CUV showdown: Compact crossovers tackle the Trail Trek Tour

  by Byron Hurd
CUV showdown: Compact crossovers tackle the Trail Trek Tour

CUV showdown: Compact crossovers tackle the Trail Trek Tour

From the moment the term "crossover" was coined to describe the "cute 'utes" that fall somewhere between conventional cars and SUVs, they've been scorned by those who embraced those conventions. Lacking both the ruggedness and capability of a body-on-frame SUV and the hunkered-down handling and style of sedans and hatchbacks, crossovers fought an uphill battle against prevailing automotive wisdom to become the marketplace staples they are today.

Purists still tend to eye them with disdain, but are these soft-roaders as impotent off-road as some think, or are they perhaps more capable than we tend to give them credit for? Enter the Trail Trek Tour's Compact Crossover Off-Road Challenge--the first-of-its-kind event established to test that hypothesis. It was organized by media, for media, with a judging pool made up of diverse voices and perspectives. Seven outlets were represented, seven crossovers were wrangled. We set off for Woodstock, Virginia, to see how much trouble we could get into (and out of) with our charges. If it sounds like fun, well, that's because it was. Sometimes, this job is pretty cool. 

The cars

The cars

The contestants, from left to right (as pictured): 2018 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring, 2018 Hyundai Kona SEL, 2018 Toyota RAV4 Adventure, 2018 Kia Sportage SX Turbo, 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, 2018 Volkswagen Tiguan SEL Premium, and 2018 Honda CR-V Touring. 

For this inaugural event, organizers requested all-wheel-drive compact crossovers equipped as similarly as possible. Everything was to arrive stock; the only allowances granted (preferred, even) were spare tires and wheels, because we fully expected to ding them up. Some manufacturers were more reluctant than others, opting not to participate in the event. In the end, we got almost exactly what we wanted, even if a few OEMs went unrepresented.

We'll get into the specifics of each car as we discuss our findings, but we'd like to get a few things out of the way off the top: Each of these cars was pulled from the general media fleet, meaning the manufacturers had no opportunity to deliver specially-prepped vehicles. They all arrived on stock tires, which for all but the Jeep meant comfort-touring style all-seasons on 17-, 18-, or 19-inch wheels. 

Hyundai was unable to source a Tucson for us, but, eager to be part of the fun, threw its hat in the ring with a subcompact Kona. It's decidedly smaller than the others, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse. The Volkswagen Tiguan occupied the other end of that spectrum, and similarly alternated between suffering and shining as a result. 

The venue

The venue

We used Woodstock as our main hub, but the trails we took lay in the George Washington National Forest--in this case, the hills just east of Edinburg. We split the day into two halves, tackling Tasker's Gap in the morning and Peters Mill Run in the afternoon. Both are considered beginner trails by the local 4x4 community, as our guides-slash-organizers explained, maintained only to the point that they remain passable by dirt bikes, ATVs and "real" 4x4 trucks.

Conditions were sloppy, to say the least, with rain coming and going in patches throughout the day. While the showers brought welcome respite from what is normally a hot, muggy and buggy spring season, they created a soupy surface that made us somewhat apprehensive about the potential performance of our testers' almost universally street-spec tires. Only our support vehicles (a Hummer H3 leading and a Jeep Scrambler following) boasted any real retrieval equipment. 

So we set off, expecting to slip, slide, stick, beach, bury and bog down. Time was built into the schedule to allow for recoveries, wheel replacements and timid, closely guided navigation of any obstacles that may present themselves. What we experienced instead defied even our most optimistic expectations. 

The criteria

The criteria

We started the morning with a briefing to set our expectations and get familiar with each vehicle in the evaluation. We were also given our marching orders as judges, along with a score sheet with which to rank each vehicle. Our evaluations were based on three categories: capability, utility, and styling. Each judge ranked the vehicles from 1 to 7 in these three categories. These were tallied up for an overall rank for each vehicle, with tie-breakers going in favor of capability.

Each journalist got a 20-minute stint in each other vehicle in the pack, and two such sessions with the vehicle he (sadly, no women answered the call to judge) drove to the event--starting and finishing the day in the car which he would later fully evaluate on-road. Afterward, our individual rankings were pooled to determine the overall winner. 

