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

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.

Born free: the view from the cockpit of the new Jeep Liberty

2002 Isuzu Axiom XS

The updated Ford Explorer on the road to nowhere


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 


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2002 Nissan Xterra SC

BEST VALUE

2002 NISSAN XTERRA SC

"IS THAT A RATTLESNAKE I hear?" asked my navigator Justin. He was talking about a Satanic hiss coming from the back, right side of our daffodil-colored Xterra SC.

"Afraid not," I told him. "That's our tire. Let's just hope Nissan gave us a full-size spare, 'cause if they didn't, if they gave us one of those ridiculous rubber doughnuts, they may never see us—or their SUV—again." With these words, our excursion along The Shortcut to the village of Pecos was rudely interrupted.

The Shortcut. That was the official unofficial name of the road: The Shortcut to Pecos via Glorieta Mesa. The route climbs the mesa outside Santa Fe, traverses the lizardlike skin of its surface, then descends 800 feet and a couple of centuries to Pecos, site of my favorite watering hole. I was told by ranchers in the area that only a fool would take a conventional two-wheel-drive vehicle on it. Now I had the proper machinery for such a journey. The only question was, who would prevail? For all The Shortcut's obstacles, the Xterra seemed up to the challenge. Its less-than-impressive 210-horsepower engine was supplemented, thank God, by a racing-style supercharger, power-enhancing equipment that results in a total of 246 footpounds of torque (46 more than without it) for escaping sticky situations on or off road.

Considering its relatively small size, the Xterra packs more cargo than you'd think. After stuffing it with all my fishing gear, Justin's climbing gear, two coolers full of snacks, two mountain bikes, and one blue heeler named Cosmo, there was still plenty of room for the shredded hunk of rubber formerly known as the tire. Speaking of which, I won't hold you in suspense any longer. The sweetest sound that day came from Justin, as he lay underneath the truck. His muffled shouts meant we'd make it over the mesa after all and would soon be sitting in the oppressive air-conditioning at Pecos's renowned tavern and eatery, Frankie's.

"Free at last!" he yelled. "It's not a doughnut!" —Brad Wetzler

SPECS
210-horsepower V-6 engine; full-time four-wheel drive; 65 cubic feet cargo capacity; five passengers; 15 mpg city, 18 mpg highway; $26,739 (as tested); www.xterra.com

2001 Acura MDX

BEST TECHNOLOGICAL MARVEL

2001 ACURA MDX

IT WAS WHILE we were switchbacking down a little tapeworm of a road in the volcanic mountains above Ouray, Colorado, that I first realized that the Acura MDX scares the hell out of me. The on-board navigation system had suddenly begun to flash detailed maps of our real-time position. On our way to a long weekend's rafting trip with friends, we could see every hairpin turn, every lake and stream, every feature save the occasional bull elk grazing by the roadside. We were a little red blip swimming in a subtly changing vista on a computer screen. Uncomfortably, it dawned on us what was happening: Some winking, blipping sputnik up in the firmament knew exactly where we were. We were being stalked.

Longitude, latitude, altitude, temperature, bearing, and speed—our place in the world was minutely accounted for. When we took the MDX off-road, the GPS computer planted tiny "bread crumbs" so that we could find our exact path back to civilization, like Theseus threading through the Minotaur's labyrinth. The thing actually spoke to us. "Left turn, 100 feet ahead," it squawked at one point, in a digitized, Stephen Hawking voice.

Before I drove the MDX, I'd always felt that, like dogs and barbecue grills, no car should be smarter than its owner. Yet slyly, quietly, the Acura's nimbleness, eagerness to please, and relentless usefulness make you soon forget that all your personal freedoms have been compromised by its Orwellian technology.

The MDX is an aggressively styled and slightly futuristic-looking thing built on the chassis of a minivan—the Honda Odyssey. It rides with the fat silkiness of a luxury sedan, maneuvers with the agility of a sports car, hauls prodigious amounts of stuff like a truck, and has a forward-facing third seat that's a godsend to all fecund parents who live in Soccer Nation. It handles adroitly on ice and snow, so I'm told, thanks to its all-wheel-drive system. And while Acura claims the MDX is only built for "medium duty" off-roading, it's tough as an musk ox. Not only that, it gets half-decent mileage (for an SUV).

