From the April 2006 issue of Car and Driver.
Our plan was to view Carl Mengel’s grave. Which sounds simple enough, except that Carl – a miner born in 1868, who staked several pitiful gold claims in the Panamint Range near Death Valley—was deeply enamored of reclusiveness, cotton-top cacti, and, uh, altitude. His scrawny bones now repose at 4328 feet. Well, minus six or so feet.
Carl died calloused and penniless in 1944, after working himself to death in his California Oro Fino Mine in Goler Wash. It was a hellish locale, so unforgiving that a band of competing prospectors lasted only 90 days before hurling their huge anvil into a creek and fleeing to the lowlands.
Today, the Mengel Pass is a butt-busting trail with a Category Four rating. That means you’ll encounter rocks larger than six inches, mud, sand deep enough to require lowering tire pressures, stream crossings, narrow rock shelves, and loose surfaces. Uncomfortable but not technically tricky, at least until we were beset by a swell 55-mph wind mixed with sand, giving us the sort of visibility you’d enjoy after sticking your head in a goldfish bowl.
Our expedition leader was tech editor Aaron Robinson, a skilled off-roader who felt the rest of us might benefit from a day practicing on the Last Chance Canyon Trail near Randsburg, California. That trail slips past the pumice mine that made Old Dutch Cleanser famous. Good idea, we agreed, until Aaron casually cautioned, “Thing is, the Last Chance trail is a Category Five.”
Five? We looked it up. Here’s how the book described it: “High-clearance 4WDs required, rough and rutted surfaces, rocks up to nine inches, mud and deep sand that may be impassable, 18-inch-deep stream crossings, steep climbs with traction problems, narrow shelf roads, steep drop-offs, tight clearances, possible chassis damage, novices sure to pee their pants.” Well, maybe not that last part, although after we got started—on a trail so diabolical that a spotter was required every 100 or so feet—two of us did inquire whether anyone had packed a ration of Depends.
“You wanna concentrate on precise wheel placement,” Robinson instructed, just as one of us high-centered the Toyota and had to be snatched backward off a craggy lump of granite the size of a major kitchen appliance. We weren’t as skilled as Robinson, so it was lucky we were ensconced in hardware that masked most of our maladroitness.
The idea for this test was sparked by the Hummer public-relaters, who swore their H3 was to off-roading what a Daisy Cutter is to Fourth of July firecrackers. “Only a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon can beat us,” they boasted, “and we don’t compete with that.” In the $30,000-SUV range, what the H3 does face, however, is the comprehensively reworked Nissan Xterra, now riding on a platform that underpins the Pathfinder and the burly Titan pickup. The H3 also faces the just-introduced 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser, which makes the most of the 4Runner chassis, minus 3.9 inches of wheelbase. And it also seemed wise to include a Jeep Grand Cherokee of some stripe, in part because that’s what won our “Rock-Climbing SUVs, Size M” off-road comparo in April 2005. That Jeep, however, was fitted with a Hemi and the top-level Quadra-Drive II off-road package, jacking its base way north of 30 grand. So we backed down to a 4.7-liter V-8 mated to the less dear—and admittedly less capable—Quadra-Trac II. Presto, we had a fourth Mengel Pass contender that was fiscally appropriate. The Laredo came with a five-speed automatic, because that’s the only way Jeep builds ’em. Our three other contestants were fitted with manuals.
How’d they pan out? Far, far better than Carl’s little gold mine panned out.
Fourth Place: Hummer H3
At the end of 2.5 days of dust, dirt, and rocks, each editor was asked, “If you had to make that same trip by yourself, which vehicle would you choose?” Unanimous reply: the H3. The Hummer guys’ hubristic claims were thus upheld.
In the boulder-strewn washes, where spikes of granite threatened to rip baseball-size holes in sumps, the heavily skid-plated H3 crawled through as if attached to some unseen cog railway. Whenever the going got hideous and suspension pieces were sure to be scarred, all of us wanted to be behind the H3’s fat leather wheel.
HIGHS: Real off-road tires, 4.0:1 low-range granny gear, a confidant and competent rock hound.
LOWS: About 500 pounds too heavy in its loafers, about 60 horsepower too light in its loafers.
Our baby Hummer, fitted with the $1175 off-road package, boasted a 40-degree approach angle and a 37-degree departure angle, best in this group by a country mile. It offered 9.1 inches of ground clearance, could ford 24 inches of water, and rode atop 33-inch Bridgestones lugged about as deeply as those we deployed on the Camel Trophy nightmare. Side-slope grip was amazing.
