We dragged 7 crossovers onto 4WD trails to see what breaks, and who makes it

Everyone knows that modern SUVs are built more for crawling parking lots than trails. And their crossover cousins, also known as CUVs, are even more domesticated. So the notion of a modern CUV tackling a rocky, dirt trails alongside true, body-on-frame 4×4 vehicles is pretty nuts.

We gave it a try anyway.

Why? Frankly, we were invited to, and it wasn’t our plastic we thought we’d be shattering.

We couldn’t stop wondering which one of the vehicles would break first and need to be towed out.

In the sporadic rain near Woodstock, Virginia, we joined up with the inaugural Trail Trek Tour to drive seven compact crossover vehicles with seven other automotive judges. The mission was to take these compact crossovers places, well, heck probably their own engineers didn’t think they could go before – off-road.

The competitors for this challenge ranged from the formidable 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk to the subcompact 2018 Hyundai Kona, with similar ground clearance of a Prius. We also had a 2018 Toyota RAV4 Adventure, 2018 Kia Sportage, 2018 Mazda CX-5, 2018 VW Tiguan, and a 2018 Honda CR-V.

We bashed them over rocks, sloshed through standing water, and slipped along two muddy trails inside the George Washington National Forest, to see what today’s CUVs are made of – and which reigns supreme.

2019 jeep cherokee trailhawk wins compact suv off road event trail trek tour group cars xxl
Tim Esterdahl/Digital Trends

Wipe that sneer off your face

As we gathered with the other judges, we couldn’t stop wondering which one of the vehicles would break first and need to be towed out. The very idea of a compact crossover tackling a muddy trail raises eyebrows in a group of seasoned automotive journalists. But at the end of the day, we weren’t laughing; we were genuinely impressed.

What changed our minds? Well, how capable all of them turned out to be — even the small Kona. Rotating behind the wheel of each CUV, it was surprising how stark the differences were, and how each one could tackle the trail, albeit some at a slow pace.

Fortunately, there was a group of avid off-road drivers behind us to lend a hand as well as give us weird looks.

As we drove, the group of vehicles started to split into three into three distinct groups.  The Sportage, Kona and RAV4 Adventure struggled the most off-road. Their AWD systems maintained enough traction helping us from slipping back down the trail, but pavement-ready suspensions and tires returned a harsher ride than the other SUVs, and you definitely wouldn’t want to off-road with an uncovered cup of coffee.

Each of them completed the trail under their own power, with just one hiccup: The RAV4 suffered a blown tire after running over a particularly sharp rock. We won’t fault the CUV too much; clearly engineers didn’t have playing in the dirt in mind when they chose this rubber. The stubborn rock took us a while to relocate to a better place. Fortunately, there was a group of avid off-road drivers behind us to lend a hand as well as give us weird looks. Let’s just say they were not crazy enough to be driving CUVs like us on the trails.

Back to the competition.

Surprisingly, the Kona did a better job in this competition than the Sportage, even though they are made by the same automaker. It was the little things with the Kona that really set it apart, like the exterior styling, the relatively comfortable interior, and how surprisingly capable on the trail it was for its size. As our smallest competitor, it was nearly a foot shorter than the Sportage. Our assumptions about the small Kona turned out to be completely wrong.

The CX-5 and CR-V landed in the middle of the pack for different reasons.

Next time you laugh at someone taking their grocery-go-getter on the trail, you might reconsider like we did.

The CX-5 held its own on the trails, with a shockingly refined AWD system. Where other vehicles slipped and forced us to constantly focus on the trail, the CX-5’s AWD system let us relax with a more confident driving experience. But a lack of ground clearance, large overhangs, and questionable tires for the terrain made it tough for us to put it with the leaders.

Like the CX-5, the CR-V’s AWD system was a cut above the rest, and the interior styling caught us off-guard with its soft-touch materials, subtle use of chrome and wood accents in our top trim Touring edition. Honda has really stepped up its game from the plastic-clad interiors of years past. It certainly isn’t a vehicle you would be ashamed to be seen in, and is really comfortable even after bottoming out on rocks all day.

Trail Trek Tour
Tim Esterdahl/Digital Trends

The leaders offered one surprise, in the VW Tiguan, and one no-brainer in the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk.

First, the VW Tiguan surprised everyone on the off-road trails and was a surprise sleeper. During our time behind the wheel, we kept pushing the Tiguan on more aggressive lines and it performed flawlessly, never slipping or making us question whether it could handle the next rock. Like the CR-V and CX-5, the Tiguan’s capability allowed us to relax and enjoy the scenery, rather than white knuckling the drive searching for the least rocky path ahead. In the end, it finished closely behind the Trailhawk in total points in the three categories: style, utility and capability. At dinner, after the drive, nearly all the judges remarked on how well the Tiguan did on the trails.

Trail Trek Tour
Tim Esterdahl/Digital Trends

The clear winner was the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk. This was the only CUV with a true 4WD system and all-terrain tires meant for the trail. While the other vehicles are aimed at soccer moms and Walmart parking lots, the Trailhawk actually lives up to its name. Climbing behind the wheel, we didn’t even turn on the 4WD system. Instead, we simply idled behind the group of CUVs climbing over rocks with ease, mocking the other CUVs with our prowess as we drove.

Ultimately, the biggest takeaway wasn’t the Trailhawk’s dominance, but rather how close the VW Tiguan was in the competition. Also, the fact all of them traversed over the often technical trail with only one blown tires and no paint scrapes we could see, is actually pretty darn impressive. Next time you laugh at someone mentioning they want to take their grocery-go-getter on the trail, you might reconsider like we did. Turns out they can handle more than we give them credit for.

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