At the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center, we have the ability to systematically evaluate the off-road capability of SUVs and 4WD pickup trucks. Ascending our "Rock Hill," a 23-degree slope of boulders set in cement, reveals differences in axle articulation, suspension travel, traction, approach and departure angles, and more. It also provides a repeatable course that does not change after successive runs.
This may not the most extreme off-road situation a dedicated 4x4 enthusiast can encounter. However, it is an honest simulation of a realistic rugged, rocky trail that one might find in the Southwest and other parts of the country, if the owner chooses to venture into the wild.
Our list below highlights the most capable vehicles currently on sale that we've evaluated. (And yes, we do have a couple more in the fleet that are ready to face our rock hill.) The list shows that fancy off-road-oriented, four-wheel-drive systems can help, but they aren't the be all end all for off-road capability. For example, while the Land Rovers make use of very sophisticated off-road electronics, they’re matched by vehicles with more rudimentary systems, like a Toyota Tacoma TRD
The Infiniti QX80 may be a big, luxurious fullsize luxury SUV with a plush ride, but it’s no softy when it comes to off-road capability. It is based on the legendary Nissan Patrol SUV—a truck that’s as revered the world over for its dirt prowess as the Jeep Wrangler. So, the QX is built with durable body-on-frame construction and a very capable four-wheel-drive system. The default drive mode is “Auto,” which means this rear-drive biased truck will send torque up front when needed. But when the going gets tough, lock the center diff into a 50/50 torque split between the axles. Need more? The QX80 has a generous low range ratio of 2.7:1, which helps the big truck crawl with excellent control. If wheels do begin to slip, there’s a traction control system that automatically uses the brakes to slow any unruly wheel. It may not look like an off-road bruiser, but the QX80 will go just about any place it will fit.
The Grand Cherokee has an off-road legacy that stretches back more than two decades. Over that time, owners have gravitated toward this SUV for its blend of off-road capability, civilized pavement manners, and upscale interior trimmings. The standard four-wheel-drive system will handle enough for most. But in order to get really dirty, opt for the Off-Road Adventure II package. It bundles all the best gear Jeep offers. The multi-mode (Snow, Sand, Mud, Auto, and Rocks) four-wheel-drive system with a generous 2.72:1 low-range ratio allows you to go from highway to trail with the twist of a knob and the push of a button. And it works in concert with the adjustable Quadra-lift air suspension that can provide a whopping 10.4-inches of ground clearance and 20-inches of water fording. So equipped, the Grand had no trouble cresting our rock hill and is “Trail Rated” by Jeep to tackle exotic off-road destinations like Moab Utah. Just as important, thus equipped, it has skid plates to protect underbody essentials.
The Wrangler is an off-road icon without peers. The Jeep Wrangler is the off-road SUV of choice amongst hardcore 4WD enthusiasts. The solid-axle suspension on both ends brings simplicity, ruggedness, and low cost. Plain-vanilla Wranglers may struggle here and there. But the top Rubicon model adds an incredible list of very hardcore equipment that includes front and rear electronic locking differentials, as well as the ability to disconnect front anti-roll bars to free up even more wheel travel. A Wrangler Rubicon can, as the name suggests, handle the demands of the famed Rubicon Trail. That capability and heritage has many happy enthusiasts overlooking the Wrangler’s on-road deficiencies.
Today’s Range Rover may be lighter, sleeker, and more refined than any that has come before, but it’s lost none of the famed off-road prowess. Part of the key to its cultured adventuring is the Terrain Response system 4WD system—one of the smartest of any vehicle—and height-adjustable air suspension. Just toggle through the four modes and the Rover tailors all its system (engine, transmission, differentials, and more) to the chores at hand. Raise the body via the air suspension for seriously rough terrain. To further bolster capability, an Extra Duty package adds adaptive dampers and the ability of Terrain Response to switch automatically between modes as it notices changes in road conditions. The package also incudes a specific Rock Crawl mode and even an off-road cruise control system of sorts called All-Terrain Progress Control. The air suspension is fully independent and has more than a foot of wheel travel at the rear and more than 10-inches up front. For comparison, most SUVs make due with around 8 inches. And more wheel travel means the tires maintain traction even when the suspension is fully extended. The transfer case has a low range ratio of 2.93:1, which is lower than any SUV in its class. And there’s even an optional locking rear differential. All this means the Rover can crawl slowly and easily over the biggest boulders or ford streams as deep as 35 inches—should you choose to subject your near six-figure ultra-luxury SUV to such things. And the icing on the cake is that occupants are comfortable with a minimum of rocking and bouncing.
Here is a quick, responsive SUV that can almost match the performance of its German rivals on pavement, but it can easily walk away from them in the dirt. Its Terrain Response system is nearly as capable as the one in its big brother—the Range Rover, provided you got the optional low-range transfer case. But according to our testers, even without that hardware aboard, the Sport had enough grunt to conquer our rock hill, but watch those low-profile performance tires since it’s easy to damage them. Some of that capability is of course due to the 10 inches of wheel travel at each corner of the Sport’s height-adjustable independent suspension. That’s slightly less than the flagship Range Rover, but it is still more than most SUVs. The optional electronically controlled rear differential can vary the lockup depending on conditions. And like the larger Rover, the Sport can wade into a river nearly three-feet deep.
