Above: We made every effort to test each platform thoroughly, with evaluations occurring on five continents and over thousands of miles. While technical terrain performance is the most compelling (like testing the Defender in Namibia as shown), it is but one of six categories we scored.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Overland Journal’s Gear 2021 Issue.
There are few vehicles as iconic as a 4WD wagon bouncing along the Kalahari or bounding effortlessly across the Empty Quarter. The modern SUV can quite literally do it all, transporting kids on a Tuesday and visiting the North Magnetic Pole a month later (true story). They are used in the developing world by NGOs, special operations units, and even the occasional explorer, and for good reason. The wagon provides the best of most worlds, isolating the occupants and equipment from the elements, sticky fingers, and plumes of dust. They are also typically safer, more comfortable, and provide better performance than equivalent trucks or vans, which is why they sell in unfathomable numbers: 28,000,000 in 2019, to be exact.
With dozens of SUVs on the market, it was challenging to distill the selection down to six models. Our vehicle tests are unique in the industry, given that we do not just test “new” models but all well-suited examples for overland ventures. New is not necessarily an advantage when the goal is traveling remotely, and aftermarket support is limited. As a result, our selections are narrowed to choices with a low-range transfer case that would generally be considered suitable for off-highway exploration. There are a few models that meet that criteria that were excluded due to space constraints, including the new G-Class, the Nissan Armada, and the Toyota Sequoia (discussed briefly in the sidebar). Due to timing, the much anticipated Bronco was also excluded.
Above: Near our offices in Prescott, Arizona, we are fortunate to have access to mixed terrain and a route we call
the “test track.” This trail allows us to improve repeatability from test to test and gauge both articulation and tractive performance.
Below: Our tests included additional evaluations like towing (for most models), which provide insights into the suitability of the vehicle for a broad spectrum of overlanders. Technology is here to stay, and some of it is genuinely helpful (like the cameras on the Defender).
Selecting an SUV for overland travel should include several primary considerations and a few secondary influences. Most important is suitability to purpose, which includes adequate payload, and sufficient interior volume to accommodate passengers and equipment. Next involves the more subjective but equally important attribute of driver confidence. Confidence comes from capability on the road and trail and is complemented by long-term durability and reliability. As travelers, having confidence in our vehicle’s ability to get us way out and back is what creates the ultimate overland machine. While the criteria below have been defined in the past, they remain the foundation of our testing and scoring.
For remote, vehicle-based adventure travel, we need to be able to trust our vehicle to start and operate reliably in the field. All of the capability and capacity in the world does little for us if the vehicle stops running. This attribute will be most important for those traveling the farthest afield and internationally and will be somewhat less critical for overlanders that tend to stay closer to home with a dealer infrastructure in place.
An SUV needs to have an appropriate payload (typically 1,500 pounds or more), allowing for the reserve capacity to fit aftermarket accessories, racks, and supplies. This may be as simple as weeks of fuel and water for a big desert crossing or travel deep in the jungle. Vehicles that are over GVWR can be subject to fines or even significant liability in an accident.
Durability is a measure of long-term suitability to operation in abusive conditions: the construction of the frame, rating of the axles, amount and strength of the skid plating, and so forth. While a Subaru Outback is extremely reliable, it will not endure backcountry abuse in the same way a Land Cruiser 79-Series pickup will.
Overland travel can involve changing weather (snow and mud), washed-out roads, sand dunes, and rocky trails. Having reserve capability allows the driver to explore with confidence and reduce the chance of getting stuck and missing that beautiful sunset. Capability is a reflection of ground clearance, articulation, traction (i.e., lockers, advanced traction control), and higher speed control.
As overlanders, we often explore remote locations or drive long distances between refueling. The fuel economy of the drivetrain and the size of the fuel tank both contribute to the available range. Fuel economy can lower operating costs, which can allow for longer trips on a given budget.
Reliability is a curious attribute, as it is often both overemphasized (typically by anxious travelers) or underemphasized (by either the most experienced or least experienced). The reality is that reliability is important, as frequent breakdowns are rarely dangerous but highly disruptive. The more time is an important asset, the more reliability should be considered. The more remote the travels, the more reliability should be valued.
