Gitche Gumee Games: What would Hiawatha drive? BY TONY SWAN PHOTOGRAPHY BY AARON KILEY April 2004 Featured in This Comparo, Chevrolet Tahoe Z71 Dodge Durango Limited Ford Expedition XLT Nissan Pathfinder Armada SE Toyota Sequoia SR5 Gitche Gumee, according to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, is the old Ojibwa name for Lake Superior, upon whose shores young Hiawatha spent his formative years. The territory includes northernmost Michigan and Wisconsin and northeastern Minnesota. It was Ojibwa turf in the days of Longfellow's epic poem "The Song of Hiawatha," which old Henry finished up in November 1855. That was a little before the advent of the snowmobile and the sport-utility vehicle. If Longfellow were to tackle the same saga today, Hiawatha's life would probably be a little different. None of this sleeping in a deerskin wigwam during ice storms and subzero temperatures, for one thing. The 21st-century Hiawatha would probably be managing the Pair-A-Dice casino in Christmas, Michigan, and living in fancy Gitche Gumee lakefront digs, maybe in Grand Marais. And the chances are better than even that he'd be driving a selection from this quintet of super-size SUVs, a class of vehicles that are eminently well suited to the challenges posed by the dramatic climate of Michigan's north coast. Winter driving in this area—Michiganders refer to it as the U.P., for Upper Peninsula—provides one of the key conditions that send people in a headlong rush to these big boys: snow, ice, slush, and combinations of the three that make traction treacherous. When wintry conditions prevail, does a four-wheel-drive truck really have an advantage over an ordinary car? Only one way to find out. We assembled a fleet of jumbos—three established entries, two all-new—and headed for Hiawatha territory in the U.P. We were accompanied by abundant snowfall, plenty of ice, frozen water falling from the skies at regular intervals, bandito packs of snowmobiles popping out of the piney woods at unexpected points along the way, the absence of temperature (meaning zero degree Fahrenheit, and that was the high one day)—in short, excellent winter test conditions. Add in access to the General Motors R&D facility near Kinross, Michigan—a former Strategic Air Command base that once echoed with the thunder of B-52 bombers—and you have the right recipe for sorting the merely good from the outstanding. It just doesn't get any better—or do we mean worse? Our route led from Ann Arbor north across the Straits of Mackinac to Kinross, where we put the trucks through their paces on a 1.6-mile off-road handling course GM uses to evaluate—you guessed it—off-road handling. Lapping this layout told us more about tires than anything else—the Tahoe was by far the easiest to herd around the circuit. But the slippery staging area, part of an old runway system, proved to be beautifully suited to drifting, and Pund surprised everyone, perhaps even himself, by displaying a hitherto unsuspected talent for this unique pastime. Drifter Dan. From Kinross, we booked across an icy Highway 28 through a beautiful sunset into near-blizzard conditions as we approached the Gitche Gumee shoreline. The weather menu included white-out conditions at various points, as well as episodes of deep, salty slush that lent a measure of credibility to the old "road-hugging weight" ethos. After an overnight in Marquette, we headed back the way we'd come, diverting to the lakeside for a lunch stop at the Dunes Saloon, a brew pub in Grand Marais, which may be the snowmobile capital of North America. In all, a thousand wintry miles, from which we emerged with a clear winner, and an observation: Hiawatha, dude, we think you would have been happier in Phoenix. ----- Fifth Place - Ford Expedition XLT The Expedition went through its first major makeover for the 2003 model year—a third row, hydroformed frame rails, new rack-and-pinion steering, bigger brakes, and an independent rear suspension. The result didn't quite produce the standing ovation Ford engineers had hoped for. In particular, the ride quality that went with that new rear suspension—aluminum control arms, coil springs, monotube shocks—was too stiff for comfort. Also, the steering was a little too quick. And the weight increase that was a consequence of the redesign was not accompanied by a corresponding increase in power from either of the Expedition's two Triton V-8 engines—the standard 4.6-liter (232 horsepower, 291 pound-feet of torque) or the upgrade 5.4-liter (260 hp, 350 pound-feet). Ford has since made some civilizing revisions to the suspension tuning, giving the Expedition a little more compliance to level out sharp little bumps, and the steering ratio is a more leisurely 20.0:1, rather than the original 17.0:1. Nevertheless, the Expedition emerged as the least likely to cause Hiawatha and family to burst into song. What's up with that? Let us begin by accentuating the positive. The Expedition's foundations were the rigidity equal of anything in this test, and that factor, combined with suspension tuning that's still firmish, gave the big Ford an almost eager level of response in quick maneuvers. Body