For nearly 30 years, the Northwest Automotive Press Association (NWAPA) has taken advantage of the Pacific Northwest’s often-muddy terrain to test and vote on an Outdoor Activity Vehicle Of The Year, an event that appropriately became known as Mudfest. This year, 14 manufacturers brought 22 new four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive vehicles creating a mix of truly off-road capable 4x4s, pickups, dirt-capable crossovers, and more road-centric rigs. From a sub-$30,000 Subaru Crosstrek to a $452,000 Rolls Royce Cullinan SUV, all were put through their off- and on-road paces and then voted on to see which vehicle would be crowned the Outdoor Activity Vehicle Of The Year.
“Outdoor activity vehicles balance work and play for people who live in the Pacific Northwest and take advantage of recreational opportunities. Competition for the 2023 award shows that the market is evolving as fast or faster than any other automotive segment, offering more choices than ever before,” said NWAPA President and Event Chair Nik Miles.
This event isn’t out to measure pure off-road capability (nor best on-road performance), but rather to distinguish some of the best vehicles for outdoor recreation.
The Mudfest Proving Grounds Take Place Off-Road And On-Road
The competition takes place at The Ridge Motorsports Park in Shelton, Washington. Day one is on-road testing, which includes an autocross course to test handling, then a straight-line acceleration test followed by hard braking. There’s a track portion where vehicles can be tested on overall performance through straightaways and sweeping corners, too.
Day two is when things get dirty. Thanks to steady rain, the off-road test track lived up to the Mudfest moniker. The course begins with twin gravel slaloms, then goes into a muddy straightaway that leads to a steep off-camber turn, a log climb with another off-camber corner, then an articulation section.
Manufacturers could showcase their vehicle’s maximum off-road capability by selecting optional challenging obstacles. Muddy hill climbs, steep descents into a waterhole, and rutted-out mud tracks would highlight off-road prowess.
NWAPA’s Four Mudfest Vehicle Classifications:
- 2023 Ford F-150 Raptor R
- 2023 Hyundai Santa Cruz
- -2023 Toyota Tundra TRD Pro
Two-Row Family SUV
- 2024 Subaru Crosstrek Premium
- 2023 Honda CR-V Hybrid AWD Sport Touring
- 2023 Jeep Wrangler 4xe 20th Anniversary Rubicon
- 2023 Mazda CX-50 Meridian Edition
- 2023 Jeep Compass Trailhawk
- 2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro
- 2023 Volkswagen Tiguan SEL R-Line 4MOTION
Three-Row Family SUV
- 2023 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
- 2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek
- 2023 Kia Telluride X-Pro
- 2023 Honda Pilot Trailsport AWD
- 2023 Hyundai Palisade XRT AWD
- 2023 Toyota Sequoia TRD Pro
- 2022 Acura RDX SH-AWD A-Spec w/Advance
- 2023 Genesis Electrified GV70
- 2023 Rolls-Royce Cullinan
- 2023 Jeep Wagoneer Series II
- 2023 BMW X7 M
- 2023 Lexus RX500h
As an experienced off-road enthusiast, I unofficially divided the vehicles into three categories: high-capability four-wheel-drives, capable all-wheel-drives, and dirt-road-only all-wheel-drives. Clearly, a 700 HP V-8-powered boosted Ford Raptor R and a 281 HP four-cylinder Hyundai Santa Cruz are pickups, but not alike. I mean, a Great Dane and a Chihuahua are both dogs, but that’s about where the similarities end.
On-Road Testing of Off-Road Vehicles
On the pavement, the Raptor, Sequoia, Tundra, Wagoneer, and Wrangler weren’t exactly at home on the test -track’s tight corners. There were screaming tires and scads of body roll. After all, they weren’t meant to be flung around the tarmac. That’s not to say there weren’t highlights. This included the Raptor R’s ridiculously fast acceleration, courtesy of its supercharged 5.2-liter V8 and smile-inducing exhaust note, especially on the loudest setting.
Admittedly, the Jeep Wagoneer, while large, handled better than I’d expected on the racecourse. While you won’t likely see one at your local track day, it cornered more competently than expected. Conversely, the Sequoia and Tundra felt like lumbering giants, and the Wrangler 4xe handled like one would expect a Wrangler to handle through a road course. That being said, its powerful 270 HP hybrid drivetrain produces a whopping 470 ft./lbs. of torque, and offered impressive acceleration. Just when you expect it to run out of steam (watts?), it just kept accelerating.