The following vehicles were evaluated over weeks and even months, many in multiple countries and on extended overland journeys. Admittedly, this evaluation heavily represents Toyota (and Lexus), but that reflects consumer choice, as the majority of overland SUVs in use today are Toyota products. To manage bias, we tested each of the vehicles in their ideal condition, in addition to our standard test track and repeatable evaluations. We also acknowledge that this review is not exactly apples to apples, with a Rubicon Wrangler being markedly different from an AT4 Yukon. That is where consistency in evaluation is critical, along with allowing each model to stand on its own strengths in the individual evaluation. We pushed them all hard and were lucky to have only endured a few scrapes (but no dents) along the way.
2020 Mercedes-Benz G-Class // Payload, 1,394 Pounds | Price as specified, $133,550
While the G-Class meets all of the test criteria, it is simply too expensive and obscure to justify dropping one of the other models. For 2019, the G-Class changed significantly, including a migration to an independent front suspension (IFS) and slightly larger dimensions. Fortunately, it looks nearly the same, which is an important lesson for other manufacturers. Retained are the triple differential locks, solid rear axle, a full-time transfer case with low range, and generally boxy interior and exterior dimensions. Strength has not been compromised, as they intended to fit the IFS with portal axles, requiring extremely robust A-arms and attachment points. There is still much to like about the Geländewagen, including the heavy-duty chassis (designed for the weight of armoring), upright seating, and off-road prowess. The new 4×4 Squared version of the new model will be exceptional in many ways—and exceptionally expensive.
2020 Nissan Armada SV // Payload, 1,678 Pounds | Price as specified, $52,290
The North American Nissan Armada is based on the international Y62 Patrol. There are some differences, most notable (unfortunately) being the lack of a rear locking differential option for the Armada. As an overland vehicle, the Armada is impressively comfortable on the highway and most dirt roads, benefiting from a rear airbag suspension and IFS/IRS. In technical terrain, the vehicle is challenged, principally due to size and limited ground clearance, but also by a lack of articulation and minimal traction control effectiveness. The rear airbags are not driver-adjustable, so no additional ground clearance benefit is available. The Armada remains a good value at $52,000, with an excellent reputation for reliability. It was excluded from this test due to the limited terrain performance.
2020 Toyota Sequoia TRD Pro // Payload, 1,315 POUNDS | Price as specified, $64,225
The Sequoia has been a longtime family hauler, providing space and reliability for those looking to explore the backcountry with a lot of people or a lot of gear. In its second generation, the largest Toyota SUV provides a powerful 5.7-liter V8 and a towing capacity of 7,100 pounds. Oddly, its payload capacity is lower than the Rubicon Wrangler in this test, and it is supposed to seat seven passengers with gear. I liked several things about the TRD Pro version, including the Fox suspension and aluminum running boards (they are structural, but not rock sliders). This model was excluded from the test due to the limited trail performance, poor payload, and limited aftermarket support. Additional consideration was given to there already being a Land Cruiser and 4Runner in the test.
Jeep | Wrangler Ecodiesel – The overland Jeep we have all dreamt about is finally here.
Payload, 1,233 Pounds | $52,810
There is no ambiguity—Jeep really is the first overlander. Certainly, there were earlier 4WD vehicles like the 1903 Spyker (appropriately, a race car for the Paris–Madrid), but it was the Jeep that brought 4WD and backcountry travel to the world in numbers, and notable overland adventures were undertaken throughout the second half of the 20th century behind the seven-slotted grill. However, that exploration prominence faded behind the shadow of the Land Rover, and ultimately the Land Cruiser. The 21st-century Jeep clearly intends to challenge that—with a 442-pound-feet bombshell.
