Best AWD/4WD Cars of 2021: Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year Awards

The Northwest Automotive Press Association (NWAPA) puts on a Mudfest event every year, for over 25 years now, to evaluate the latest crop of AWD/4WD vehicles. Each year, it crowns its Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year.

The 2021 NWAPA Mudfest winner is the 2022 Genesis GV70. Surprise winner for sure, but a worthy one.

“The all-new 2022 GV70 came out on top with its excellent on-road drivability, surprising off-road capability, and premium interior,” NWAPA said. “This newest model from the Genesis brand demonstrated an unbeatable combination of performance, features, capability, and technology during the NWAPA’s 26th Mudfest competition.”

That sums up my experience at the event with the vehicle as well. Overall, an impressive vehicle with unique styling, big comfort, and value.

I didn’t pick the GV70 as my winner, however. More on that below.

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Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year

Eighteen auto journalists, me being one of them, evaluated 19 different 4WD/AWD CUV, SUV, and trucks over 2 days at The Ridge Motorsports Park in Shelton, Wash.

We spent the first day on pavement and the second off-road. Evaluations took place on the property’s go-kart track and off-road course. Every journalist drove every vehicle on both test courses and had the opportunity to spend further time with the vehicles on the local roads.

The tight go-kart track kept top speeds down, but offered up a great mix of elevation changes, sweeping corners, and tight hairpins. I squealed more than a few tires, and had a blast doing it!

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(All Photos/Doug Berger for NWAPA)

The off-road course consisted of a steep hill, a small rocky water crossing, a few sidehills, some logs, and a series of alternating large holes to test articulation.

The small CUV had a go-around on the first steep obstacle, because they would have high centered on the berm, but otherwise completed the course without issue.

For the extremely capable among the test fleet, a set of steeper, looser hills was also on offer, which did well at testing off-road driving modes, hill-descent control, and surround camera systems.

The journalists in attendance specialize in a wide range of automotive sectors, and most have decades of experience in the industry. I will say that most aren’t super-active outdoor adventure people, so you have to take that into consideration when looking at the results of this evaluation. Everyone has their own idea of what is best for outdoor adventure, as everyone comes from a different perspective and personal needs in an adventuremobile.

Evaluations took place at the end of each day with an online survey that tallied the votes. Besides an overall Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year category, there were also vehicle type categories.

The competition had six subcategories: Subcompact and Compact Family Utility Vehicles, Mid- and Full-Size Family Utility Vehicles, Compact and Midsize Luxury Utility Vehicles, Full-Size Luxury Utility Vehicles, Pickup Trucks, and Extreme Capability Vehicles.

Mudfest_2021_-63912021 Mudfest Winners

Here are all the 19 vehicles tested:

  • Mazda CX30
  • Hyundai Tucson
  • Toyota RAV4 Prime
  • Genesis GV70
  • Mercedes-Benz GLB 250
  • Acura MDX A-Spec
  • KIA Telluride
  • Jeep Wrangler 392
  • Ford Bronco Badlands
  • KIA Sorento
  • Subaru Outback Wilderness
  • VW Atlas
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee L
  • Cadillac Escalade
  • Jeep Wagoneer
  • Honda Ridgeline
  • Hyundai Santa Cruz
  • RAM 1500 TRX
  • Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

And, according to all the tallied votes, the winners are (drumroll, please):

2021 Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year Winners

  • Subcompact and Compact Family: 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE AWD
    • Runner-up: 2022 Hyundai Tucson Limited AWD
  • Mid-and Full-Size Family: 2022 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 392
    • Runner-up: 2021 Ford Bronco 2-Door Advanced Badlands 4X4
  • Compact and Midsize Luxury: 2022 Genesis GV70 AWD 3.5T Sport Prestige
    • Runner-up: 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLB250 4MATIC
  • Full-Size Luxury: 2022 Jeep Wagoneer Series II 4X4
  • Pickup Trucks: 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz Limited AWD
  • Extreme Capability: 2022 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 392
    • Runner-up: 2021 Ford Bronco 2-Door Advanced Badlands 4X4
  • NW Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year: 2022 Genesis GV70 AWD 3.5T Sport Prestige
    • Runner-up: 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz Limited AWD
Best AWD/4WD Cars of 2021: Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year Awards
Best AWD/4WD Cars of 2021: Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year Awards

During its long-running Mudfest, the Northwest Automotive Press Association (NWAPA) crowned its Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year. Read more…

“The 2021 NWAPA Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year competition brought together a diverse group of vehicles that reflects the evolving SUV and pickup markets,” NWAPA president John Vincent said.