Although the H3 was the heaviest in this quartet, with the least horsepower and torque, it was nonetheless a slippery slinky over hill and dale. Much of the credit goes to the H3’s 4.0:1 low-range granny gear that, in tandem with the locking rear diff, enabled us to inch over 16-inch steps and creep up 60-percent grades. Then it supplied diesel-like engine braking on the descents, reducing the fear factor by half. Sure-footed? The H3 was like the wild burros that roam Mengel Pass.
So how come the Hummer finished last? Because it had to travel 200 miles to the trail head and 200 miles back to L.A.—on pavement. Its on-road dossier proved weak. The H3 produces so little power—posting the slowest 0-to-60 time—that we were always downshifting to third to pass. As the Jeep and Nissan darted into holes in rush-hour traffic, the Hummer lagged farther and farther astern, until it fell out of radio contact. And those monster-sidewall tires, so compliant and capable off-road, were just plain squirmy on asphalt, affecting directional stability. The H3 lost further points for the least commodious back seat, where, in typical GM fashion, your knees are up near your chest. The Hummer made the greatest racket at WOT, induced too much lateral head toss, and offered the least towing capacity. At speed, the wind roar around that pancake-flat windshield sounded like Victoria Falls, and the view out—out of all three Hummer models, come to think of it—is like peering through the mail slot in your front door. Did the light turn red? You’ll have to lean forward to find out.
The H3 wants three more cylinders, and there’s no earthly reason it should weigh 560 more pounds than the Toyota.
THE VERDICT: governor Arnold off-road, Barney Fife on-road.
In 1906, a hermit named William Henry Schmidt was mining for gold on a trail we traversed in Last Chance Canyon. Schmidt became strangely obsessed with boring a tunnel through Copper Mountain. Eventually, he single-handedly clawed through 1872 feet of mountain guts, a distraction that cost him 32 years. With its Hummer H3, GM flat-out nailed the off-road half of the equation, and then, like ol’ Schmidt, apparently got distracted.
2006 Hummer H3
220-hp inline-5, 5-speed manual, 4920 lb
Approach/departure angle: 40.0/37.0 degrees
Base/as-tested price: $29,500/$36,745
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 10.3 sec
1/4 mile: 17.6 @ 79 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 189 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.69 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 15 mpg
Third Place: Toyota FJ Cruiser
Toyota’s retro rock hopper lifts its styling from the FJ40 sold in the U.S. from 1960 to 1983. Boomers will readily recall that utilitarian four-by-four with Mutual of Omaha’s Jim Fowler at the wheel, nudging the Toyota’s flimsy bumper into the innocent asses of rhinos and elephants and then acting shocked at the creatures’ indignation.
HIGHS: Look-at-me styling, vast ground clearance, washable interior.
LOWS: A rear seat designed for prisoners, meager visibility, calibrated for trails instead of tarmac.
As with the Hummer, the Toyota’s styling sometimes leads it down impractical paths. It is similarly fitted with gun-slit windows, a flat windshield that appears to be way the hell out on the hood, and a small backlight about 20 percent obliterated by the spare tire. What’s more, Toyota struggled to hide the second set of doors—the original FJ had just two—which resulted in a pair of clamshell “half-doors.” From the outside, they’re tricky to open; you have to fumble around blindly with your fingers to locate the latch. Worse, once you’ve crawled into the back seat, you can’t get out until someone opens the front doors. The rear seat is okay for three, but it’s plenty claustrophobic back there (note the 20-inch C-pillar, which also creates a blind spot for the driver), and it’s plenty stuffy back there, too, because the rear side windows are sealed for eternity.
Like the Hummer, the Toyota proved more talented off-road than on. In part that’s because it’s the lightest SUV in this group with the shortest wheelbase. But its “skill set,” as the pols say, also included the second-best approach and departure angles, an astounding 9.6 inches of ground clearance, an easily selected four-wheel-drive low range with diff lock, velvety clutch takeup, and a clutch-interlock defeat that enabled starter crawling over the sort of slab-faced boulders that would trip a donkey.
Alas, the soft suspension that was such a boon in the boonies—we’re talkin’ 7.9 inches of travel fore, 9.1 inches aft—induced wallow and roll on paved surfaces and in corners, where the FJ plowed and howled. In this quartet, the Toyota boasted the least lateral grip, and it generally felt a titch slow-witted and Hummer-esque as it swayed its way down the 405 freeway. In photos, the FJ looks about the size of a RAV4. It ain’t.
