Affordable Off-Roader Comparison Test

Affordable Off-Roader Comparison Test

a.k.a. ‘How to Best Climb Over Parking Blocks’

Featuring the 2008 Toyota FJ Cruiser and 2008 Hummer H3 X

When living life as an automotive enthusiast, it might be commonplace to find yourself conjuring up excuses to buy a new car.  This is a frequent practice that, by nature, has a tendency to irritate spouses, parents, children and even small pets.  With each successive purchase comes a new light; New opportunities to go different places, show off to different people and even to discover a life one may never have known before.  With a true-to-history, body-on-frame 4×4, these traits can be magnified by several thousand times due to the fact that one may suddenly believe he or she has the capability to go anywhere and do anything; Climb any grocery store snow pile without getting stuck, exit any parking lot without scraping the front end.  Suddenly you find yourself beckoning to the call of the almighty gas-guzzler; The semi-impractical box on wheels that you’ve now convinced yourself you simply cannot live without.  Ignoring the ‘where the (expletive) are you’ phone calls and text messages from your significant other, you now have a mission.  Find an affordable, lightly-used off-road vehicle that can convince even the most stubborn of spouses that it is worth its weight in gold…er….91-octane gasoline.

2nd Place

2008 Hummer H3 X

Think back to when you were in your pre-school years, just starting to dream of having a vehicle of your own.  Your parents, understanding your unbridled enthusiasm, bought your first one: a Power Wheels Jeep Wrangler with working lights and seat belts.  Now imagine having that Power Wheels Jeep immortalized in the soul of a seemingly go-anywhere, do-anything mega-ute.  Theoretically speaking, the H3 is the car that the Transformer ‘Mechatron’ would drive (if he fit).   Is this immortalization of an underpowered, cheap, semi-durable go-anywhere kid-mobile necessarily a good thing, though?

Theoretically, yes.

Blessed with a much-needed boost to 242bhp and displacement increase to 3.7L for the 2007 model year, the Hummer’s five-cylinder Isuzu-sourced power plant seems enough of a good thing on paper.  When you can potentially achieve the efficiency of a four-cylinder engine with the power of a six-cylinder, all seems well with the world, right?   Uh, not so much.  When that odd number of cylinders and a meager 242lb-ft of torque have to lug around 4700 pounds of steel plus passengers and cargo, it can feel quite underwhelming.  In mixed city and highway driving, the 5-speed manual H3 averaged a paltry 14.2mpg.  Granted, with the manual transmission you can usually find the right gear to fit the engine’s limited powerband.  Plus, the manual’s shift linkage actually has quite a solid feel and relatively short throws from gear to gear.  With the dated GM 4-speed automatic pretending it’s not living in the dark ages though, it’s an entirely different story.  The slushbox never seems to know where to find the balance, consistently hunting for the right cog even on steady freeway stints.  Kudos to GM for giving the H3 soft throttle tip-in (great for off-roading), but when you finally grab hold of forward momentum, hang on; It’s like riding on an old wooden roller coaster controlled by children with un-medicated Attention Deficit Disorder.

On another hand, the suspension is downright marvelous both on- and off-road.  Except for a slightly numb on-center steering feel, real-world handling is quite good for such a large ute.  Highway travel packs the miles away with ease thanks to a comfortable ride, especially when the solid live-axle rear suspension is loaded with a trailer or passengers and cargo.  Be forewarned though that the maximum tow capacity with the five-cylinder motor is a meager 4500lbs (when properly equipped).  With stacked leaf springs at the rear, the chassis itself should be capable of much more but is seriously limited by the engine’s soft power output.  Up front, there is a short and long arm suspension setup braced by a relatively beefy stabilizer bar.  This setup, even with the thick stabilizer bar, provides for incredible wheel articulation over obstacles and a great amount of flexibility when the going gets rough.  When traversing everyday road irregularities, however, there is an unsettling amount of chassis flex felt all the way through the steering wheel and into the cabin.  This is where the H3’s compact pickup-based roots start to show, as under these conditions it feels more like a Chevy Colorado or GMC Canyon with a topper over the bed and seats in the back.

When it comes to braking, grabbing the binders to slow this rig down too often reminds you of its heft and pickup-based architecture.  It seems that no matter how gingerly you manipulate the brakes, the front end wants to dive towards the ground like a two year old in an easter egg hunt.  The brakes are still aided by modern goodies such as 4-wheel ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution and emergency braking assist which do result in a positively firm and accurate pedal feel when stopping quickly.  This modern brigade of electronic assistants and positive pedal feel have a tough time performing admirably, however, when the chassis simply refuses to cooperate with abrupt inputs.