In technical terrain, the Wrangler dominates this test, and the Rubicon diesel is now our slow-speed, technical terrain benchmark. The model comes equipped with front and rear Dana 44 axles, both strengthened over previous models and complete with driver-selectable locking differentials. The suspension is a long-travel 5-link coil configuration with a driver-selectable front swaybar disconnect, affording class-leading articulation for improved stability and tractive performance. Control is further enhanced by the 4:1 low-range gearing and the 4.71 automatic first gear. This provides a 70:1 low range with 442 pound-feet of torque at 1,400 rpm. While this seems impressive, it gets better. The Rubicon comes with steel bumpers front and rear, rocker panel protection, a 180-amp alternator (think rapid charging of house systems and to support winching), and 33-inch BFGoodrich all-terrain tires. This all results in supreme driver confidence on the trail.
We drove this Jeep for several extended trips, and it is without question the finest Wrangler we have tested. The diesel is pure joy on the road and trail while still yielding a consistent 28 mpg on the highway. Jeep has been paying very close attention to the payload problem, and without any fanfare, has significantly increased available payload capacity, even on the Rubicon. And not by just a little—there is a 20-percent increase for the diesel and a 30-percent increase for the 6-speed manual gas Rubicon. This changes the story on the Wrangler for overland travel, as the diesel now has a 1,233-pound payload (more than a Tacoma TRD). The interior volume is still modest, so packing needs to be mindful of minimalism, the available space mostly compromised by the roll bar.
This is the most exceptional and suitable Wrangler ever built for overlanding and surprised me at every juncture of the testing process. For technical terrain performance, nothing else in the test matches this vehicle, but a lot of time is spent on dirt roads and highways while traveling, and that is where the Wrangler is less successful. The ride is busy, and interior noise is elevated compared with other units in the test, so driver fatigue is a factor. However, trading comfort for capability is often a worthwhile compromise.
Pros: Powerful and efficient diesel motor. Class-leading capability. 2021 model increases payload by up to 30 percent.
Cons: Noise, vibration, and harshness on the road. Interior volume requires thoughtful packing. Diesel motor gets a smaller fuel tank.
GMC | Yukon AT4 – Comfort and storage abound in the newest Yukon.
Payload, 1,825 Pounds | Price as specified, $74,240
In 1935, Chevrolet released their first Suburban, a truck-based wagon billed as a carryall, designed to endure both commercial and family-hauling duties. The design has evolved extensively through the years and was sold by GMC until the Yukon nameplate was announced in 1999. There have been 12 generations of these models, and they have varied in capability, with the notable addition of 4WD in 1957. Admittedly, the Yukon heavily emphasized luxury and comfort in recent configurations, which is why we were encouraged to see the AT4 variant announced, and glad to have the opportunity to test it in the field.
For technical terrain, we loaded up the AT4 and took it through our test track and on the crimson sandstone of Sedona, Arizona. Admittedly, taking a full-size SUV into these conditions was a bit unnerving as ground clearance was stretched thin over ledges and rocky climbs. The multi-height airbag suspension was critical, offering two heights for trail use. The standard off-road height worked best in most conditions, still affording sufficient extension travel and compliance. In the extended mode, it allowed for brief use over larger obstacles, but it lost articulation, compliance, and ride comfort in the process. We also found that the system would lock in this mode during any wheel lift event. The approach angle is a notable 34.5 degrees, but care must be taken with breakover and departure. The optional retractable side steps are surprisingly robust and survived a few rock scrapes and contact with earthen mounds. Proper recovery hooks and a front skid plate are included.
With travel, the AT4 really shines, and we drove it for over 100 miles of dirt along the Mogollon Rim Road. The first thing I noted was the massive interior space, which swallowed all of my camping kit behind the second row of seats. Road miles en route to the trail were effortless, and even in the mountains, the motor felt adequate. The vehicle’s comfort cannot be overstated, even on forest roads, as the cavernous interior, powerful HVAC, and lounge-like seating afforded low driver fatigue. The suspension exceeded expectations on corrugations, rutted tracks, and impregnated rock, maintaining compliance and isolating the occupants from the tires dancing across the terrain. This is due to the combination of air suspension and the MagneRide dampers, which work in concert to improve ride and drive in most conditions. Cargo space is 123 cubic feet, and payload a generous 1,702 pounds.
The AT4 is more capable on the trail than expected, which will allow for conservative backcountry exploration. For future models, we would like to see an 18-inch wheel option, along with additional under-body skid plates (for the fuel tank in particular). The AT4 is a good option for families or travelers looking to truly carry it all.
