Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Overland Journal, Summer 2015.
One of the most hotly debated subjects around the campfire these days is what 4WD vehicle deserves the title of “Ultimate Overlander.” The conversation should not be limited to four-wheel drives sold in the United States, but to the best 4WD wagon platform available globally. From our perspective, there are five pinnacle SUVs sold (or recently sold) in the world today: the Jeep J8, Land Rover Defender 110, Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen, Nissan Patrol, and of course, the Toyota Land Cruiser 76. These trucks represent the most pure, the most purposeful, and the most durable offering from each of their respective brands. There is no doubt that our pick will further fuel the flames of campfire debates, but we believe that our approach has unique merit, as we have driven each one of these vehicles for months if not years, and are fairly certain that Overland Journal is the only editorial team to have tested them all in serious, real-world conditions.
Editor’s Note: Many of these models are in the last years of production or have recently been discontinued. However, all are available in some form as low mileage used offerings. Their replacements are either not yet to market, or we have determined them to be inappropriate for this test.
One limitation of this test is that nowhere in the world are all five of these trucks sold in the same market, so it was impossible to test them at the same time or in the same conditions. As a result, we traveled to seven continents in an effort to compare the attributes of each of these platforms and assess their drivetrains in some of the most challenging conditions on the planet. We have owned or been given long-term access to all of these models, and each has been used on extended adventures.
In the case of the Jeep J8, we are the only media company to have ever used this model beyond a few days—we had the J8 for three years. We have not only owned three 70 Series Land Cruisers (we currently have a BJ74) but have traveled on every continent with them during the Expeditions 7 trek around the world. We even raced (and won) the Moroccan Outback Challenge in a PZJ73. Testing of the Nissan Patrol took place on three continents, and our experience with the Defender 110 spans many years and four continents, where we evaluated every powertrain from the 200 Tdi to the Puma. A G-Wagen is my daily driver, and we have been fortunate to drive the best from Mercedes on three continents and for tens of thousands of miles.
It is up to the reader to decide if our experience is sufficient, but I believe the strongest argument for our conclusions is our limited brand bias. I genuinely love each one of these trucks, but for different reasons. I am not a Jeep guy or a Land Rover guy. I am a traveler who is thrilled to be going somewhere interesting in any of these vehicles (or any other vehicle for that matter). Diehard brand apostles will likely discount any winner not consistent with their perspective, but I would submit that the effort to draw a conclusion is still worthwhile.
Testing and Considerations
Since Overland Journal’s beginning in 2007, the idea of an “ultimate shootout” has been considered dozens of times. We quickly realized that getting all of the vehicles in the same place for a month of testing was not possible. However, it would be possible for our team to travel around the world and drive, test, document, and catalog our experiences with each platform. While it may seem difficult to assemble a fair comparison in this fashion, it was actually quite easy. The failings of each truck are not subtle, but clear and repeatable. For example, the articulation limitations of the Land Cruiser and G-Wagen are readily apparent, and the deficiencies of the Defender’s tractive performance immediately evident once a tire or two leaves the dirt. The Patrol’s powertrain weakness is obvious from the first stoplight, and the lack of visibility in the J8 is as clear as an archer’s view through a balistraria. Those who own these trucks want to believe their vehicle is perfect, but none of them are: each has a fatal flaw. Our goal was to identify the model with the least amount of compromise and the greatest overall effectiveness.
One critical point is that our test only takes into consideration a completely stock or lightly modified vehicle. Modifications can enhance the performance of any 4WD, but then we are comparing accessories rather than the base vehicle. It is possible to make a Pontiac Aztec outperform a G-Wagen, but at what cost, and how much of the original Pontiac would remain? Better to start with a platform that is exceptional and only make minor changes. If someone needs to spend $45,000 modifying their vehicle for adventure travel, they bought the wrong truck.
We are comparing the best factory combinations available. If differential locks are a factory option on a truck, then that is how it was tested. Both current and recently available models were assessed in this evaluation. Some of the images may be of a model a few years older but are still relevant to the comparison. The strongest argument for this test may be the end-of-life realities for these trucks—by the end of 2016, half of these vehicles were no longer produced.