Reflecting upon the H3’s styling and visual appeal though, you simply cannot stop looking at this rig.  Just like your trusty old Power Wheels Jeep, this is a great car to look at.  Nothing screams ‘I can crush you’ louder than the trademark 18-inch Hummer wheels and beefy 265/65R18 all-terrain tires.  The menacing front end seems to look over you, almost as if to say, “Yeah, I’m taller; Wanna see my roof rack touch the top of that tree?”  The rear end is pure H2, replete with extra-large tow hook, gigantic spare tire and side-mounted license plate bracket.  Looking at the big rig from the side is just as menacing, with an obviously great amount of ground clearance (9.1 inches) and tremendous approach and departure angles (37.5/35.5 degrees, respectively).

Open the door and take a step inside, however, and it becomes an entirely different story.  The first thought that encompasses your mind is, “Am I in a $20,000 Chevrolet Colorado or a $37,000 Hummer H3?”  GM has done very little to differentiate the interior trim of the H3 from its significantly less-expensive pickup truck siblings.  True, the instrument dials are finished in typical Hummer bold lettering and are clear and easy to read, but they possess a glaring likeness to those of the Colorado and Canyon.  The gear shift, radio, HVAC and transfer case controls are surrounded by a ‘bright’ faux-aluminum housing that looks relatively convincing.  HVAC and radio controls do not have a positive, reassuring feel when you operate them, however.  GM’s cost-cutting measures become obvious when the radio knob has half an inch of free play from side-to-side and an HVAC dial falls off in your hand.  The ‘X’ model comes standard with power-adjustable seats swathed in two-tone leather.  The leather is soft to the touch and overlays a generous amount of padding for good long-distance comfort.  The seats are entirely devoid of anything reminiscent of lateral support though, so in harder corners and while off-roading, plan to grab hold of anything nearby to keep your posterior firmly planted.  Plus, the leather in our test vehicle was overly shiny and worn, and was beginning to split and tear on the driver’s left thigh bolster.  One can clearly understand GM’s mission to make this a rugged vehicle, but it does not seem like the interior surfaces could hold up to constant abuse.  Getting past the shortcomings, however, the seven-speaker Monsoon stereo is simply marvelous, the cabin stays quiet at speed, the seats are still comfy and cushy, sight lines outward are surprisingly good, and there are storage bins and upholders aplenty.

When all is said and done, the 2008 H3 X proves to be an entirely useable vehicle both on and off-road.  Its comfortable suspension, cushy seats and low noise levels make it the better highway companion of the two vehicles tested.  Its off-road prowess is virtually untouchable and its visual appeal will undoubtedly make you the envy of all your neighbors.  The H3’s shortcomings in power, stability, braking and overall material quality simply overcome its positive attributes however.  For a $37,000 SUV, you cannot help but feel like you should just be getting a little bit more…

1st place

2008 Toyota FJ Cruiser

Picking up where the H3 left off, the 2008 FJ Cruiser is another breed altogether.  You have to wonder how the Japanese could contrive such a big, heavy, go-anywhere SUV when their latest efforts seem to all revolve around efficiency.  Granted, its design roots are deeply planted in the original FJ-40 SUV and Land Cruisers from the days of yore.  How is it, then, that such a ‘green’ company as Toyota could conjure up a success story with the new FJ?

Simple.  Find your target market, take notes, and knock it out of the park.

The FJ Cruiser seems to have been designed with one purpose in mind:  Go anywhere, do anything.  This trait is exemplified with the feeling that the FJ should be as reliable as any other Toyota product.  Built on the solid Tacoma/4-Runner platform, the 4X4 FJ seems poised to rack up mile after mile of abuse, as many older Tacomas and 4-Runners seem to do.  Try finding a 1996-2002 generation 4-Runner with less than 150,000 miles on the clock; It seems virtually impossible to accomplish.  Most of those cars appear to be one-owner vehicles as well, proving their owners are a loyal breed.  The FJ also seriously undercuts the H3’s price point.  Even when new,  a fully-loaded 2008 FJ 4X4 retailed for around $33,000, a far cry from the $37,000+ demanded by the H3.

Power for the 2008 FJ comes from a 4.0L V6 that, according to Toyota, was specifically designed with truck duty in mind.  At 239bhp it puts less horsepower to the ground than the H3, although it has a whopping 278lb-ft of torque at a very useable 3700rpm.  This mountain of instantly-available torque allows the FJ to feel downright sprightly when traversing both traffic jams and mountain trails.  Standard with the 4X4 model is a part-time transfer case and five-speed automatic transmission that, unlike the H3, seems to always find the right gear.  This is no doubt aided by the 5th cog, which helps the FJ’s engine maintain a relaxed 2100rpm when cruising at 80mph.  The FJ’s curb weight also comes in at a comparably svelte 4295lbs, over 400lbs lighter than the H3.  All this translates to uncovering respectable real world fuel economy of 18.7mpg in combined city and highway driving, and a maximum 22.0mpg on a longer highway stint.  There is also a six-speed manual transmission available that pairs with a full-time 4X4 transfer case.  As such, fuel mileage suffers substantially, but there is never a worry about trying to find the right transfer case gearing for changing road conditions.  Toyota also endorses the FJ 4X4 manual as having no issue traversing the famed Rubicon Trail; After off-roading with the 4X4 auto-equipped FJ, however, you’d have a hard time not finding it just as capable as the former.

