Every 12 months we pit the best of what’s new in 4x4 vehicles against one another in our 4x4 of the Year test. This is a shootout of what’s coming soon to a dealer near you, a comparison of different vehicles based on their merit as the freshest newfangled 4x4s. We do require a few things: a two-speed, low-range-equipped transfer case; availability by early the following year; and a minimum production of 2,500.
Our field of competitors for 2013 spans the spectrum of style, capability, and performance, but oddly enough they are all from the same mother ship. Spoiler alert! A Chrysler product won our test.
This year we received three contenders, the ’13 Jeep Wrangler Moab Edition, the ’13 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, and the ’13 Ram 1500 Outdoorsman Crew Cab 4x4. Each is new or has been significantly upgraded from prior models.
Our test takes these three unusual cousins through a variety of terrain, with the majority of points earned while off the asphalt. Unlike car magazines that concentrate on ergonomics and how a vehicle works on tarmac, we go straight to where you the reader likes to see your 4x4s—in the dirt, rocks, mud, and sand—to determine a winner. To that end, we consider 4x4 attributes such as recovery points and skidplates. In fact, any ergonomics we consider is based on comfort and visibility for off-road use. We spend a week running these vehicles through their paces in places few auto journalists dare to tread, and why? So we can award the best of what’s new with a title most fitting for a true four-wheeler, the 4x4 of the Year.
We require a two-speed, low-range-equipped transfer case
Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk
The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk was the most anticipated vehicle of the test. Grand Cherokees have always done well in 4x4 of the Year, and one designed specifically for off-road use had to be a contender. The list of upgrades included rock sliders, aggressive tires, a rear locking differential, additional skidplates, and unique 18-inch wheels. Plus there were the cool red towhooks, black hood decal, and red and black leather seats to give it a cool look and attitude. Unfortunately, by week’s end the Trailhawk had earned the nickname Trail Chicken. What could have been so good resulted in something only a bit better than the stock Grand we tested two years ago.
We’ll start with the good. The rock sliders are some of the best we have ever seen on a production vehicle. Tough and strong, they saved us in quite a few undesirable rock situations. The red towhooks may look flamboyant but worked excellently (too bad there wasn’t a pair on the rear bumper). Speaking of bumpers, how about something made of steel like the Wrangle Moab has?
The Jeep Grand Cherokee is an awesome driving machine. It rides great, is pretty fast, and was the best four-door SUV in our test. The interior is comfortable and would make this the perfect office-to-airport to mountain cabin commuter if we had a little place up in the hill for skiing or snowmobiling, or whatever else people do at their mountain cabin in the winter.
The four-wheel independent suspension is at home in high-speed desert romps. It was the one place the Trailhawk seemed to spread its wings and fly (sorry, we were looking for the proper time for that pun). However, we realized that the fancy air suspension still needs more work, as the Hawk works best at high speed when in the low “sport” mode. At maximum height the Grand’s suspension tops out as the tires go to full droop with an annoying clunk sound.
The Grand did earn top honors on looks and styling with the blacked out hood decal reminiscent of its Power Wagon cousin. But unlike the reliable Power Wagon locking differentials, we were disappointed with the traction control in the Grand. The Trailhawk edition with the Hemi V-8 has an electric actuated clutch-style limited slip in the rear axle. This combined with brake-based traction control up front led us to expect great things off-road. We found it didn’t always work out that way, especially when we needed it most in the rocks and hillclimb. At times we had a tire on solid granite and couldn’t get it to pull the Jeep forward, while other times the tire spun in loose gravel. So we opted to spin the tires faster, hoping the acceleration would kick in the brake traction device. All it did was dig us in deeper and lower the air suspension. Luckily other wheelers with excellent rock sliders were there to catch us.
The center-console-mounted terrain selection in this SUV leaves plenty of room for improvement. We’ve seen this style of system before in Land Rovers and Land Cruisers, but we have to say the Jeep variant still needs work. In fact, the best it ever worked was when we put it in sport mode to reduce the ride height and traction/safety nannies. Nonetheless, most judges picked this Jeep as the go-to vehicle of the test for on-road driving. Since most Americans use their 4x4s as street-driven commuters requiring just enough off-road performance for foul weather or easy dirt roads, we support the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk for that job.
• Beefy rock sliders
• Fast on dirt roads
• Suspension clunks at speed
• Needs more power
• Needs real lockers (SRT8?)