1992-2006 AM General Hummer H1 and H1 Alpha
The Hummer or H-1 was originally introduced as a military vehicle, but it didn’t take long for AM General to realize that no matter what the cost, people would pay for the biggest baddest off-road vehicle on the planet. If you have ever seen one in person you soon realize why they are one of the most side hill stable vehicles on the planet, they are 101” wide!
Few civilian vehicles on the planet can match the off road capabilities of the Hummer. The Hummer can roll a tire over a 22” obstacle, creep up a 60% grade, and ford 30+ inches of water without breaking a sweat. Factory equipped with Torsen limited slip differentials, 35” tires, and a central tire inflation system, the Hummer is built to go just about anywhere. Every air breathing piece of equipment installed on a Hummer is vented to 36” off the ground. The geared hubs mounted above the wheel centerline provide 12” of clearance under the lower control arms of the Hummer and the entire drive train is tucked up neatly above the frame rails providing a perfectly smooth underbelly. The Torsen locking axles were quite simple in design, if a wheel started to spin, you could simply apply the brakes and 5 times the force would be applied to the wheel with the most traction. This system works great and allows the big Hummer to be a capable rock crawler given a wide enough trail.
The early Hummers were amazingly underpowered, the 6.2 and 6.5 liter Chevrolet Diesel engines struggled to move the almost 4 ton beast. Making a meager 170 h.p. and 190 h.p respectively, the Hummer struggled to reach 60 mph in 16 seconds. In the middle of the production run, some one decided it would be a good idea to try out a 5.7 L gas GM marine engine, this test lasted only one model year and the 6.5 L V-8 turbodiesel found its way back the following year. The last version of the Hummer made for only one year, the Hummer H-1 Alpha was the cream of the crop, sporting a 300 H.P. Chevrolet Duramax engine and an Allison Automatic transmission. This was the greatest of all the civilianized beasts. As soon as AM General got it right, they discontinued making the civilian H-1.
With all of its off road prowess, the Hummer H-1 wasn’t much of a street cruiser. The interior was cramped in all 4 seating positions because of the huge tunnel for the transmission and transfer case, and the Stereo and A/C systems could barely conquer the heat, or drown out the wind noise. The Hummer H-1 is definitely not a practical 4-wheel drive vehicle, nor is it designed for narrow trails and tight switchbacks, but in wide open spaces, there aren’t too many vehicles that can come close to its capabilities.
1994-1997 Land Rover Defender 90
This pick will surely get some juices flowing, but if you have never been on a trail with or driven a Land Rover Defender 90 you probably wouldn’t understand. These things work! With solid axle’s front and rear, good axle gearing and coil springs at each corner, the D-90 is a dream on just about any trail.
The D-90 was skinned in a aluminum to keep the weight down and rust permanently at bay All were equipped with super strong exterior roll cages that were both functional and just plain cool.
Gearing was available in a 3.54 or 4.70 ratio, and the t-case had 3.32 low range gearing. Combine this with a 5 speed manual with 3.32 first gear and you had a capable crawler. The rear axle was a Land Rover built 24-spline semi-floater, while the front was is a Rover built full floating design with CV style stub shafts. The D-90’s biggest downfall is the pitifully underpowered V-8. Churning out a measly 182 hp and 230 lb/ft of torque, this little fuel injected V-8 barely keeps the D-90 moving on most uphill drives. Off the trail it works well enough.
The North American Spec (NAS) Defender 90 first appeared in the U.S. in 1994 and sold with surprising success. 1995 brought minor changes to the model such as round tail lights but not much else changed. There was no D-90 imported in 1996 as it couldn’t meet the stricter U.S. emission standards, but the introduction of the cleaner burning, but no more powerful 4.0 V-8 in 1997 saw the D-90’s return. The 1997 models were also equipped with Automatic transmissions.
The NAS Defender 90 was dropped from import after the 1997 model year, as Land Rover wouldn’t equip them with the now mandatory air bag on the driver side. Aside from a short lived life in the U.S. the Land Rover D-90 has a loyal following and amazingly good aftermarket support. Lockers of all types are available as are suspension goodies and even a few power add-ons to help the small V-8. The D-90 is still fetches a small fortune in the used vehicle market, but if you want a rare, super capable short wheel base V-8 rig, then pony up the cash and be prepared to turn a few heads.