So which vehicles were the best on-road? The nimble Hyundai Santa Cruz had surprisingly quick reflexes and was a blast to drive. The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV was far more entertaining than most expected. The BMW X7 M was absolutely the sports car of the bunch, despite it being hamstrung by all-terrain tires. The all-electric Genesis GV70 also provided silent but rocket-like acceleration.
Off-Road Testing The Most Capable Rigs At Mudfest Mania
On day two, we put these vehicles in the dirt and mud which is where many came to life.
On pavement, the Raptor R was a straight-line rocket, but wait until you put it into the dirt! Even from a rolling start, the full-throttle blasts made you feel like you’re driving a trophy truck. The 37×12.50R17 BFGoodrich all-terrain tires clawed for traction, and the suspension soaked up bumps that upset most of the all-wheel-drive crossovers. When you have up to 14.1 inches of suspension travel, it’ll do that.
I think the “R” in Raptor R stands for “ridiculous.” As in ridiculously fun, ridiculously fast, and ridiculously awesome sounding. The $111,000+ price and 12 MPG combined fuel economy are also on the ridiculous side, but this is an off-road-ready super truck and one hell of a good time. Yes, it has a low-range transfer case, and it worked as advertised; the forward-facing camera did a great job letting you navigate the brute up steep hills and through muddy ruts, but this isn’t a crawler, it’s a Baja blaster and sand-dune slayer.
The Jeep Flagship Products Were Put To The Test
On the opposite end of the off-road spectrum is the Jeep Wrangler 4xe. With its stout solid front and rear axles, front and rear lockers, and energetic hybrid drivetrain, the Wrangler 4xe was the mountain goat of the bunch. It made every single obstacle feel like a molehill. It laughed at the course’s puny hill climbs and didn’t flinch in muddy ruts. While not the fastest or most refined, it was undoubtedly the most off-road capable vehicle of the lot.
Speaking of Jeeps, the new Wagoneer Series II, with its boosted 420 HP 3.0-liter twin-turbo Hurricane engine, is a fun family off-roader. With multiple terrain modes, a true low-range transfer case, and seating for seven, this rig can do double-duty as a great road tripper and a capable off-roader. Despite its large size, it easily tackled the off-road course’s extreme sections, though not as easy as its Wrangler cousin. But then again, they’re very different vehicles.
Was Toyota On Top?
Lest we forget Toyota’s two entries, the 2023 Sequoia TRD Pro, and the 2023 Tundra TRD Pro. Both have gusty iForce MAX hybrid twin-turbo V-6 engines, both are body-on-frame, and make 437 horsepower and 583 lb/ft of torque. The Sequoia, like the Wagoneer, has fully independent suspension, and a true low-range transfer case, and feels bigger than it is. With massive side mirrors, a cavernous interior, and tons of storage, this SUV is also a great family off-roader.
With a truck-like feel and sweet exhaust note, the Sequoia was very capable off the pavement with impressive articulations for a vehicle with completely independent suspension. The Tundra features the same Sequoia independent front suspension but trades the independent rear for a solid axle. After all, this is a legit pickup truck. The Tundra had plenty of flex on the course and enough power to make it entertaining, but it wasn’t the giggle machine that the Raptor R was. Both Toyotas offered a modern yet rugged interior as well.
Surprisingly Capable Crossovers At Mudfest Mania
Not all crossovers are just jacked-up minivans or lifted hatchbacks with no off-road chops. For example, the new 2024 Subaru Crosstrek—voted Best Value at the event—was quite at home in the dirt.
While you needed to be more careful over the obstacles, the Crosstrek, equipped with Subaru’s X-MODE software, surprised me, even over the Mudfest Mania hard track option (it was one of only a few crossovers to attempt the more difficult obstacles). And despite its somewhat anemic 152 HP 2.0-liter drivetrain (a more powerful 182 HP 2.5-liter is also offered), it offers a lot of comfort, and both off- and on-road capability as well. The Crosstrek was also nearly $7,000 dollars less than the next cheapest vehicle there.
Another surprise was the new Honda Pilot Trailsport. With its thick factory skid plates and legitimate recovery points, Continental all-terrain tires, and off-road driving modes, it was quite capable. On the more difficult route, it climbed hills easily, felt stable off-camber, and made it through the articulation track without incident.