motions were well controlled, by the excessive standards for this class, and the Expedition's AdvanceTrac stability enhancement and Control Trac automatic four-wheel drive gave all hands a welcome sense of security during some of the more perilous stretches we encountered. The Expedition got high marks for its cargo-carrying flexibility—both rows of rear seats fold flat, the rearmost at the push of a button, and space is abundant. And in a vehicle designed for families, a double-five-star crashworthiness rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration certainly doesn't hurt. But if the Expedition is solid on fundamentals, it's soft on details. The interior plastics look a little low rent. The same goes for the night lighting of the smallish instrument cluster, and a logbook comment summed it up with a shot about "the rental-car feel" of the molded steering-wheel rim. There were also elements conspicuous by their absence. The Expedition's as-tested price was consistent with the rest of the group, but the Ford was the only one with fabric upholstery, not leather. It was also the only one with manually adjusted front seatbacks rather than power. And what happened to those side-mirror turn-signal repeaters? Ford invented this useful feature, but it was missing on our tester. The most telling weakness, though, continues to be power to weight. With the second-highest curb weight and second-lowest power ratings, the Expedition made hard work of two-lane passing situations. Its rated towing capacity was near the top of our charts, but we suspect dragging an 8650-pound trailer with this rig would require lots of patience. The bottom line: The Expedition is a solid family hauler. But it's a little anemic in this crowd. And that institutional interior doesn't work. Memo to Ford: Check the F-150 interior. Maybe it'll bolt right in. Highs: Railroad-trestle structure, prompt responses, cargo convenience, stability on slick roads. Lows: Middleweight punch in a heavyweight package, high-effort steering, low-rent interior. The Verdict: Solid goods mitigated by visible cost cutting. ----- Fourth Place - Chevrolet Tahoe Z71 What we have here, as if we needed it, is yet another reminder of the relentless pace of the aging process. Four years ago the Tahoe was all-new. Two years ago it prevailed in a brute-ute comparison, "Living Large" (August 2002). But despite a couple of useful '04 updates—a tire-pressure monitor, and improvements to the braking system—middle age and a couple of brand-new players have overtaken Chevy's mainstream big boy. Suddenly, it's the segment's Methuselah. The logbook was peppered with remarks about the Tahoe's too-familiar exterior styling and its rectilinear dashboard, a design that seemed not quite contemporary even when new. Similarly, we criticized the accessibility and "quasi-fetal seating position" of its third-row bench in that '02 comparo. This tester lacked a third-row seat, but it is nevertheless a weak point that hasn't improved with time. The Tahoe's endearing virtues haven't changed. Although our test vehicle arrived with just 90 miles on the odometer, the thrust of its 5.3-liter V-8 got stronger as the miles wore on, accompanied by a cheerful grumble that seems to be unique to GM eights. The function of its four-speed automatic transmission was typically GM smooth, and the AutoTrac automatic four-wheel-drive system, augmented by a set of 265/70R-17 Goodyear Wrangler AT/S tires with extra-chunky tread blocks, made it the most sure-footed performer on the Kinross off-road handling course, as well as in the nasty conditions we encountered on public roads. On the other hand, even with its optional Z71 off-road suspension package, the Tahoe's ride quality graded out as a little squishy for most test-crew tastes, a trait that also hampered the big Chevy's handling responses, which were a little more deliberate than most—particularly unfortunate in one of these pavement Percherons. An overassisted recirculating-ball steering system that was both slow and vague didn't help. Although the Chevy's V-8 was a comforting presence with its mellifluous muttering, its go power didn't quite measure up to its growl: 0 to 60 in 8.9 seconds, 16.7 seconds at 82 mph in the quarter-mile, slowest in the group, and slower than all but the Expedition in the 30-to-50- and 50-to-70-mph sprints. The Tahoe deserves some benefit of the doubt in the acceleration derby. Its engine was still relatively green when it hit the test track, and the results were slower across the board than the numbers we recorded for essentially the same truck back in 2002. But even those results would have trailed the Durango's and the Armada's. The Tahoe also trailed all but the Sequoia in towing capacity (7400 pounds), and its braking performance was distinctly subpar. There is still much to like here. The cockpit offers move-around room, the seats in this well-equipped tester were the only ones in the group offering power-adjustable lumbar and torso bolsters, and if the secondary control layout looked dated, everything was easy to see, read, and operate. But it's clear that the competition has caught up. And