Pros: Massive cargo area and appropriate payload. Ideal large-family SUV with overland capability. Excellent dirt road suspension tuning.
Cons: Needs a rock and/or mud/rut traction control mode. Highest off-road suspension setting has limited use. Lacks sufficient underbody protection.
Land Rover | Defender 110 P400 SE – The Discovery we always wanted.
Payload, 1,940 Pounds | Price as specified, $69,634
Few brands invoke a spirit of adventure like Land Rover, and few models have explored the globe as thoroughly as the Defender. From military campaigns to continent-crossing expeditions, the classic Defender has won admiration from generations of explorers. With 60 years of (essentially) the same design, Land Rover had the unenviable task of reimagining an icon, which they did with the 2020 Defender. Admittedly, we pushed this test vehicle harder than most (with the possible exception of the 200 Series) over thousands of miles of Namibian and Southwestern USA deserts.
The most important approach with the new Defender is not to think of it as a replacement for the classic 110, but as a new Land Rover platform specifically designed for overland journeys in the 21st century. We have a classic Defender in our Overland Journal fleet, so we are well acquainted with the similarities (few) and strengths within each platform. Most notable is that the classic is 100 percent analog, and the 2020 Defender is 99.99 percent digital. These digital systems are extremely effective, reflecting the amount of time the engineers spent validating their performance in the field. When hitting the trail, low range is selected with a button, followed by a terrain mode selected by a rotary dial or the touch screen. The suspension height is then chosen with another button. Any driver inputs are merely suggestions to a computer, everything from the throttle to the steering wheel controlled by 1s and 0s. I wanted to hate it, but it works, and none of the systems are gimmicky. Rock crawling mode softens the throttle, locks the diffs, and ensures the highest degree of traction control intervention to the front differential. Even the brakes partially engage, softening the transition between boulders. In the sand, the Defender is better than any vehicle in this test, taking advantage of the long-travel independent suspension and 400 horsepower.
For overland travel, the Defender continues to tick the right boxes, offering the highest payload at 1,940 pounds, and the best roof load rating in the test. While I have reservations about the front exterior design, the interior is my favorite of any modern SUV. The materials are durable, and the storage options abound. It is even possible to specify a three-passenger front bench. It can be specified as an eight-passenger, or delete the third row to save expense and weight. With all of the seats folded, sleeping in the rear is easy, and the flat load floor would accommodate full-length drawers. Other notable considerations are the available compressor (auto-stops at a preset pressure), 18-inch steel wheels, raised air intake, and even a factory roof tent. It is also shockingly complex, with dozens of computers and hundreds of sensors that all work in concert to provide capability, comfort, and capacity. On dirt roads, the Defender provides a superior ride quality over any of the vehicles in this test, which is a reflection of the multi-stage airbags and large diameter dampers.
Pros: Exceptional dirt road performance. Class-leading payload and roof load. World-class interior.
Cons: Braking is difficult to modulate at low speeds. Front end is incongruent with aftermarket and aesthetic. Reliability remains unproven.
Lexus | GX 460Luxury with off-road package – The GX is the confluence of value, luxury, and capability.
Payload, 1,470 Pounds | Price as specified, $66,860
The Lexus GX has become one of the overland darlings, providing exceptional reliability, V8 power, and the foundation of the international Prado platform. In the days of crossovers and complexity, the GX 460 is one of the few remaining luxury SUVs with a body-on-frame construction, normally aspirated V8, low-range transfer case with center differential lock, solid rear axle,and coilover front suspension. These attributes not only support backcountry travel as a stock vehicle, but allow for aftermarket modification to foster everything from around-the-world journeys to a full Arctic conversion (complete with 44-inch tires).