Yes, the automobile appears to be headed down the scary road toward a totalitarian fantasy, but if the MDX is any indication, it's going to be a pleasure to drive. —Hampton Sides

SPECS
240-horsepower V-6 engine; all-wheel drive; 82 cubic feet cargo capacity; 7 passengers; 17 mpg city, 23 mpg highway; $39,450 (as tested); www.acura.com

2002 Chevy Avalanche

BEST EXPEDITION SUPPORT VEHICLE

2002 CHEVY AVALANCHE

THE AVALANCHE IS a lurid spectacle of American automotive engineering. Part Chevy Suburban, part Chevy Silverado pickup, and part Death Star, the Avalanche's signature characteristic—after the OnStar navigation system and the coolers built into the pickup bed walls—is its Convert-a-Cab System. This allows you to fold down the rear leather seats and rear cab wall (the "midgate") to extend the pickup bed almost three extra feet into the cab, putting an end to the consumer's eternal conundrum: buy a truck or an SUV? Or not. As with any compromise, sacrifices must be made. SUV drivers lose a closet's worth of internal cargo space, while truckers better think twice before filling the bed with manure if they put the midgate down.

A mutant like this deserved a demanding road trip, so a few friends and I drove the 'Lanche out to Diablo Canyon, an arroyo framed by basalt cliffs just off the Rio Grande known for its great climbing. The trick: Reaching Diablo requires about ten miles of driving on stomach-churning washboard, followed by some desperate fishtailing down a sandy arroyo. In a lesser rig, the washboard will rattle your eyes out of their sockets; the arroyo has been known to ensnare full-size trucks. This did not faze the Avalanche, however. We hummed merrily over any and all obstacles, spinning through the arroyo as handily as if we were in a dune buggy.

The truck's digital thermometer told us it was 95 degrees outside, so we set up the aftermarket tent (aka The Boil), which attaches to the pickup bed, to provide some shade. We had filled the built-in coolers with ice and fluids so that later we could reach in and pull out bottle after bottle of chilled Gatorade.

As we were humming back over the washboard on the way home, I had an epiphany: A vehicle as powerful, capable, and adaptable as the Avalanche could open up whole new worlds of adventure. Previously, a trip to Diablo Canyon was a nerve-racking endevour; on this trip it was a simple drive. I began to fantasize about climbing peaks in Colorado reachable only by car-eating jeep roads. I imagined plowing steadfastly through snowstorms to make first tracks on the slopes the next morning. Is it a lurid hybrid? Yes, but it's one that lets me expand what's possible. —Nick Heil

SPECS
285-horsepower V-8 engine; full- and part-time four-wheel drive; 70 cubic feet cargo capacity (with "midgate" folded down); 5 passengers; 13 mpg city, 17 mpg highway; $37,589 (as tested); www.chevrolet.com

BEST OFF-ROAD SUV CROSSBRED WITH AN AUTOBAHN SCREAMER

2001 MERCEDES-BENZ ML430

"WE'D START RIDING HERE," my friend Eric explained, waving his right hand as we steamrolled over the landscape on an ignored Forest Service road in our Mercedes. Instead of biking deep into the backwoods, we'd decided to drive the route in a $50,000, German-designed, Alabama-built rig. Eric brought us to a gloriously lush canyon an hour west of Santa Fe, with dark water running toward the Rio Grande and a tight canopy of aspen, ponderosa pine, and cottonwood. On a dual-sprung mountain bike, the harsh, undulating path would be a series of launchpads. In the three-ton Benz, this road likewise bounced us skyward thanks to its sports car­stiff suspension.

whoomp! whoomp whoomp! The shocks thudded with each four-point landing. The ML430 merely scraped its chin when we hit a monster rut at full speed. We sliced through a brown creek and tattooed the hood with mud. But still, the experiences weren't visceral—there was too much plush leather, Bose stereo wattage, wood trim, and highly competent German engineering between the rough terrain and us. Finally giving up on the in-dash GPS navigation unit, which we couldn't program while hurtling over ruts, Eric glanced up just in time to stop us from planting the mighty V-8 in a hillside. With a last-second yank on the wheel, the big white Benz, and its electronically controlled brakes, transmission, and throttle, tucked into the turn like an obedient German shepherd. And so, our pedal-to-the-metal ride continued unabated. The thing was Eric-proof. —Andrew Tilin

SPECS
268-horsepower V-8 engine; full-time four-wheel drive; 81 cubic feet cargo capacity; 5 passengers; 16 mpg city, 20 mpg highway; $49,065 (as tested); www.mbusa.com

2001 Toyota Sequoia Limited 4X4

BEST FOR ALL-AROUND COMFORT

2001 TOYOTA SEQUOIA LIMITED 4X4

THE ROAD WAS washboarded and deeply cratered from recent rain. Long, thick tufts of grass sprouted from the center. It was less a road than a two-track, running south across high, lonely rangeland in south-central Colorado, the perfect place to put the mammoth Sequoia Limited through a real off-road drama.

We came prepared: The vehicle was loaded down with two mountain bikes, a 75-pound Labrador, and an absurd amount of camping and fly-fishing gear (including, God knows why, an inflatable bed and a splitting maul). The Sequoia kept its cool as we wound deeper into the Gunnison National Forest. No jarring, no jouncing, no squealing tires—nothing to distinguish between the pavement and the dirt, nothing to suggest there was ground beneath us at all. Brazenly, I passed up the ten available cup holders and left my half-full can of Coke on the fine, wide dash. Not a drop spilled. The Sequoia, still in two-wheel drive, seemed thoroughly indomitable.