For the purposes of this feature, Leftlane's overall rankings will be used as the finishing order, with the group's rank listed afterward. Without further ado, here's how they did.

2018 Kia Sportage SX Turbo

2018 Kia Sportage SX Turbo

Leftlane rank: 7th; group rank: 7th

We're fans of Kia's turbocharged Sportage, but unfortunately, it didn't shine in this environment. It's one of the most powerful vehicles here, and even boasts respectable approach and departure angles (28° and 24.6°, respectively) for this crowd. Taking it a step further, it offers an electronic center differential lock. Sadly, those things only combined to impart false confidence in what turned out to be the second-lowest-riding of the "true" compacts (meaning Kona excluded) in this group. 

With just 6.8 inches of ground clearance, we'd find ourselves approaching what seemed to be a surmountable obstacle only to have it catch somewhere beneath the Sportage's rather substantial body. What's noteworthy here is that this all-wheel-drive model actually has nearly half an inch of increased height on the two-wheel-drive model, along with a unique front fascia that drastically improves its approach angle (from just 16.7° to the aforementioned 28°) but, more often than not, that extra wiggle room under the nose just lured us into spots we couldn't actually navigate. 

On paper, the Sportage's turbocharged four-cylinder should provide a ton of torque (it peaks at 260lb-ft) but "peak" is the key word here. Our pace over the rough terrain meant operating with very little throttle, which never gave this engine the opportunity to shine. On the road, the Sportage is a willing and capable companion; out there, it just wasn't quite up to snuff. 

It also didn't help that, despite the Sportage's size and reasonable utility, its looks are downright bizarre. Lower-than-average marks in styling sealed the deal for the Kia.

2018 Toyota RAV4 Adventure

2018 Toyota RAV4 Adventure

Leftlane rank: 6th; group rank: 5th (tiebreaker over Hyundai Kona)

The Toyota RAV4 is in its outgoing model year for this generation, with a replacement due in the fall. This Adventure model is one of the send-offs Toyota decided to give what has proven to be a workhorse for its lineup, and a car we find to be pretty okay as over-the-road transportation goes. It's one of the more honest and analog offerings in a segment of increasingly over-nannied and semi-automated people movers. 

Sadly, the RAV4 boasted the least ground clearance of any of the vehicles in this group (including Kona) with just 6.5 inches separating metal from rock. On paper, its 28° approach angle and 23° departure angle are competitive, but in the real world it's more complicated than that. 

Our main beef with the Toyota stemmed from an off-center protruding section of the exhaust which wrapped under the front subframe, jutting down a full two inches or so below the bottom edge of the decorative front "skidplate." This meant that rocks (or other hazards) we approached from some angles would clear just fine, but a cringe-inducing "clang!" would reward any miscalculation. 

The RAV4 was the victim of a flat tire at the hands of your author in the afternoon. A sharp protrusion of an almost-buried rock caught the sidewall juuuuust right, poking a clean hole into the tire without even grazing the wheel. With the RAV4 leading the pack, the other judges got a ten-minute break while we replaced the unfortunate victim with a Toyota-supplied spare. We didn't hold the incident against the RAV4 when it came time to score the cars. This sort of attrition was expected given the circumstances. The RAV4's somewhat stale exterior and outdated interior combined with its sub-par trail credentials ultimately did it in. 

2018 Honda CR-V Touring

2018 Honda CR-V Touring

Leftlane rank: 5th; group rank: 4th 

Honda's powerhouse came into this test boasting numbers that are stronger than you might expect for one of the most ubiquitous sights in an American preschool pick-up queue. Its approach angle of just 20.8° was somewhat mid-pack, but a 24.8° departure angle is pretty good, and the CR-V also has way more ground clearance than you'd expect--the second-most in this test, in fact--with 8.2 inches protecting the greasy bits. 

The CR-V's continuously variable transmission is adequate to the task of crawling along slowly, especially if kept in the "L" mode, and while we've been somewhat lukewarm on Honda's all-wheel-drive systems in the past, it didn't give us any trouble even on the exceedingly greasy sludge that passes for mud in the hills along the Shenandoah. 

