Apocalypse Soon: We Take These Last-Of-A-Kind SUVs to the End of the World and Back
We seem to be obsessed with the end of society. Whether it’s zombies or the Soviets or our collective desire to make America great again, we probably spend more time dreaming about the end than any modern civilization. Maybe it’s because of our can-do attitude and self-reliant nature or because we see the world as a temporary place, but Americans are preppers, collectively planning for the apocalypse. And automotive journalists are not immune to those thoughts.
Of our three, the Jeep most lives up to the spirit of its military ancestors.
When discussing the end in our office, our minds more often than not wind up on what vehicle we’d want during an unspeakable disaster. When the world ends, no matter the cause, you’re going to have to be able to drive your bugout vehicle on one of our almost 47,000 miles (75,639 km) of interstate highway. You’ll also have to be ready for inclement weather. And finally, you’ll need a vehicle that can take you and your family off-road and into safety. Toss out cost (you’re not getting these from a dealer when the gates of hell open) and luxury (isn’t life the largest luxury of all?). The winner of this comparo will be the end-of-the-world-ready off-roader best suited for apocalyptic calamities.
They have far more in common than you’d think.
In addition to having bodies on frames, transfer cases, locking differentials, and live axles, all three have military origins, one even serving the mighty United States Marine Corps to this day. Their martial beginnings promise the capability to quickly and reliably go anywhere, on- or off-road, no matter the conditions.
Of our three, the 2016 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Hard Rock most lives up to the spirit of its ancestors, right down to the cloth top (a fallout-resistant hardtop is an option) and Dana axles. The Jeep is powered by a tried and true 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 making 285 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque mated to an optional five-speed automatic transmission. Go-anywhere goodies include a manually shifted heavy-duty Rock-Trac two-speed transfer case, Dana 44 axles, and electronically locking differentials at either end. The Jeep is also fitted with an electronic anti-roll bar disconnect for extra off-road articulation. For good measure, the Rubicon Hard Rock package adds extra body armor in the form of steel front (with detachable end caps) and rear bumpers and Mopar rock rails.
Our modern-day 200 series 2016 Land Cruiser would be hardly recognizable to its creators. It’s got a refrigerator and room for eight—the original didn’t even have a roof or doors. The Land Cruiser is powered by a 5.7-liter V-8 making 381 hp and 401 lb-ft of torque mated to a new-for-2016 eight-speed automatic. The Toyota sports a full-time four-wheel-drive system with a default 40/60 front/rear split and a Torsen limited-slip locking center differential sending torque to the axle with more grip. The Land Cruiser is the only rig here with an independent front suspension (don’t panic—it’s got a traditional solid rear axle out back), but it makes up for it with a hydraulically actuated suspension system that automatically adjusts the stabilizer bars’ lean resistance to minimize wheel lift off-road and maximize traction on-road.
Low range activates a whole new set of off-road tools for the Land Cruiser, including Multi-Terrain Select, designed to help the Toyota perform better in mud, rocks, or sand; Crawl Control, which helps manage speed as the hefty Land Cruiser climbs up and down steep obstacles; and Off-Road Turn Assist, which helps mitigate the Toyota’s length on narrow trails by locking the inside rear tire while turning, allowing the truck to pivot on said tire almost like a tank.
Although the basic Gelndewagen (German for “cross-country vehicle”) formula hasn’t changed in 37 years, it has advanced with the times. The anemic four- and five-cylinder diesel engines the G launched with have long since disappeared. In their place in the U.S. lineup sit a pair of V-8s and a V-12. As tempted as we were to bring a 621-hp V-12 Mercedes-AMG G65 along for the end of the world, the updated 2016 Mercedes-Benz G550 is a more sensible choice. Under its hood is a new 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V-8 making a healthy 416 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque paired with a seven-speed automatic and a full-time four-wheel-drive system. Like the Jeep, the G550’s off-road hardware is pretty simple: an electronically switchable low range and locking center, front, and rear differentials. The G-wagen gets bonus cool points for current military duty, serving the U.S. Marine Corps as the Interim Fast Attack Vehicle.
