27 automotive writers have two days to judge 27 vehicles.
It’s not news anymore that sport utility vehicles and crossovers are the vehicles that Americans prefer. The Northwest Automotive Press Association was onto the trend long before it was one, starting an Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year competition in 1994. Back then, SUVs were truck-based vehicles and “crossover” was an aerobics move.
Although affectionately nicknamed Mudfest, the event this year was a little short of the sloppy stuff. The competition was knee-deep, though.
Held a few months back at Ridge Motorsports Park in Shelton, Washington, the event attracted 27 automotive writers to evaluate 27 vehicles. There were six categories, including “Best Family,” “Best Premium” and “Best Pickup,” which was recently added. One vehicle would be anointed the 2017 Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year.
Mudfest is my Christmas. First and foremost, I find invaluable the ability to jump from a Toyota 4Runner to a Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, then to a Nissan Armada. It means the experience is fresh in my head instead of weeks between vehicles.
There was a specific on-road handling circuit and two off-road courses (one moderate, the other extreme). These gave my comrades and me the ability to clearly understand and compare individual vehicle dynamics. Part of the road handling course was on a go-kart track. You haven’t lived until you’ve pushed a Ford F-150 Raptor through one of those.
Not so fast, pal
My initial angle on this article was to forecast the winners in each category, write them on a sheet of paper and give it to the president of the automotive association, John Vincent, in a sealed envelope. I had already driven many of the vehicles and was feeling pretty cocky until I looked at the full roster.
I chickened out. Here’s why.
With 27 writers, there will be disagreements on the strengths these vehicles should have. The compact utility vehicle segment is a good example. Some journalists believe that off-road prowess is critical and will vote for the Jeep Compass Trailhawk. But since few owners actually drive these vehicles on a dirt road, it’s logical to choose the “sports car” of the group, the Mazda CX-5. Others might cast their ballots for the fuel efficiency that the Nissan Rogue Hybrid offers. Truth be told, I figured that the Honda CR-V would be the all-star and win in this class, if not the whole competition. There. I’ve admitted that much.
Day 1: On the road
Day 1 was spent assessing the on-road ability of each vehicle. There’s a wide performance spectrum here. Naturally, the performance-oriented BMW X4 M40i provided the lowest zero-to-60-mph times, while the Mitsubishi Outlander excelled in the lowest-monthly-payment department. Back to the Ford Raptor pickup, it’s remarkable how composed a big Baja-runner can be when pushed hard by crazed automotive journalists. That was my surprise of the day.
In addition to sections designed to measure acceleration, braking and cornering, there was also a parking box to show off the around-view camera systems on some of the rigs.
Manufacturers’ representatives made sure none of us missed the latest in features and technology. Want to drop the last two rows of seats in Land Rover’s new Discovery? It can be done with a smartphone app. With that done, the cargo hold accommodates two average adults in sleeping bags (or just one if you bring a Discovery home without clearing it with your spouse).
Day 2: Off the road
On Day 2, the group took to the off-road courses. The easy course mimics a rugged Forest Service road and every vehicle aced it, even the X4 and Mini Countryman. You may consider them “soft roaders,” but the Nissan Pathfinder as well as the Toyota RAV4 and Highlander will get your family to the trailhead without drama.
The Subaru Forester, Kia Sportage and Volvo V90 Cross Country successfully tackled the hill descent control challenge — a steep drop that most owners would shy away from. Their teenagers might not, though. That’s why you buy them a beater car.
The Extreme Capability category was an eye-opener. The Jeep Wrangler Trailstorm, Land Rover Discovery and Toyota 4Runner TRD all crushed the toughest course without breathing hard. But with an avalanche bearing down on me, I’d jump in the Discovery without a second thought. The simplicity and elegance of the controls that select the all-wheel-drive modes made it my clear choice. It might cost nearly twice as much as the Toyota, but I’d be alive to pay for it.
And for those who think the unibody Honda Ridgeline pickup is a truck wannabe, it tackled the extreme course just fine.
After two days, we gathered up our opinions of design, technology, performance and fuel-efficiency and cast our votes. Just remember to use our choices as a guide, not a bible, when you’re shopping.