Years ago, my friend Roger asked me for advice about buying a sport utility vehicle. His two needs were being able to drive his pregnant wife to the hospital after a cataclysmic earthquake and intimidating other drivers. My suggestion? A psychotherapist.
It’s human to crave a capable and rugged S.U.V. The image is part of the allure (and much of the marketing). But are we overbuying when it comes to capability? This (and Roger) crossed my mind while participating in Mudfest 2015, a two-day competition organized by the Northwest Auto Press Association. Held since 1993, the event gave 24 automotive journalists the chance to evaluate 27 S.U.V.s and pickup trucks on a pavement and dirt course near Shelton, Wash.
The derisive term “soft roader” could be aimed at many of the assembled vehicles, especially the diminutive Buick Encore, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport and Mazda CX-5. But know this, Roger: Nearly every vehicle brought to Mudfest easily tackled the moderate off-road course filled with rugged terrain and ponds that most owners would shy away from.
For getting to the trailhead, a Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, Subaru Outback or Volvo V60 Cross Country would be excellent. The performances of the Ram Power Wagon and Toyota 4Runner were akin to cutting butter with a chain saw.
For the Rogers of the world, Mudfest provides an extreme off-road course. The Power Wagon and 4Runner were the only rigs in the Extreme Capability category, but the Land Rover Discovery Sport and Jeep Cherokee and Renegade (both Trailhawk models) scampered up the steep inclines and forded 18 inches of water. Posers they are not.
The only two vehicles kept from the muddy fun were BMW’s X5 and X6, both M models repurposed for blacktop hijinks. Not surprisingly, they crushed the pavement-handling section. And the Cadillac Escalade’s magnetic ride control allowed it to shimmy through the slalom better than expected.
That’s why we test. Most vehicles spend their days on pavement, so the on-road testing is arguably most important. Cleaner, too.
Mudfest’s biggest benefit is being able to drive vehicles back-to-back. Journalists can quickly assess features, design, price and fuel economy. Highlights? The 2016 Kia Sorento’s design is a full step above its price. Honda’s new small HR-V should dominate the crossover segment with an interior dreamed up by an origami master. Jeep Renegade wins the Easter egg contest with terrain maps woven into the seat fabric and heritage elements on nearly every panel.
The winner’s list shows that Fiat Chrysler is doing something right by snatching four out of six categories. Over s’mores, we all lamented that decisions came especially hard this year. Manufactures are all focused on serving the booming market for S.U.V.s and pickups, and the results show. The envelopes, please:
■ Best Compact: Jeep Renegade Trailhawk
■ Best Premium Compact: Land Rover Discovery Sport
■ Best Family: Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk
■ Best Premium: Acura MDX AWD
■ Best Extreme Capability: RAM 2500 Power Wagon
■ Best Pickup: Ram 1500 Outdoorsman EcoDiesel
■ Best Over All: Jeep Renegade Trailhawk
As for Roger, here was my advice: Take a weekend and test drive, test drive, test drive. You cannot attend Mudfest, but you can play the home game. There is a full list of competitors and a GoPro-destroying video of the event at nytimes.com/video/driven.