On the trail, the GX 460 proves exceptionally capable, but is prone to body damage. There is no protection of any kind, at any corner, which requires driving trails well below its mechanical prowess or running the risk of regular scrapes and dings. The buyer just needs to know that, and begin pulling off the running boards and the giant front bumper (there is a lion underneath the plastic, trust me). The newest GX 460 has an available off-road package, which downsizes to 18-inch wheels and adds crawl control, multi-terrain select, a transmission cooler, and a fuel tank skid plate. This option is worth purchasing, but is only available on the higher trims. The rear suspension has a multi-height airbag configuration which helps the breakover and departure angles and affords a 1,400-pound payload. The suspension exhibits excellent articulation from the KDSS sway bar system with minimal head toss. The multi-mode traction control system is highly effective, limiting wheelspin in the rocks or allowing more wheelspin in sand.
For travel, I found the GX 460 to be familiar and enjoyable to drive. Being a much older design, it drove in a far more analog fashion, but hardly feels crude. The interior is dated and chunky, but I appreciated the buttons and dials, as opposed to touch screens. The interior volume is 65 cubic feet, which falls toward the lower range of this test, and the plastic panels, third row, and roof height reduce storage optimization and efficiency as well as surface durability. Noise, vibration, and harshness are low, and the overall ride quality is both comfortable and composed. Limit handling falls toward the middle of the pack, with a heavy bias toward understeer. For overlanding, the GX should be viewed as an ideal foundation for travel; mechanical or structural concerns can be addressed with extensive aftermarket support. The GX shares the suspension and chassis of the Prado 150, so suspension options are numerous, as are bumpers, rock sliders, skid plates, and locking differentials.
The GX remains one of the models we most often recommend. It is one of the most reliable SUVs ever produced, along with being one of the best luxury SUV values. I would be remiss if the front bumper wasn’t mentioned, though, as it is visually incongruent with the model’s attributes and makes aftermarket enhancement difficult. The grill aside, the GX has won our affection for decades.
Pros: KDSS affords excellent articulation. Based on the Prado 150 chassis. World-class reliability and durability.
Cons: Front bumper is aesthetically and functionally limiting. Limited ground clearance, approach, breakover, and departure angles. Poor fuel economy.
Toyota | 4Runner TRD Off-road With KDSS – Honest, reliable, and functional as the day is long.
Payload, 1,550 Pounds | Price as specified, $43,770
The 4Runner is a wonder of overland greatness, combining the attributes we want in a wagon with the reliability and value of a Toyota. It is based on the international Prado 150 chassis and has massive aftermarket support. From the Winnebago Trekker in 1981 to the current 5th-generation model, the 4Runner has been popular from the start. Over a million have been sold since its inception, and the 2018 model year was their highest volume period—impressive given the decade-old model. The vehicle emphasizes capability and durability and is still built in Tahara, Japan.
On the trail, it is a pleasure to operate, only lacking factory rock sliders to meet the needs of nearly any backcountry scenario. While not as capable as the Wrangler in extreme terrain, it is closer than a casual review would reveal due to 9.6 inches of ground clearance and the general attention toward tucking up vulnerable components above the frame rails. Approach and departure angles are suitable to trail work, and the 32-inch tires on 17-inch wheels provide good traction and flotation. Suspension articulation with the KDSS is impressive, damping head toss and complementing the rear locker and front A-Trac. The TRD model provides the best overall value, but the Pro also provides a robust factory skid plate and Fox suspension (KDSS is not available on the Pro version). The multi-terrain select, crawl control, and rear locker contribute to excellent tractive performance, but a lower first gear in automatic would reduce transmission heat and heavier throttle application on steep, rocky routes. Any concerns 46 with trail performance are easily remedied by the near-endless aftermarket solutions.
For travel, the 4Runner is ready to serve, providing a robust 1,695 pounds of pay-load on the SR5 and 1,550 pounds on the TRD models. The interior benefits from a tall roof height and up to 89.7 cubic feet of cargo volume. The load floor becomes nearly flat but is not quite long enough for a taller person to sleep inside. The interior feels simple and purposeful but is showing its age; the dash looks more like a 1980’s boombox than a premium SUV. The seats are also firm and lack support when compared with more modern options; no one ever buys a Toyota for its interior, though. On dirt roads, the suspension is compliant and well-dampened on larger events but feels tied down and steps out easily on corrugations. Body roll is minimal due to the KDSS; however, heavy braking is required at speed to provide appropriate turn-in and limit understeer.