2003-2006 Jeep Wrangler (TJ) Rubicon
Let’s face it – the Jeep Wrangler is the quintessential off road vehicle. Over the years other companies have made more reliable, more powerful and in some cases, more capable 4WD’s but no vehicle has stayed truer to the principals of off-roading than the Wrangler.
The possibilities for modification are endless. Owners can buy parts to replace every single part of a Jeep from the front bumper to the rear.
But what if you didn’t want to spend weeks tearing apart your new Jeep and rebuilding it to handle the toughest trails Mother Nature could throw at you? The folks at Jeep asked themselves this question and they decided that the answer was the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.
To create the Rubicon Jeep started by throwing out the standard Dana 30 (front) and Dana 35 (rear) axles and replacing them both with tougher Dana 44’s. They also threw in electronically controlled air lockers front and rear and 4.11 gears.
Getting the power to these rock-ready diffs is a Rock-Trac T-Case with a super low 4:1 low range turning a heavy duty drive shaft with cold forged U-joints.
Cosmetically the only differences between a Rubicon and a standard TJ are Rubicon logos on the side of the hood and special wheels wearing Goodyear MT/R tires.
For the ultimate factory rock rig opt for the Unlimited model. It features an additional 10” of wheelbase for a bit of additional stability.
2005-2008 Dodge Ram 2500 Power Wagon
Let’s say you want to hit the trails hard but you don’t want to leave behind modern conveniences such as heated leather seats, room for six and dual zone climate control. You might start with a solid heavy duty pickup truck. To that you might add larger wheels and tires, front and rear lockers, a 2.5 inch lift, and in case you get in over your head, a 12,000 lb. winch.
What if you could pick this truck up from the local dealer with a full factory warrantee? Well, you can if you check the P package on the option sheet of a Ram 2500 pickup. That’s right, for about $6,000 over the cost of a mid-level SLT the Dodge boys will add American Axle TracRite axles with electronic lockers at both ends. You will also high-pressure Bilstein monotube gas shocks and softer springs (coils in front, leafs in rear), a 2.5 inch lift, 285/70-17 tires on unique ALCOA forged aluminum rims with a modified wheel bead allowing the tires to be run at lower pressures.
Dodge didn’t stop there though. They also added an electronically disconnecting front anti-roll bar called the SmartBar. But wait, there’s more… Dodge also fitted a 12,000 lb Warn winch behind the front bumper and additional skid plating. Add to this various engine management changes such as revised transmission shift points and a modification to the drive by wire throttle that makes the throttle less sensitive and you have the most capable factory pickup of all time.
On the down side, the Power Wagon is only available as a regular cab long bed or a crew cab short bed – both configurations resulting in a rather long 140.5 inch wheelbase. A regular cab short bed option would have been nice. You also have to deal with the Ram’s pavement crushing 3 ton curb weight.
Could you build a more capable truck? Sure, with enough money and time you could build a much more capable truck. Could you build it for $6,000 over the price of the truck and get a factory warrantee? Not likely.
2005 – 2008 Land Rover LR3
All of the other vehicles on this list, with the exception of the Hummer H1, approach off-roading with the same basic formula: solid axles at both ends, a simple two-speed transfer case and a fairly straightforward leaf or coil spring suspension. What happens when a company whose name is synonymous off-road adventure decides to turn convention in its ear and loads a vehicle up with more technology than your average moon rover?
You get the Land Rover LR3.
Perched in Land Rover’s lineup between the cute-ute LR2 and the performance minded Range Rover Sport, the LR3 is Land Rover’s bread-and-butter vehicle. Unfortunately most LR3’s won’t be found any further off-road than a suburban mall parking lot which is a shame because they are supremely capable rigs.
The LR3 dances to a different tune than the other vehicles on this list. Instead of solid axles the LR3 rides atop a fully independent suspension sprung by electronically controlled air springs. Rather than a spartan and functional interior the LR3 offers leather lined comfort and convenience.
The cornerstone of the LR3’s off-road ability is the Terrain Response System. This system ties all of the mechanical components relevant to traversing the trails including the transmission, electronic throttle, transfer case lock, rear differential lock, and suspension to a single dial in the console. This dial offers settings for various types of terrain including rocks, mud, snow, gravel and sand. Each setting dials up the appropriate level of throttle tip-in control, t-case and diff-lock sensitivity and ride height. If even alters the transmission shift points and traction control sensitivity.
Technology and comfort come together in the LR3 to create an SUV that is worthy of the legendary Land Rover badge.