This is a big year-no, a huge year-in terms of new 4x4s coming to market. Just how huge smacked us square in the face when we realized that our annual 4x4 of the Year competition (which we'll bring you next month) could be the biggest ever, with close to 20 vehicles in contention.
And we're not talking just about revisions to existing trucks, though there's plenty of that going on. For 2003, manufacturers are introducing a wide range of all-new vehicles too, from GM's brawny Hummer H2 to Kia's new Sorento. For the first time, Volkswagen and Porsche are entering the SUV market. And some familiar nameplates, like Range Rover and 4Runner, are coming out with from-the-wheels-up revisions.
So, if you're in the market for a new truck, how do you keep track of what's hot and what's not? That's where we come in. On these pages you'll find a brief description of most of the new 4x4s for the coming model year, organized by vehicle type. Note that these vehicles are what we consider "true" 4x4s, with low ranges in their transfer cases. If your heart's desire is an AWD station wagon or one of those "crossover" utilities, you'll need to look elsewhere.
The big news for 2003 is in big trucks. Dodge has introduced 31/44- and 1-ton versions of its restyled Ram pickups, bringing all of last year's 11/42-ton styling changes to the heavy-duty side of the line. Don't worry, though-there's plenty of steak to back up the sizzle. For one thing, unlike the light-duty Rams, these trucks retain their solid-axle coil-spring front suspensions. And two new engines provide power for any work that needs doing. Chrysler's legendary Hemi name is back, on a new 5.7L V-8 that produces 345 hp and 375 lb-ft of torque. Diesel fans will welcome the new High Output version of the Cummins 5.9L inline turbodiesel that produces 305 hp and 555 lb-ft of torque. One interesting tidbit: It's now possible to order a Ram 3500 with single rear wheels, provided you want it as a Quad Cab.
The new-for-2002 11/42-ton Rams weren't totally ignored for 2003. A new Off-Road package loads the truck with LT275/70R17 tires, heavy-duty shocks, skidplates, 3.92 gears in the pumpkins, and a limited slip rear differential; and a Work Special option de-contents the truck somewhat with a steel rear bumper, steel wheels, and a gray front fascia.
Word is the Dakota will be revamped in 2004, so changes for this year are limited to a few appearance items and a new automatic transmission for the 4.7L V-8.
In the Ford camp there's also new diesel engine news in the form of a 6.0L Power Stroke for Super Duties that's smaller, yet more powerful, than its 7.3L predecessor. It uses four-valves-per-cylinder valvetrain technology, direct injection, and a variable boost turbocharger, among other engineering features, to produce 325 horses and 550 lb-ft of torque.
An all-new five-speed TorqShift automatic transmission has been designed to back the new Power Stroke, though the standard tranny aboard the Super Duty is still the ZF six-speed manual. Order the stick-shift and you'll get a standard left-side PTO. The PTO will also be an option on trucks with four-speed auto trannies.
In other Super Duty news, the heavy-duty trucks will be available with option packages that were only offered on F-150s before. The FX4 off-road equipment group, with its Rancho shocks and skidplates, will become a Super Duty item, as will the King Ranch package, with saddle-leather upholstery and unique exterior colors.
Few changes were made to the '03 F-150, but the Ranger will be getting a new off-road package, the FX4/Level II option. This equipment group includes 31x10.50 BFG All-Terrain T/A KO tires on 15-inch Alcoa forged aluminum rims, Bilstein shocks, a Torsen limited slip, 4.10 gears, tow hooks, skidplates, sport bucket seats, and special exterior treatments.
General Motors has been busy making revisions and changes to its Chevy and GMC fullsize trucks. According to the maker, the list of new and improved features runs to 40 items. Most obvious is a facelift; the front fenders, hoods, and grilles of the Silverado and Sierra pickups have been restyled so that they more closely resemble the other members of their respective truck "families."
The availability of GM's Quadrasteer
four-wheel-steer option has been expanded to include the 1500 extended cab and 1500 HD pickups. If you haven't experienced Quadrasteer it's worth a look. At low speeds the rear wheels turn opposite the fronts, which cuts down the truck's turning circle considerably. At highway speeds the rears and the fronts turn in the same direction, improving the pickup's high-speed maneuverability. Those of you who tow will really appreciate having wheels that steer near the trailer's tongue.
Since GM has announced all-new midsize trucks coming in 2004, the changes to S-10 and Sonoma are limited to interior trim revisions.
New product is also in the pipeline from Nissan in the form of a fullsize pickup truck due sometime next year. Details are sketchy, though the maker confirms it will have V-8 power and be similar in size to American fullsize pickups. Changes to the Frontier compact truck include the introduction of an "Open Sky" model with a power retractable roof on the crew-cab body, and an increase in power (from 170 to 180 hp) for the naturally aspirated V-6.