The 4Runner does not feel special because of the packaging, but because of how it endures long-term use. We have driven 5th- gen 4Runners with well over 100,000 miles on the clock, and they feel brand new: not a creak, groan, rattle, or vibration. If measured only by overland prowess, there are few that compare. The only areas of caution are roof loads and overheating the transmission with heavy payloads, and low-speed crawling or deep snow/sand work.
Pros: Proper payload rating Class-leading value (including resale). Excellent trail performance.
Cons: Needs a lower first gear (and more gears in general). Interior feels very 1984.
Toyota | Land Cruiser Heritage Edition – The Greatest of All Time awaits its final sunset.
Payload, 1,670 Pounds | Price as specified, $89,635
A Land Cruiser is unapologetic in its purpose to haul people and equipment reliably on any road on the planet. Certainly, some apostles will (mistakingly) pronounce it as the ruler of the trail, but that was never the point. The Land Cruiser is designed to survive the trail and the thousand trails that follow. There is a reason the 200-Series Land Cruiser is the choice of dignitaries, generals, special forces, and dictators—it is durable and reliable above all else. Those attributes are the same reasons why they have become favored by around-the-world overlanders for the last seven decades.
For trail use, the Land Cruiser is big, heavy, and the body is an expensive thing to dent. However, the chassis is extremely capable with multi-mode traction control, KDSS, and robust underbody protection. Even the A-arms look built for the King of the Hammers. The suspension is a traditional coilover independent front with a five-link, coil-sprung solid rear axle. There are no airbags, and everything looks suitable for a Hino truck. The components are so robust that we used the 200-Series axles and transfer case in the Hilux for both the Greenland and Antarctic E7 crossings without failure. Traction is rarely an issue in technical terrain, but ground clearance is, particularly on the 24-degree departure angle. The Heritage Edition thankfully does not include side steps, and the 18-inch BBS wheels are wrapped in nearly 32-inch tires. The approach angle is 32 degrees, and articulation is excellent due to the KDSS. While the vehicle is not as capable as others in the test, primarily because of body size and shape, the aftermarket has solutions in spades.
Overland travel with the 200 feels right at home, the comfortable and spacious interior reducing driver fatigue, and the generous volume swallowing any reasonable loadout. Even the roof load rating is suitable for a rack and roof tent. The conservatively rated payload of nearly 1,700 pounds is appropriate for multiple passengers, bumpers, and equipment. On dirt roads, the Land Cruiser is stable and composed and thankfully tuned more neutral than other Toyota models. The 5.7 V8 has impressive low-end torque and smooth power application. The 8-speed transmission ensures the right ratio and benefits from a 4.79 first gear and dual overdrives. In prolonged use, it is impressive how resilient the vehicle is, even when heavily loaded. After two continental crossings of Australia in 200s, I was convinced. While the 200 overdelivers on reliability and durability, it isn’t perfect. The fuel economy would make a ’70s muscle car blush, and the overall chassis and design are close to 15 years old.
The 200-Series Land Cruiser was described by the company’s chief engineer as the strongest generation ever made, and I have never experienced even the smallest infraction from the vehicle. I remember asking a wealthy Russian why he drove a Land Cruiser (as he was driving me around Novosibirsk): “Because it always gets me home.” Indeed.
Pros: World-class reliability and durability. Globally available platform (think front windshield). Extensive aftermarket support.
Cons: Large size limits technical terrain use. Lowest fuel economy in the test.
In just a few years, we have gone from a dearth of choices (i.e., only really Toyota) to one of the most impressive lineups of overland SUVs in recent history. Due to industry popularity, our vehicle dreams have finally come true. Each of these options is exceptional and could arguably be an excellent choice for remote overlanding with lockers being commonplace, diesels available, and appropriate payload ratings.
The Yukon AT4 is one of the newest models to the consideration set and met all of our needs except for use in the most extreme conditions; admittedly, it is not intended for that. If a traveler is looking to haul up to seven people and gear, then the AT4 is the most suitable choice in the test. Even with the third row up, there is still room behind the last seats. If even more room is needed, it is possible to get the AT4 in the XL version, which can haul a small village. The Yukon’s comfort and refinement are impressive, but its size and lack of underbody clearance/protection restrict it to maintained routes.
