Are you ready for adventure?
The American market is full of vehicles that can tackle the harshest of terrains. There's just about every configuration of a hardcore off-road vehicle out there that can tame rough conditions, whether it's a small, medium, or large SUV, a pure off-roading toy by Jeep, or a truck designed to hammer dunes, mud, or rocky trails. However, recently, many automakers have cottoned on to the fact that there are a lot of adventurous Americans that don't need or want a dedicated off-roader.
You don't need a Wrangler to wind up a well-maintained fire road to go hiking, an overpowered truck to cart your bikes to the top of a mountain that isn't arduously challenging to reach the top of, or a couple of tons of SUV to take the family camping in the desert. More to the point, most people who like camping, hiking, fishing, cycling, or any other outdoor pursuits, like their vehicle to be comfortable on the road too. Not only is the journey to their favorite spots over 90 percent on paved roads, but they want their vehicle to work as a daily driver for a family. That means comfort, utility, and not having an eight-cylinder gas guzzler under the hood. In no particular order, these seven SUVs are best for the job.
The most recent vehicle we can point to that shows how automakers are capitalizing on this mild-off-roading market is the Mazda CX-50. Mazda typically designs its cars and SUVs for the world market, but the CX-50 is wider and longer than its CX-5 sibling because American roads allow it. It's also being built in the US directly for the North American market. Like most automakers on this list, Mazda's approach to an adventure vehicle is rooted in reality. It will spend 99 percent of its life on the road, but when it goes off-road, the driving experience needs to be consistent with on-road handling in slippery conditions. A clever all-wheel-drive system with careful tuning for the different modes and a towing capacity of 3,500 pounds from turbo models sees to that.
Subaru has been quietly reaping the benefits of the soft-roading market for decades. The Outback Wilderness takes everything up a notch by increasing the ride height of the Outback to 9.5 inches, upgrading the suspension, adding a skid plate, and all-terrain Geolander tires from the factory. With Subaru's familiar Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system and 2.4-liter boxer four-cylinder engine making 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque, the Outback Wilderness adds enough to the Subaru recipe to get it further off the beaten track. While you won't be going rock crawling in the Outback Wilderness, it's more than capable of getting to those more remote camping and hiking spots in any weather.
The RAV4 already has an adventure trim, but in seeing how the market has moved, Toyota decided that the RAV4 deserves a TRD trim. The off-road TRD designation is usually the preserve of flat-capping energy drink enthusiasts, but now it's available for more family-oriented people on one of the best crossovers on the market. The upgrade to the suspension is most significant and involves retuned coil springs, re-valved twin-tube shocks featuring internal rebound springs, and new bump stops to improve body control. Also included is a set of Falken Wildpeak all-terrain tires with 18-inch matte-black TRD alloy wheels and all the TRD badging you could want.
When Honda brought the Passport name back a few years ago, the brand was keen to point out its off-roading ability with the all-wheel-drive option ticked. This year, Honda dropped the Adventure package and added the TrailSport trim to enhance its ability to get off the pavement. But apart from the tires, it's mostly a comfort and style trim level. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the Passport's ability to deal with unstable surfaces before adding the tires and the fact it's, essentially, a two-row version of the excellent three-row Pilot. The Pilot also has a TrailSport trim.
One of our favorite things about Hyundai's approach to the Santa Cruz is that it has stayed away, at least so far, from a 'bro' package. You won't find skid plates, aggressive tires, or badging suggesting the Santa Cruz is designed to venture off the tarmac, but it is. The all-wheel-drive system is top-notch for situations where grip is much less than ideal. It has good approach and departure angles for when things get a bit rough and, best of all, it has a useful truck bed for carting around everything from white goods for the house to dirty or wet gear you wouldn't want in the back of your daily-driving crossover. The on-road manners of the Santa Cruz is as exemplary as its off-road capability for your average hiker, camper, scuba diver, canoeist, etc.
Ford has recently learned the value of downsizing its most belligerent of vehicles and created an absolute peach in the shape of the Bronco Sport. If you want to go battle nature for the sake of it, the full-fat Bronco is the vehicle for you. If you want to explore more accessible areas out of reach of the average crossover, the Bronco Sport might be the key. The little crossover that can is based on the Escape, but is more suited to off-roading - particularly with Ford's clever twin-clutch differential and terrain management system equipped. Last year, we had a lot of fun in the Bronco Sport out on long, tight, twisty desert trails and have started to see them en-masse on our local trails. And rightly so. Ford also has several trim levels and packages to suit the vehicle more in the directions different people will use it for adventuring. Just be careful out there.
Kia seems to be trying to release a crossover in every increment in size from tiny to huge, so it's no surprise that some don't get the coverage they deserve. The Seltos is one of those, and why the little Jeep models aren't getting a look-in on this list. It's more engaging to drive on the road than the Compass or the Renegade but also has a locking center differential on its all-wheel-drive system models. The all-wheel-drive system is borrowed from the much larger Telluride and is surprisingly capable with the Seltos' smaller turbocharged engine. And you will want the turbocharged engine. All-wheel-drive models also feature hill descent and hill start functions, and it's only the base model that comes with front-wheel-drive. The value is impressive, with the top SX Turbo trim coming in at just $28,090.