Perfect year for the 4WD enthusiast's - 2007
Never before have had so many off-road icons had a makeover as in the year just ending.
The 4WD enthusiasts’ planets must have all been in alignment.
Not only did the Jeep Wrangler, direct descendent of the one that started it all, appear as a new model, but its arch-rival, the Land Rover Defender, arrived just before year’s end with major changes.
Both are much better for their makeovers.
As if that wasn’t enough, Toyota rolled out a new V8 turbodiesel version of its iconic “working man’s” Land Cruiser 70 Series and as a Christmas present unveiled the 100 Series replacement, the 200, which is more luxurious, more capable and of course, more expensive.
And if you consider the Mitsubishi Pajero to also be iconic – its ownership of the Dakar race podium does no harm to its credentials – we got a new version, along with a commitment by Mitsi to supply to order the highly off-roadable three-door.
Although it looks much the same, the two-door Wrangler was completely re-done, its evergreen 4.0 litre straight six replaced by a 146kW 3.8 litre V6.
And a 2.8 litre 130kW Panther diesel became available across most of the range. Built on a slightly longer wheelbase, the new Wrangler is roomier, more comfortable and rides better.
Diehards aren’t necessarily happy about the appearance of an Electronic Stability Control (ESP) package that includes electronic traction control (ETC), but it brings the Jeep a large added measure of off-road competence. The Wrangler’s darkest secret is that, until now, it was not all that good off-road as it came off the showroom floor, but was easily modified to become a star performer.
For thousands of owners worldwide, the first stop from the dealer was their local aftermarket shop.
The significance of all those modified vehicles wasn’t lost on Jeep, which has done most of the things serious owners do to produce the Rubicon version.
This has now mud-plugged past the Defender 90 as the best off-roader out of the box.
The Rubicon’s extra gear includes mechanical cross-axle differential locks in addition to the ETC, disconnecting swaybars and a different transfer case with low-range first gearing so low that it makes a sloth look speedy.
This is wonderful for rock crawling, a pastime beloved of American enthusiasts, but it’s slightly overkill for typical Kiwi conditions.
Along with the two-door comes the long-awaited first four-door Wrangler, the Unlimited on a 523mm-longer wheelbase. It opens a whole new market for the make.
The long Wrangler also bears more than a passing resemblance to the Hummer, although that was hardly intentional.
Off-road, on typical tight Kiwi tracks, the Unlimited’s added size may put it at a disadvantage.
Though developed versions of the Wrangler will doubtless soldier on for years, the latest upgrade of Land Rover’s Defender will be the last, unless the name is transferred to a different platform.
The Defender can’t be further modified to meet future safety standards and costs too much to build because of the high labour content in its construction.
The slab-sided alloy-bodied icon won a reprieve until 2010 by fitting a version of the 2.4 litre 90kW Ford Transit turbo-diesel engine.
This engine is more powerful, torquier at 360Nm and generally more refined than the outgoing Land Rover-designed Td5 that was well liked, but had emissions issues.
It also gets a new six-speed gearbox that provides both lower gearing for off-roading – although it’s not a match for Rubicon’s ratios – and better highway cruising.
However, its hero feature for some will be a new dash that finally integrates heating and air conditioning.
Like the Wrangler, the SE versions we get include ETC, providing an extra measure of off-roadworthiness.
There’s an amusing twist to the Land Cruiser 70 upgrade.
A five-door wagon is part of the new range, one that will be instantly recognised by the thousands who have bought used-import first-generation Prados.
Turns out Toyota kept on making the vehicle when it was “replaced” by the second-generation model in 1996 and, with an upgrade here and there, continued to sell in various markets as part of the regular Land Cruiser range.
It now comes to New Zealand with the 4461cc, 151kW V8 turbodiesel that produces 430Nm of torque.
In the just announced Cruiser 200, the V8 gets a second turbocharger and produces 195kW and 650Nm of torque.
If all that isn’t enough, General Motors announced that the other icon, Hummer, will be available locally from March.
Okay, it’s only the “light” H3 based on a Chevrolet pick-up truck chassis, but the image is right and pricing is really attractive – the base model is only a bit more than a Defender 110.
Savour 2007, 4WD enthusiasts. It may be decades before the planets align this way again.