2021 ‘Mudfest’ Winners — Outdoor Activity Vehicles of the Year

© Doug Berger/NWAPA2021 Mudfest
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. (The pickup category was added in 2015.) After missing last year due to the pandemic, this year automotive journalists from the Pacific Northwest region participated in two days of vehicle testing on roads as well as on a variety of off-road terrain to determine winners at 2021 Mudfest.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceOverall Winner
A total of 19 vehicles in six categories entered the competition at 2021 Mudfest, ranging from small crossovers to full-size off-road-prepped pickup trucks. Despite the wide variety of vehicles, the all-new Genesis GV70 emerged as the overall winner, named 2021 Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year. Before the top prize could be awarded, all vehicles endured testing at the hands of more than a dozen NWAPA journalists. Here’s how the event went down, and which vehicles emerged at the top of their respective categories.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceVehicle Categories
All vehicles competing in 2021 Mudfest get divided into six categories: Subcompact and Compact Family SUV, Mid-and Full-Size Family SUV, Compact and Midsize Luxury SUV, Full-Size Luxury SUV, Pickup Truck and Extreme Capability. Participating vehicles are either all-new or recently redesigned — past winners are also invited back to defend their crowns. A winner gets chosen for each category, and finally an overall winner emerges.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceTesting
Vehicle assessment takes place over two days at The Ridge Motorsports Park in Shelton, Washington. Day One testing occurs on pavement, where event participants evaluate each vehicle in terms of handling, comfort, ease of parking and several other criteria. Day Two puts vehicles through their paces on a custom off-road course.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceOn-Road Testing
To assess how these vehicles handle on paved roads, journalists take each vehicle for a few laps of The Ridge’s technical go-kart track. On track the drivers experience vehicle acceleration, emergency braking, 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.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceOn the Street
Although the go-kart track at The Ridge Motorsports park simulates some extreme situations drivers might encounter, journalists are also given the opportunity to see how these crossovers, SUVs, and pickups perform in the real world on roads around Shelton, Washington, near The Ridge.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceInterior 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 equally as important as overall utility at the 2021 Mudfest gathering. 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 — time also gets devoted to evaluating these systems for ease of use.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience2021 Mudfest — or Dirtfest?
After a rather warm and incredibly dry summer in the Pacific Northwest, this year’s event could have been nicknamed “Dirtfest.” Despite the lack of sticky goo that aptly sums up this annual evaluation, the course design for 2021 showcased not only vehicle capability but also comfort and stability when the pavement ends. 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 extreme capability.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceOff-Road Light
Designed for vehicles with lower ground clearance, the lighter course still provided some challenges with angled inclines and declines on loose soil, a section of slick logs and some strategically placed deep moguls that properly tested the all-wheel-drive systems and suspension.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceOff-Road Extreme
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 deep water. An additional course on loose dirt with sharper approach and departure angles further put the more extreme vehicles to the test. Vehicles capable of taking on this tougher course were eligible to earn the Extreme Capability trophy.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceBest Subcompact and Compact Family SUV — 2021 Toyota RAV 4 Prime XSE
Price as tested: $49,776
The RAV4 Prime is Toyota’s first plug-in hybrid version of this popular crossover. It is also the first PHEV to win its category in this event. The RAV4 Prime derives power from a new hybrid system that combines the 177-horsepower 2.5-liter gasoline engine from the RAV4 Hybrid along with front and rear electric drive motors for a combined system output of 302 horsepower. With this much power on tap, the RAV4 Prime accelerates faster than any other Toyota except for the Supra. The RAV4 Prime has an electric-only driving range of more than 40 miles, and it offers a unique sensation when tackling off-road obstacles in almost complete silence with EV mode engaged. This combination of performance and excellent fuel efficiency helped put the RAV4 at the top of its category.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceAdditional Subcompact and Compact Family SUVs
2022 Hyundai Tucson Limited
2021 Mazda CX-30

