2021 SUV OF THE YEAR
Four Wheeler|May 2021
Enter the battleground
Jason Gonderman

It’s that time of year again; time to crown our 2021 Four Wheeler SUV of the Year. The journey that embarks on the following pages is the culmination of hundreds of hours of hard work that encompasses several months of pre-event planning. The days spent testing are long and the nights often seem longer. We are up before sunrise and work until the last light leaves us. Our team is tasked to work tirelessly, oftentimes in the harshest conditions Mother Nature can dish out. Nothing can weaken our resolve.

Our judging panel is comprised of some of the most knowledgeable minds in the off-road industry. They come to us with backgrounds in off-road, diesel, lifted, new, and classic off-road vehicles. This ensures that our judging staff is just as diverse as the vehicles that we’re testing. We all eat, sleep, and breathe off-road.

This year’s test was unlike that of any year prior, held in a time where the world has been plunged into the darkness of a global pandemic. To keep everyone safe and healthy, we kept our staff to the bare minimum, avoided unnecessary ventures into public spaces, invested heavily in personal protective equipment, and constantly sanitized vehicles and equipment. And while mask wearing was mandatory during testing, you can be assured that if someone is spotted in photos without, they were physically distanced from others.

For our 2021 SUV of the Year competition, we invited all models that were either all-new or significantly updated for the 2021 model year and available to us at the time of testing. Four manufacturers accepted the invitation, sending a total of four SUVs for testing.

Each of these vehicles brought with it a unique skill set, and they were all impressive to our staff in one area or another. However, in the end, only one could take home the coveted trophy. The winner showed exceptional performance in each of the tested criteria, and never left our panel of judges disappointed. What’s new with these SUVs? How did the SUVs perform on- and off-road? Which SUV scored the highest? Read on to find out.

Fourth Place: Land Rover Defender 110

After a decades-long hiatus, Land Rover has finally returned the Defender nameplate to the U.S. market with the all-new ’20 Land Rover Defender 110. Because of the vehicle’s late introduction, although it qualified for our 2020 SUV of the Year test, none were available at test time. Because of this, the Defender remained eligible in 2021.

It was no secret that going into the 2021 SUV of the Year test, the Defender was the clear front runner. Read on to see how it fared.

Ramp and Track

The Land Rover Defender came to us equipped with the company’s 3.0L I-6 gasoline engine. This engine, equipped with a twin-scroll turbocharger and 48V electric supercharger, pumps out an impressive 395 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque. Despite being the vehicle with the smallest engine displacement, and the only one without a V-8, the Defender made the most horsepower and torque. The Defender also had the lowest curb weight at just 5,035 pounds. As such, the Defender smoked the competition on the track by racing from 0-60 mph in just 6.49 seconds and running through the quarter-mile in 14.95 seconds at 95.9 mph. The Defender was able to rein in all of that speed going from 60 mph to a standstill in just 124.23 feet.

On the 22-degree RTI ramp, the four-wheel independently suspended Defender climbed 57.75 inches before losing traction, for a score of 443.08 with the air suspension in normal ride height. Pumped up to off-road height, 2 inches above normal, the Defender climbed to 57.50 inches, an ever so slight decrease. This resulted in an RTI score of 441.16.

Interior and Exterior

Our judges were all over the map when it came to judging the interior and exterior of the Defender. No one was surprised by the overall complexity of what should have been the most basic of vehicle tasks. For example, there was only one person on the judging panel that knew how to reset the trip odometer, and this was only because he has spent a couple of years driving late-model Land Rovers. Our judges panned the infotainment system as overly complicated for use while driving, noting that the controls were tucked inconveniently behind the shift lever. Other judges noted that the interior felt “cheap” while some noted that it was difficult to find a comfortable driving position.

Coming from an openly off-road biased point of view, the exterior was noted as simply not living up to the Defender lineage. The vehicle was seen as being soft in all the wrong places. Really more of a “modern hipster” version of the classic Defender. Our judges really appreciated the functionality of the headlights and the availability of rear-facing foglights. When it comes to recovery points, our judges took off points for the front tow point being essentially underneath the vehicle and behind the bumper fascia, while the rear only had a trailer hitch receiver.

On the Highway

On paper, highway performance should have been a strong suit of the Defender. It’s got tons of power, grippy tires, and a fancy air suspension. However, many of our judges found the steering and braking to be far too heavy and the suspension to be overly stiff. The braking especially frustrated our judges as it was so over boosted that it made us all feel like first-time drivers. Directional stability was also called out as being far too “twitchy.” Forward visibility was quite good; however, side and rear are less than ideal. The vehicle came equipped with a rearview camera monitor to help with this, but some of our judges are old-school and couldn’t quite get used to the view.

When the Pavement Ends

Off-road is where the Defender should have really shined. And, in general, it was quite impressive. We’ve come to really enjoy the point-and-shoot ability of the current lineup of Land Rover vehicles. And we’re accustomed to the fact that the suspension is going to flex like a sheet of plywood. The Defender is no exception, lifting a wheel high into the sky on even the smallest obstacles. These high-flying tire antics are no issue, however, as the vehicle’s traction control system works to effortlessly maintain forward momentum.