We feel the following criteria comprise the most critical attributes of an overland platform. We awarded each vehicle a score between 1 (poor) and 10 (excellent) for its performance in each category. Ride comfort, noise, vibration, harshness, and other less essential considerations are weighed in the final ranking, but the primary scoring is based on these qualities:
Capability The vehicle’s ability to traverse rocky, muddy, and cross-axle terrain, including deep water crossings, severe side slopes, hill climbs, and descents.
Capacity The vehicle’s ability to carry weight as measured by payload specifications and the interior storage volume aft of the front seats.
Durability The vehicle’s ability to travel for extended periods of time (years) over rugged terrain while fully loaded without chassis or drivetrain failure.
Reliability The vehicle’s ability to perform without engine, electrical, or support system failures due to component malfunction or workmanship error.
Jeep J8 2.8L Turbo-Diesel $48,000 as sold by JGMS
Jeep J8 in use for MARSOC NTV training in Arizona with the author.
Jeep has a rich history of building capable vehicles for global exploration and military deployment. The brand’s legacy predates all other contenders, and it is certainly the grandfather of the civilian four-wheel drive market. Early flat fender M38s provided the first vehicle dependent overlanders with a cheap, durable, and easily repairable platform, and Jeep vehicles were used in the first Camel Trophy, as well as for Mark Smith’s crossing of the Darien Gap. Though they have been viewed as lighter-duty options, Jeeps are extremely capable for recreational use. For this comparison, we evaluated the ultimate Unlimited, the J8: a long-wheelbase model designed specifically for military use and heavy-duty NGO and commercial applications. The J8 is the most difficult model to source, but it is without question worthy of inclusion in this test.
On the highway, the J8, which has a metric-ton capacity, feels no different than a Rubicon Wrangler. The only notable changes are the volume of torque available from the 2.8-liter diesel and the whine of the turbo as it spools to capacity. Do not let the small displacement fool you, this motor rips with nearly 200 horsepower and 339 lb-ft of torque, and when mated to its 4-speed automatic transmission, the combination is more than adequate for the most technical terrain and steepest grades. This configuration has also proven to be extremely reliable. During the three years we tested the vehicle we didn’t experience a single breakdown, even after it suffered the abuse of several Marine MARSOC units. However, we did have a couple of minor problems: a faulty ignition switch and one transmission fault (not mechanical) that was easily cleared. These issues caused the J8 to lag behind the Toyota and Nissan for overall reliability.
A significant advantage is the J8’s genetic connection to the Rubicon, which affords the owners a full catalog of aftermarket accessories. The seats are wide and supportive, and the interior modern and livable. My one complaint about the interior, which the J8 shares with the Rubicon, is its lack of space. I find both headroom and storage volume are limited for such a long wheelbase platform. The fault belongs to the massive roll bar, which cuts 10 square feet or more out of the box.
On the trail the J8 is magic. Axle articulation is exceptional considering it has rear leaf springs rather than coils, and the limited- slip differential is easily modulated via the console-mounted parking brake and left-foot braking. The Jeep is wide and has a low center of gravity, providing better stability than any other vehicle in the group, complementing its aggressive approach and departure angles. Though I would prefer the J8 was equipped with driver-selectable lockers, this is easily remedied with a call to ARB. Even without lockers, the J8 outperformed every vehicle in the test on technical terrain and sand. In other overland scenarios such as mud and gravel roads, the J8 is on par with the G-Wagen and Patrol. In addition to retaining the performance attributes of a Rubicon (which is confidence inspiring), the J8 pushes the payload to 2,566 pounds and delivers 26 mpg. It is a true overlander, no doubt. JGMS is the official reseller of the J8 to militaries and NGOs worldwide. jgms.com, 44-1932-85776 except U.S. and Canada; 864-721-2986 U.S. and Canada only.