with its tops-in-test $44,705 price, the Tahoe's appeal fades commensurately. Highs: Smooth ride, good snow job, familiar V-8 rumble. Lows: Dated dashboard, vague steering. The Verdict: Still a franchise player, but no longer a top scorer. ----- Third Place - Toyota Sequoia SR5 When the mud stopped spattering and the ballots were tallied in our 2002 comparo, the Sequoia trailed the Tahoe and a GMC Yukon XLT (the GMC Truck version of a Chevy Suburban). This time, it obviously fared a little better. Since the Tahoe and the Sequoia are essentially unchanged, you might well ask why. We think the answer, though elusive, lies in the essence of the two tests. In 2002, we evaluated the big utes in the summer, with a little mud-bogging thrown in for the off-road component. This time we were measuring the vehicles against severe winter conditions. And despite the Chevy's advantage of better grip in the snow, the Sequoia was an impressive winter ride. A footnote: Lock the center diff, and the Sequoia's traction-and-stability-control system goes offline. It makes the Toyota more fun for guys like Drifter Dan, but it also makes it trickier to manage on runs like the Kinross handling course, where Robinson managed to bury it right up to the gunwales. In normal all-wheel-drive mode, the Sequoia's stability system was a little motherly for some tastes—one reviewer characterized it as "almost Germanic in its insistence on control"—but that trait made it reassuring to drive in slush and snow. As in the summer comparison of 2002, power was the Sequoia's weak suit. Its 4.7-liter DOHC 32-valve V-8 was the smallest motor in the group, generating the least in the way of output: 240 horsepower, 315 pound-feet of torque. Although that power was bolted to one of the lower curb weights in the group—5314 pounds, just two more than the Durango—acceleration numbers were still rather tepid: 8.6 seconds to 60 mph, 16.6 seconds at 82 mph in the quarter-mile, a pace paralleling the Expedition's. It also had the lowest towing capacity, 6200 pounds. On the other hand, the Sequoia turned in the best braking performance, 184 feet from 70 mph, its 10.6-inch ground clearance gave it excellent back-country credentials, and it was by far the quietest freeway cruiser. That road hush sums up the Sequoia's strong suit, which is refinement. Everything about this truck says quality, from the decisive thunk as the door closes to the tight uniformity of the panel gaps to the high-grade interior materials. Toyota has done an excellent job of maximizing the Sequoia's interior space. The rearmost seat is more comfortable and accessible than most in this group, and the max cargo capacity is tops. Part of this is due to the design of the dashboard. The Sequoia's upper dash is much shorter than the others in this group, a tidier job of packaging that also enhances forward sightlines. There were complaints about the relatively small size of the main instruments, and the relatively short dimension of the front seat cushions, but the gripes were scattered and the praise was plentiful. In the end, the only persistent negative had to do with something ethereal, suggestions that this truck lacks character. "No vices of any kind," said one logbook notation, "but no soul, either." Is that a little harsh? Perhaps another logbook comment is a more equitable summary: "Typical Toyota: Quiet, competent, comfortable, everything works as advertised." Highs: Quiet interior, faultless quality, all-around smooth operator. Lows: Modest power, devoid of soul. The Verdict: Not one of the heavy lifters, but tough to beat in every other respect. ----- Second Place - Nissan Pathfinder Armada SE Like its close cousin the Titan pickup, the Pathfinder Armada is a newcomer to the land of the giants, and Nissan's first-ever full-size sport-utility. That's why Nissan baked Pathfinder into the name. Some, though not all, of the marketing troops figured without an allusion to a known Nissan SUV, folks wouldn't be able to figure out what they were seeing. People get paid good money for this kind of reasoning, but by the end of this model year, the Pathfinder prefix will be history. Thanks to the Titan, the Armada's in-your-face front end is unmistakably "new Nissan," and anyone who doesn't recognize this as a brute ute shouldn't be driving. Nissan's first effort in the full-size-SUV realm stretches the dimensions of the class, wider and longer than anything else in this group, with the longest wheelbase and the most ground clearance—10.7 inches, an eyelash more than the Sequoia. From an occupant point of view, this adds up to a roomy interior, particularly in the front-seat area, but it doesn't add up to immense cargo volume. With a max of 97 cubic feet, the Armada was fifth of five in this category, and all that ground clearance makes the rear load floor difficult to reach, particularly irritating in winter, when the rear bumper is likely to be coated with salt and other road schmutz. King-size dimensions (the Armada trails only the Ford Excursion and GM's Suburban clones in this regard) usually equal Henry VIII curb weights, and that's true here—5614 pounds. However, the Armada