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And The Winners Are...

Mudfest 2013: Tom's Hardware Helps Test 23 SUVs

There were a lot of excellent SUVs and crossovers at Mudfest 2013. After the driving portions were finished, all 31 automotive journalists were required to vote for their first, second, and third choices in each class, and then select the best overall. But there was one that truly stood out, and at the end of the day, Jeep's 2014 Grand Cherokee Overland won the 2013 Northwest Activity Vehicle of the year.

We weren’t surprised by the results. The Grand Cherokee was our first choice for the best overall vehicle. It has great looks, a well-appointed interior, plenty of tech features, good driving dynamics, a spacious trunk, and real off-road capabilities. The almost-$52,000 MSRP is pretty high compared to the family-class entries. But the Jeep has more capabilities and a couple of other distinguishing features, such as adaptive cruise control and the Quadra-Lift air suspension system. In the Pacific Northwest, where outdoor activities are big, the Jeep Grand Cherokee is a vehicle that can get you up a mountain in snow or through rough trails to get to a campsite. 

Best Compact

Hyundai took the compact class win with the Santa Fe Sport AWD 2.0T. We've spent a lot of time in the Santa Fe Sport at previous events and agree that it’s a great compact crossover. Hyundai does a great job combining features and functions that are nice for a daily driver, such as driver-selectable steering, heated seats, a heated steering wheel, good interior materials, and the large panoramic sunroof. The Santa Fe Sport’s updated infotainment system is also very nice, sporting clean graphics and crisp text.

Anyone looking for the same outdoor time camping or snowboarding, the Santa Fe is fit for that task, too. Locking the car in 4-high gives you the extra bit of traction needed for dirt-, gravel-, and snow-covered roads, rather than letting the Santa Fe's electronics to react on your behalf. This is a solid choice for adventuring, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where you might encounter anything from heat that results in dry gravel to torrential rain.

Best Luxury Compact

It was a tough three-way fight, but Acura's RDX took home the title of Best Luxury Compact, and we agreed with the collective vote. While the other two vehicles are excellent, the RDX provides a comfortable ride for $10,000 less than the other two. Honda's driving dynamics are great, albeit not as fun as BMW's X1. But the RDX also offers a spacious trunk to pack enough gear for a weekend trip.

I personally took the RDX on a two-day trip to snow- and ice-covered mountains, and it fit everything that me, my wife, and our two-year-old needed. We even got a medium-sized kennel in there. Acura's RDX handles snow well, and the reactive AWD system is perfectly adequate for the majority of its buyers. 

Best Family

It was a close race in the family segment, but Subaru's Forester 2.0XT took home the class win. All manufacturers provided tough competition. However, the Forester’s combination of SUV packaging with sporty response and handling gave it enough of an edge to prevail. It also helps that the Forester represents an excellent bargain for families coming in with budgets around $10,000 less than the other contenders.

We were smitten with the Forester and its smooth new 2.0-liter turbo motor and CVT powertrain combination. The Subaru Symmetrical AWD was icing on the cake that provided excellent traction and control through both courses. It’s a sporty crossover with plenty of space for a family of four (maybe five if you count the dog).

Best Luxury

Jeep took home a second win in the luxury class with its 2014 Grand Cherokee. Kudos to Chrysler for putting together a luxurious SUV that is comfortable on-road and highly capable off-road. For the $52,000 MSRP, you actually get a lot of car for your money. It doesn’t have high-grade leather, Dinamica microfiber headliner, or a spiffy-looking Bang & Olufsen sound system, but we’re not quite sure those extras are worth nearly double the price of Jeep's Grand Cherokee.

Best Off-Road

The final win goes to Jeep for its 2013 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 10th Anniversary 4x4 in the off-road class. It’s truly a remarkable vehicle and an excellent bargain with its $43,000 MSRP. Mercedes and Land Rover sell great alternatives that are also very capable when you take them through extreme conditions. But let's be honest. When you pay more than $100,000 for an SUV, it probably isn't going to see much time in the muck, even if the owner wants you to think it will.

Jeep maintains the off-road nature of the Wrangler, while giving it much-needed upgrades that include power windows, locks, and navigation. But the important Jeep parts, such as the heavy-duty Dana 44 axles, two-speed transfer case, Rock-Trac 4WD, and removable top and doors, remain. It’s a great off-road vehicle that we know pleases the Jeep faithful, while bringing late-90s-era standard features to the mix.

Closing Notes

Mudfest 2013 was a great two-day experience packed with fun. Congratulations to all the winners; it was tough to pick them because there were so many great vehicles present. We would like to thank the Northwest Automotive Press Association (NWAPA) for putting the event together, the automotive manufacturers that submitted vehicles and had representatives present, and Armin Ausejo for the amazing photography. Also a special thanks goes out to Ryan Douthit of DrivingSports TV for planning and organizing the event this year.

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