For more than 25 years, the Northwest Automotive Press Association hosts an annual gathering of the latest SUVs, crossovers and pickup trucks to determine the top utility vehicles of the year at an event commonly referred to as Mudfest. (Pickup truck testing began in 2015.) This year automotive journalists from the Pacific Northwest region participated in two days of on- and off-road testing under a variety of weather conditions to determine category winners and ultimately the 2022 Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year.
A total of 20 vehicles in seven categories entered the competition at this year’s Mudfest, ranging in price from the $34,000 Subaru Forester to the $430,000 Rolls-Royce Cullinan. Chosen from a wide variety of vehicles, the all-new Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe emerged as the overall winner, named 2022 Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year. The Grand Cherokee 4xe is the first plug-in vehicle to earn an overall win. Before the top prize could be awarded, all vehicles endured testing at the hands of two dozen NWAPA journalists. Here’s how the event went down, followed by the winning vehicles in their respective categories.
All vehicles competing in 2022 Mudfest were divided into seven categories: Subcompact and Compact Family SUV, Mid-and Full-Size Family SUV, Compact and Midsize Luxury SUV, Full-Size Luxury SUV, Pickup Truck, Extreme Capability and for the first time, Electrified. Participating vehicles are either all new or recently redesigned — past winners are invited back to defend their crowns. A winner gets 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 occurred on pavement, where event participants evaluated each vehicle in terms of handling, comfort, ease of parking and several other criteria. On Day Two, attending journos put vehicles to the test on a custom off-road course.
To assess how these vehicles handle on paved roads, journalists took each vehicle for a few laps on The Ridge’s technical go-kart track. On track the drivers experienced vehicle acceleration, cornering and quick maneuvers on a closed course. With several elevation changes and some tight corners, the course approximates real-world situations the vehicles might encounter in the hands of everyday consumers. Rain prior to this year’s Mudfest made the track slick, which created an ideal representation of roads in the Pacific Northwest. The wet track also showcased vehicle stability control systems and their reaction to quick maneuvers in slick conditions.
Acceleration and Braking
In addition to time spent on the go-kart track, attending journalists had the opportunity to test acceleration to 50 mph and hard emergency braking from that speed. This test can be quite revealing, and with this year’s wide range of power and weight across the spectrum of vehicles tested, it was heartening to find that every vehicle stopped quickly with complete control — a major improvement over year’s past.
SUVs and trucks tend to have higher centers of gravity, so testing that focuses on handling during emergency maneuvers can also be revealing. To determine how vehicles handle quick turns at speeds between 30-40 mph, journalists drove the Mudfest entrants through a slalom course. Not only does this showcase how a vehicle’s stability control operates, it also properly tests suspension and tires.
On the Street
Although the go-kart track at The Ridge Motorsports Park simulates extreme situations that drivers might encounter, attending journalists were also given the opportunity to observe and evaluate how these crossovers, SUVs, and pickups perform in the real world on roads around Shelton, Washington. This year the winding roads outside the track were a mix of slick pavement and loose gravel — excellent examples of surfaces many drivers face during rainy Pacific Coast outings.
Interior Comfort and Convenience
Since so many car buyers choose crossovers, SUVs and even pickup trucks as primary family vehicles, interior features, convenience and comfort are equal in importance to overall utility at Mudfest gatherings. Vehicles undergo assessment for rear-seat space as well as cargo-carrying ability. And since most new vehicles possess some form of advanced infotainment system — which can be main source of owner frustration according to the annual J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey — journalists also devote time to evaluate these systems for ease of use.
Return of the Rain
After two years of warm, dry weather for an event known as Mudfest, this year’s edition lived up to its name thanks to plenty of water on all driving surfaces. During the event’s second day a midmorning squall created an incredibly wet final day of testing. 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 higher ground clearance and extreme capability.
Designed for vehicles with lower ground clearance, the lighter course created by the staff this year at The Ridge provided adequate challenges with angled inclines and declines on slick mud, a section of slick logs and some strategically placed deep moguls that properly tested all-wheel-drive and suspension systems.
The extremely wet weather at this year’s Mudfest created some rather large bodies of water that enhanced off-road testing — and fun. Few people (owners included) get the opportunity to tromp a Rolls-Royce Cullinan through a foot of water.
When evaluating vehicles that offer advanced off-road capability, participating journalists used the same course but also navigated an additional steep ascent and descent — with a high breakover point — ending in deep water. An additional course of loose dirt and mud with sharper approach and departure angles and ruts that got deeper as the day wore on put the more extreme entrants through the wringer. Vehicles capable of taking on this tougher course were eligible to earn an Extreme Capability trophy.
Best Subcompact and Compact Family SUV — 2022 Mazda CX-50 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus
Price as tested: $43,170
The newest crossover from Mazda, the CX-50 is similar in size to the brand’s best-selling CX-5 but has a more rugged look. The CX-50 edged out the competition thanks to its fun driving characteristics that have become a hallmark of Mazda vehicles. On the slalom course, the CX-50 exhibited impressive handling with little body lean, and the turbocharged engine delivered plenty of torque for quick acceleration. In off-road mode, the CX-50 performed surprisingly well on The Ridge’s slick off-road course, able to direct torque to the wheels with the most traction.
Additional Subcompact and Compact Family SUVs
2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness
2022 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road
Best Mid- and Full-Size Family SUV — 2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk 4xe
Price as tested: $64,675
Over the years Jeep vehicles have been quite successful at Mudfest events, and 2022 was no exception. The all-new fifth-generation Grand Cherokee rolled out last year and Jeep brought the latest version to 2022 Mudfest: the 4xe plug-in hybrid. Standing out from the typical family SUV, the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk can be equipped with air suspension, electronic limited-slip rear differential, sway-bar disconnect and integrated cameras for off-road adventures. On the flipside, Jeep’s new hybrid system delivers excellent on-road performance, while inside the comfortable seats and multiple display screens provide high levels of comfort and convenience.