Freeway to Freedom
More than half of Americans live on the earthquake- and tsunami-prone West and hurricane-prone East Coasts. It isn’t too hard to imagine a scenario where coastal Americans would have to escape some sort of water disaster to higher ground. And those major population centers? Obvious targets for evildoers or breeding grounds for a plague. Odds are if you’re one of those 159.5 million, you’re going to spend a bit of time on the interstate escaping inland. To simulate such a situation, Scott Evans, Jonny Lieberman, and I packed up the Jeep, Toyota, and Mercedes-Benz and pointed our rigs northeast toward northwestern Colorado—7,000 feet has got to be high enough to escape a big wave, right? The miles to the mountains would allow us to determine which vehicle would best bug out while balancing performance, fuel economy, and comfort on the open road.
For escaping in a hurry, it’s tough to beat the G550. The flying brick will do 0-60 in 5.9 seconds and complete the quarter mile in 14.4 seconds at 95.7 mph (154 km/h). Flat-footing the throttle at highway speeds spurs on quick downshifts, the twin-turbos ensuring an absolute wall of torque that’ll help the G out-accelerate almost anything on its tail, even at altitude. You pay for that performance, though; the G550 nets a Real MPG score of 17.0/15.3/16.2 mpg (13.8/15.4/14.5 L/100km) city/highway/combined.
Down two turbos, two cylinders, and two cogs to the Benz, the Rubicon accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds and needs 16.3 seconds to finish the quarter mile at 82.5 mph (133 km/h). The V-6 and five-speed automatic combo are fine in L.A. but lack the oomph of the Jeep’s torquier rivals, especially at high elevations. Passing becomes an exercise in planning ahead and patience—not ideal if you’re making a break for it. (You don’t have to be the fastest; you just can’t be the slowest.) The Jeep’s 14.4/17.1/15.5 Real MPG (16.3/13.7/15.2 L/100km) isn’t the stuff of long-term survival, either, so plan on scavenging a jerrycan or two.
The Land Cruiser nicely splits the difference. The Toyota takes 6.8 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 and 15.2 seconds to complete the quarter mile at 91.2 mph (147 km/h). The Land Cruiser’s ride is soft, and the cabin is quiet. There is room for improvement, though; the brakes are too touchy, and in the default drive mode, the transmission is annoyingly eager to upshift in an effort to save fuel. That could be for the best, though. Thanks to the Land Cruiser’s 12.3/19.2/14.7 Real MPG (19.1/12.2/16 L/100km) rating and relatively small 24.6-gallon fuel tank, we found it difficult to get much farther than 300 miles (483 km) between fill-ups on our highway drive to Colorado. It’s worth mentioning that Australian-spec Land Cruisers come standard with an 11.9-gallon auxiliary tank—that’s definitely something worth looking into before the end.
Winter Is Coming
We needed to find some powder. That turned out to be as simple as calling the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The Bridgestone school is where pro rally driver Tanner Foust honed his chops and where we spent a day honing ours before letting the Land Cruiser, Wrangler, and G550 loose in the snow. The Bridgestone School supplied a set of Blizzak winter tires for both the Jeep and Toyota. Mercedes recently upped the wheel size for the G550, and there are currently no winter tires that fit it. The best way to figure out which vehicle ruled in the snow would be back-to-back-to-back hot laps to simulate an escape with our lives and our gear, imaginary War Boys in pursuit. (We brought machetes; it seemed like a good idea at the time.) We agreed that the vehicle that gripped the best, got stuck the least, and felt the most sure-footed deserved the King in the North crown.
We probably should’ve realized it before twice yanking it out of a snowbank, but the Mercedes was at a huge tire disadvantage. With the powder still soft, the G550’s stock M+S-rated Pirelli Scorpion Zero tires got it going well enough, but once that snow started turning into slush and ice, all bets were off. “It’s hard to separate the G’s snow performance from its tire handicap, but my gut tells me it would still be the loosest vehicle on winter tires,” Evans said. “The high center of gravity and short wheelbase are an oversteer tag team, and while it is a ton of fun to drive sideways through the snow, that’s not what you need at the end of the world.”
