The Next Generation of Adventure-Ready Vehicles

(Josh Rubin)
Audi Allroad adventure vehicles cars

Audi Allroad

THE SELL: A stylish, go-anywhere cross-over wagon with power to spare.

THE TEST: With all-wheel drive, seven inches of ground clearance, and aggressive all-season tires, the Allroad excelled on the icy tarmac and steep fire roads that beat up lesser crossovers. What we really loved, though, was unleashing the 211 horses packed into its two-liter turbo engine. While the interior is big enough to comfortably seat five big guys, there isn’t much cargo space. Leather seats and gorgeous metal trim are standard, and the insane tech package—the best of the bunch—includes cellular Wi-Fi and the first-ever in-vehicle application of Google Earth.

THE VERDICT: The slickest AWD in America. 20mpg city/27 hwy

Chevrolet Spark 2LT

13spark 11laas mostrecent Chevrolet Spark 2LT adventure vehicles
(Courtesy of Chevrolet)

THE SELL: Remarkable fuel economy at a killer price.

THE TEST: The Spark may be tiny—barely five feet tall—but it’s impressively roomy for a subcompact. Our six-foot tester, two kids, and a weekend’s worth of luggage fit comfortably inside. Granted, getting the car up to 75 miles per hour on Los Angeles freeways took unnervingly long. The microsize 1.2-liter, four-cylinder engine pumps out an anemic 84 horsepower; some motorcycles are burlier than that. On the upside, parallel parking is a snap, and we averaged 35 miles per gallon over the entire weekend.

THE VERDICT: Surprisingly functional, with fuel efficiency that puts more expensive hybrids and some diesels to shame. Not bad for one of the least expensive cars on the market. 28mpg city/37 hwy

Touch-screen consoles like the Spark's are awesome. But because you have to take your eyes off the road to use them, the U.S. Department of Transportation wants them banned. Our advice: pull over or let a passenger do the fiddling.

Ford Escape SEL 1.6 AWD

Ford Escape SEL 1.6 AWD
(Courtesy of Ford)

THE SELL: SUV perks with sports-sedan handling.

THE TEST: Ford borrowed the stiff chassis and go-kart steering from its sporty Focus sedans to make this AWD crossover the most playful “cute ute” we drove. And it did so without compromising utility: the Escape’s 1.6-liter turbo engine gets 33mpg on the highway and still delivers enough power to leapfrog trucks up steep grades. The Escape’s all-wheel drive can send as much as 100 percent of torque to either axle, which makes creeping up slippery driveways easier. Another bonus: the interior fits two road bikes.

THE VERDICT: With eight inches of clearance, this crossover is capable of off-roading but doesn’t penalize you with a truck-like ride or poor fuel economy. 23mpg city/33 hwy

Volkswagen Passat TDI

Volkswagen Passat TDI adventure vehicles
(Courtesy of Volkswagon)

THE SELL: The ultimate road-trip machine.

THE TEST: Thanks to a 43mpg diesel engine, the Passat can go from San Francisco to Reno and back on one 18-gallon tank. But VW’s concessions to the long drive don’t stop there: the rear seats are roomy enough that your six-foot friends don’t have to ride shotgun. It’s available in front-wheel drive only, but with snow tires it can handle the worst highway conditions nearly as well as an all-wheel vehicle. We preferred the six-speed manual to the automatic: it’s $2,000 cheaper and bumps up the gas mileage by a hair (3mpg).

THE VERDICT: Diesel isn’t sold everywhere, but with a range of almost 800 miles you can keep driving to the next county—or state. 31mpg city/35 hwy

Diesel engines like the Passat's get as much as 35 percent better gas mileage than their unleaded counterparts.

Mercedes-Benz GLK350

Daimler Presse press photo adventure vehicles cars
(Courtesy of Mercedes)

THE SELL: A luxury crossover.

THE TEST: The GLK350 looks small, but it packs the same 3.5-liter V-6 as some of Benz’s larger and heavier sedans and SUVs. It didn’t shudder when we stuck it in cruise control at 10,000 feet or flew up Eisenhower Pass west of Denver at 80 miles per hour. The roomy interior is swaddled in German luxury—stadium-size retractable moonroof, leather seats, touch-screen navigation—that almost made the GLK350 seem too nice to rally through creek beds. But with all-wheel drive and a short wheelbase, that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be doing.

