Each year for the last 25 years, the Northwest Automotive Press Association gathers the latest SUVS, crossovers and pickup trucks to determine the top utility vehicles during an event commonly referred to as Mudfest. This year 25 automotive journalists from the Pacific Northwest region participated in two days of vehicle testing under all types of on- and off-road terrain. Since pickup trucks reign as the best-selling vehicles in America each year — and considering their popularity among drivers in the Pacific Northwest — the pickup category joined the mix in 2015.
A total of 22 vehicles in six categories entered the competition for 2019, ranging from small crossovers to full-size off-road-prepped pickup trucks. Despite the wide vehicle range, the all-new Jeep Gladiator pickup truck emerged as the overall winner, named 2019 Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year. Before the top prize could be awarded, all vehicles endured testing at the hands of more than two dozen NWAPA journalists. Here’s how the event went down, and which vehicles emerged at the top of their respective categories.
All vehicles competing in Mudfest get divided into six categories: Subcompact and Compact Family SUV, Mid-and Full-Size Family SUV, Compact and Midsize Luxury SUV, Full-Size Luxury SUV, Extreme Capability and Pickup Truck. Participating vehicles are either all-new or recently redesigned. A winner gets chosen for each category, and finally an overall winner emerges.
Vehicle assessment takes place over two days at The Ridge Motorsports Park in Shelton, Washington. Day One testing occurs on pavement, where event participants evaluate each vehicle in terms of handling, comfort, ease of parking and several other criteria. Day Two puts vehicles through their paces on a custom off-road course of dirt and mud.
To assess how these vehicles handle on paved roads, journalists take each vehicle for a lap of The Ridge’s technical go-kart track. On track the drivers experience vehicle acceleration, emergency braking, cornering and quick maneuvers on a closed course. With several elevation changes and some tight corners, the course approximates real-world situations the vehicles might encounter in the hands of a consumer.
SUVs and trucks tend to have a higher center of gravity than most cars, and in some cases considerably more mass, so driving through a slalom can be quite revealing. The slalom helps assess how the all-wheel drive and stability control function when a driver must make sudden changes of direction. The smaller carlike crossovers tend to shine in this test.
Backing larger vehicles into tight parking spaces can be a challenge, so parking ease is also part of NWAPA’s Mudfest scoring process. Every new model tested offers some type of backup camera — and in some cases multiple cameras — which makes the task considerably easier, especially for larger vehicles.
Interior Comfort and Convenience
Since crossovers, SUVs and even pickup trucks are often chosen as primary family vehicles, interior features and comfort are important. Vehicles undergo assessment for rear-seat space as well as cargo-carrying ability.
After a rather warm and relatively dry start to spring in the Pacific Northwest, this year’s event could have been nicknamed “Dustfest.” Despite the lack of sticky goo that aptly sums up this annual evaluation, the course design for 2019 showcased not only vehicle capability but also comfort and stability when the pavement ends. Since the vehicles tested offer varying levels of capability, two courses were available — one that would challenge typical crossovers, as well as a more difficult route for vehicles with extreme capability.
Designed for vehicles with lower ground clearance, the lighter course still provided some challenges with inclines and declines on loose soil, rough surfaces and a section of slick logs that properly tested the all-wheel-drive systems and suspension.
When evaluating vehicles offering more off-road capability, participating journalists drove a technical course containing logs and boulders to traverse, as well as steep hills to descend and climb to test a vehicle’s ability to handle steep angles on loose surfaces. Vehicles capable of taking on this tougher course were eligible to earn the Extreme Capability trophy.
Best Subcompact and Compact Family SUV — 2019 Subaru Forester
Price as tested: $31,815
All new for the 2019 model year, the Subaru Forester is the roomiest version ever offered with a 1.2-inch-longer wheelbase, more rear-seat legroom and rear cargo capacity. Built on Subaru’s new global platform, the Forester offers improvements in crash protection, comfort, quietness and driving dynamics. EyeSight driver assist technology is standard across the board, which helps Forester earn a Top Safety Pick + rating — the highest available from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. All Foresters feature Subaru’s legendary Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system and are powered by an updated direct-injection 2.5-liter Boxer engine that produces 182 horsepower and 176 lb-ft of torque. The fun-to-drive crossover performs as well on the pavement as it does in the dirt, earning it the top spot in this very competitive category.
Additional Subcompact and Compact Family SUVs
2019 Hyundai Kona
2019 Hyundai Tucson
2019 Jeep Renegade
2019 Mazda CX-5
2019 Toyota RAV4
2019 Volkswagen Tiguan
Best Mid- and Full-Size Family SUV — 2020 Kia Telluride
Price as tested: $46,860
The all-new Telluride is Kia’s first venture into the large 7-passenger SUV realm, and the big vehicle is already receiving great reviews. The Telluride’s intent is to be big, bold and boxy to convey power and capability — which it does in spades. The SUV features a long hood, wide grille, stacked headlights, L-shaped taillights and long Telluride nameplates across the front edges of the hood and tailgate. The Telluride’s 291-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 sends power to all four wheels via an active on-demand all-wheel-drive system that can distribute torque between the front and rear axles. The spacious interior, stylish exterior and comfortable ride no matter what the terrain helped make the Telluride the top vehicle in its category.