The worst we could really say about the CR-V is that it didn't really do anything particularly noteworthy, good or bad. It got excellent marks for utility, with a very robust interior equipment offering and tons of hatch space, but lost points for its take-it-or-leave-it (most of us opted for the latter) exterior styling. Our marks largely matched those of the group, with appreciation for the CR-V's utility being a common theme. 

2018 Hyundai Kona SEL

2018 Hyundai Kona SEL

Leftlane rank: 4th; group rank: 6th (tied with Toyota RAV4)

The Hyundai Kona was one of the more divisive inclusions in this test. Obviously, its status as a subcompact outlier in a group of compacts was a strike against it from the beginning, but over the course of the day we came to find it was almost as much of a strength as it was a shortcoming. 

On paper, the Kona is pretty mightily outclassed here. It does boast a thoroughly reasonable 6.7 inches of ground clearance, meaning that despite its size, it was not the lowest vehicle here. Unfortunately, its 17-degree approach angle was a significant outlier. Thanks to a wheels-at-the-corners stance, its departure angle is a respectable 29°.

That troublesome approach angle is due in large part to the Kona's lower front bumper--a black plastic affair which would be more at home on a sport compact than a SUV. In a way, though, it served a useful purpose. Unlike the Sportage, with its deceptively aggressive front approach, the Kona's nose was the perfect canary-in-a-coal-mine. Anything we could clear with that front lip, we could clear with the rest of the car. By thinking of it as a feature rather than a bug (and reminding ourselves that matte plastic parts are much cheaper to replace than oil pans and differentials), we found ourselves embracing the Kona for what it could do, rather than shunning it for what it couldn't. 

And, as it turns out, it could do a lot more than we expected. Yeah, it required a bit more finesse in the rocky sections (the canary only works one time, after all), but it turned out to be the silent hero of the day's adventure. By all rights, it should have placed dead-last. Its pluckiness lifted it to fourth place in our finishing order; the group tied it with the RAV4 for fifth, where it ultimately lost the tiebreaker due to the Toyota's greater capabilities.

Kona's greatest shortcoming in this company is the fact that it competes at what is currently the entry-level price point for crossovers as a whole. It feels cheap and under-contented in this pack, but that's because it was also a full ten thousand dollars cheaper than anything else we had. Unfortunately for Hyundai, "value" was not a category in our scoring.

2018 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring

2018 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring

Leftlane rank: 3rd; group rank: 3rd

The Mazda CX-5 is a bit of a journalist darling. If you're tired of hearing us fawn over it, well, there's not much we can do about that, but it took a well-deserved third place in this evaluation for being surprisingly well-balanced despite Mazda's focus on road manners. 

As it turns out, some of the things that make the CX-5 a good canyon-carving partner actually contribute to its competency when the road falls apart beneath you. Communicative controls are a huge plus, which should follow logically. Off-roading is as much about feeling your way over/through obstacles as it is anything else, and Mazda knows how to do feel. 

Like the Kona, the CX-5 lacks in the approach angle department. At just 17°, it was incredibly unimpressive on paper; its 20° departure angle wasn't any more remarkable. As you can see in photos, the Mazda's lower lip is like that of the Hyundai Kona's: built for speed, not for clearance. Mazda's SkyActiv powertrain architecture famously results in abnormally long front overhangs thanks to a pronounced exhaust collector which pushes the engine forward in its compartment.

However, the CX-5 also has 7.5 inches of ground clearance, which put it above the average for this test, and that turned out to be its salvation, and put the Mazda on the podium (to just about everybody's surprise). The real shock came next, however, and the unanimity of that reaction was the subject of a great deal of post-event conversation. 

2018 Volkswagen Tiguan SEL Premium

2018 Volkswagen Tiguan SEL Premium

Leftlane rank: 2nd; group rank: 2nd

Throughout the day, most of the group's discussion centered around speculation as to which vehicle would rise high enough above the others to steal the second-place slot. In this company, it's a "virtual" first place, with the top of the podium expected to be a foregone conclusion. 

The eventual winner was no surprise, but your runner-up certainly was. The Volkswagen Tiguan rightly scored very highly for utility, boasting the only third-row passenger setup in the entire group while still offering useful hatch space. With that third row came a long wheelbase which we all assumed (wrongly, as it turned out), would hold it back on the trails.

