NWMotiv’s editorial staff test drives 27 SUVs, crossovers, and pickups at the 22nd annual NWAPA Mudfest.
by Armin H. Ausejo by Vinnie Nguyen
For 22 years, the middle of April has played host to the Northwest Automotive Press Association (NWAPA)’s annual Mudfest, which pits a group of the latest and greatest sport utility vehicles, crossovers, and pickups on both tarmac and off-road courses to push the limits of each vehicle and crown a “Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year.”
While this was the first time we attended Mudfest as official NWAPA members, I first photographed Mudfest back in 2013 as the official photographer, then passed the torch to Mackey for 2014 and 2015, and he in turn passed it onto Vinnie for this year. Thus, rather than just covering the event in photos, both Mackey and I joined 24 other automotive journalists to test drive each of the 27 vehicles ourselves and vote for what we thought was best in six different categories, along with an overall winner. This year, the entire event took place at The Ridge Motorsports Park in Shelton, Washington. For the tarmac tests on Day 1 of the event, the first portion involved backing into a parking space with “Steve the T-Rex” representing a pedestrian, and then taking the vehicle onto The Ridge’s karting track, which happens to be a scale model of the actual full road course. All but just a few of the vehicles tested had reverse assistance features, such as a back-up camera, perimeter views, and audible alerts. However, due to the size of many of the vehicles (particularly the pick-up trucks), it was very difficult to back up successfully on the first try. On the track, some vehicles performed as expected, while others were definitely surprising. The Mazda CX-3 quickly became a favorite of ours on the track, handling the corners quite well with very responsive steering and throttle. The new Ford Explorer was surprisingly a beast on the track, with plenty of power and quite good handling given the size of the vehicle. On the other hand, the Toyota Tacoma TRD felt much heavier than it really was, and while it’s definitely not made to be a track monster, it did leave us a bit disappointed. We also spent much of the first day testing out the interior features and entertainment options of each vehicle. Coming from an enthusiast point of view, the interior is just as important to us as the handling prowess of each vehicle, especially since we’ve become so used to just replacing the stock stereo system as one of the first modifications we perform on our cars. As all automotive vehicles have evolved over the years, it’s been increasingly difficult to just swap in a single or double DIN stereo, especially with all of the latest touch screens that take up so much of the interior real estate.
Some manufacturers clearly did this better than others: both of the Uconnect systems in the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Ram Rebel were head and shoulders above the rest. The touch screens were quick and responsive, the interface was easy to navigate, and the sound quality was absolutely excellent. On the other hand, Volvo looks like they’re still playing a lot of catch-up, and while their interior is slated for big changes in the next model year, the current ones in the V60 Cross Country and XC60 T6 Drive-E featured both a touchscreen and a center console with more buttons than a recording studio sound board. In just about every vehicle, we turn on our favorite EDM XM Radio station and pumped up the volume for some track tunes, which undoubtedly drowned out some of the tire squeals on the tight corners. The second day comprised of all of the off-road testing, with a custom-built mud course complete with areas for more extreme off-road capabilities. Not all vehicles were allowed on the extreme course, but those that did were subject to steep hills, ruts, and traversing logs, all of which required the use of low-range four-wheel drive and hill assist features. Each vehicle was able to complete the course with little issues, but vehicles like the Subaru Crosstrek and Range Rover Sport HSE definitely stood out in each of their respective classes. While the Jeep Wrangler 75th Anniversary Edition reigned supreme on each of the extreme off-road areas, its lack of interior features and comfort didn’t make it quite as complete of an experience as the Range Rover or the Ram Rebel. The hill descent assist on each of the vehicles was quite impressive, so much to the point where we were instructed not to use it near the end of the day because it was tearing up the downhill portion of the course. Wrapping up Mudfest 2016, we were all treated to some free karting laps, where Mackey ended up leaving Vinnie and I in the dust as we both spun out due to locking up our brakes. It was a fantastic way to end the two days of testing, which crowned the Jeep Grand Cherokee as the 2016 Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year. In the coming days, Mackey and I will be providing mini-reviews of our four favorite vehicles from the event, and I’ll be doing a quick Audi S3 long-term and road trip review as well. Mudfest 2016 was a great inaugural NWAPA event for us, and we’re already looking forward to the next official event.
Event Vehicles Participant List
Compact Utility Vehicle
Premium Compact Utility Vehicle
Family Utility Vehicle
Premium Utility Vehicle
Jeep Grand Cherokee 75th Anniversary Edition