The two-row Jeep Compass Trailhawk was not an on-road favorite, but came into its own off-road, tackling the difficult obstacles with ease, especially for an all-wheel-drive vehicle. With a simulated low-range, 8.6 inches of ground clearance, and Jeep’s “Trail Rated” pedigree, the Compass Trailhawk was above-average off-road.
I’m also giving the non-existent Best Potential Rally Race Car Award to the Mazda CX-50. With its 227 HP turbocharged engine, stellar driving dynamics, and responsive all-wheel-drive system, this thing begged to be flung around the dirt slalom. And as much as I wanted to throw it into a “Scandinavian Flick” to slide it sideways through every dirt corner, I resisted.
The Rest Of The Crowd
The other vehicles here were not quite as noteworthy off-road. Some might be better dirt-road adventure cars than extreme off-roaders. The BMW X7 M (shod with aggressive all-terrain tires) was a blast on the dirt slalom.
The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) was way more fun both on- and off the pavement than it should’ve been. Part of this was due to its advanced S-AWC (super all-wheel control) system which adjusted wheel slip, yaw, and other dynamics to match the terrain. It was truly a standout even if it wasn’t the fastest or most capable vehicle there.
Acura and Lexus both showed up with their luxury crossovers, the RDX SH-AWD A-Spec and RX500h, respectively. Both were great on-road and made it through the off-road course without incident but weren’t exactly dirt monsters. Kia’s sharp-looking new Sportage, which rolled on all-terrain tires, was in the same boat for me. Volkswagen brought the Tiguan R-Line, a two-row SUV with European good looks, and on-road manners to match. Off-road it was stiffly sprung, fun through the slalom, but had a fair bit of nanny controls screaming at you when off-camber or descending the log obstacle.
Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles and All Electric Vehicles Are A Thing
This was the first year an all-electric vehicle showed up, courtesy of Genesis and its GV70. This high-tech wonder had some amazingly advanced features, such as the ability to look down the road and pre-adjust the suspension to absorb forthcoming bumps. Think about how cool this will be someday when that tech moves into an off-road-style vehicle! It was also very fast due to the twin-motor setup.
A Half-Million Dollar Contender?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the giant white luxury SUV in attendance: the Rolls Royce Cullinan. At a jaw-dropping $452,000, this luxury SUV was pure opulence. With a smooth and whisper-quiet V12 engine under the hood, a hefty 6,000-pound plus curb weight, and over 500 pounds of sound deadening, the Rolls was in a theoretical class of its own. Kudos to Rolls Royce for bringing this bespoke behemoth and putting it through its paces. The stark white interior got muddy quickly, which was ok at Mudfest Mania.
The 2023 Mudfest Mania Winners
In the end, the awards shook out like this:
- Two-Row Family SUV — 2023 Jeep Wrangler 4xe 20th Anniversary Rubicon
- Runner up — 2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro Prestige AWD
- Three-Row Family SUV — 2023 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
- Runner up — 2023 Toyota Sequoia TRD Pro
- Luxury SUV — 2023 Genesis Electrified GV70
- Runner up — 2023 Wagoneer Series II 4×4
- Pickup Truck — 2023 Ford F-150 Raptor 4×4 SuperCrew
- Runner up — 2023 Hyundai Santa Cruz
- Electrified Utility Vehicle — 2023 Genesis Electrified GV70
- Runner up — 2023 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
- Extreme Capability Vehicle — 2023 Jeep Wrangler 4xe 20th Anniversary Rubicon
- Runner up — 2023 Ford F-150 Raptor R
- Best Value SUV or Pickup — 2024 Subaru Crosstrek Premium
- Runner up — 2023 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
- NW Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year — 2023 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
- Runner up — 2023 Genesis Electrified GV70
The NWAPA group provided tests as diverse as the vehicles entered. In the end, the overall winner was the 2023 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, which was more fun than it had any right to be. Again, the winner isn’t based on any single attribute, such as off-road capability, but a host of traits combined. In terms of the most capable rigs, I agree: the Wrangler was untouchable for capability. However, Raptor R was a total blast. In the end, Mudfest Mania provides a solid place to test new four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive vehicles and lets writers get the word out on great choices for those eager to take a vehicle on an outdoor journey.
Mudfest Mania: Competing For Outdoor Activity Vehicle Of The Year
Photos by Doug Berger on behalf of NWAPA