Compared to the G-wagen, the Jeep might as well have been on tank tracks. With so much less weight to shuffle around and power being sent to all four Blizzaks, we actually had to really work at it to get the Jeep loose. You can prod the Jeep into doing some glorious Scandinavian flicks as you try to lose whatever’s on your tail, but doing so requires high speeds, where some other Wrangler limitations rear their head. “All the SUVs were laying down some pretty big tracks in the snow, and when the Jeep got sideways and crossed them, it felt like it was going to shake apart,” Lieberman said. “Can we blame that on the front live axle? Partially. But the G also has a live axle up front, and it felt solid.”
The Land Cruiser was practically a sports car in the powder compared to the other two. The Toyota effortlessly gripped the ice- and slush-covered track, and it was the only vehicle of the three to avoid getting dumped into a snowbank—and it’s the vehicle that dragged the other two out. “It took a little bit of manhandling and Swedish flicking to make the Land Bruiser break free,” Lieberman said, “but once it did, we were all carving perfect Tanner Foust-style drifts.”
An ’80s FEMA map I stumbled across detailed the Soviet Union’s likely nuclear first strike targets and confirmed that there’d really only be one escape off-road: Moab, Utah, where we’d test capability where the pavement ends. After consulting with our local trail guide, Kevin Hawkins, we took our SUVs up Poison Spider, a narrow trail that heads up the slick rock of dry waterfalls.
Given that the Wrangler Rubicon was bred for conditions like this, it was our leader. “You don’t have to off-road a Wrangler to know it’ll crawl over anything,” Evans said. If the Jeep couldn’t make it up an obstacle, odds are the G550 and Toyota wouldn’t, either. The Wrangler made everything look effortless; locking the diffs and letting the Rubicon Hard Rock scramble up steep rock faces on its own cured any difficulty the Jeep encountered. “I knew the Jeep would get the job done,” Evans said. “Places where the G and the Cruiser spun their tires or had to try a different line, the Jeep scrambled up like it was nothing.”
The Mercedes looked out of place to most folks on the trail, but it’s like a Marine in dress blues. They may look formal, but they’re capable of anything. Even so, you’ll want to take care—the G has tidy overhangs and respectable approach and departure angles, but its intercoolers are hanging perilously low in the front bumper. Not what you want off-road—or while driving over dispatched foes. Low-mounted intercoolers be damned, the G-wagen was still impressive off-road. “The three locking diffs give you the confidence to drive over anything, as does the impressive range of axle articulation,” Evans said, though he noted “dragging the silly downturned side-exit exhaust tips got annoying quickly and is guaranteed to attract zombies at the worst time.”
While off-roading in the Land Cruiser, I repeatedly found myself saying it wasn’t going to make it, yet time and time again it proved me wrong.
It wasn’t that I thought Toyota couldn’t make an off-roader; it’s just its size and overhangs felt amplified on the trail. The Land Cruiser, however, comes with the tools it needs to hang with the little guys. “The Toyota won my heart,” Lieberman said. “The big boy was able to go every single place that the other two were. Just activate Crawl Control and Turn Assist, and the Land Cruiser locks up the inside rear tire, allowing the Toyota to nearly pivot in place.”
Only the Strong Survive
After escaping our contrived Armageddon, we could envision making it through the real thing in all three of these SUVs. Where it mattered, they were all evenly matched.
“Intellectually, I know we have to pick a winner, a second placer, and a loser,” Lieberman said as we debated during the 1,000-mile (1,609-km) drive back to civilization. “Emotionally, however, my heart is telling me that all three SUVs are equally lovable. I want to own all three.”
Although the Mercedes G550 handled everything, we agreed that its poor observed fuel economy, propensity to scrape expensive mechanical bits off-road, and white-knuckle handling characteristics both on the road and in the snow should put this endearing European in third. And as capable as the little Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Hard Rock is on all difficult surfaces, its on-road manners really let it down. The Toyota Land Cruiser, though, does everything the Jeep and G do. It capably tackled Moab, and it offers the best blend of speed and bad-surface handling when you just have to get away. All three are able to take you to and through the end of the world, but it’s the Land Cruiser we think would most likely survive Armageddon.
Third Place: Mercedes-Benz G550
The legendary G-wagen is a competent and capable off-roader we all adored. A little extra body armor and maybe one of the diesel engines offered in Europe might’ve been enough to shake things up a bit.
