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These 5 Soft-Roaders Performed Surprisingly Well Off-Road in the Rocky Mountains

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author photo by Chris O'Neill November 2018

I recently had a chance to test out a number of 4-wheel drive trucks and SUVs on the mountain passes around Breckenridge, Colorado. The group of vehicles was divided into two classes -- soft-roaders and full-blown off-roaders. The soft-roaders were taken down a slightly tamer course than the off-roaders. Don't be mistaken, though: This was more than just a simple forest road, and the 4- and all-wheel-drive systems of each of the vehicles were put to the test. Below are a few takeaways from each of the five vehicles.

2019 Ram 1500 Longhorn Crew Cab 4x4

The all-new Ram is a huge improvement over the outgoing model, offering more space and better amenities. The Ram 1500 Longhorn trim level brings about a Southwestern flair to this tough new truck, and it features real wood trim, embroidered leather, and a western-themed gauge cluster that's bordering on obnoxious. As it was the only truck on the soft-road course, it was also the only vehicle to feature true 4WD low-range. This particular example also featured an air suspension system, which gave the Ram some added ground clearance for tackling the trail. While its on-road-oriented tires were really the only thing keeping this truck from being a true off-roader, its retractable running boards proved to be a liability, as their failure to retract in one instance resulted in the passenger-side unit being snagged on a rock and ripped off. Make sure those running boards stay out of the way, though, and the Ram 1500 Longhorn presents a pretty good balance between on-road poise and off-road ability.

2019 Kia Sorento SXL AWD

With every passing model generation, the Kia brand continues to move onward and upward when it comes to quality and luxury. The Sorento in the group served as yet another example of this, as it wore a handsome and tasteful brown leather interior, and its driver's seat even featured an adjustable thigh bolster -- a feature usually reserved for German sport sedans. Like the other vehicles, the Sorento tackled the trail rather effortlessly, but it was here that many could start to appreciate the functionality of brake- and traction-control-based off-road systems. In cases where the vehicle began to lose traction, many drivers immediately let off the throttle. Perhaps surprisingly, this is the opposite of what drivers should actually do, as persistent, consistent throttle application is required for the traction-control system to "learn" the terrain and determine the precise level of power application needed to conquer it. After a few seconds of whirring and spinning, the traction-control system in the Sorento -- and in the other crossovers -- would eventually propel it over every obstacle in its path, which is exactly what these systems are designed to do.

2019 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD

The CX-9 conquered every obstacle on the easy- to medium-difficulty course, just like the rest of the group, only to be taken out by a freak deer encounter on the drive back to civilization. Both human and deer walked away from the incident, and luckily we were all able to experience the CX-9's excellent interior before its passenger-side headlight and front door were knocked out of commission in the collision. Like the rest of the Mazda lineup, the CX-9 wears a striking design, inside and out, and it was one of the most upscale vehicles in the whole group, behind only the Acura RDX and the Lexus LX570 that was piloted down the more difficult course.

2019 Honda Pilot AWD Elite

The Pilot's AWD system has the ability to send considerable torque to one wheel in particular, theoretically giving it an edge over less sophisticated systems. While we weren't able to verify the effectiveness of this system, as each of the five vehicles tested made it through the course with relative ease, we can say that the Pilot's robust interior was surely the most family friendly of the group, while its paddle shifters and selectable off-road terrain modes allow the driver to tailor the vehicle to a variety of situations when the pavement ends.

2019 Acura RDX SH-AWD A-Spec

The most performance-oriented vehicle in the bunch, the all-new 2019 RDX is a real looker both on-road and off. Given its shorter wheelbase, the RDX lifted a rear wheel on a few different occasions as we crept back down the mountain after reaching the top. Still, despite its 20-inch wheels, the RDX tackled the route convincingly. The real highlights, though, were the vehicle's red interior and its ELS Studio 3D premium audio system, which can be cranked to maximum volume without leading to sound degradation. It's a mesmerizing effect that you really have to hear to believe.

While all of these vehicles except for the Ram employed a unibody construction with a fully independent suspension and limited ground clearance, each one proved rather capable thanks to modern intelligent AWD systems with integrated traction-control and terrain-management tech, and they all made it through the off-road course pretty convincingly. When it comes down to it, they all shared one common weak point, though: wheels and tires. While each one made it through, their basic on-road-oriented all-season tires were a constant concern. One vehicle, the Pilot, actually suffered a puncture, and it seemed like only a matter of time before another would follow. So to anyone out there considering an AWD crossover for the occasional off-road exploit, make sure to carry a tire patch kit with you. And for those really looking to go off-road, consider opting for a more aggressive tire when it comes time for replacement. Other than that, though, as this event proved, you should be good to go.

Chris O'Neill grew up in the Rust Belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for awhile, helping Germans design cars for Americans. Follow him on Instagram: @MountainWestCarSpotter.

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These 5 Soft-Roaders Performed Surprisingly Well Off-Road in the Rocky Mountains - Autotrader