The four-wheel independent suspension in the FJ is far more modern than the system in the H3 and, on paper, it seems as though the H3 may have a leg up when off-roading.  To a true off-road enthusiast, having a four-wheel independent suspension is practically a death wish.  Live axles, then, should be the way of the warrior without exception.  Except that, in this case, Toyota managed yet again to blend modern technology with old-school durability.  In the front is a double-wishbone suspension (can you say Honda Civic?) that somehow allows for over nine inches of wheel travel.  At the rear is a multi-link setup that provides a high level of ruggedness without utilizing leaf springs or a completely live axle.  This all translates to a superb real-world feel when traversing city and highway streets, and a confidence-inspiring level of maneuverability off-road.  Don’t forget that this SUV is still heavy and has quite a large footprint, but around town, it feels much more lively than the porky H3.  The downside to the independent, ‘sans-leaf-spring’ rear axle, though, is sagging of the rear end when towing.  Though the FJ’s tow capacity is a respectable 5,000lbs when properly equipped, attaching anything heavier than a couple of dirtbikes causes the rear end to sag worse than…well, you fill in the blank.

In terms of braking, the FJ is equipped with much the same setup as the H3.  Beefy brake discs front and rear aided by the same electronic goodies result in respectable stopping distances and good emergency braking capabilities.  The downside, however, is that Toyota’s engineers seem to have missed the boat with pedal feel.  There is consistently an almost spooky amount of pedal travel before the pads grab, and there is an unsettling vibration felt in the pedal as the system builds vacuum to assist stopping power.  Thankfully, the front end does not dive under hard braking as much as it ‘squats,’ enabling a greater level of control in this circumstance than the H3.

Exterior styling for the FJ is a bit of an abnormality, it seems.  This truck possesses a single color for the main portions of the body, a white roof, black rocker panels and wheel arches and silver mirrors, door handles and bumper caps.  Though you may understand and appreciate the throwback to the original FJ40, one cannot help but think of how much better this rig would look with a black roof, black bumper caps and black trim throughout.  This feat was accomplished by the limited-production 2007 ‘Toyota Racing Development’ (TRD) edition FJ, which with a pure black color scheme looked downright menacing.  Compared to the H3, ground clearance is a bit higher at 9.6 inches, though approach and departure angles are slightly narrower at 34 and 30 degrees, respectively.

Inside the cabin, the FJ was clearly built for ruggedness and appears to be able to withstand a substantial amount of abuse.  The dashboard, when viewed from the side, appears to have been built from an extruded aluminum I-beam.  This, when combined with the rubberized floor treatment, water-resistant seat fabric and heavily-pebbled dash and door materials combines to an supreme feeling of ruggedness.  Although it is never recommended to take a high-pressure garden hose to the inside of a car to clean it out, the FJ certainly does a good job of allowing you to believe it’s possible to do so.  fit and finish is typical Toyota-solid on most parts, though some of the controls for the HVAC, radio and windows feel surprisingly cheap, much like the H3.  The seats are relatively comfortable for shorter hauls, but are thinly padded and have too short a bottom cushion for longer-legged drivers.  The optional armrests for both front seats are also rock-hard and prove ineffective at keeping tired arms at bay.  Rear seat comfort is limited by an overall claustrophobic feel, especially when accommodating three adults.  Ingress and egress are also seriously limited by clamshell-type ‘half’ doors for the rear that require the front doors to be open with seat belts unbuckled for proper operation.  On the subject of audio, the standard six-speaker sound system is a bit of a misnomer, as it actually creates a decent sound stage but lacks any real punch or power.  The optional nine-speaker FJammer sound system with subwoofer, though, does a magnificent job of accomplishing accurate sound reproduction throughout the cabin.  The downside is that you are required to fork over the dough for the most expensive ‘Upgrade Package 2’ to get this system.  Storage, like the H3, is plentiful and there are lots of flexible cup and bottle holders both front and rear.

Seeing that the Hummer brand has been sold off to a Chinese conglomerate and for now is completely defunct, one cannot help but shake the worries of residual value and manufacturer backing.  In most markets, the FJ cruiser has maintained a very solid resale value and most pre-owned models will easily qualify for Toyota’s certified pre-owned backing.  Although the buy-in price for a used FJ will, relative to the Hummer, be substantially higher, the overall worry-free ownership experience the FJ provides simply cannot be matched.  To sum it all up, while the H3 may initially appeal to a much broader audience, it is the FJ Cruiser’s all-around practicality, proven reliability and attractive price point that give it the edge for victory.

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