Motor Trend 4/06: Snowdogs - H3 vs. Liberty vs. Xterra vs. FJ Cruiser
4. "The Runt" - Jeep Liberty Renegade - $27,550
"In the snow, the Liberty did a commendable job holding its own, its skinny Goodyears akin to warm pizza wheels in ice cream. But in Hungry Valley, the Liberty didn't fare so well. With 6.4 inches of ground clearance, the Jeep was the only vehicle to continuously pound rocks with its underside...Attempting to climb a steep, undulating hill in 4Low, the Liberty could only attempt, not conquer, the feat, thanks in part to the lack of a locking rear differential and second-worst Ramp Travel Index. Through the dry riverbed, the Jeep felt the frailest and the jitteriest, its structure and suspension creaking and rattling over the washboard, its steering column transmitting every moan."
3. "The Beast" - Hummer H3 - $37,920
"Although the Hummer didn't rise above the others in the snow - its heft and 285mm-wide Bridgestones made it the elephant of the pack - it did excel in Hungry Valley, where its utralow 4.03:1 reduction ratio, 33-inch tires, and rear locker flattened hills and squished boulders without a drop of sweat. Coming in at $29,500 to start - more than the as-tested costs of the others - and $37,920 with options...the H3 was the priciest. Carrying that kind of premium, the Hummer's off-road prowess becomes expected, almost overlooked, while its on-road incompetence turns infamous."
2. "The Athlete" - Nissan Xterra OR-V6 - $29,325
"In the soft and slushy stuff, the Xterra shined, effortlessly mowing BFGoodrich tracks through the deepest snow. In fact, after our romp in Mammoth Lakes' winter wonderland, the Xterra was deemed the odds-on favorite to take home the trophy. A few hours into our visit at Hungry Valley proved more challenging for this impressive contender, however. Saddled with the lowest Ramp Travel Index (RTI), the Xterra was unable to overcome our test hill, even with its 'Rugged Trail' tires and the rear differential locked. It was mostly this off-road deficiency that kept our 2006 Sport/Utility of the Year from nudging the first-place finisher."
1. "The All-Rounder" - Toyota FJ Cruiser - $29,360
"The FJ made easy work of the snow, its Active Traction Control (A-TRAC) system living up to its promise of minimizing wheelspin and functioning like a limited-slip differential. A-TRAC also proved its merits in Hungry Valley, where, complemented by 32-inch tires and the second-widest track, it assisted the FJ up and over the hill test, and through the sand with sans any drama."
HOW THEY (TRAIL) RATE...
4. Jeep Liberty Renegade
"Our 'Trail Rated' Liberty had a not-too-shabby 450 RTI result, but the smallest tires of the group (225/75R16) with the least aggressive tread. Gearing is adequate, but the clumsy slot-machine 4WD lever puts up a fight when going into and out of 4Low."
3. Nissan Xterra OR-V6
"The Xterra scored a 384 RTI (lowest of the four), but did offer a big tire (265/75R16) and an electronic locking rear differential (some called it the 'Save Me!' button). The 4.0-liter V-6 is powerful and responsive, making the Nissan a favorite in the high-speed sand washes."
2. Toyota FJ Cruiser
"The Toyota FJ's suspension uses coil springs in front and back and scored a solid 491 RTI. The "A-TRAC" traction-control calculates the right amount of traction needed in high and low range. And, although it's loud and vibrates like crazy when engaged, several testers appreciated the A-TRAC's feedback. In addition, the FJ offers a push-button rear locker (which disconnects traction control), and runs the dry-wash trails like a Baja pre-runner."
1. Hummer H3
"With the most compliant suspension, the H3 scored a 520 RTI and has a transfer-case low-range gear almost two times lower than do the others. In addition, the Hummer had the biggest, most aggressive tires (285/75R16) and a smart traction-control system that works in combination with a rear locker. If there's a weakness, not surprisingly, it's the anemic I-5 that had trouble pushing our 2.5 ton H3 through the desert sand washes."
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1995 ES300 (sold)
1997 Nissan Maxima SE 5-speed Black