• Class-leading technical terrain performance
• Excellent ride quality and control off-highway
• Class-leading road stability and safety
• Runs on JP8 and most grades of diesel
• Limited interior volume
• Limited global dealer network
• Lack of factory differential locks
• A few minor reliability issues
Land Rover Defender 110 Puma Turbo-Diesel $46,124 as sold in South Africa
Defender 110 Puma in Iceland with the author.
The Land Rover Series and Defender utility vehicles have been produced for 67 years, and the final Defenders rolled off the assembly line in 2016. More so than any other vehicle, the Defender has defined our emotional connection to overland travel; one that is replayed in our memories from hundreds of Wild Kingdom episodes to current James Bond films. The form of the Defender is definitive in its role as an icon, both for the Land Rover brand and the generations of travelers that have grabbed the steering wheel.
As an overland vehicle the Defender is a magnificent tool. The interior is the most voluminous in the test, and the cargo box has the perfect dimensions. Every pane of glass is flat, the wheel wells are square, and the load floor is level all the way to the front seats. This makes it easy to install drawer systems and sleeping platforms or modify the configuration based upon need. It can even seat up to 10 passengers. The interior of the current model is appropriately simple, but the HVAC and other controls are significantly improved over previous versions. The new seats are more comfortable and supportive and can be equipped with heating elements. Oddly, the steering wheel is still not centered on the driver.
On the road, the Defender exhibits excellent ride quality (even when unloaded), the result of its long-travel coil suspension and a 110-inch wheelbase. The vehicle remains composed during moderate speeds, though the driver must never forget the limits of a tall four-wheel drive with narrow track. Cruising speeds are limited to 75 mph (65 mph feels just right), giving the Defender the lowest cruising speeds of the evaluation.
On the trail, it is a pleasure to drive. The Defender’s articulation keeps the body level, and the damping limits head toss. The traction control rarely engages on the new models because the tires rarely leave the trail, a testament to Land Rover’s suspension design. In moderate terrain, the 110 feels capable in ways the other vehicles do not. The 3.3:1 low-range gearing, combined with a 5.44:1 first gear provides an impressive 64:1 crawl ratio. When the terrain becomes more technical, the Defender holds its own, nearly matching the G-Wagen’s capability and easily outperforming the Land Cruiser in most conditions. The Defender always seems to exceed expectations on the trail, clearing obstacles that other vehicles would require larger tires and axle locks to overcome.
The Defender’s fatal flaw is, of course, reliability; the current model managed to retain some of the Lucas legacy in random electronic failures. Certainly, the newest Defenders are significantly improved over earlier models, though I could not help but chuckle when all of the gauges and the entire dash stopped functioning on a 110 Td5 I was driving in Africa. The engine never stopped running, but I had no idea what the state of the motor was or the speed I was traveling. I just shrugged and smiled—it was all part of the adventure of driving a Defender. landrover.co.za/vehicles/defender/, 64-012-450-4000
• Excellent articulation
• Good off-highway ride quality
• Cavernous interior
• Heritage and classic appearance
• Limited reliability
• Poor driver ergonomics
• Lack of factory differential locks
Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen 461 Professional Turbo-Diesel $63,897 as sold in South Africa
461 G-Wagen in South Sudan with the author.
The G-Wagen, which was originally designed in the mid-1970s and released in civilian trim in 1979, is the elder statesman of this test (it has continued with only a modest redesign for 30 years). Another attribute unique to the G-Class is the engineering focus on military readiness: the first units were underwritten by a 20,000-vehicle order from the Shah of Iran. While the newer 463 certainly embodies the lap of luxury, it did not fall far from the tree in all-around performance.
