Volkswagen Touareg TDI
Beauty and Brawn
THE BUZZ: The Touareg is no suburban poseur; it's a first-rate off-road machine ready to take on Moab but with a clean-burning V-6 turbodiesel, leather seats, and a limousine-quiet interior.
THE TEST: We powered easily over rocks thanks to monster torque (406 lb-ft) made quick work of deep sand, and then dropped the suspension, low-rider style, from 11.8 inches to six, and purred along at 80 mph on the interstate. And even with four adults and luggage, we got close to 30 mpg while doing it.
THE VERDICT: True interior luxury, a 7,700-lb towing capacity, and the same gas mileage as a Subie wagon? You couldn't ask for more from an upscale SUV. From $43,960; mpg, 18 city/25 hwy; vw.com
Best Adventure Vehicles: Ford Fusion Hybrid
THE BUZZ: Take a plush, smooth-driving American sedan and give it the soul of a Prius and you've got Ford's new Fusion Hybrid with a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder gas/electric engine that delivers a whopping 40-plus miles per gallon.
THE TEST: This car is a teacher. The more economically I drove, the more "leaves" the car grew on the dash's LCD display. Instead of flooring it, I quickly became obsessed with covering the entire screen in sanctifying green.
THE VERDICT: It won't wow you with its pep or handling, but that's not the point. It's a comfy and impressively fuel-efficient sedan. From $27,270; mpg, 41 city/36 hwy; ford.com
Best Adventure Vehicles: Suzuki Kizashi
Fast and Frugal
THE BUZZ: Kizashi is a Japanese reference to something good coming, and with its spacious interior, Euro-style exterior, traction control, and front and rear air bags, this zippy sports sedan lives up to its name.
THE TEST: The more-powerful-than-it-sounds 2.4-liter, 185-hp four-cylinder engine and smooth six-speed manual transmission beg you to drive the Kizashi like a sports car on any mountain road or coastal highway. The only bummer? The manual transmission is offered only with two-wheel drive the all-wheel-drive version is currently available only as a rough, fun-sapping automatic.
THE VERDICT: Stay away from snow and ice and the manual version becomes a screaming deal even before you factor in the great fuel economy on road trips. From $19,000; mpg, 21 city/31 hwy; suzuki.com
Best Adventure Vehicles: Subaru Outback
THE BUZZ: Yes, it's a wagon. But thanks to its bigger size and meatier (3.6-liter) six-cylinder boxer engine, it feels more like the SUVs of yore with superior gas mileage.
THE TEST: All-wheel drive and traction control provided a solid, responsive feel, while the 256-hp motor's torque made punching the gas an unexpected thrill. Inside, it was like a cargo ship. Our six-foot cohorts easily fit in the backseats, and the rear seats folded down to stow two 29er bikes without removing the front wheels.
THE VERDICT: Plenty of pep and a ton of room, especially for a wagon. From $28,000; mpg, 18 city/25 hwy; subaru.com
Best Adventure Vehicles: Chevy Equinox
A Nice Surprise
THE BUZZ: It may look like just another gas-swilling American SUV, but don't be fooled. The standard four-cylinder (2.4-liter, 182-hp) version of this compact, extremely well-priced SUV boasts a best-in-class 32 mpg on the highway and a range of some 600 miles per tank.
THE TEST: From the supportive, ergonomic seats to the impressively quiet cabin, I felt like I was driving a much more expensive rig. For its size, interior room is remarkable: Our four-person crew (average height: six foot) never felt crammed.
THE VERDICT: You lose some ground clearance and cargo space to aerodynamics, but the range and fuel efficiency make this a perfect road-trip machine. From $23,185; mpg, 22 city/32 hwy; chevrolet.com
Best Adventure Vehicles: Mazda Speed3
THE BUZZ: Trapped inside this budget-friendly hatchback is a 155-mph racer screaming to get out. Mazda tuned the suspension, steering, and transmission to handle the turbocharged, 263-hp engine's thrust, producing a nimble sport compact that can also haul skis and bikes.
THE TEST: Blasting over 11,500-foot Colorado mountain passes was a snap, while the fuel-sipping four-cylinder engine returned a shocking 30 mpg, despite being driven hard and fast over 150 miles with 12,000 feet of climbing.
THE VERDICT: If you're heavy on cargo but light on budget and secretly lust for a Porsche this is your rig. From $23,200; mpg, 18 city/25 hwy; mazdausa.com
Best Adventure Vehicles: Volvo XC60
THE BUZZ: This is not only the fastest SUV Volvo's ever made; it's also the safest. Automatic systems stop the car before hitting obstacles (at up to 18 mph), and alarms go off if you drift out of your lane or when a car enters your blind spot.
THE TEST: While sophisticated, those alarms seemed like a bit of overkill. Turning them off let me focus on the taut handling and turbocharged, 281-horsepower six-cylinder engine. A very high-performance ride for an SUV.
THE VERDICT: The all-wheel-drive XC60 shines in the city and in winter, but it's better on pavement than dirt, and the gas mileage left me feeling empty: I barely cracked 18 mpg around town. From $37,200; mpg, 18 city/20 hwy; volvo.com
Best Adventure Vehicles: Ford Flex
THE BUZZ: Ford pumped up the green factor on this sleek crossover with a new high-efficiency, twin-turbo V-6 engine that delivers V-8 performance with six-cylinder gas mileage. Just for kicks, they also added cool features like automated (hands-free) parallel parking.
THE TEST: This thing rips. On the steep road up to Rocky Mountain National Park, I downshifted the 355-hp engine and sprinted past seven cars, at close to 7,000 feet in elevation, in seconds. Few cars can pull off that maneuver, let alone a seven-passenger wagon like this.
THE VERDICT: A big, comfy cargo vehicle with an extraordinary amount of oomph. From $40,000; mpg, 16 city/22 hwy; ford.com
Best Adventure Vehicles: Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon
Not Your Daddy's Caddy
THE BUZZ: This is the first American-made "luxury sport wagon" worthy of the phrase. With all-wheel drive, a 3.6-liter V-6 engine, a surprising 58 cubic feet of cargo space, and lots of chrome and digital bling like the optional onboard Wi-Fi the CTS Sport Wagon drives better and has more features than a comparable BMW.
THE TEST: The smooth acceleration, combined with taut steering and responsive brakes, makes it feel more like a roadster than a wagon. On mountain roads north of Malibu and outside Denver, we couldn't find a curve that made us flinch.
THE VERDICT: This Cadillac means business. From $40,400; mpg, 17 city/27 hwy; cadillac.com
Best Adventure Vehicles: Toyota 4Runner
True 4x4 Power
THE BUZZ: The completely redesigned 4Runner is a serious off-road machine. The V-6 version has a healthy 278 lb-ft of rock-crawling torque, a 5,000-lb towing capacity, and a novel suspension that adjusts the ride for pavement, mud, loose rock, or uneven terrain at the twist of a dial.
THE TEST: In the mountains north of Santa Barbara, the 4Runner's beefy suspension and nine-inch clearance it's built on the same platform as Toyota's gnarliest off-roader, the FJ Cruiser laughed at sloppy gravel and steep, rocky switchbacks. On the street, it's a surprisingly smooth operator for such a brawny truck.
THE VERDICT: A traditional midsize SUV that begs to be taken off the beaten path. From $35,700; mpg, 17 city/22 hwy; toyota.com