THE VERDICT: A luxury sprite capable of ripping in snow and dirt, but with the space to cart around friends and family. Boost its off-road ability with 17-inch wheels and Bridgestone all-terrain tires. 19mpg city/24 hwy

The GLK350 is loaded with next-gen features like Attention Assist, which monitors your biometric signs and chirps you awake if you nod off at the wheel.

Hyundai Santa Fe 2.0T AWD

Hyundai Santa Fe 2.0T AWD adventure vehicles cars
(Courtesy of Hyundai)

THE SELL: A cargo-hauling crossover.

THE TEST: Yes, the Santa Fe’s two-liter, four-cylinder turbo engine is on the small side. But this five-passenger SUV is designed more for hauling families around comfortably than for hauling ass up fire roads. The rear seats can be locked vertical and slid forward, to open up the back, or split three ways to accommodate a mix of passengers and gear. Underneath the rear deck, Hyundai surrounded the spare tire with a surprisingly spacious assortment of trays that are big enough for emergency equipment, wet boots and waders, or a rack of climbing gear.

THE VERDICT: The Santa Fe’s power and off-road chops are merely adequate, but as a creative gear hauler it’s in a class by itself. 19mpg city/24 hwy

Big brood? The Santa Fe comes in a seven-passenger version.

Nissan Pathfinder S 4WD

2013 pathfinder online shopping Nissan Pathfinder S 4WD adventure vehicles cars
(Courtesy of Nissan)

THE SELL: A rugged ute gets civilized.

THE TEST: The new 4x4 Pathfinder is still off-road capable—the 3.5-liter V-6 let us crawl up a 20-degree mud slope like it was paved. But now Nissan’s signature SUV is also refined. It’s lighter, more aerodynamic, and, with 26mpg on the highway, almost 30 percent more efficient than its predecessor. You could knock Nissan for reducing ground clearance two inches, but it makes loading gear and kids (there’s passenger room for seven) easier. The second and third rows of seats fold down for skis and coolers.

THE VERDICT: The Pathfinder is big on storage, ready to rough it, and way more efficient than old-school SUVs. 19mpg city/26 hwy

Subaru XV Crosstrek

Subaru XV Crosstrek adventure vehicles cars
(Courtesy of Subaru)

THE SELL: An all-wheel-drive economy crossover that likes to get dirty.

THE TEST: The Crosstrek—basically a jacked-up Impreza with a whopping 8.7 inches of clearance—had enough oomph to pass RVs on Hawaii’s two-lane highways. But don’t expect a hot rod: the four-cylinder, two-liter, 148-horsepower engine is tuned for killer mileage and getting off-road. On the muddy tracks of the North Shore, it scooted over slick sections and felt more like a rally car than a five-seat hatchback with room for a shortboard.

THE VERDICT:  What it lacks in pep it makes up for in practicality, with reliable handling and above-average fuel economy. 25mpg city/33 hwy

One reason the Crosstrek is the best off-road crossover in its class: a whopping 8.7 inches of ground clearance.

Honda Fit EV

Honda Fit EV adventure vehicles electric cars cars
(Courtesy of Honda)

THE SELL: An electric hatchback with ample room and admirable range.

THE TEST: Because the Fit EV is a relatively small car that’s powered entirely by a really big lithium-ion battery, the interior isn’t as roomy as in the petrol-powered Fit. But we have to give the car manufacturer props for making the most of it. Honda raised the roof and lowered the floor a couple of inches, so it can swallow three passengers with full-size packs; lower the backseat and you can cram a couple of road bikes inside. Power-wise it feels a little sluggish, until you tap the Sport button and send maximum torque to the front wheels, which eats up battery life but boosts acceleration 23 percent.

THE VERDICT: With 82 miles per charge, this is the longest-range EV we’ve seen, but it’s still best for city commuting and day trips to the trailhead. 118MPGe (EPA tax credit of $7,500)

Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid

Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid adventure vehicles electric cars cars
(Courtesy of Toyota)

THE SELL: An entry-level electric car.

THE TEST: If you’re charging your vehicle with electricity generated from renewable energy, EVs are the greenest on the market. But if you want to leave town, the limited range can be a deal breaker. Enter the Prius Plug-In Hybrid. An overnight charge gave the car enough battery power to go a scant 11 miles, but because the Prius comes with a hybrid engine, we were able to milk nearly 300 miles out of one 10.6-gallon tank of gas. Nice, especially since there’s room in back for a 29er.

THE VERDICT: A good value for urbanites who want the eco-cred of an EV and the range of a hybrid. Just know this: subfreezing temps can halve the battery life. 95MPGe (EPA tax credit of $2,500)

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