Each year for more than 20 years, the Northwest Automotive Press Association gathers the latest SUVS, crossovers and pickup trucks to determine the top utility vehicles during an event commonly referred to as Mudfest. This year 26 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 — the pickup category was recently added to the mix.
A total of 26 vehicles in six different categories entered the competition for 2018, ranging from small crossovers to full-size off-road-prepped pickup trucks. Despite the wide vehicle range, the iconic Jeep Wrangler came out on top, named the 2018 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: Subcompact, Compact/Midsize, 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 assess 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 and trucks 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 revealing. The slalom helps assess how the all-wheel drive and stability control function when a driver must 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 Mudfest scoring process. Every new model tested offers some type of backup camera — and in some cases multiple cameras — which makes the task considerably easier, especially for larger vehicles.
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 rather warm, dry start to spring in the Pacific Northwest, there was concern that this year’s event would be more “dirtfest” than Mudfest. Thanks to a bit of rain prior to the event (and several well-timed deliveries from a water truck), there was an appreciable amount of mud on hand. The course design showcased not only vehicle capability but also comfort and stability 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 more 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 slick mud in water to properly test all-wheel-drive systems.
For vehicles designed to offer more capability, an advanced course featured muddy, slippery logs to cross, steep hills to descend and climb, moguls to pass through and a hill to test a vehicle’s ability to handle steep angles on slick mud. Naturally, each run ended with a large pool of muddy water.
Best Subcompact — 2018 Hyundai Kona Ultimate AWD
Price as Equipped: $29,805
Hyundai has recently brought this stylish 5-passenger crossover to market, and in its first Mudfest outing Kona earned the top score in its class. Built on an all-new platform, Kona offers great driving dynamics with torque vectoring that adds to its on-road agility. The turbocharged 1.6-liter engine has plenty of low-end torque so the car feels quick. Full-time all-wheel drive and standard torque vectoring make the Kona agile and fun to drive, while helping keep the small crossover stable in emergency maneuvers. Off-road at Mudfest, Kona had no problem with the roughest and loosest dirt, even when negotiating steep inclines and descents.
Additional Subcompact Vehicle Entries
2018 Ford EcoSport
2018 Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross
Best Compact/Midsize — 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4X4
Price as Equipped: $53,200
The Compact/Midsize class was the most competitive at this year’s Mudfest, but Jeep’s all-new 2018 Wrangler ended up at the top of its class. This is the first redesign of the iconic off-roader in 10 years but Jeep stayed true to the original, retaining the 7-slot grille and round headlights. Overall the Wrangler is more aerodynamic, the beltline has been lowered, and the side windows are larger for improved visibility. Although Wrangler has always offered legendary off-road prowess, this new iteration excels on pavement as well. The ride is much more comfortable than the previous generation, and the interior also is greatly improved; of note are several design features inspired by the original Jeep. The new Wrangler has multiple top options — all of which are much easier to remove or retract than on previous generations.
2019 Jeep Cherokee
2018 Mazda CX-5
2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
2018 Subaru Outback
2018 Toyota RAV4
2018 Volkswagen Tiguan
2018 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack
Best Family — 2018 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL 4Motion
Price as Equipped: $45,235
The largest SUV ever offered by Volkswagen, Atlas is the brand’s all-new 7-passenger crossover. Atlas was designed with the American market in mind, and it makes for excellent family transportation. Second-row seats offer plenty of space, and can be slid forward to allow access to the wide third tow. A nice feature: second-row seats don’t fold, so a child seat could be left in place while allowing passengers to climb in back. Even with all seats occupied, plenty of cargo space remains. And despite its roomy interior, Atlas doesn’t feel too large on the road. Thanks to 276 horsepower from a V6 powerplant, Atlas had plenty of power on tap for good acceleration. The ride remains smooth on dirt as well as on pavement, and Atlas had no problems tackling Mudfest’s off-road course.
Additional Family Vehicle Entries
2018 Ford Expedition
2019 Kia Sorento
2018 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Crew Van
2018 Nissan Armada
Best Premium — 2018 BMW X2 xDrive 28i
Price as Equipped: $50,920
The Premium category at this year’s Mudfest was the most diverse, with vehicles ranging from the sporty BMW X2 to the massive Lexus LX and go-anywhere Mercedes-Benz G-Class. Ultimately the new BMW crossover earned top honors and, surprisingly, it was the least expensive vehicle in the category. An all-new model for the 2018 model year, and the X2 has short overhangs and a coupelike roofline, making it one of the more stylish BMW crossovers. With 228 horsepower on tap and a quick-shifting 8-speed automatic transmission, the X2 was great fun to drive on Mudfest’s paved course, and its small size made it easy to maneuver. Although it’s unlikely that most X2 owners will ever venture off road, the small crossover performed competently on the off-road course as well, with a surprisingly comfortable ride and excellent control.
Additional Premium Vehicle Entries
2018 BMW X3
2018 Lexus LX 570
2018 Mercedes-Benz G550
Best Pickup — 2019 Ram 1500 Rebel
Price as Equipped: $60,050
The Ram 1500 has been completely redesigned for the 2019 model year — and the improvements are impressive. Although the 2018 edition of Mudfest hosted off-road pickup entrants from the likes of Chevrolet, Toyota and Nissan, the Ram 1500 Rebel came out on top. Designed for off-road enthusiasts, the Rebel comes stock with skidplates, an electronic locking differential, off-road shocks, tow hooks, hill descent control and on/off-road tires. This Ram stands out with a comfortable, quiet ride on the road, combined with an ability to handle just about any terrain. Add to that a stylish, comfortable, versatile interior with plenty of charge ports, storage areas and convenience items, and the Ram 1500 certainly distinguishes itself as being worthy of the top spot.
Additional Pickup Truck Entries
2018 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2
2018 Ford F-150
2019 Honda Ridgeline
2018 Nissan Titan Pro-4X
2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD
Best Extreme Capability — 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4X4
Price as Equipped: $53,200
The Extreme-Capability category was a bit less structured at the 2018 Mudfest — any vehicle that could handle the hardest off-road course was eligible, but after all the test runs, maneuvers and tallies, the legendary Wrangler emerged victorious. The 4-door Unlimited Rubicon stands out with higher fenders to accommodate more suspension travel, 2-piece fender flares, a vented hood and standard 17-inch aluminum Rubicon polish / painted Low Gloss Black wheels. The Rubicon also gets a Rock-Trac 4×4 system with heavy-duty next-generation Dana 44 axles, a “4LO” ratio of 4:1 and standard Tru-Lok locking front and rear differentials. Off-road specs include an approach angle of 44 degrees; a breakover angle of 27.8 degrees; and a departure angle of 37 degrees. Wrangler boasts 10.9 inches of ground clearance and the ability to ford up to 30 inches of water.
Overall Winner — 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4X4
Jeep returns to the Mudfest winner’s circle in 2018 with the all-new Wrangler. Jeeps have earned the top spot in four of the past five years, and once again Wrangler gets named Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year. With its combination of attractive styling, improved on-road handling, easy top removal (doors can be removed as well) and extreme off-road capability, the 2018 Jeep Wrangler is a great option as a daily driver, whether that commute tames a crowded freeway or conquers a formidable mountain.