a similar 4x4 strategy to the much smaller, lighter and extremely capable Jeep Wrangler Rubicon (also owned by Chrysler) — meaning old-school and relatively low-tech.
Included in the Power Wagon package are front and rear electronically controlled locking differentials, as well as an impressive front disconnect switch to separate and relax the swaybar, allowing the front axle almost 30 percent more freedom of rock-navigating movement. The result is a more conforming and pliable front end that gives the tires more range of motion to roll over nasty terrain. Both the locking differentials and the front disconnect are activated by small switches on the center instrument cluster.
The tires are essentially 33-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/As, and the Power Wagon has the tallest axle gears of the group, at 4.56:1. The low-range ratio is 2.72:1, giving the Ram a crawl ratio of 40.1:1.
We should note that the Power Wagon is the only vehicle sold in the U.S. to come standard with a recovery winch mounted (to the frame) on the front bumper. This practically guarantees this truck, or any other vehicle that’s near it, will never get stuck.
Toyota Tacoma Baja
A partial list of special 4x4 parts on the Toyota Tacoma Baja includes 31-inch tires, rear electronic locker, Bilstein monotube shocks, rear remote reservoir shocks, 1.5-inch spring lift in front, 1-inch lift in rear, extra wheel articulation, hill descent control, advanced traction control and a 2.57:1 low range.
The newest player in this segment, the Tacoma Baja is new for this model year and is Toyota’s first attempt at a serious factory-sold desert racer. Unfortunately, they’re making only 750 of them, and future production is yet to be determined.
We know Toyota has a strong history in Baja racing, and this new edition emphasizes the success of Toyota’s TRD package, which includes an electronically locking rear differential as well as a smart A-TRAC traction control system and hill decent control, both activated separately with low-mounted electronic switches.
Like the Raptor, the Baja’s suspension is unique to this model, offering 1.75-inch taller front springs (compared with a stock TRD-equipped model) and one inch of lift in back. Toyota, like Nissan, also uses Bilstein shocks, though the Baja has heavy-duty, large-rod-diameter coil-overs in front and remote reservoir Bilsteins in back. We’re told the wheel travel has improved one inch in front and almost two inches in back. Bump stops have been custom-tuned to help better prevent bottoming out at higher speeds. The electronic shift transfer case, controlled via a three-position dial on the dash, employs a 2.57:1 low range and offers a 33.7:1 crawl ratio, the weakest of the group.
This category has a good amount of subjectivity to it. Even after crawling in, around and underneath each vehicle — scrutinizing each and every 4x4 part and spending quite a bit of seat time in each truck on pavement and in extreme 4x4 situations (our favorite was playing in the mud at the off-road park during a downpour) — there are still elements of bias that (we acknowledge) can creep in. That’s why we suggest you use our opinions as a starting point. We’ve spread all the technology before you and let you know what we like. If you have a different opinion or bias, feel free to rescore this section and add up the totals to determine your own winner. And if that scoring changes the finishing order, you’ll have your own winner to declare. We, however, will stick with ours.
The two trucks that clearly separated themselves in this category were, not surprisingly, the Raptor and Power Wagon. We went round and round about all the strengths they possessed and all the cool features they showcased. But in the end, we awarded the Raptor just two more capability and versatility points to win this category. Essentially, it came down to the Raptor’s incredibly smart and adaptable traction control system and the front camera that could, quite literally, keep almost anyone from ever getting into trouble. The Power Wagon, on the other hand, is more of a brute-force-capable mauler that pulls like a tractor and offers strong cable pulling power with its winch if those tires should ever get stuck.
We awarded the Raptor 100 points for the seamless and powerful integration of all the individual parts that seem to add up to something larger and stronger than the math would imply. In second place, we awarded the Ram 98 points; the Tacoma Baja received 88 points and the Frontier 69.
Ultimate 4x4 Shootout