Still, there are plenty of FJ details that satisfy. The backlight flips open independent of the tailgate. The three wiper arms sweep nearly every inch of glass. The XXL climate controls can be adjusted while you’re wearing gloves. The driver’s seat features an adjustable armrest. The black stamped-steel wheels simply zinged us. (Can’t we all please move beyond colossal chromed dubs that suggest to onlookers you’re an NBA star?) The seats are water-repellent, and the floors are coated with a Honda Element-like gray rubber, inviting a 20-second hose-out at trail’s end.
Best of all, the FJ is cheap—least base price, least as-tested price — a lot of solid and dependable truck for the dough. How can we be sure? Dude, it’s a Toyota.
THE VERDICT: Great value, great fun, and, hey, it’s a Toyota.
Near the end of the Burro Schmidt Tunnel Trail, we camped for our first night, shivering under a full moon in the 40-degree air, nestling our boots so close to the fire that soles were melted, bolstering our city-boy constitutions via a shared bottle of Myer’s rum. At 4 a.m., a coyote loped into camp. He howled, hooted, and yipped as if laughing. “I don’t speak Coyote,” said associate editor Tony Quiroga, “but I think he’s mocking the FJ’s styling.”
2006 Toyota FJ Cruiser
239-hp V-6, 6-speed manual, 4360 lb
Approach/departure angle: 34.0/30.0 degrees
Base/as-tested price: $22,890/$27,000
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.2 sec
1/4 mile: 16.1 @ 87 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 184 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.67 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 15 mpg
Second Place: Jeep Grand Cherokee
Jeep’s Grand Cherokee is encroaching on the Ford Explorer as Everyman’s SUV, ubiquitous unto invisibility on the vehicular horizon. And ours was gray. Parked next to the blood-red H3 and chrome-yellow FJ, it looked about as zoomy as the wallpaper in Retirement Acres. Which makes it easy to forget how capable these things really are.
Even with the Quadra-Trac II four-wheel drive, which offers a just-adequate low range and no diff locks, the Jeep surmounted every awful obstacle along our trails. Granted, it was plodding along more slowly than the three others, what with a mere 8.0 inches of ground clearance, the worst departure angle, and tires biased toward the racetrack rather than the two-tracks. Plus, its steel unibody sometimes emitted painful gronks when twisted. The Jeep thus left behind telltale smears of black underbody paint, and we had to build a few small rock bridges to lift it clear of ruination. But it never had to be snatched off a rock or winched up a talus slope, so it kept the Jeep heritage intact.
HIGHS: On pavement, it’s a car.
LOWS: Too little ground clearance, steep base price, dismal fuel economy.
At one point, the Grand Cherokee’s left-front and right-rear wheels were standing tall on separate outcrops, and a scary teeter-tottering act prompted the three other drivers to spectate in awe, biting their nails. But unlike a previous 4.7-liter Grand Cherokee we tested, the throttle calibration in this example was bang on, and we were able to nudge forward in what felt like half-inch increments. Given the Jeep’s automatic transmission, however, the real trick was modulating the brakes as you rolled down the far side of obstacles. Left-foot braking was the order of the day or you’d crash down hard, compressing the springs, bottoming the suspension, and introducing rocker sills to imbedded granite, schist, and round aggregates of pumice that looked like basketballs. It helped a lot that the Jeep’s brakes were never grabby and its hood ramped down, affording a clear view ahead. What’s more, you could perch high in its cloth seat, which, we hasten to add, we all preferred to leather.
Unlike the H3 and FJ, the Jeep’s main talent was highway cruising. It offered quick, carlike steering, was the most sure-footed on the skidpad, and was the quietest at both WOT and a 70-mph cruise—at which speed, by the by, its laser-like tracking put the other SUVs to shame.
In this group, the Jeep carried the steepest base price and the worst observed fuel economy. It became our limousine. Whenever we attained pavement, one driver after another would insincerely mutter, “Hey, isn’t it my turn to drive that thing?”
THE VERDICT: Still the best all-around Jeep ever created.
After 2.5 days of crawling along at about 3 mph, we finally reached the Harry Wade Exit Route, a Category Two trail that funneled us onto the southwestern floor of Death Valley. In 1849, Englishman Wade successfully followed this route to flee the horrors of heat and starvation, even as his colleagues began burning their wagons to cook the oxen who had moments earlier been pulling their wagons. The trail was soft, sandy, washboardy, with occasional sand traps a foot deep. Here the Jeep was in its element, and we hooked it in great, lurid, dusty slides—an unnecessary World of Outlaws test that doesn’t appear on any of our charts. About then, it occurred to us that Harry Wade would really have enjoyed the Jeep’s arctic-strength air conditioner.