The finalists for the Value Award include the 4Runner, GX 460, and Wrangler. I enjoyed the Wrangler more than expected, as the JL platform resolves so many issues from Wranglers of old, including revised payload capacity and an available diesel motor. The engine made it a delight to drive and was one of my favorites in the test; it also yielded the best fuel economy. In any reasonable trail condition, the Wrangler is essentially unstoppable. However, the Jeep is limited as a travel vehicle, with compact storage space and the lowest payload in the group (we are grateful for the increase). Ultra-low sulfur diesel is still difficult to source internationally, and Jeep’s service infrastructure is limited outside of the developed world. Regardless, this is the best commercially available Jeep I have ever driven for overland travel.
EACH OF THESE OPTIONS IS EXCEPTIONAL AND COULD ARGUABLY BE AN EXCELLENT CHOICE FOR REMOTE OVERLANDING WITH LOCKERS BEING COMMONPLACE, DIESELS AVAILABLE, AND APPROPRIATE PAYLOAD RATINGS.
As a luxury SUV, the GX is an impressive value, bringing the trusted underpinnings of the Prado to the informed buyer. In addition, there is the benefit of a V8 and seven-passenger capacity. It is only that the 4Runner offers most of those advantages, the available rear locker, and a $20,000 lower purchase price that moves the GX out of the value lead.
The 4Runner is not as capable as the Wrangler or as luxurious as the GX, but it is a pure and fully validated overlander. The reliability is class-leading, and the platform is proven internationally. With the TRD package and KDSS, it is exceedingly capable and affords a 1,500-pound-plus payload. It is no surprise that the 4Runner is one of the most popular vehicles for overlanders and one of the most-popular body-on-frame SUVs—period. With expansive aftermarket support, it would be easy to prepare the 4Runner for nearly any travel condition. The resale value is what ultimately bumped it over the Wrangler for the Value Award, providing the lowest initial cost and the lowest overall cost of ownership in the test.
Editor’s Choice Award
The Editor’s Choice Award goes to the product that the lead evaluator would pick for their own long-distance, remote travels. It is not a high-score award, which often favors outliers that lack excellence on a whole. On specifications and aggregate performance alone, the Defender is the superior vehicle in this test. It is better at everything performance-related except the most extreme technical terrain (reserved for the Wrangler). In addition to performance, it provides a laundry list of overland-worthy features, from a factory snorkel to an integrated air compressor to an Autohome roof tent. The list of best-in-test attributes is dizzying, including payload, roof load, road and dirt ride quality, limit handling performance, traction control tuning, ground clearance, acceleration (5.8 seconds, 0-60 mph), and even departure angle. The Defender is also a rolling computer, with its plethora of systems and sensors working to make everything easier—more comfortable and complex. Even the park sensors tick to vibrate dust off the proximity detectors.
The Toyota Land Cruiser is easy to dismiss because of its age and lack of electronic wizardry, but that is what makes the 200 exceptional. In my conversations with the lead engineer, he explained why the 200 is the strongest TLC ever made. The durability testing alone would likely leave most competitors in the scrap heap. I consider it to be the most reliable offering and the most elegant solution to the challenge, which is to explore the remote corners of the globe. Even in stock form, the vehicle is up to the task, but it is also ready for customization to match any mission: massive axles, ladder frame, monstrous transfer case, and half- million-mile service life.
While the Defender is exceptional in attributes and worthy of broad praise, we are an adventure publication that travels into the deep back of beyond. That is my reservation with the 110. It is too new, too unproven, and too complicated to award our highest honor (and associated recommendation to our readers). We need to see a few years of reliability and durability to vaunt it to the top. If it does that, then we will print it on the first page, in bold, and eat our reservations with a healthy dose of groveling. Until then, give me a 200-Series Land Cruiser, a set of Slee sliders, and an Old Man Emu lift with 35- x 10.5-inch tires. I will check back in on the Defender after another lap around the globe.