Each year for more than 20 years, the Northwest Automotive Press Association gathers the latest SUVS and crossovers (and now pickup trucks) to determine the top utility vehicles during an event commonly referred to as Mudfest. This year 28 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 are the best-selling vehicles in America each year — and considering their popularity among drivers in the Pacific Northwest — a pickup category was recently added to the mix.
A total of 28 vehicles in six different categories entered the competition for 2017, ranging from small crossovers to full-size off-road-prepped pickup trucks. Ultimately the all-new Land Rover Discovery took top honors as Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year. Before the top prize could be awarded, all vehicles endured two days of 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: Compact, Premium Compact, Family, Premium, Extreme Capability and Pickup Truck. Participating vehicles are either all-new or recently redesigned. A winner is chosen for each category, and finally an overall winner emerges.
Vehicle assessment took place over two days at The Ridge Motorsports Park in Shelton, Washington. Day One testing was on pavement, looking at handling, comfort, ease of parking and several other criteria. Day Two put vehicles through their paces on a custom off-road course of dirt and mud.
To form an impression of how these utility vehicles handle on paved roads, journalists took each vehicle for a lap of The Ridge’s technical go-kart track. On track the drivers experienced vehicle acceleration, emergency braking, cornering and quick maneuvers on a closed course. With several elevation changes and some tight corners, the course approximated real-world situations the vehicles might encounter in the hands of a consumer.
SUVs 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 telling. The slalom helped assess how the all-wheel drive and stability control function when a driver is forced to make sudden changes of direction. Vehicle stability is an important factor to consider during this heightened driving situation.
Backing larger vehicles into tight parking spaces can be a challenge, so parking ease is also part of NWAPA’s scoring process. Almost all of the new models tested offer some type of backup camera — and in some cases multiple cameras — which makes the task considerably easier. Steve, NWAPA’s brave inflatable dinosaur, was on hand once again to ensure that drivers didn’t back up too far.
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 were also assessed for rear-seat space as well as cargo-carrying ability.
After a spring of record-breaking rainfall in the Pacific Northwest, attending journalists fully expected an incredibly eponymous Mudfest, but a spate of surprisingly warm weather dried up almost all the mud — however, that didn’t prevent the group from properly testing these vehicles in an off-road environment. The course design showcased not only a vehicle’s capability, but also how comfortable and stable a vehicle feels 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 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 deep, thick mud that properly tested each vehicle’s four-wheel-drive system.
For vehicles designed to offer more capability, an extreme course featured logs to cross, steep hills to descend and climb, moguls to pass through and a hill to test the vehicle’s ability to handle steep angles on slick mud. Naturally, each run ended with a section of extremely thick, sticky mud.
Best Compact — 2017 Jeep Compass Trailhawk
Price as Equipped: $33,565
As the newest model in the Jeep lineup, the Compass looks a bit like a mini version of the Grand Cherokee. The Trailhawk is the top-level trim of the Compass, powered by a 2.4-liter Tigershark engine producing 180 horsepower and 175 lb-ft of torque. In addition to its comfortable ride on the road, the Compass Trailhawk offers true Jeep capability with Active Drive Low, Selec-Terrain with Rock mode, increased ride height, skidplates, red tow hooks, unique fascias for increased approach and departure angles, hill-descent control and 17-inch off-road tires.
Additional Compact Vehicle Entries
Nissan Rogue Hybrid
Best Premium Compact — 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack S
Price as Equipped: $28,615
Following in the tracks of the Subaru Outback and Volvo Cross Country, Volkswagen now offers a unique version of the popular Golf SportWagen called the Alltrack. The Alltrack gets about an inch more ground clearance than the standard SportWagen and features Volkswagen’s 4MOTION all-wheel-drive system. Alltrack also gets wheel arch moldings, unique bumpers, flared side sills and an upscale interior to further differentiate it from the standard SportWagen. The Alltrack provides a perfect blend of fun-to-drive characteristics with the versatility and capability of a crossover SUV.
Additional Premium Compact Vehicle Entries
BMW X4 M40i
MINI Cooper S Countryman
Best Family — 2017 Subaru Forester 2.5i Touring
Price as Equipped: $33,765
One of Subaru’s best-selling models, the Forester is updated for 2017 with revised exterior styling, new driver assistance technology, added interior comfort and improved fuel economy. Equipped with Subaru’s legendary all-wheel drive system, Forester has impressive handling on road as well as plenty of capability when the pavement ends. Forester can also be equipped with Subaru’s innovative EyeSight system which integrates Adaptive Cruise Control, Pre-Collision Braking and Vehicle Lane Departure Warning.
Additional Family Vehicle Entries
Best Premium — 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk
Price as Equipped: $50,125
The Grand Cherokee was Mudfest’s overall winner in 2016, and this stalwart SUV continues to impress. The Trailhawk version joined the lineup this year, outfitted as the most capable Grand Cherokee to ever come from the factory, featuring the Quadra-Drive II 4×4 system with rear Electronic Limited Slip Differential; a unique version of Grand Cherokee’s Quadra-Lift air suspension for improved articulation and suspension travel; and Selec-Speed Control with Hill Ascent Control. The standard 18-inch aluminum wheels are shod with all-season all-terrain tires for better handling on and off the pavement.
Additional Premium Vehicle Entries
Lexus GX 460
Volvo V90 Cross Country
Best Extreme Capability — 2017 Land Rover Discovery HSE Luxury
Price as Equipped: $82,100
It had been more than a decade since Land Rover sold a Discovery in America, but now the British marque is back with an all-new Disco, and it’s better than the old model in just about every way. With modern styling, roomy interior and impressive off-road capability, the Discovery fills a new space in the Land Rover lineup, distinct from the more luxurious Range Rovers and not as intense as the upcoming Defender. The HSE Luxury model entered in this year’s competition was the top-level trim of the Discovery, and has features such as air suspension, a 2-speed transfer case and an 825-watt Meridian audio system.
Additional Extreme Capability Vehicle Entries
Jeep Wrangler Trailstorm
Toyota 4Runner TRD Off-Road
Best Pickup — 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor
Price as Equipped: $62,850
The most extreme version of the new Ford F-150, the Raptor marries the utility of a full-size pickup with impressive performance both on and off the pavement. With a bold grille that sets it apart from other F-150s, the Raptor boasts a 3.5-liter high-output EcoBoost engine that puts out 450 horsepower and 510 lb-ft of torque, teamed with an advanced 10-speed automatic transmission. To make proper use of that power, the Raptor features a Terrain Management System designed to optimize performance for nearly any driving condition.
Additional Pickup Truck Entries
Nissan Titan Pro-4X
Ram Power Wagon
Overall Winner — Land Rover Discovery HSE Luxury
If a vehicle was ever going to end Jeep’s reign as Mudfest champion (Jeep fielded the overall winner for the last three years), it makes sense that an iconic brand such as Land Rover would be the one to do it. The latest model from the famed British off-road marque, the Discovery brings a great deal to the table. Up to seven passengers ride in a high level of luxury, enjoying everything from leather seats to a cooler in the center console. The Discovery provides a comfortable ride while cruising on the highway or tackling the roughest terrain. Add to that its attractive styling and versatile interior and the Discovery certainly deserves this victory.