On the road, the G-Wagen is surprisingly livable. The command position and wide supportive seats give the driver and passengers a sweeping view, and the coil suspension tuning provides the best compromise between load capacity and comfort. I have also found the G-Wagen to be the most accommodating to a wide range of driver heights and weights, mostly owed to the high seating position and elevated roofline. The rear seats are exceptionally comfortable and the best overall in the test. Quality materials are evident throughout the cabin, even on the more utilitarian 461. The plastics are thicker and better mated, the dash is free from squeaks, and doors close with a thud more like a bank vault than an automobile. Many of these qualities are due to its intended use; the doors come from the factory ready to support the weight of bulletproof glass and composite armoring plates. Overall weather sealing is excellent, and despite being the shape of a refrigerator, the G-Wagen is quieter than most in the evaluation.
There is no question of Mercedes’ commitment to technical terrain performance. The transfer case, which has a synchronized low gear that allows shifting between high-range and low-range at speeds up to 20 mph, is a wonder of engineering— quite useful on sandy or muddy tracks, or when trying to outrun a tank. Locking differentials (front, center, and rear) are activated by buttons (membrane switches) just in front of the transmission selector.
At higher speeds on the dirt the G-Wagen lacks the stability and directness of the J8 and Patrol, but makes up for it in damping and ride comfort. Head toss is minimal, and the big Mercedes feels composed, yet certainly not sporty. The G-Wagen’s fatal flaw becomes obvious when the terrain shifts from sand and mud to more technical work. To make the suspension as durable as possible, the engineers specified coil springs and a trailing arm configuration. Though this makes the system extremely strong and allows for sufficient travel, it minimizes cross-axle articulation. Huge bushings limit the rotation of the control arms within the axle mounts, a situation that is further compounded by thick anti-roll bars. The differential locks do a good job of aiding traction effectiveness; however, the vehicle is quick to lift a tire and become unstable in deep ruts, over ledges, and on cross-axle climbs. This limitation is encountered in more extreme terrain, so is only important for drivers intent on pushing the limit on challenging tracks. The G-Wagen is most notable for its precision assembly, material quality, durable construction, and wide range of capabilities, each of which honor the legacy of the three-point star and the company’s long-time slogan: “Das beste oder nichts” (The best or nothing). mercedes-benz.co.za
• Exceptionally durable chassis and drivetrain
• Factory triple differential locks
• Capability well suited to most overland terrain
• Reliability has suffered in the last decade
• Limited articulation
• Heaviest model in the test
• Most expensive model in the test
Editor’s note: Currently, the availability
of a new 461 for consumer purchase has
become more difficult. We can only find
new units for sale in South Africa, and
only as a special order.
Nissan Patrol Y61 3.0L Turbo-Diesel $57,838 as sold in South Africa
Nissan Patrol in Australia with the author.
The Patrol, in both wagon and cab/chassis form, is Nissan’s solution for the severe-duty 4WD segment and represents the 50-year heritage of the model. Unfortunately, this classic and capable Patrol will be replaced within the next few years by the hideous, soft, and ponderous Y62.
Once in the driver’s seat, the Y61’s position in the market becomes clear. It strikes a comfortable balance between durable utility vehicle and daily commuter. The Patrol, with its extensive interior trim work and finishing, along with smooth and refined highway characteristics, is the most passenger centric in this review. This is not to belie the serious nature of its underpinnings, but the Nissan has a nice cabin to occupy— an attribute that is greatly appreciated after 12 hours behind the wheel. However, some of the compromises made to enhance occupant comfort have impacted other critical considerations, such as payload and interior volume. In this respect, I feel Nissan is aligning the Patrol closer to the 200 Series Land Cruiser and Discovery 4, rather than the Defender or Toyota VDJ76.
This is not to say that the Patrol is not durable, especially since it has the most robust front axle in the group. Where the concessions have been made are with respect to total payload capacity: at 1,516 pounds the Nissan has the lowest in the test. Once you add bumpers, spares, additional fuel, recovery equipment, occupants, and tools, the rating will be stretched to the max. As we all know, overloading comes with liabilities.