Since Toyota's big product news is on the SUV side, the Tundra and Tacoma received limited revisions. Tundra gets a new grille and front bumper design, and a new StepSide bed is available for V-8-powered Access Cabs. Tacomas are now fitted with standard four-wheel antilock brakes.
Last year it was the Explorer's turn; this year Ford is introducing a new Expedition. The sheetmetal hasn't changed radically, but the fullsize SUV now has an independent rear suspension, stiffer chassis construction, rear seats that fold flat into the cargo floor, and an optional electronic stability control system, called AdvanceTrac, that uses brake controls to transfer torque side-to-side. Taking a page from the F-150's playbook, the Expedition now has an optional FX4 off-road equipment package that includes skidplates, specially valved shocks, 3.73 gears, and a limited slip rear differential.
Because the Explorer was revamped a year ago, the SUV is largely carried over for 2003. There are some new trim packages-the Eddie Bauer option is back, and there's an NBX ("No Boundaries Experience") equipment group that includes a Yakima roof-mounted cargo basket and larger tires and wheels-and the AdvanceTrac stability control system will be available.
Likewise there aren't many changes to the Excursion, though it can be ordered with the Power Stroke 6.0L diesel later in the model year. And like the Explorer, it will also have a new Eddie Bauer package.
The extended availability of Quadrasteer that reached deeper into GM's pickup truck line also includes some of the General's big SUVs, as 2500-series Suburbans and Yukon XLs can be ordered with the four-wheel-steer option. Quadrasteer reduces the 4x4 Sub's turning circle from 44.3 to 35 feet, a 21 percent improvement. (The Quadrasteer availability seems sort of random-offered on some big trucks but not others-but a GM spokesman explained that currently it can be fitted only to Dana 60 931/44-inch axles with leaf springs.)
Like Ford, GM has developed an electronic stability control system, called StabiliTrak, that's available on Tahoe/Yukon and Suburban/Yukon XL SUVs. It uses sensors and controls from the antilock brake, traction control, and electronic suspension systems to adjust engine torque or brake pressure as needed to "help steer the vehicle in its intended path," says GM.
GM's midsize SUVs continue to receive significant changes and enhancements. Midway through last year, long-wheelbase versions of the Chevy TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy were added to the line, making room for a third row of seats and seven-passenger seating. Both can be ordered with a 290hp Vortec 5300 V-8 in addition to the standard Vortec 4200 inline-six (which gets a 5hp boost to 275 hp). Coming in late 2003 (as an '04 model) is the Envoy XUV, with a retractable rear roof section, two-way tailgate, and next-generation Midgate, all of which combine to make the Envoy's cargo area capable of hauling oversized gear.
The biggest news from GM, however, is the introduction of the '03 Hummer H2, a more civilized and, as GM puts it, "more accessible" Hummer than the straight-outta-Kuwait H1. The H2 shares a lot of engineering with the Suburban/Tahoe SUVs, since they're all based on the same GMT 800 platform, but it would be a mistake to consider the H2 a facelifted Sub. Its wheels have been pushed out to the chassis' corners for increased stability and shorter overhangs front and rear; it sits on LT315/70R17 (nearly 35-inch) tires; and it's powered by a 315hp version of the Vortec 6000 V-8 mated to a full-time Borg-Warner 4WD system. The H2 is capable off-road (more so than its big brother, we think) but it's also a cush on-road ride, one we'd gladly take on extended long-distance hauls.
Isuzu is adding another SUV to its Rodeo/Axiom/Trooper lineup: the Ascender, which springs from the same family tree as GM's midsize SUVs. Power comes from either a 275hp 4.2L inline-six or 285hp 5.3L V-8; and its overall length, wheelbase, and track widths are identical to the TrailBlazer EXT and Envoy XL. Suspension and 4WD-system specs are similar too. Ascender would slot in at the top of Isuzu's SUV offerings, as it's considerably larger and more powerful than the current Trooper. It may even replace the long-in-the-tooth Troop.
Certainly the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon qualifies as one of the most eagerly anticipated launches for the new year, with its 4.10-geared Dana 44 axles, front and rear diff locks, Rock-Trac 4:1 transfer case, and 31-inch Goodyear MT/R tires. But the news from Jeep doesn't stop there. Entry-level Wranglers now get the Liberty's 150hp Power Tech 2.4L I-4, with 25 percent more horsepower than the earlier 2.5 four-banger, backed by the Liberty's NV1500 heavy-duty five-speed trans. There's a new four-speed automatic tranny, the 42RLE, available on all Wrangler models. And the Wrangler's interior has been reworked, with new seats, a four-spoke steering wheel, and some new interior options.
