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.
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 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 0-to-60-mile-per-hour 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).
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. Focus on the attributes that you need and make your selection accordingly.
BEST COMPACT Jeep Compass Trailhawk
BEST PREMIUM COMPACT Volkswagen Golf Alltrack
BEST FAMILY Subaru Forester 2.5i Touring
BEST PREMIUM Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk
BEST EXTREME CAPABILITY Land Rover Discovery HSE Luxury
BEST PICKUP Ford F-150 Raptor
BEST OVER ALL Land Rover Discovery HSE Luxury