The vehicle’s primary limitations as a world traveler will be service infrastructure and the durability of the powertrain and 5-speed transmission. During our research, we spoke with more than one Patrol owner that had lost a clutch after less than 7,000 miles of use. With the low torque of the 4-cylinder, heavy weight of the vehicle (particularly at expedition loads), and small diameter of the flywheel, the Patrol eats clutch discs so fast that Nissan should sell them by the six-pack. The most diehard Patrol fan recognizes the limitations of the 3.0-liter power plant and undersized transmission—we long for the return of the 4.2-liter intercooled turbo-diesel.
On the trail, the Patrol exhibits excellent rear axle articulation, and the addition of a factory-available rear locker sets the Y61 apart from its primary competitor: the VDJ76 Land Cruiser. Overall stability is excellent due to the wide track and low center of gravity. We pushed the Patrol hard in technical terrain, where it felt both composed and durable; the only limitations are the lack of quarter panel protection and minimal underbody skid plating. The Patrol is suitable as a trail machine, around-the-world explorer, or daily driver, and is one of the most flexible solutions in this comparison. nissan.co.za/vehicles/patrol.aspx
• Good off-pavement capability
• Stable on the trail and highway
• Strong axles and available rear differential lock
• Good driver comfort and low noise, vibration,
• Powertrain barely suitable to the application
• Undersized clutch for GVWR
• Lowest payload in the test
• Limited international service infrastructure
Toyota Land Cruiser VDJ76 Turbo-Diesel $52,456 as sold in South Africa
VDJ76 Land Cruiser in Chile with the author during the Expeditions 7 adventure.
Toyota takes building the Land Cruiser quite seriously, a commitment I witnessed firsthand while touring their plant in Nagoya, Japan. As I walked the production line with the engineering team, they shared their philosophy on quality and the essential role that every employee contributes to the process. Even a janitor can stop the entire line if they notice something wrong. Beyond my time watching the Land Cruiser being produced, I lived Toyota 70 Series reliability on seven continents during a combined total of 120,000 miles of heavily loaded expedition travel. The two Expeditions 7 VDJ7Xs experienced staggering conditions and not once did they fail.
On the road the Land Cruiser feels the most spartan of the vehicles tested. The interior is a holdover from the 1980s, save the new dash, which looks like an afterthought. The 1VDT turbocharged V8 is a wonderful engine, particularly when paired with the 5-speed manual transmission. The best power plant in the comparison, it provides prodigious torque for trail work and a smooth, broad power curve on the highway. In fact, the motor easily writes checks the chassis has no business attempting to cash; the narrow track and mushy brakes prove to be the limiting factors. The Land Cruiser is entirely livable, once you know its boundaries, and it was easy to settle into a tempo with the truck. The ride quality is better than expected and the engine is eager to run at 75 mph. In typical Toyota fashion, the seats are unsupportive and flat, the cushion morphing from “Hey, this isn’t bad,” to an implement of torture in a matter of hours. Land Cruiser 70 Series owners endure the pavement stretches, but we all know this truck was never designed for the highway.
On the trail the Land Cruiser is a two-edged sword. It is supremely effective on gravel roads and moderate terrain; the motor and suspension work in concert to eat potholes and washboard for breakfast. For 99 percent of overland travel, the 70 Series has all of the capability one should need. However, this vehicle does have limitations in technical terrain, which is apparent by the narrow track width and almost nonexistent articulation. Though one might think it is impossible for a vehicle to flex less than a G-Wagen, the Land Cruiser comes close. Transfer case gearing is also too high and the clutch a bit undersized for the engine power. While we did not experience a failure, we did need to replace a clutch on one of the Expeditions 7 trucks at about 30,000 miles due to wear. The greatest trail frustration with the current 70 Series is the uneven track width of the front and rear axles. The rear is 1.5 inches narrower, causing the rear wheels and axle to constantly fight against the ruts created by their front counterparts, which compromises the Land Cruiser’s stability and predictability in mud and sand. This is a shocking oversight by Toyota, and given the quality and thoughtfulness of the rest of the platform, an inexcusable one. Despite the few complaints, the VDJ76 is a pleasure to operate in remote regions. The Land Cruiser facilitates adventure travel as a faithful and reliable companion. toyota.co.za/ranges/land-cruiser-76#models
• Class-leading reliability
• Global dealer support
• Best motor in the test
• Sensitive to dirty or high-sulfur diesel
• Mismatched track width
• Limited articulation
• Limited technical terrain performance
We have considered acquiring a dedicated post office box and email address to field all the impassioned responses to our conclusions, as they will no doubt be warranted. However, the one result we most wanted to avoid was the tentative conclusion, or the “they are all great” pacification. As we noted at the outset, each one of these vehicles has a fatal flaw, from the track width mismatch on the Land Cruiser to the miniscule articulation on the G-Wagen. I find it shocking that these well-documented issues have survived so many years of production, particularly on well-regarded models from pinnacle brands. The weaknesses reinforce our point that despite our admiration for these trucks, they are far from perfect. Given these flaws, the buyer must decide which vehicle affords the least compromise for their needs.