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceBest Mid- and Full-Size Family SUV — 2022 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 392
Price as tested: $83,095
Jeep has always had great success at this annual event — the Gladiator was the overall winner at the last Mudfest — and the all-new Wrangler 392 carries on that tradition. The Wrangler brings legendary off-road capability, making it the ideal vehicle for tackling practically any type of terrain. However, the new 392 is not a typical Wrangler — under the hood lurks a monstrous 6.4-liter (392-cubic-inch) V8 unit that generates 470 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque, making this one of the quickest production Wranglers ever. Putting that much power in a Wrangler might seem a bit too extreme, although we have to admit the 392 is great fun to drive on or off pavement, and the V8 roar that accompanies the crazy acceleration always brings a smile.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceAdditional Mid- and Full-Size Family SUVs
2021 Ford Bronco Badlands
2021 Kia Sorento X-Line
2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness
2021 Volkswagen Atlas

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceBest Compact and Midsize Luxury SUV — 2022 Genesis GV70 3.5T Sport Prestige
Price as tested: $65,045
The newest model from Genesis, the GV70 joins the GV80 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 that can be found throughout the Genesis lineup. With a coupe-like roof and character line that runs from the headlights to the rear hatch, the GV70 carries a powerful stance. The interior possesses an elegant blend of luxury and tech with comfortable, stylish seats and a large horizontal display screen. With 375 horsepower on tap as well as full-time all-wheel drive, the GV70 has performance cred to match its sporty styling.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceAdditional Compact and Midsize Luxury SUVs
2022 Acura MDX A-Spec
2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland
2022 Kia Telluride SX V6
2021 Mercedes-Benz GLB 250

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceBest Full-Size Luxury SUV — 2022 Jeep Wagoneer Series II
Price as tested: $82,075
Earlier this year, Jeep introduced an all-new Wagoneer. Nearly 10 inches longer and 4 inches taller than the recently introduced Grand Cherokee L, Wagoneer is built on new architecture with a body-on-frame design and high-strength steel to improve performance and safety while also reducing weight. With a powerful HEMI V8 engine under the hood, a high-tech all-wheel-drive system and Quadra-Lift air suspension, the Wagoneer remains incredibly capable off pavement. The interior offers a new level of luxury for the brand, including high-end materials and the latest in comfort and safety technology.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceAdditional Full-Size Luxury SUVs
2021 Cadillac Escalade Sport Platinum

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceBest Pickup Truck — 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz Limited
Price as tested: $39,915
Earlier this year the Korean automaker introduced the all-new Santa Cruz pickup, which the company refers to as a Sport Adventure Vehicle. Santa Cruz boasts a unique design that helps this truck stand out from almost 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 tie-downs, a watertight storage space in the bed floor and a hard, lockable tonneau cover to protect cargo in the bed. Santa Cruz’s HTRAC AWD system features an electronic variable-torque-split clutch with active torque control between front and rear axles, which helps the pickup easily deal with rough terrain.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceAdditional Pickup Trucks
2021 Honda Ridgeline Sport
2021 Ram 1500 TRX
2022 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

© Doug Berger/NWAPABest Extreme Capability — 2022 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 392
Granted, the Jeep Wrangler 392 differentiates itself from competitors thanks to its extremely powerful V8, but there’s more to this special model than the engine. Ground clearance is a plentiful 10.3 inches, and when necessary this high-performance Jeep can traverse up to 32.5 inches of water. The wide track and heavy-duty front and rear Dana 44 axles with electronic locking differentials add impressive capability. Additionally, the front sway bar can be disconnected electronically for maximum suspension travel. The Wrangler 392 has full-time four-wheel drive as standard equipment.

© Doug Berger/NWAPAOverall Winner — 2022 Genesis GV70 3.5T Sport Prestige
(Runner-Up — 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz Limited)
With plenty of power from its 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 engine, full-time all-wheel drive and balanced chassis, the GV70 performed very well on the Ridge’s technical track. Even in Sport Plus mode with stability control deactivated, the GV70 drives more like a sport sedan than an SUV. That said, most surprising is how well this Genesis performs off pavement. With the ability to send power to a single wheel when all others lose traction, the GV70 handles rough, uneven surfaces with no drama — a little throttle automatically motivates the SUV to keep its forward momentum. With excellent on- and off-road driving dynamics, the new G70 certainly earns and deserves the title of Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year.

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