by: JOHN M. VINCENT - The Jeep Cherokee with the Trailhawk package won the Outdoor Vehicle of the Year Award.What’s the best vehicle for the Pacific Northwest outdoor lifestyle? It’s a tough question, but each year the automotive journalists of the Northwest Automotive Press Association try to answer it. Over the course of two days, we tested 23 SUVs and crossovers on paved and unpaved roads. We ran the vehicles through tight maneuvering and braking tasks that simulate emergency handling scenarios.

In short, we do things to SUVs that owners never really want to do to their own.

Testing was done at the DirtFish Rally School in Snoqualmie, Wash., a 315-acre former Weyerhaeuser lumber mill that’s been transformed into a perfect closed-course driving facility. Competitors were judged in five classes, with a winner chosen in each class and an overall winner chosen from the entire field. All of the vehicles tested were either 4-wheel or all-wheel drive.

The Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk was selected as the 2014 Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year. The compact Jeep demonstrates the capabilities that Jeep buyers demand, with the comfort, performance and technology that modern crossover SUV customers desire. Cherokees are available with a choice of two engines, three distinct 4-wheel drive systems, and the first application of Chrysler’s 9-speed automatic transmission. The winning model was the top-of-the-line Cherokee Trailhawk, priced at $38,710.

On the inside, the Cherokee offers the best interior in the class, bar none. The design incorporates Jeep’s Selec-Terrain traction management dial, with its multiple modes for various driving conditions. The available UConnect 8.2-inch navigation and entertainment system continues to raise the bar in terms of ergonomics and ease-of-use while competing systems get more complex and cumbersome.

Compact Utility Vehicle class competitors:

Nissan Rogue

Hyundai Tucson

Mazda CX-5

Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid

Ford Escape Titanium

Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk

by: JOHN M. VINCENT - The Trailhawk version of the Jeep Cherokee at Mudfest.In addition to winning the overall trophy, the Jeep Cherokee took the honors in the Compact Utility Class, that wasn’t unexpected, as the special edition Trailhawk model entered was by far the most expensive vehicle in the division.

While no award was given for second place, journalists were asked make a selection in order to break any possible first place ties. That was more of a challenge, as the Hyundai Tucson, Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid, and Mazda CX-5 each presented a compelling argument. The Mazda CX-5 won out in my scorebook, with solid fuel economy numbers of 24/city and 30/highway, coupled with the best handling in the class.

Premium Compact Utility Vehicle:

Volvo XC60 T6 AWD

Mercedes-Benz GLK250 BlueTEC

The premium compact class is one of the most competitive in the industry, so it’s no surprise that the journalists were deadlocked between the two entrants. Each had a number of strengths, with the recently-refreshed Volvo showing a great new interior, and a suite of safety technology that’s JOHN M. VINCENT - The refreshed Volvo XC60 T6 AWD.

But in my opinion, the Mercedes GLK250 should have taken the class solely on the strength of its advanced clean diesel engine. Although the Volvo touts 300-horsepower, it only achieves EPA mileage ratings of 17 city/24 highway, while the diesel-powered Benz earns ratings of 24/city and 33 on the highway. The Mercedes is only rated at 200-horsepower, but cranks out significantly more torque than the Volvo.

by: JOSH MACKEY/NWAPA - The Mercedes-Benz GLK250 BlueTEC tested on the skidpad.Volvo has a great family of more efficient Drive-E engines available, but you can’t get them on all-wheel drive models yet, limiting their usefulness in the Northwest.

Family Utility Vehicle:

Chevrolet Tahoe

Dodge Durango

Dodge Journey Crossroad

Honda Pilot

Kia Sorento

Mitsubishi Outlander

Nissan Pathfinder

The winner in the family class was surprising, as the $39, 195 Kia Sorento dominated the class that included impressive entries from Chevrolet and Dodge. The Sorento just seems to be the right-sized and right-priced package, although large families would be better served with the more spacious Tahoe or JOHN M. VINCENT - The family-friendly Kia Sorento.

Perhaps the brand-new Chevrolet entry would have done better, had it not been saddled with an astounding $70,580 price tag. The fully-loaded LTZ model was fantastic, but fully competent Tahoes can be had for thousands less.

Premium Standard Utility Vehicle:

Acura MDX

BMW X5 xDrive35d

Jeep Grand Cherokee

Lexus GX460

VW Touareg TDI

by: JOHN M. VINCENT  - The Jeep Grand Cherokee is now available with a turbo-diesel V6.Jeep took their second class winning trophy with the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Last year’s overall winner, the Grand Cherokee is hard to beat in terms of luxury, matched with capability at a mainstream price. This year’s entry was one of several diesels in the competition, with the company’s new 3.0-liter V-6 ECODiesel under the hood.

Coming in a surprising second in my scorebook was the Volkswagen Touareg TDI. Although it’s getting late in its life-cycle, the Touareg is still a strong contender in the segment, especially when outfitted with VW’s efficient diesel powerplant.

Extreme Capability Vehicle:

Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

Land Rover Range Rover

Toyota 4Runner Trail

The Extreme Capability class is reserved for those vehicles that retain exceptional off-highway prowess. Each of the three competitors does so in a different way, with the Jeep featuring amazing suspension articulation, the Toyota with high-ground clearance and advanced electronic traction management systems, and the Range Rover a tour de force with state of the art suspension, electronic traction and differential management technologies.

The journalists chose the $91,995 Range Rover as the winner of the category, but really any of the three would have been a worthy victor. In the end, my vote went to the Jeep JOSH MACKEY/NWAPA - The land Rover Range River on the Mudfest track.

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