Everyone knows that modern SUVs are built more for crawling parking lots than trails. And their crossover cousins, also known as CUVs, are even more domesticated. So the notion of a modern CUV tackling a rocky, dirt trails alongside true, body-on-frame 4×4 vehicles is pretty nuts.
We gave it a try anyway.
Why? Frankly, we were invited to, and it wasn’t our plastic we thought we’d be shattering.
In the sporadic rain near Woodstock, Virginia, we joined up with the inaugural Trail Trek Tour to drive seven compact crossover vehicles with seven other automotive judges. The mission was to take these compact crossovers places, well, heck probably their own engineers didn’t think they could go before – off-road.
We bashed them over rocks, sloshed through standing water, and slipped along two muddy trails inside the George Washington National Forest, to see what today’s CUVs are made of – and which reigns supreme.
We joined up with a team of men’s lifestyle and automotive experts in the woods of Virginia to see if seven everyday crossover utility vehicles could handle a rugged off-road course, and to pick our favorites. Read on for our top picks and the overall winners from the first Trail Trek Tour.
Our diverse array of competitors included the Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring, Hyundai Kona SEL, Toyota RAV4 Adventure, Kia Sportage SX Turbo, Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk Elite, Volkswagen Tiguan SEL Premium, and Honda CR-V Touring. Other than the 2019 Jeep, all of the vehicles were 2018 models, equipped with all-wheel or four-wheel drivetrains, and were 100% stock, including their tires and wheels. Our judging criteria for the day gave equal weight to capability, utility, and styling.
While the trails we hit in the George Washington National Forest weren’t the most daunting off-road courses, they offered plenty of rocks, ruts, loose dirt, and a heaping helping of mud thanks to the rainy days leading up to our outing. They certainly were much more challenging that the roads that most owners of these daily driver crossovers will ever take their vehicles on.
From the moment the term “crossover” was coined to describe the “cute ‘utes” that fall somewhere between conventional cars and SUVs, they’ve been scorned by those who embraced those conventions. Lacking both the ruggedness and capability of a body-on-frame SUV and the hunkered-down handling and style of sedans and hatchbacks, crossovers fought an uphill battle against prevailing automotive wisdom to become the marketplace staples they are today.
Purists still tend to eye them with disdain, but are these soft-roaders as impotent off-road as some think, or are they perhaps more capable than we tend to give them credit for? Enter the Trail Trek Tour‘s Compact Crossover Off-Road Challenge–the first-of-its-kind event established to test that hypothesis. It was organized by media, for media, with a judging pool made up of diverse voices and perspectives. Seven outlets were represented, seven crossovers were wrangled. We set off for Woodstock, Virginia, to see how much trouble we could get into (and out of) with our charges. If it sounds like fun, well, that’s because it was. Sometimes, this job is pretty cool.
Watch your run-of-the-mill crossover commercial and you’ll see these jack-of-all-trades vehicles conquer all types of roads. The scenes normally encompass morphing roads, from city streets to back-roads, and finally to an off-road trail for the weekend camping trip. That last part is very crucial, as the manufacturers are making you the promise that SHOULD you finally decide to get off your ass on the weekend and do something outdoorsy, you can. However, despite all of the commercials showing some level of off-road capability, the reality is that not all crossovers are created equal.
Thankfully, there are competitions like the Trail Trek Tour, designed to get to the bottom of the crossover pileup, to assess its off-road ability. Yours truly, was invited to drive down to Woodstock, VA to take seven popular crossovers through the George Washington National Forest trails and judge them on Style, Utility, and Capability.
Woodstock, VA (June 23, 2018) – The inaugural event of the Trail Trek Tour was a tremendous success, as seven vehicles proudly completed the Compact Crossover Off-Road Challenge. Hand-selected automotive media gathered in Woodstock, Virginia to pit sponsor-provided Compact Crossovers against each other in an off-road challenge. Over the course of five hours on two trail rides in George Washington National Forest, media judges switched vehicles every half hour and despite heavy rains overnight making the conditions extra challenging, not a single vehicle needed assistance completing the trail.
“We set out to prove that these compact crossovers are far more capable than most customers realize, by running them on a trail that many would think they had no business even attempting. The trail difficulty may not effectively come across in photos and video, but this truly was a challenge for these vehicles, and they emerged on the other end of the trails triumphantly. Seven stock compact crossovers competed on grueling trails for five hours, and the only casualty was a single tire that took a rock to the sidewall. The recovery straps and winch we brought along just in case, were not needed on this day. All of the participating brands should be very proud of the results and their customers should find confidence in the capability of these vehicles.” – Philip Van der Vossen
After completing a full day of trail rides, the challengers were ranked by the media judges in three distinct categories; Capability, Utility, and Style. The 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk took top honors for Capability, the 2018 Volkswagen Tiguan was ranked first in Utility, and the 2018 Mazda CX-5 was rated highest in Style. Those category rankings were then combined to determine the overall winner of Trail Trek Tour’s Compact Crossover Off-Road Challenge, the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk. The Cherokee was the only crossover in the competition with four-wheel-drive and all-terrain tires, so the judges were not surprised to see it emerge victorious. However the Volkswagen Tiguan followed very closely behind in the overall rankings, and the Mazda CX-5 finished both third overall, and third in Capability.
“The Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk is the very deserving winner of the Compact Crossover Off-Road Challenge. It is a famously capable vehicle that ate up the terrain with ease, and was eager for more. While the Jeep set the pace on the trail, we were impressed that the other crossovers didn’t back down to the challenge, and with a bit more diligence in choosing proper lines, were able to successfully navigate the same trails without any trouble.” – Philip Van der Vossen