The Lexus GX 460 is one 4WD luxury SUV that doesn’t require specialized optional equipment to be capable off road. The GX may wear the plush trimmings of a Lexus on the inside, but underneath there’s a full frame and a transfer case with a Torsen center differential that can be locked into a 50:50 torque split for rough going. And when the dirt road turns into a serious trail, the Lexus has a set of 2.52:1 low-range gears. But the real magic of the Lexus GX is in its suspension. The Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) uses hydraulically controlled anti-roll bars to either reduce the amount of roll in the chassis on road or increase it for off-roading. So in slow speed off-road situations, when maximum wheel travel is needed, the KDDS system loosens its grip on the suspension and lets the tires dip down easily into ruts. It works incredibly well. And when the GX runs out of wheel travel, the excellent four-wheel traction control system will arrest a spinning tire and divert torque to the wheel (or wheels) that do have traction. Like the Range Rover, this Lexus also has an optional off-road cruise control system called Crawl Control. It allows the driver to simply steer as the vehicle maintains speed up and down a trail in low range. It works well and is a great tool for novice four wheelers.
In the midsize pickup truck class, the Frontier is the elder statesman. It’s been around virtually unchanged since 2005. But the lack of modernizing doesn’t limit its off-road talents. Underneath the metal is a narrower version of the same frame and suspension that’s underneath Nissan’s massive Titan fullsize pickup. So those parts are quite stout for a truck this size. Four-wheel-drive models have a simple part-time system that stays in 2WD until you chose 4WD. In low range, there’s a solid 2.61:1 gearset. The ultimate Frontier for four-wheeling adventures is the Pro-4X model. This off-road package includes equipment like an electronically locking rear differential, upgraded Bilstein shocks, and big 265/75R16 tires that are designed for deep sand. It all makes this Nissan an affordable underdog performer in the dirt.
The Xterra is one of the last affordable SUVs with real off-road capability. Like the Frontier upon which it’s based, the Xterra uses a version of the larger Titan’s F-Alpha chassis. And you can feel the solidity in that structure when driving off road. But be aware, not all Xterras are 4WD. There are 2WD models that have the looks but lack the traction. The Xterra uses a big Dana 44 solid axle suspended by coil springs for its rear suspension, while the Frontier uses leaf spring packs. The dedicated Pro-4X package with an electronically locking rear differential, as well as Bilstein shocks and beefy 265/75R16 tires. So equipped, this is one of the few SUVs that have the chops for some fairly extreme trails. The package even includes some cool off-road lights on the Xterra’s roof rack.
Tracing its roots back to the original Power Wagon of the 1940s, the Ram has some heavyweight 4WD heritage. And in modern times, it has carved a niche as an innovator. For instance, the Ram is the only full-sized truck that offers a light-duty diesel. And that torque-rich 3.0-liter Ecodiesel V6 is a perfect match for slow-speed off-road driving. Helping it further, the Ram’s coil or optional air rear suspension rides smoothly over rough terrain. Our testers praised the Ram’s optional On-Demand 4WD system for its ease of use. On all but the most extreme trails, just leave it in 4WD Auto and let the system send torque to the front axle when it needs to. On more difficult off-road climbs, there’s a 2.64:1 low-range ratio in the transfer case. To satisfy dirt-bound explorers, the model line now includes a Rebel off-road package that uses a 1-inch taller version of the Ram’s air suspension to make room for massive 33-inch tires. That version, our testers say, will swallow anything in its path, yet won’t beat up the driver.
Since the very first 4Runner arrived here back in 1984, Toyota has remained committed to advancing this SUV’s off-road capability. The current 4Runner is a serious trail machine—when optioned properly. But even the basic 4WD model has rugged body-on-frame construction and an old-school lever to operate the transfer case. However, Trail models are equipped with a locking rear differential and can be optioned with a smart Kinetic Dynamic Suspension that automatically allows the suspension to flex more when off road. Trail models also use an off-road cruise control system called Crawl Control. Just set your speed, steer over the rocks and ruts and the 4Runner takes care of everything else. Those that are engaged in baja-style higher-speed off-road driving will opt for the TRD Pro model. This 4Runner has a taller, long-travel suspension. The 4Runner TRD Pro is one of the best off-road packages available on any vehicle.
The Sequoia’s tough body-on-frame construction comes from a chassis it shares with Toyota’s full-sized Tundra pickup. The Sequoia’s 4WD system has a limited-slip center differential that can lock into a traditional 50:50 torque split when needed. So for most driving situations, that Torsen diff will proportion torque seamlessly—without driver involvement—to the axle that needs it. When locked into its 2.61:1 low range, the Sequoia has the gearing (thanks in part to the optional 4.30:1 axle gears) to crawl slowly up some very difficult climbs. The Sequoia isn’t available with a locking differential, but the brake-based four-wheel traction control system has the ability to arrest a spinning tire and send torque across the axle very effectively.
Over decades, Toyota pickups have earned a reputation for durability—and admittedly, rust. Peek underneath and there’s a robust chassis that shares most of the 4WD componentry, including the lever-actuated transfer case with 2.56:1 gears, with the 4Runner. Even the cheapest bare-bones 4WD Tacoma has excellent ground clearance and is a talented performer in the dirt. But opt for the TRD Off Road package and Toyota delivers protective skid plates, dedicated Bilstein shocks, and an electronic locking differential. Just push that diff-lock button and the Tacoma can give Jeeps a run for their money on the most treacherous trails. But the top Tacoma is the TRD Pro. This model, like the 4Runner version, has a long travel suspension designed to handle Baja-like high-speed desert terrain. At the other end, Toyota has a budget-conscious 2WD Prerunner package that rides on the 4WD’s suspension—so it has the clearance for mild off-roading. Best and worst new cars
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