“The 2022 Genesis GV70 luxury crossover brought together phenomenal road manners, elegant integration of technology, and an unexpected ability to tackle off-road obstacles with little drama.”

Mudfest_2021_-13001Our Picks for Best AWD/4WD Vehicles

While it’s hard to argue with the winners that came out of the voting by this diverse group of seasoned automotive journalists, I have a bit of a different perspective than many of the journalists in attendance. I see vehicles like this as tools to get me to outdoor adventure locations and, hopefully, have fun and be comfortable along the way.

While I could give you a rundown of exactly how I voted, that would be boring and irrelevant. I do want to let you in on my top choices, however, and a few vehicles that surprised me, both in good and bad ways.

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It’s hard not to smile when driving the RAM TRX!

I chose the RAM TRX truck as the number one Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year. While not inexpensive, about $87,000 — and really big — it far outperforms nearly everything tested on and off-road.

The interior is amazing, the ride is comfortable and, as an overall package, it is ready for any adventure you can throw at it.

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My second-place overall pick is the Jeep Wrangler 392. What’s not to like about a luxury V8 Hemi-powered Wrangler Rubicon?

Well, there is the wind noise and $83,000 price tag, but otherwise, it was really fun on and off road. It was the only vehicle tested that could outperform the TRX off road.

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My third-place pick was a bit of a surprise to me, the Mercedes-Benz GLB 250. It was the top performer on road, has one of the very best interiors and driver ergonomics, and did way better than you’d expect off-road.

The version tested had a bunch of AMG parts on it, which not only made it look better but also perform better. While a smallish SUV for $50,000 isn’t inexpensive, the GLB 250 is actually quite the bargain and would be a great adventure companion for those that don’t need extreme off-road capabilities.

For sure, this Benz would be the easiest of my picks to live with daily, especially in an urban setting.

Other Impressions

There were a number of vehicles that really impressed in this testing. The Acura MDX A-Spec is a super accurate and fun SUV on road, offers up an impressive luxury interior, and has lots of room for all passengers and gear.

The Mazda CX30 is compact, but an impressive value and offered some of the very best on-road driving dynamics of any vehicle tested.

And the Hyundai Santa Cruz offers a better interior, way better on-road driving characteristics, and only marginally worse off-road capabilities than the Honda Ridgeline.

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Underwhelming

There were also a few vehicles in the testing that didn’t impress me. The Ridgeline, as noted above, especially because of the cheap-feeling interior, being among them. And the Outback Wilderness was really good at many things, but I just can’t get past all the plastic bits and horrible transmission.

VW’s Atlas and KIA’s Telluride look really good on the outside and on paper, but both fell short for me when it came to performance, as well as interior quality and ergonomics.

And the 2022 Tacoma TRD Pro is the capable off-road machine that you expect, but it still has a clunky transmission, unimpressive power, and horrible driver ergonomics (especially the seating position).

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In the end, both the NWAPA members’ opinions and mine come from educated places, but each individual will have their own specific needs out of an outdoor activity vehicle.

Each of you will also have your own brand and styling preferences, which will no doubt guide your buying decisions. We can’t forget about budgets as well, because as much as I’d like a TRX in my driveway, I just don’t have that kind of coin to spend on my adventuremobile.

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Bryon Dorr
By

Bryon Dorr caught the outdoor adventure addiction through whitewater kayaking, and worldwide adventures to remote places ensued. He crafted his own professional path as a photographer, journalist, and marketing consultant in the automotive and outdoor industries, while full-time overland traveling for nearly 8 years. You’ll usually find him out exploring by 4x4, adventure motorcycle, or sports car while seeking out opportunities to ski, mountain bike, and kayak. Bryon now has a home base in Portland, OR, and runs our sister site AutoWise.com.