The Patrol, with its massive axles and thoroughly livable cabin, is a fantastic platform, yet the company neutered it with a wimpy motor and Suzuki Samurai-sized clutch. The Nissan represents an excellent value, and once the clutch has been upgraded (or the buyer chooses an automatic), the Patrol will provide decades of service. The Defender is ever charming, but you would think that Solihull would finally center the steering wheel in front of the driver, fit it with a traction device, and keep rain from coming in the door seals. However, no adventure vehicle ever assembled will look as brilliant as a backlit 110 in the Kalahari. The Defender is the emotional victor, defying any specification or test result. Interestingly, the Jeep J8 is the most squared-away of the bunch, but they failed to include optional differential locks and a sway bar disconnect—not that this matters much, as it is nearly impossible to obtain a J8 without invading Egypt. The Jeep also suffers from limited interior volume and the lack of a service network outside of the First World.
This leads us to the Editor’s Choice, and the debate between the G-Wagen and the Land Cruiser 76. The argument for the G-Wagen resides with the engineered whole. The entire vehicle works in concert to solve driving problems, accept driver inputs, and address terrain variability. The G-Class has a lockable center differential and AWD, and nearly all angles are better than those of the Land Cruiser. The G-Wagen’s articulation, which is nearly the same as the Toyota, is pathetic—though I suppose it is more acute with the Mercedes given the company’s attention to every other technical terrain consideration. While the Toyota feels reliable, the G-Wagen feels durable, as if it could survive any calamity. However, the G-Wagen falls short of the Land Cruiser in three critical areas: reliability, service infrastructure, and powertrain. The Mercedes quality of the 1980s and 1990s is sadly missing, and new G-Wagens are experiencing frequent malfunctions with everything from wiring harness faults to turbo failures. I drive a 20-year-old G-Wagen daily. It still drives (and looks) like a brand new vehicle and is the pinnacle of German quality, fit, and finish. Unfortunately, the Magna Steyr facility in Austria is no longer assembling at its previous level of perfection. Reliability has given way to complexity, and durability has given way to luxury. The 461 is a solid second place in this test, and despite our few reservations, has rarely disappointed.
There can only be one Editor’s Choice, and the award goes to the VDJ76 Land Cruiser. The result is tragically predictable, but Toyota has earned the title. As mentioned, we drove the Expeditions 7 VDJ7X trucks on seven continents and in every conceivable environment. In three years and hundreds of thousands of miles, the Land Cruisers never failed us. They always started and we never experienced the smallest reliability issue. The 1VDT motor, which allows for 80-mph-plus cruising speeds and generous low-range torque, easily outperforms any other option in the category. Factory fuel capacity is 130 liters (34 gallons) and differential locks can be specified. My only serious complaints are the limited suspension articulation and the mismatched front/rear axle track widths.
The concept of an “Ultimate Overlander” is deserving of scrutiny, and in the practice of true adventure travel, any mode of transportation will do—but the question is still worth debating. Our greater purpose with this exercise is to honor these exceptional vehicles, each one worthy of praise and a Carnet de Passages en Douane stamped with exotic ports of entry.