There are a few occupational hazards related to evaluating the automakers' newest trucks and SUVs. Bangs, bruises, tickets, and tantrums...and that's just dinner after a long day of putting vehicles through their paces. Jokes aside, we're professionals...no, really... and we take great care to push the envelope without careening over the edge so that we can understand what it is that makes the latest trucks and SUVs tick.
Granted, we did learn (or re-learn) some lessons over the course of our Truck and SUV of the Year evaluation period. 1) Budget accommodations are not economical, they're cheap. 2) Four-wheel-drive-low and the words "sport utility vehicle" do not impart upon a vehicle the magical ability to float unscathed over rocks and ruts. 3) Big trucks can still get stuck in the dirt. 4) Careening across surf and dunes may very well curse future drivers of that pickup with sandy hell, no matter how many times we wash it before giving it back to the manufacturer.
We set aside two weeks in September to collect hard numbers and driving impressions of eight '06 models: the Dodge Ram 1500 Mega Cab SLT 4x4, the Isuzu I-350 Crew Cab 4WD LS, the Lincoln Mark LT 4x4 Lariat, the Mitsubishi Raider 4WD Durocross Double Cab, the Chevrolet TrailBlazer SS, the Ford Explorer Limited 4X4, the Jeep Commander Limited 4X4, and the Subaru B9 Tribeca.
In the process, these vehicles got the Southern California treatment: They endured the grinding monotony of stop-and-go commutes, weekend motoring from beaches to mountain tops, roughhousing at the Hungry Valley off-road park near the infamous Grapevine, 1/4-mile radar runs at Camarillo Airport, and a three-day road trip that wound through Santa Barbara, Solvang, Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, the Central Valley, and back home.
Each of us took turns behind the wheel of every vehicle, took notes, and took some grief as we "debated" over which two vehicles would be the '06 Truck and SUV of the Year. Want to know who won? Read on through the following eight write-ups of this year's contenders.