The biggest gripes from our judges came from the myriad of electronic controls and nannies. The Defender uses Land Rover’s new Pivi Pro infotainment system to control everything from the stereo to the HVAC, and even the suspension and drive modes. While a good idea in theory, we had several judges who never even found how to adjust the vehicle’s different drive modes, as it was a multi-step process. We also had the Pivi Pro screen go black on us for several hours, which was a huge issue because without it you can’t adjust the aforementioned drive modes, among many other things.

While the Defender was the only vehicle in the test with a locking rear differential, selecting when to use it was left up to the vehicle. We had issues with the vehicle jerking violently to one side when the locker engaged in sand washes, and also found it to have issues maintaining axle lock during long hillclimbs. A simple, user-selectable axle lock button would alleviate all of this.

We also struggled to find a way to shut off, or in any way diminish, the traction and stability control nannies. This meant that sand driving was a chore and sliding the vehicle in any manner was frowned upon.

The Defender went everywhere and did everything, but it wasn’t the pleasant and relaxing wheeling we’re used to from Land Rover and Range Rover. And for a vehicle wearing the Defender badge, that was a shame.

Bottom Line

In short, the general consensus among the judges is that the Land Rover Defender would have made for an excellent Discovery replacement. While it’s powerful on the highway and immensely capable off-road, our judges found too many points of contention and in the end the scoring landed the Defender in the number four position.

Third Place: Toyota Sequoia TRD Pro

GO-FAST, OFF-ROAD SUSPENSION ON A THREE-ROW FAMILY HAULER.

The Toyota Sequoia TRD Pro was the oldest in this year’s test. While the other three vehicles were all-new, the Sequoia has been around in largely this same configuration since the 2008 model year. Making the Sequoia eligible for the 2021 SUV of the Year test is the addition of the desert-oriented TRD Pro off-road suspension package. The TRD Pro package brings with it 2.5-inch Fox internal bypass shocks for the front and 2.0-inch Fox monotube shocks for the rear suspension. Also included in the TRD Pro package are foglights from Rigid Industries, black TRD 18x8 forged BBS wheels, a burly front skid plate, and cast-aluminum running boards.

Since the TRD Pro package was late availability in 2020, its eligibility carried over to our 2021 SUV of the Year test. Because of its age alone, our judges had their reservations about how the Sequoia would perform. These reservations were dispelled as soon as we set off.

Ramp and Track

The Toyota Sequoia TRD Pro is offered with just one choice of engine and transmission. Providing the motivation is Toyota’s tried and true 5.7L iForce V-8 engine, which produces 381 hp and 401 lb-ft of torque. Backing this is a, basic by today’s standards, six-speed automatic transmission. Four-wheel drive is also standard on TRD Pro models and features a center differential lock (though the diffs remain open).

With plenty of power on tap, and despite being the heaviest competitor with an estimated curb weight of 5,985 pounds, the Sequoia TRD Pro was able to run from 0-60 mph in just 7.23 seconds. The full-size SUV also put down a quarter-mile pass in 15.65 seconds at 91.70 mph. Braking was solid as well, with the Sequoia able to scrub speed quickly and decelerate from 60-0 mph in 128.33 feet.

The Sequoia TRD Pro was the only vehicle in our field to not come to us equipped with adjustable air suspension. It was, however, equipped with a fully independent suspension, like the other competitors. On the 22-degree RTI ramp, the Sequoia was able to climb 47 inches before losing traction. This netted the Sequoia a score of 351.74, which while not the best also wasn’t the worst of the bunch.

Interior and Exterior

When it comes to showing its true age, the Sequoia’s styling is its biggest tell. Our judges almost universally agreed that while the interior was extremely comfortable, the abundant use of hard plastics made it feel in a way “cheap.” Wrapping a few panels in leather and adding soft touch points would go a long way in modernizing the vehicle. Other complaints revolved around the sheer volume of buttons and knobs found scattered around the cockpit. While we all agree that physical buttons and knobs beat capacitive touch points, there may just be too many in the Sequoia.

The positives really outweighed the negatives in most regards. Our judges praised the Sequoia’s exceedingly comfortable seats, often comparing them to a favorite old recliner. There were also compliments on how wide the door openings were, making it quite easy to get in and out of both the front and rear doors. We also found it very easy to get into the rear seats, all of them. One of our taller judges noted how great the legroom was in the Sequoia. We also loved all of the storage space.

The exterior saw generally favorable remarks, with judges liking everything from the look of the TRD Pro-specific grille to the black BBS wheels, and even the roof rack garnered praise. People loved the look and function of the Rigid foglights. And it has good tow points, with a pair of hooks in the front and rear trailer hitch. The only real complaint revolved around the vehicle’s profile look, which stands out more as something you’d see in the carpool lane than on the trail.

On the Highway

The Sequoia TRD Pro really stood out on the highway. The V-8 engine made great power, and the transmission was very smooth shifting. Our judges really enjoyed the highway ride quality, as well. While some judges had a hard time finding a comfortable angle for the steering wheel, all agreed that the steering feel was right on-point: not too heavy and not too light. The Sequoia had great directional stability on the highway and was maneuverable enough to easily park in tight lots. Lackluster fuel economy from the big V-8 engine and six-speed transmission was really the only negative observed.

When the Pavement Ends

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