Sand Hill Climbing
Our first 4x4 challenge was a sand hill climb on the Chrysler Proving Grounds. The rutted channel ran up a ravine about 200 feet and was covered in wet sand. First, we first tried to crawl up the hill, but the sand was too deep and loose.
After a couple of tries, it was clear we needed more speed to keep the tires spinning. At the top of the hill, we would have to negotiate a tight right-hand turn to get onto an equally steep downhill trail. The downhill section was not as sandy, and it was a great place to try the various hill descent controls. (The Ram Power Wagon was the only player without the feature.)
The Toyota Tacoma Baja, with its relatively wide tires and light weight, did a pretty good job of tracking through the sand. By staying in a lower gear, we could keep the wheels spinning, eventually inching our way to the top. Once the shorter-wheelbase trucks found more solid ground near the top, they had the advantage. On the way down the hill, we engaged the Toyota’s hill descent control, and it calmly controlled our speed down to 2 mph. Once you get used to keeping your foot away from the brake, all you have to do is steer.
The Nissan Frontier struggled a little more, as the tires and throttle response did not seem well-matched for this event. Likewise, the hill descent speed was a little fast. We saw 5 to 6 mph pretty quick — that may not sound like much, but it felt unnerving on the steep slope.
The Power Wagon suffered a bit on this challenge as well, as it took a lot of time and effort to figure out the best way to keep the tires from sinking through the sand, stopping all progress. The truck’s extra weight and the relatively narrow tires — not to mention finding the right gear to keep engine revs up — created a lot of trouble for the Ram in sand. And when we did figure out the gearing and drivetrain, the rear end lurched into a horrible axle hop that sounded like someone was banging on the rear end with a sledgehammer. On the downhill section (once we were able to finish our three-point turn), the extra gearing helped control our speed, but again, the size and weight made us a little uncomfortable as we picked up speed.
As for the SVT Raptor, it was difficult to argue with its sharp throttle response, big horsepower and giant tires. This one had the easiest time on the hill climb, as the Off-Road mode settings and easy-reach center console shifter made wheel-spinning power easy to control. When you factor in that we had the speed-sensitive front limited-slip differential and a selectable rear locking differential in high range, the Raptor was the unanimous winner, garnering first place and 100 points.
For event scoring, we indexed the Raptor at 100, Tacoma Baja 73, Frontier PRO-4X 67, and Power Wagon 47.
This nasty piece of torturous hillside was first put in place at the Chrysler Proving Grounds to push Jeeps to their limits and to torment competitors into submission. The obstacle looks exactly like a set of torn-up concrete stairs, ready to make even the most athletic off-road vehicle grovel for another way up.
The trick is not to hit the steps head-on and not allow the vehicle to get into a hopping, bouncing rhythm; that’s when axle shafts snap. Stiffer suspensions will struggle here, and jumpy (or sluggish) throttles or improperly geared transmissions will punish drivers and onlookers alike. (Nobody wants to see a truck spitting rocks at gawkers.)
Our plan of attack, previously agreed upon by the judges, was not to bash and blast our way up this 30-yard stair climb. We wanted to keep our progress at comfortable and reasonable speeds and let each vehicle tell us where it struggles and where it excels. Each of us cycled in and out of each truck, drove the steps and rotated to the next competitor.
At the end of our designated time at this event, two trucks rose to the top again. The Tacoma Baja seemed to do pretty well with its A-TRAC traction control, rear locker and in 4-Low. But with one of the faster crawl ratios (1st gear x axle gear x low range), it struggled a bit when trying to look confident and controlled — always going a touch too fast. Several times, it even got a little sideways as it swapped wheel speed for grip on some of the slicker sections.
The Nissan struggled in some of the same ways, suffering from an insufficient low-range ratio (and resulting crawl ratio) that didn’t allow the truck to go slow enough over the seemingly endless six-inch rock faces. The Frontier’s stiff front suspension and stock wheel travel didn’t help, either, and in the end, it didn’t look very elegant.
The Power Wagon certainly had plenty of brawn and muscle (in the form of horsepower and lockers) for this climb, but the longer wheelbase and front coil-link suspension made for some rough going. When we didn’t have the front locker engaged (and, of course, we always ran with the swaybar disconnected), we had trouble with one or the other front tires spinning. When we engaged the front locker, we had trouble steering, navigating the steps at angles and needing to zigzag up the challenge. Ultimately, although the Power Wagon was quite capable, it was clawing pieces of cement off the stairs and spitting rocks all over the place, not looking very stealthy at all.
The Raptor did quite well over this obstacle, with strong traction at all four wheels (locker in back and aggressive limited-slip differential in front) and good ground clearance. The front camera allowed us to see all things necessary to comfortably walk our way, back and forth, up the steps. The camera even shows movable guide lines (and a zoom feature) that will literally have you putting your treads on the dime or quarter you see on the ground, looking both elegant and stealthy. Add to that a strong, slow-going crawl ratio, and the Raptor was the unanimous pick once again.
For event scoring, we indexed the Raptor at 100 points, Power Wagon 93, Tacoma Baja 76 and Frontier PRO-4X 66.
Rock Garden Ballet
We conducted this test outside of Flint, Mich., where we had the good fortune to work with a private off-road park called The Mounds. The park charges a nominal fee for a day’s use, but it offers some wonderful off-road trails, open sand-wash areas and even several designated and well-maintained extreme 4x4 trails.
Our main focus centered on a 25-yard winding trail filled with basketball-sized rocks and boulders that would let us test each truck’s strength and flexibility to its limits. And Mother Nature gave us a bonus in that the park was filled with mud and water holes after recent rainstorms. The water made the rocks on our Rock Garden trail quite slick, which was just fine by us.
The trick to this hardened minefield was keeping a steady and even amount of throttle, allowing the tires and suspension to mold and flex over the rocks. Much of the drive through the obstacles was determined by how well a driver could guess at how much ground clearance was needed over some of the larger, more pointed boulders. It wouldn’t take much to carelessly slide a tire on the wrong side of a piece of granite and have it rotate up and puncture through an oil pan or bend a driveshaft.
All the trucks navigated the course with various levels of skill, but the Power Wagon’s extra ground clearance, as well as its big tires and massive stance, seemed to really help, allowing this player to dance over the rocks like it was a bowling ball ballet. Front and rear lockers were a big advantage on rocks, and the flexible front end prevented most of the harsh hits we felt in the other smaller trucks.
The Frontier had the most difficult time, taking undercarriage and skid-plate hits every time the front wheels came off the backside of a rock. The Tacoma Baja did better than the Nissan, but it still struggled to keep its speed down with the low-range ratio of the transfer case. As for the Raptor, it, too, made short work of the Rock Garden but did struggle with its lower undercarriage clearance heights. Its wider stance wasn’t much of an asset for our judges, either.
For event scoring, we indexed the Power Wagon at 100 points, the Raptor 88, Tacoma Baja 80, and Frontier PRO-4X 68.
Ultimate 4x4 Shootout