Back to the Wild

SUVS have been domesticated for Mom and Mr. Fixit, but the fact remains—these beasts are built for the boondocks, and their natural habitat is the rough, open road

Born free: the view from the cockpit of the new Jeep Liberty     Photo: John Huba

SOMEWHERE ALONG ITS ROCK-SHOCK RIDE to unmatched popularity (and infamy) on the American highway, the SUV lost touch with its heritage as the perfect tool for a worthwhile job: hauling prodigious amounts of gear and an ample load of companions to the edge of wilderness and back.

It's time to return sport utes to where they belong—running free on dirt and gravel, snowpacked roads, and every other bumpy track beyond the pavement. After we beat, muddied, and filthified the eight rigs that follow, we see no reason to let them cart mere groceries again. And we've got the goofy grins to prove it.


BEST FOR CARGO AND ROOF-RACK ACCESSIBILITY

2002 ISUZU AXIOM XS

THE ISUZU AXIOM XS looks like a castaway from Area 51, but this didn't deter me from jumping into its leather cockpit and taking off for a trip into the Jemez Mountains. The low-slung chassis (at only five and a half feet in height, a full roof rack of equipment is easily reachable) felt like a minivan's, but drove like a Cadillac's, as I sped down the Interstate at 90 miles per hour. I waved gleefully at the other cars out the window: Hello, family from Kansas; hello, state trooper; hello, dirt road where state trooper won't follow.

The first rutted section of the road into the Jemez jolted the Axiom airborne, slamming my head against the roof—hello, seatbelts!—and caused Mick Jagger's voice to stutter through "Satisfaction." With my ears ringing from the impact (or was it the 140-watt, eight-speaker stereo system?), I pressed two curious buttons on the dash: "Ride/Sport" and "Power." Instantly, the Axiom put the excess into "XS." The swank ride gave way to a stiff, trucklike suspension that lay waste to washouts, potholes, and bumps, and made the CD skip no more. The engine felt like it had just been given an injection of adrenaline.

I climbed happily through red sandstone canyons and scrub pines. Then, as I drove deeper into the forest, the road turned into a postapocalyptic nightmare of sharp rocks and dishwasher-size boulders. Never fear. The Axiom's 17-inch tires stoutheartedly rolled over the whole minefield, and its Torque-On-Demand four-wheel drive plowed up and over any incline set in its way. I kept searching for a failure point—tires slipping, engine stalling, CD skipping again—but eventually I ran out of road. Stunned by the Axiom's capability, I eased down the mountain at ten mph, wondering what it would take to blow this thing apart. Sadly, Isuzu wouldn't let me take the car to Mexico to find out. —Grant Davis

SPECS
230-horsepower V-6 engine; full- and part-time four-wheel drive; 85 cubic feet cargo capacity; 5 passengers; 16 mpg city, 20 mpg highway; $31,818 (as tested); www.axiom.com 


Related Links
Base Camping
Five-Star Wilderness
Summer Road Trips
Are We There Yet?
The Zen of Car Camping
The Well-Outfitted Car Camper

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