Additional Mid- and Full-Size Family SUVs
2022 GMC Yukon AT4
2022 Honda Passport TrailSport
2022 Hyundai Santa Fe XRT 2.5L
2022 Kia Sorento PHEV SX-Prestige
Best Compact and Midsize Luxury SUV — 2022 Genesis GV70 3.5T Sport Prestige
Price as tested: $65,045
The newest model from Genesis, the GV70 joined the GV80 last year as the second SUV in the brand’s growing lineup. In a time when so many crossovers look alike, the GV70 stands out with its signature Crest Grille and quad headlights — a look throughout the Genesis lineup. Inside is an elegant blend of luxury and tech with comfortable, stylish seats and a large horizontal display screen. With 375 horsepower on tap and full-time all-wheel drive, the GV70 has the performance to match its sporty styling. This premium SUV’s ability to provide excellent performance both on road and off helped it win this category for the second year in a row.
Additional Compact and Midsize Luxury SUVs
2022 Acura MDX Type S
2021 Mercedes-Benz AMG GLB 35
2022 Volvo V90 B6 Cross Country
Best Full-Size Luxury SUV — 2021 Genesis GV80 3.5T Prestige
Price as tested: $73,510
Like its smaller GV70 sibling, the GV80 features eye-catching exterior styling, an elegant interior and a powerful turbocharged engine. The interior features soft leather seats and a large 14-inch display screen. During testing in cold, wet Pacific Northwest weather journalists certainly appreciated the heated seats and two-stage heated steering wheel. This luxurious SUV features a high-tech electronically controlled all-wheel drive system that can send as much as 50 percent of the torque to the front wheels, and the available limited-slip differential can split power between the rear wheels for impressive traction. At Mudfest the GV80 demonstrated its capabilities firsthand through the off-road moguls — as one wheel came off the ground, power was directed to the opposite wheel to keep the big SUV moving through the course.
Additional Full-Size Luxury SUVs
2022 Lexus LX 600 Ultra Luxury
2022 Wagoneer Series III
2022 Rolls-Royce Cullinan
Best Pickup Truck — 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz Limited
Price as tested: $41,100
Hyundai’s first attempt at a pickup, the Santa Cruz boasts a unique design the helps this truck stand out from practically any other vehicle on the road. Featuring a spacious cabin with the latest high-tech comfort and safety features, the Santa Cruz has a proper truck bed — albeit a rather short one — with useful tiedowns, a water-tight storage space in the bed floor and a hard lockable tonneau cover to protect the cargo. It may not have the capability of larger trucks in the category, but the Santa Cruz offers great performance and is a lot of fun to drive. Santa Cruz’s HTRAC AWD features an electronic variable-torque-split clutch with active torque control between front and rear axles, which helps it easily deal with rougher terrain and also helped Santa Cruz best the competition for the second year in a row.
Additional Pickup Trucks
2021 Ford F-150 Raptor
2022 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X
2022 Toyota Tundra Platinum CrewMax
Best Extreme Capability — 2021 Ford F-150 Raptor
Price as tested: $82,475
Even before testing at the 2022 Mudfest began, we figured the F-150 Raptor would be tough to beat when it comes to off-road prowess. Designed for high-performance driving where the pavement ends, the Raptor at Mudfest included the Raptor 37 Performance Package, which features monstrous 37-inch all-terrain tires — the largest tires ever factory-installed on a full-size production pickup truck. This brawny truck also has a surprisingly comfortable premium interior — admittedly a safe haven when tackling dirt and mud in the rain. With 400 horsepower and 500 lb-ft of torque on tap —as well as more than 13 inches of ground clearance — the F-150 Raptor easily tackled the tough Mudfest terrain, even in the most severe conditions after several hours of rain.
Additional Extreme Capability
2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk 4xe
2022 Lexus LX 600 Ultra Luxury
2022 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X
2022 Toyota Tundra Platinum CrewMax
2022 Wagoneer Series III
Best Electrified Utility Vehicle – 2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk 4xe
Like the Wrangler 4xe, the Grand Cherokee 4xe’s powertrain integrates the electric motor with the transmission so the Jeep’s off-road capability remains unchanged from the gas-only variant. Not only does the new Grand Cherokee carry its passengers in comfort, at Mudfest the vehicle was able to perform impressively well on road or off in full electric mode. The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk 4xe possesses plenty of potency. A total output of 375 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque makes this hybrid more powerful than the brand’s big V8 engine. Rated at 56 MPGe and 23 MPG combined, the 4xe can travel more than 25 miles on electric power, and can be fully charged in about two hours on a Level 2 charger.
Additional Electrified Utility Vehicles
2022 Kia Sorento PHEV
Overall Winner — 2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk 4xe
(Runner-Up — 2022 Genesis GV70 AWD 3.5T Sport Prestige)
Full electrification of the Jeep brand is coming, and if the 2022 Grand Cherokee 4xe is an indication of what can be expected, then bring it on. This fifth-generation Grand Cherokee offers fresh styling and a comfortable, high-tech interior along with Jeep’s legendary off-road capability. Already a great SUV, the Grand Cherokee in plug-in hybrid form delivers performance and efficiency that only make this Jeep even better. It’s no surprise that the 4xe earned enough votes to be named 2022 Northwest Activity Vehicle of the Year.
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