2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo 4WD
235-hp V-8, 5-speed automatic, 4680 lb
Approach/departure angle: 34.1/27.1 degrees
Base/as-tested price: $29,830/$33,155
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.0 sec
1/4 mile: 16.3 @ 84 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 193 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.73 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 14 mpg
First Place: Nissan Xterra
If it was Carlos Ghosn who fixed the disaster that was the previous Xterra, then someone should hire the guy to direct FEMA. That first-gen effort, introduced in 1999, was underpowered and rode atop a chassis with all the structural integrity of squeezable Velveeta. Too bad this gen-two iteration, with its fast-revving 265-horse V-6 nestled within a modified Titan’s steel ladder frame, looks so much like the original, because it doesn’t deserve one iota of its forebear’s rep. It’s like the difference between Kate Smith and Kate Moss.
HIGHS: Stick shift linkage, poised atop boulders, a rabbit to 60 mph.
LOWS: Mushy brakes, looks too much like its predecessor, noisy rear suspension.
Where our three other SUVs were a little too single-skilled—the H3 and FJ off-road, the Jeep on—the new Xterra proved talented at both. You can see it in the stats: It’s the shortest and narrowest of the quartet, a huge asset on narrow trails. It offers 9.5 inches of ground clearance, the most horsepower, a 7.0-second 0-to-60 time, the highest emergency-lane-change speed, and the best observed fuel economy.
On the Mengel Pass, the Xterra kept pace with the H3 and FJ, thanks to its locking rear diff, Bilstein shocks, BFG Rugged Trail tires, and three skid plates (plus a fourth guarding the transfer case). Its shifter was almost as slick as the FJ’s, with gentle clutch takeup and serene throttle tip-in. The view forward was superb, helped by a commanding driving position. Precise steering allowed the Xterra to hunt back and forth through boulders like a bloodhound on the scent, and when you needed to goose this baby up ascents, it leapt like a sports car. In a moment of exuberance, in fact, I pulled a Garlits-quality wheelie scrabbling up a 50-degree quartzite grade—the sort of chassis-bending caper Robinson had begged us to eschew.
Standard kit includes a useful roof rack, plus side steps for climbing up there. The Xterra’s cloth seats were firm and grippy, with bolsters to hold thighs in place on steep side slopes. (In the Jeep, you were left to clutch the steering wheel.) The Nissan was the only contestant whose transfer case could be toggled to two-wheel drive once civilization loomed, a real gas saver. The Off-Road model comes with a clutch override switch that allowed us to start in gear without slipping the clutch as we scaled the most imposing of the Last Chance Trail’s jasper staircases. Moreover, the front-passenger seat folds flat, meaning that, even though this is the shortest SUV in the group, a six-footer could stretch out and sleep in the back. Which I did on the night of the 55-mph winds in Warm Spring Canyon — the real winds, not just the snoring winds of my tent-bound colleagues.
The logbook reflected only three recurring beefs. The Xterra’s brake pedal was mushy. Its spare tire was attached to the undercarriage, requiring you to kneel in the muck to fetch it—the sort of annoyance that might inspire you to throw an anvil into a nearby creek. And a rear suspension joint squeaked like a chipmunk for three days. It may have been our fault. On day one, we layered the Xterra’s cargo bay with four feet of heavy firewood purchased from a woman in Rosamond, who owned pit bulls named Capone and Fruehauf, a 300-pound potbellied pig, and a baby-blue 1957 Lincoln that she tried to sell us. “Trade it for your Nissan,” she offered, having totaled her Jeep 24 hours prior.
We’re glad we declined. In this test, the Xterra prevailed because, no matter what we threw at it, it remained friendly, flexible, and practical. If Carl Mengel had owned one, he might not have been buried at 4328 feet.
THE VERDICT: Unfazed by anything we threw at it.
By the way, after I slept with the firewood, art director Jeff Dworin said, “Emerald ash borers probably got you. You’re gonna get Dutch elm disease.”
2006 Nissan Xterra Off-Road 4WD
265-hp V-6, 6-speed manual, 4460 lb
Approach/departure angle: 33.2/29.4 degrees
Base/as-tested price: $26,630/$28,340
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.0 sec
1/4 mile: 15.7 @ 89 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 188 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.72 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg
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