And so it was, until the next day, when we followed the forest road to Cochetopa Pass. The Sequoia cleared the 10,067-foot summit with aplomb. Admittedly, we were disappointed. Could nothing stop this behemoth? Then we caught sight of a narrow, twisting jeep road descending steeply through a stand of aspens—and we took it without hesitation. Now, things got exciting: A grinding, bottoming-out noise from the underside despite the Sequoia's 10.6-inch clearance, tree branches slapping the windows, a series of insistent beeps from the Vehicle Skid Control system alerting us to a loss of traction, a dizzying tilt sideways. "Throw 'er into four-wheel!" my boyfriend bellowed, happily, at long last. It was easy: A push of the "4WD" button and the steadfast SUV was transformed into a full-blown off-road stalker. The 16-inch tires gripped the dirt and wouldn't let go; gravel flew left and right. We rumbled downslope for another five miles, rolling easily over roots and small boulders and marshy puddles. My boyfriend just smirked and opened another Coke. —Katie Arnold

SPECS
240-horsepower V-8 engine; full- and part-time four-wheel drive; 128 cubic feet cargo capacity; 8 passengers; 14 mpg city, 17 mpg highway; $44,875 (as tested); www.toyota.com

2002 Jeep Liberty Limited Edition

BEST TRUE 4X4 MOUNTAIN CLIMBER

2002 JEEP LIBERTY LIMITED EDITION

"GIVE IT YOUR best shot," the folks at Jeep said, handing over the keys to the Liberty—the head-turner born of the front end of a Wrangler mated with the rear cargo space of the discontinued Cherokee. So I took a trip back in time. I took it to La Bajada ("The Descent"), a twisted road cut into the side of a 600-foot mesa south of Santa Fe by convict and American Indian labor in 1908 and then abandoned in 1932 as too narrow for modern trucks. To paraphrase famed Bette Davis: Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Even with close to ten inches of ground clearance under the front end, the Liberty's heavy chassis and engine hammered against the head-size boulders strewn all over the steep, rutted switchbacks. We had ample room to rattle around the cabin, even though at 14 and a half feet long, the Liberty is restrained compared to its bigger SUV brethren—a blessing for three-point turns on one-lane roads. With the overbuilt cast-iron suspension (which nearly puts the Liberty in the heavyweight division), I steered up and down La Bajada, dental work intact. With my thirst for decrepit highways barely sated, I started to wonder if I could drive the entire Oregon Trail. —James Glave

SPECS
210-horsepower V-6 engne; full- and part-time four-wheel drive; 69 cubic feet cargo capacity; 5 passengers; 19 mpg city, 23 mpg highway; $27,240 (as tested); www.jeepunpaved.com

2002 Ford Explorer

BEST PEOPLE MOVER

2002 FORD EXPLORER

I ZEROED IN on an angling hideout where the map's thick red highway line gave way to a dotted, dirt road in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The "road" crossed a stream at an elevation cool enough to hold the promise of native cutthroats, and far out enough that the fishing hole had been closed to me thanks to my compact car. But not this day. No, today I hold my head high—three feet higher, to be exact—in a blue Explorer. Slapping down the standard third-row seat, I've jammed everything I need (fly rod and reel, pack, two-burner stove), plus a heap of stuff I could do without (deluxe camp chairs, expedition-size cooler, six-person tent), in the back. Way back: There's room left for another five passengers on what's an intentionally solitary excursion.

It's obvious this rig was made for pounding out miles of concrete; it's less an off-road vehicle than a road-trip machine with off-road capabilities. To wit: The engine runs quieter than my four-binger; leather bucket seats contort in six directions for custom comfort; auxiliary steering-wheel buttons activate cruise control, air conditioner, and the 290-watt six-CD stereo.

Riding in this style, my trip is anticlimactic—I'm seven miles off pavement before the four-wheel drive comes into play in front of a teeth-chattering hairpin switchback. I zip around easily, but Ford's new independent rear suspension doesn't exactly smooth out the remaining bumps and ruts; it's more like riding a Zodiac in whitecaps. Still, no need to break out the Dramamine just yet. I annihilate the washed-out talus traverses, 40-degree grades, and bathtub-size ruts and get to the stream without losing my breakfast—or my lunch, stowed in the cooler. Alas, the truck doesn't help me catch any fish—a bummer until you consider the miles of contentment between the woods and home. —Chris Keyes

SPECS
210-horsepower V-6 engine; full- and part-time four-wheel drive; 81 cubic feet cargo space; 7 passengers; 15 mpg city, 20 mpg highway; $36,375 (as tested); www.fordvehicles.com

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