Additional Mid- and Full-Size Family SUVs
2019 Ford Edge
2019 Honda Passport
2019 Toyota 4Runner
2019 Volkswagen Atlas
Best Compact and Midsize Luxury SUV — 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE450
Price as tested: $98,725
All new for the 2020 model year, the GLE is a technological tour de force with the latest advancements in user interface as well as off-road capability. One look inside the GLE and it’s clear this vehicle borders on futuristic — the display and instrument cluster are two 12.3-inch screens that span most of the dashboard. The GLE also features one of the best voice interfaces available on the market — the MBUX Interior Assistant. Speaking “Hey Mercedes” activates the Intelligent Voice Control and allows the driver to interface with the system using natural language. The GLE also features an advanced 4-wheel-drive system employing an electronically-controlled multi-disc clutch to direct as much as 100 percent of the torque to either axle. Unique to GLE is a free-driving mode — if the vehicle becomes bogged down in a sand dune, the suspension quickly raises and lowers several times to help the GLE rock free of the entrapment.
Additional Compact and Midsize Luxury SUVs
2019 Acura RDX
2019 BMW X5
Best Full-Size Luxury SUV — 2019 BMW X7
Price as tested: $120,645
The new flagship of BMW’s SUV lineup, the X7 takes its rightful place as the next logical progression in the Sports Activity Vehicle lineup, joining the X1, X2, X3, X4, X5 and X6. While clearly identifiable as a BMW, the X7 is a thoroughly modern take on BMW design with slim headlights flanking the largest kidney grille ever designed for a BMW. Together these give the X7 a wide, aggressive stance. The X7 on hand for 2019 Mudfest featured second-row captain’s chairs, which offer a more luxurious seating arrangement for six. The Mudfest vehicle was also equipped with BMW’s 4.4-liter turbocharged V8 engine, boasting 456 horsepower and 479 lb-ft of torque at a low 1500 rpm. With 8.7 inches of ground clearance and the latest-generation xDrive all-wheel-drive system, the X7 is also quite capable when the pavement ends.
Additional Full-Size Luxury SUVs
2019 Mercedes-Benz G550
Best Pickup Truck — 2020 Jeep Gladiator
Price as tested: $59,680
For much of Jeep’s history, the brand has had a pickup truck offering, but it has been a long 27 years since the last Jeep truck. That all changes with all-new Jeep Gladiator. It may look like Jeep simply put a pickup truck bed on the back of a Wrangler, but this new model is much more. The truck still possesses the attributes and standout features of the Wrangler — including its legendary off-road capability, open-top driving, and even the removable doors and folding windshield — but it is also a proper truck with utility and equipment to match or exceed all other midsize trucks on the market. Gladiator has a 5-foot cargo bed made of high-strength steel. The aluminum tailgate is lockable and its action damped, making raising and lowering much easier. Additional available features offer even more versatility, such as box rails with four adjustable tiedowns, under-rail bed lighting, a 115-volt power outlet and a spray-on bedliner.
Additional Pickup Trucks
2019 Ford Ranger
2019 GMC Sierra Denali
2019 Nissan Titan
2019 Ram 2500 Power Wagon
Best Extreme Capability — 2020 Jeep Gladiator
Price as Equipped: $59,680
It has a pickup truck bed in back, but the Gladiator still possesses all the legendary capability of the Wrangler SUV. The Gladiator Rubicon that participating journalists drove at this year’s Mudfest is capable of handling the most extreme terrain with wide-track front and rear axles, front and rear locking differentials, sway-bar disconnect, Fox monotube shocks, high-clearance fender flares, rock rails, a front skidplate / brush guard, front and rear tow hooks and 17-inch wheels shod with Falken Wildpeak A/T tires.
Overall Winner — 2020 Jeep Gladiator
(Runner-Up — Kia Telluride)
Jeep returns to the Mudfest winner’s circle in 2019 with the all-new Gladiator. Jeeps have garnered the top spot in five of the past six years, and Gladiator carries on that tradition, earning the title of Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year. With its iconic Jeep styling, the Gladiator is the only pickup that has a removable roof and doors, as well as standard 4-wheel drive and outstanding off-road capability while still providing the versatility expected of a midsize pickup. For the consumer who wants the capability of a Wrangler and the utility of a pickup truck, the Gladiator manages to combine these qualities without diminishing either of them.
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