Second Place: Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Hard Rock
The little Jeep put up a valiant fight for first. With our two major complaints concerning the sluggish transmission and lack of power likely to be addressed when the next-gen Wrangler drops later this year, the Jeep will certainly be out for revenge.
First Place: Toyota Land Cruiser
We were skeptical of its size at first, but the Toyota expertly manages to be as capable off-road as it is on the road. Armageddon may not be tomorrow, but we certainly wouldn’t mind waiting it out in the Land Cruiser.
|2016 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Hard Rock||2016 Mercedes-Benz G550||2016 Toyota Land Cruiser|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, 4WD||Front-engine, 4WD||Front-engine, 4WD|
|ENGINE TYPE||60-deg V-6, alum block/heads||Twin-turbo 90-deg V-8, alum block/heads||90-deg V-8, alum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||220.0 cu in/3,604 cc||243.0 cu in/3,982 cc||345.6 cu in/5,663 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||285 hp @ 6,400 rpm||416 hp @ 5,250 rpm||381 hp @ 5,600 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||260 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm||450 lb-ft @ 2,250 rpm||401 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,400 rpm||6,200 rpm||6,000 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||16.1 lb/hp||14.0 lb/hp||15.4 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||5-speed automatic||7-speed automatic||8-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Live axle, coil springs, adj anti-roll bar; live axle, coil springs, adj anti-roll bar||Live axle, coil springs, anti-roll bar; live axle, coil springs||Control arms, coil springs, adj anti-roll bar; live axle, coil springs, adj anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||11.9-in vented disc;
11.9-in disc, ABS
|12.4-in vented disc;
10.7-in disc, ABS
|13.9-in vented disc;
13.6-in vented disc, ABS
|WHEELS||7.5 x 17 in cast aluminum||7.5 x 19 in, cast aluminum||8.0 x 18 in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES||255/75R17 111/108Q M+S
BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/A KM
Pirelli Scorpion Zero
|285/60R18 116V M+S
Dunlop Grandtrek AT23
|WHEELBASE||116.0 in||112.2 in||112.2 in|
|TRACK, F/R||61.9/61.9 in||59.6/59.6 in||65.0/64.8 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||184.9 x 73.7 x 72.6 in||187.6 x 80.9 x 76.9 in||194.9 x 77.9 x 74.0 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||10.0 in||9.3 in||9.1 in|
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE||42/33 deg||30/30 deg||32/24 deg|
|TURNING CIRCLE||40.8 ft||44.6 ft||38.7 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,600 lb||5,838 lb||5,874 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||52/48 %||51/49 %||52/48 %|
|TOWING CAPACITY||3,500 lb||7,000 lb||8,100 lb|
|HEADROOM, F/M/R||41.3/40.4/— in||42.2/40.0/— in||38.3/38.9/35.8 in|
|LEGROOM, F/M/R||41.0/37.2/— in||52.5/41.9/— in||42.9/34.4/28.3 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/M/R||55.8/56.8/— in||53.7/56.3/— in||61.0/61.1/62.3 in|
|CARGO VOLUME BEH F/M/R||31.5/40.4/— cu ft||79.5/42.5/— cu ft||81.7/43.0/16.1 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.8 sec||2.1 sec||2.3 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||4.4||3.1||3.6|
|QUARTER MILE||16.3 sec @ 82.5 mph||14.4 sec @ 95.7 mph||15.2 sec @ 91.2 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||138 ft||122 ft||121 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.59 g (avg)*||0.71 g (avg)*||0.75 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||31.1 sec @ 0.49 g (avg)*||28.7 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)*||27.8 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||2,000 rpm||1,700 rpm||1,500 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$45,730||$125,075||$84,820|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, front side||Dual front, front side, f/r head||Dual front, f/m side, f/m/r head, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/100,000 miles||Unlimited||2 yrs/25,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||22.5 gal||25.4 gal||24.6 gal|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded premium||Unleaded regular|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||14.4/17.1/15.5 mpg||17.0/15.3/16.2 mpg||12.3/19.2/14.7 mpg|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||16/20/18 mpg||13/14/13 mpg||13/18/15 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||211/169 kW-hrs/100 miles||259/241 kW-hrs/100 miles||259/187 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||1.10 lb/mile||1.44 lb/mile||1.31 lb/mile|