A Renegade appearance package has been added to the Liberty line, featuring a roof-mounted lightbar, roof basket, wheel flares, removable side steps, and unique wheels. Otherwise the Liberty is largely unchanged. Well, except for that whole, "slightly lowered ride height to improve highway ride and handling" deal. Likewise the Grand Cherokee is virtually a carryover from last year, with minor changes like new shock valving, lighter brake pedal feel, and adjustable pedals.
Kia is introducing an all-new SUV called the Sorento. It's larger and more powerful than its Sportage stablemate; a "real" SUV, if you will, with a ladder frame, seating for five, a 3.5L, a 192hp engine, and a part-time transfer case. Options include a "torque on demand" automatic 4WD system and an Eaton limited slip rear differential. Kia says the Sorento will "set a new standard for value in the midsize SUV segment," though as of this writing no price had been set.
The folks at Land Rover are talking value as well, but at a different end of the spectrum. They're proud of the fact that the new Range Rover, hitting the market with a price tag of $69,995, is smashing all of Range Rover's previous sales records. As you'd expect, the new Range Rover brims with high-end features, like a BMW-derived 4.4L engine that produces 282 hp, fully independent air-spring suspension, and a host of electronic traction control features with enough abbreviations to fill a can of alphabet soup. The new Range Rover is larger than its predecessor, has more ground clearance, and has more interior room.
Land Rover has also made "substantial improvements" to the '03 Discovery, including a facelift (so it more closely resembles the new Range Rover), a larger and more powerful V-8 engine, and interior upgrades. There's no official news about any changes to Land Rover's Freelander mini-ute, but we think that's because there's a chance the European three-door version may be coming to the States soon.
Land Rover picked a good time to debut a new Range Rover, since it will face competition from another ultra-high-end SUV this year. The Mercedes-Benz G500, also known as the Gelaendewagen or G-wagen, is sure to attract its share of attention among the rich and famous. It's exclusive (only a couple thousand will be sold in the U.S.), offers hand-crafted Teutonic build quality, and combines rugged off-road capability with luxe interior appointments, all wrapped in retro-square sheetmetal. For your $73,000 you get solid-axle/coil-spring suspensions front and rear, 265/60 tires on 18-inch alloy rims, and the same 292hp 5.0L V-8 found in Mercedes' S-Class sedan and SL roadster. The full-time 4WD system includes mechanical diff locks at each differential, a 2.16:1 low-range ratio, and electronic traction control at all four wheels.
Mercedes' other off-roader, the M-Class, was all-new-for-2002, so it carries over.While we're on the subject of high-end SUVs, Porsche's new Cayenne will be introduce, with ungodly amounts of horsepower (450 in the Turbo model) and, reportedly, sports-car-like handling that will make the SUV worthy of its heritage.
Toyota's major launch for this year is the all-new 4Runner. It's longer, wider, and more powerful than the previous generation, and now comes with a choice of engines: an all-new, 245hp 4.0L V-6 or the familiar 4.7L iForce V-8, which produces less horsepower than the new six but more torque-320 lb-ft versus the six's 283. The 4Runner bristles with more driveline technology than any truck in the Toyota line (more than even the Land Cruiser), with a Torsen limited slip in the center differential, electronic traction aids, and hill-holder and downhill-braking-assist modes. Trim levels will range from the base SR5 model to a deluxe Limited edition, and prices are expected to run between the mid $20,000s and the high $30,000s.
If you're looking for a little more luxury in your 4Runner, take a look at the new Lexus GX 470. It's very similar to the 4Runner in size, engine, and drivetrain features but has interior appointments-leather upholstery, deluxe audio, a DVD entertainment system-more in keeping with the upscale brand.
The changes for Toyota's other SUVs aren't quite as major. The Land Cruiser and its upscale sibling, the Lexus LX 470, receive new five-speed automatic transmissions, a 5hp bump from the 4.7L V-8, and new interior designs. A DVD entertainment system for rear-seat passengers is now optional on the Cruiser and LX as well as Toyota's Sequoia.
Built off of the same platform as Porsche's Cayenne is the Volkswagen Touareg, which VW calls "an exclusive off-road vehicle." It will be offered in Europe with four different engines, though chances are good we'll get only two of them: a 3.2L V-6 and a 4.2L V-8. At 225 and 300 hp, respectively, those sound fine; but we'd love to see the twin-turbocharged, 5.0L V-10 diesel here too, with its 550 lb-ft of torque.
The rest of the drivetrain and chassis design does make Touareg sound off-road-ready: The full-time 4WD system offers a low-range reduction and lockers in the center and rear diffs, while a pneumatic suspension can be raised to give the SUV up to 11.8 inches of ground clearance. It's a far cry from a Baja Bug.