By Warren Clarke | December 25, 2011
Yes, everybody knows that the Jeep Wrangler is a wonderful choice if you're hoping to travel where the off-road path takes you. But the Wrangler -- for all its rustic, bare-bones charm -- may not be the most amenable companion during the five days of the week that you spend enduring tedious workday commutes and gridlocked city traffic.
That's where these four picks come in.
They're rough enough to serve up some tasty, heavy-duty trail action, but smooth enough to keep you comfortable and coddled as you book it down the freeway.
1: Jeep Grand Cherokee
Masterfully redesigned for 2011, the Grand Cherokee manages to be most things for most people. On paved roads, it's the picture of refinement, offering the sort of smooth ride quality that you expect from a modern crossover; there's also that stylish cabin to enjoy, with its full armament of amenities. Get it on a rocky path, however, and its wild heart is revealed; high ground clearance, fearsome climbing power, tremendous low-speed stability and a high-tech four-wheel-drive system combine to make this a true trail-busting machine.
2: Toyota Land Cruiser
Born more than five decades ago, the rugged Land Cruiser has maintained a plucky off-road-ready ethos that's gloriously at odds with the current preference for thoroughly domesticated crossovers.There's full-time four-wheel drive with low-range gearing; you also get features like "Crawl Control," a three-speed hill ascent and descent mode that governs throttle and brake to keep speed constant and controllable over over tough terrain, freeing the driver sit back a little and enjoy the ride. With seating for up to eight, the Land Cruiser's spacious cabin offers high-grade materials and impeccable refinement. Ride quality is well-behaved on pavement, with the forgiving suspension providing a gentle buffer between passengers and the outside world.
3: Nissan Xterra
Though the Xterra doesn't have the bold styling cues seen in some of its more flamboyant brethren, one shouldn't mistake that for a lack of bravado. This ordinary-looking Nissan has plenty of heart, and boasts all the attributes you'd need and want in top-rated hill climber. There's tons of ground clearance along with an optional four-wheel-drive system with a multimode low-range transfer case; you also get accommodating long-travel suspension to help you along on mountain jaunts. There is a slight trade-off in that the Xterra -- while comfortable enough -- features a plainer cabin and a more truckish ride than some of its less trail-ready rivals.
4: Land Rover LR4
Historically, Land Rovers have offered both upper-crust British elegance and down-and-dirty trail-busting proficiency, and the LR4 doesn't disappoint on either of these counts. With a lower price tag that its Range Rover sibling, it's the more accessible choice, and you lose little in the step down; its plush cabin boasts high-quality materials and upscale design that make it virtually indistinguishable for a Range Rover's. The LR4 scoots up the mountainside like a jackrabbit, and features like its Terrain Response System, Hill Descent Control and available locking rear differential make sure that even those with little trail experience can face the path ahead with assurance. On asphalt, the LR4's road manners are superb. Its biggest drawback concerns that one issue that has haunted Land Rovers for years: questionable reliability.
Which models get your votes for offering an ideal balance of comfortable city handling and stellar off-road prowess?