Judges remarked that the Tiguan's suspension was just soft enough to absorb the impacts of the unavoidable rocky sections without being so floaty as to pose a hazard when bouncing over rocks which could threaten the Volkswagen's large, exposed underbelly. 

That said, the Tiguan would threaten to high-center on some of the berms and water-carved ruts in the hillier sections of the trail, but the long wheelbase was overshadowed by a very impressive 7.9 inches of ground clearance and 26° and 23° approach and departure angles, respectively. 

Even more surprising? Had the Volkswagen's styling been a bit more enticing, it may well have taken first place. Only four points separated the Tiguan from the top slot (the gap back to the Mazda was a wider 17 points), bringing it precariously close to a shocking upset for the ultimate winner.

2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk

2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk

Leftlane rank: 1st; group rank: 1st

Shocking, isn't it? No, of course not. As close as the results may have looked on paper, it would have taken some serious red flags for the Jeep Cherokee to tank this test. It should go without saying at this point that no such sticking points reared their heads over the course of the day. 

In fact, we had only two complaints about the Cherokee. One was a noisy front-door speaker spewing static at us constantly no matter what we did with the infotainment system, which certainly did nothing to impact the Jeep's performance. Second, we were a bit put off by the Cherokee's front visibility. Its tall hood obscured significantly more of our forward vision than we would have liked. 

Not that we really needed to see where we were going. The Cherokee was essentially set-and-forget. With the drive system in 4-low (the only low-range system in this whole group, mind you), we could drive with just the throttle, needing brakes only when a full stop was actually required--which was rare, as it turned out. The Trailhawk package improves the Cherokee's approach angle to 29.9°, its departure angle to 32.2°, and its ground clearance to a whopping 8.7". Those figures may not impress the owner of even a bone-stock Jeep Wrangler Sport, but they're far and away more impressive than anything else in this test.

So, yes, the Jeep cleaned house. It didn't hurt that it's a reasonably large and well-equipped car with tech and materials that were just updated for 2019. The looks of the outgoing model may have held it back in this crowd, but the new face did a lot for the Cherokee's sex appeal. Even more than its ultimate capability, that cemented its first-place finish. 

Closing thoughts

Closing thoughts

It's a blatant cliche to say that there are no losers in any given comparison test, so we'll forego that particular simplification and instead leave you with these parting thoughts. 

Your Fusion can't do this.
"Fusion" here is a stand-in for whatever generic compact or midsize car one might want to throw out there, but let's make this clear right off the bat: No. Disabuse yourself of the notion that we were traversing mere farm roads. Five inches of ground clearance ain't going to cut it out here, so we're confident telling even an Impreza owner to stay home. 

We're not going to pretend that our route was particularly challenging as SUV playgrounds go, but this was still no place for a typical sedan or hatchback. Are there exceptions? Sure, Subaru and Volvo have sold lifted sedans which might pull it off in a pinch, though they'd likely rub their bellies even more severely than the Tiguan did thanks to their lower clearances. A Volkswagen Alltrack? Yes. But a stock Golf? Not a chance, and note we didn't even say "SportWagen" there.

Crossovers as a class scored a win.
The sum total of our casualties for the day was one: The RAV4's front-left tire was a total loss, but it only resulted in brief downtime to replace the wheel. No car needed to be towed, dug, or pushed out. There's an adage in off-roading that if you don't get stuck, you're not pushing hard enough, but under the circumstances, a conservative approach simply made sense. A blown tire is one thing; a shredded CV axle is another entirely, and given our limited resources, not a welcome eventuality. 

Ostensibly, the goal of this evaluation was to determine which compact crossover offers the best blend of capability, utility and style, (weighted in that order), but below the surface, we really just wanted to see if this could be done--to find out for ourselves whether crossovers deserve the shade cast in their direction by the "capability first" crowd. By those standards, they passed with flying colors.

Most cars are far more capable than their owners.
The reality is, no matter the car in question, its owner is very unlikely to realize its true capability. That's plainly obvious to anybody who's ever been stuck behind a slowpoke merging into traffic at 15-under in a performance car, but scenarios like this shine a particularly bright light on the fact that, perhaps even more so than self-identified purists, owners themselves frequently drastically under-estimate (and as a result, under-utilize) vehicles whose true capabilities may far exceed expectations.