By Mary Lowry
The reason so many Northwesterners pursue outdoor activities is obvious: We have a spectacular slice of the outdoors.
Recognizing the important role personal vehicles play in outdoor activities, every year the Northwest Automotive Press Association (NWAPA), of which I am a member, holds a competition to evaluate the current crop of cars designed for those activities. In earlier years the event was called NWAPA’s SUV of the Year competition, but with the auto industry’s shift away from truck-based SUVs to car-based crossovers with all-wheel drive, we changed the name to Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year.
The two-day event took place this year at DirtFish Rally School, a 315-acre site in the Cascade foothills near Snoqualmie. A former mill site, DirtFish has gravel, mud and tarmac areas — perfect for rally driving as well as activity vehicle testing.
Not all vehicles in the event are crossovers. Traditional SUVs still enter the competition, and there’s an Extreme Capability Vehicle class whose entrants are tested on a challenging off-road course the others aren’t allowed to try. However, if the manufacturer representatives at the event give the OK, their vehicles can be taken on the tough course. This year two vehicles not in the Extreme class got the OK, then had to limp off the course early and embarrassed.
Vehicles were grouped into five categories for the competition: Compact Utility Vehicle, Family Utility Vehicle, Premium Compact Utility Vehicle, Premium Standard-size Utility Vehicle, and Extreme Capability Vehicle. We tested all of them on an autocross course, paved roads, and an off-road course. We considered each vehicle’s handling and performance, interior and exterior design, comfort and convenience features, telematics, fuel economy, pricing, and overall personal appeal.
Competition was fierce, but the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk emerged as best overall and was declared NWAPA’s 2014 Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year.
Kia Sorento SX rose to the top of the Family Vehicle class, Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 4×4 won in the Premium Standard-size division, and Land Rover’s Range Rover HSE took honors for Extreme Capability. The Premium Compact result was a tie between the Volvo XC60 T6 AWD and the Mercedes-Benz GLK250 BlueTec 4MATIC. The Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk also won in its Compact class, of course.
All major manufacturers are invited by NWAPA to participate in this annual competition, but due to time constraints and logistics, space is limited and vehicles are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.