weighed in substantially lighter than the Tahoe and Expedition, and its robust V-8 is more than equal to the task of getting all that mass moving. Briskly. The 5.6-liter DOHC 32-valve aluminum V-8 generates 305 horsepower and a best-in-test 385 pound-feet of torque, enough to propel the big Nissan to 60 mph in seven seconds flat, a wink quicker than the Durango. Throttle response is of the right-now variety, and the exhaust note provides a constant—ultimately, an irritatingly constant—reminder of all that power cooking under the hood. It's easy to believe the 9000-pound towing limit, which is best in class. The Armada's dynamics drew mixed reviews. It was second best on the Kinross off-road course, thanks largely to the rather noisy interventions of its stability system. It needed only four more feet than the Sequoia in stopping from 70 mph, and it rated midpack in its responses on dry pavement. On the other hand, the logbook characterized the Armada's ride quality as "cloppity" over freeway expansion joints and other sharp bumps, disappointing in the only other independent rear suspension in the group. There was a little too much noise coming up through the suspension, and chassis flex on really rough stretches. Those factors, plus the worst rear-window washer/wiper/heater system in the bunch—ice buildup on the back window became nearly glacial—and generally high interior noise levels—a combination of the engine and an exceptionally intrusive HVAC fan—conspired to relegate the Armada to second place. But if big-job towing is the priority, look no further. Highs: Tons o' torque, ergonomically sound, attractive instrument panel, roomy cockpit. Lows: Noisy HVAC, overdone exhaust note, ride quality needs refinement. The Verdict: A few rough edges, but unbeatable for heavy hauling. ----- First Place - Dodge Durango Limited Dodge has been hammering the Hemi drum in its launch advertising for the new Durango, and it's a beat that resonates with guys like us. The optional 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 generates a best-in-test 335 horsepower and an almost-best (trailing only the Armada) 370 pound-feet of torque. That's enough to hustle the Durango to 60 in 7.2 seconds, just a blink behind the Armada, and through the quarter-mile in 15.4 seconds at 88 mph, best of the pack. Perhaps more important, it powers a rig rated to tow up to 8700 pounds, and we have no doubt it would tow that load smartly. But as much as we like the Durango's powertrain, that's only part of the story. As noted in a road test last October, Dodge has given up on its "tweener" size strategy for this ute and jumped into the full-size arena. The new Durango is a little longer than a Tahoe, with the second-longest wheelbase in this group—119.2 inches. The structure spanning the distance between the front and rear axles is distinctly stiffer than its predecessor and feels as good as the best in this group, including the Expedition. It's also worth noting that Dodge engineers achieved this expansion without too much weight penalty. At 5312 pounds, the Durango is the lightweight in this showdown. That pays off in the transient-response department. The big Dodge felt quicker on its feet than the others, and it's also a plus when it's time to stop. With big rotors fore-and-aft and standard four-wheel anti-lock brakes, the Durango went from 70 to standstill in 186 feet, just two more feet than the Sequoia. Interior designers did an exemplary job of exploiting the Durango's expanded dimensions. Cargo capacity still trails all but the Armada, but all three rows of seats provide adult roominess, and access to the third row isn't limited to contortionists—quite the contrary. Complaints were few. The absence of a stability-control system made the Durango very touchy on the Kinross course—the transition from resolute understeer to snap oversteer could be measured in nanoseconds—but its performance on the wintry run from Kinross to Marquette drew uniformly positive logbook comments, as did its firm ride and nicely regulated body motions. The rather bleak interior color scheme—one logbook entry described it as "February gray plastic with deep grain"—seemed dreary, but the turquoise backlighting of the instruments at night was a refreshing novelty, and the Durango scored high in ergonomics. In particular, the tactile differentiation of the various switches—cruise control, power-window lifts—was singled out as best in test. The only element singled out for criticism was the location of the rear-wiper switch, low and to the right in the center stack, far from the other wiper control and hard to reach. But it's one of those quirks that become invisible to owners. Owners. We think there will probably be lots of them. And we also think they'll be happy owners. In addition to stepping up a half-size in class, the Durango has also classed up its whole act. With a price structure that makes it impossible to ignore. Hiawatha would love it. Highs: Hemi V-8 muscle, solid chassis, nifty instruments, first-rate space utilization. Lows: Drab interior décor, minimalist ground clearance, oversize A-pillars. The Verdict: Meet the new Boss Hog.