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Off-roading has been an American tradition since before Lewis and Clark took up President Jefferson's call to explore the West in 1803. Since then, though, back-country travel has gotten less arduous and considerably easier on the back, with off-trail time morphing from nation-building to recreational past-time.
Full-sized pickup trucks -- many with 4x4 capabilities that would have made that legendary duo green with envy -- continue to be American auto buyers' favorite vehicles. During the first quarter of 2006, Ford (F) and General Motors (GM) trucks were once more the nation's best sellers. Ford sold nearly 200,000 F-Series, continuing its 23-year run at the top of the sales charts (see BW Online, 4/19/06, "America's Favorite Pickup").
At DaimlerChrysler (DCX), meanwhile, Dodge Ram pickup sales were up 9% (see BW Online, 3/22/06, "Dodge's Living Room on Wheels"). And, sub-brand Jeep -- the badge name synonymous with off-road trekking -- posted similar gains overall. A new version of the go-anywhere Wrangler wowed analysts with a 21% year-to-date bump in sales. The new, larger Commander model also continued to gain momentum, increasing month-to-month sales by 14%.
Not one SUV made this quarter's top 10 list. Granted, the proliferation of crossovers and SUVs has emphasized on-road, day-to-day utility. A new rash of high-end luxury cars in the class is emblematic of the trend, with more buyers interested in zero to 60 times than approach angle or ground clearance. (Case in point: Despite the Cayenne's rather high 4x4 marks, what could be a bigger oxymoron than a Porsche heavy UTE?)
Most four-wheel drive vehicles -- be they SUVs, crossovers, or high-riding wagons -- will have no problem on gravel or coarse logging roads, as well as in the snow. But for serious off-roading, a more stringent set of specifications is required, including a body-on-frame design, significant ground clearance, and advance differential options.
BusinessWeek Online surveyed the 4x4 landscape and chose ten of the best off-road vehicles available today. Many of the trucks we chose can be taken off-trail upon purchase. All have proven track records or hail from long 4x4 legacies.
These aren't the most practical four-wheel drives on the market. If long-term reliability and overall fuel efficiency outrank true off-road prowess on your list of priorities, look instead to vehicles like Toyota's RAV4 or the Honda CR-V. Likewise, these aren't necessarily the most luxurious vehicles in the segment either. While the big-name luxury manufacturers like Audi, Volvo, and BMW all have hardy, all-wheel drive vehicles on the market, these tend to impress with performance-oriented figures and luscious interiors.
"JOHN WAYNE FEELING."
Jason Taylor, the owner of Canyonlands Jeep a 4x4 rental company in Moab, Utah, says Hummers and Jeeps top his list of serious off-road vehicles. His trail guides take tourists into the wild, around what many enthusiasts consider to be the off-road capital of the world, in modified Hummer vehicles from General Motors.
"The Wrangler is just plain iconic" he says. "I mean you could go out there in something like a Suzuki, but it isn't the same. First of all the 360 degree views are priceless. And you don't get that John Wayne feeling in anything else."
Both the Jeep and Hummer badges hail from storied armed forces backgrounds. The Wrangler's great-grandfather, the Willys MB, was a battlefield vehicle developed during World War II. At the time, General Eisenhower famously claimed that the Allies couldn't have won without it. And today, military-grade Hummers patrol the Iraqi desert.
Over the years, unmodified pickup trucks from the likes of Ford and Dodge have proven some of the most versatile vehicles in the 4x4 arena. That's because nearly all trucks, except some newer small and boutique models, come in off-road friendly trim lines. The flexibility of flat-beds is also a natural draw.
Additionally, a niche of long-legacied vehicles from Land Rover and Toyota (TM) make up a significant part of the field. Land Rovers began life in the 1950s as all-terrain farming vehicles but have since become ubiquitous on battlefields and in developing countries around the world. Toyota's brand-new FJ Cruiser (see BW Online, 5/3/06, "Toyota's Retro Off-Roader"), meanwhile, harkens back to the now legendary FJ-series Land Cruisers of the 1960s.
Check out BusinessWeek Online's top 10 vehicles for serious off-roading. Click here for the slide show