A sporty diesel Range Rover. A mightily efficient Chevy truck. A hybrid Volvo SUV. The options for rolling to and from your favorite playgrounds have never looked better.
$30,765; 19 mpg city/24 hwy
The Test: The 2016 Tacoma is undoubtedly superior in every way to its 2015 predecessor—no small feat considering last year’s model outsold every rival two to one. The new 3.5-liter V-6 is smaller but delivers 42 more horsepower (for a total of 278), and it’s mated to a smoother six-speed transmission that never had to hunt for the right gear when we were creeping up a pass in the shadow of Washington’s Mount Rainier.
The Tacoma boasts features like Multi-Terrain Select and Crawl Control: choose the surface (mud, sand, or rock), dial in the speed (up to three miles per hour), and steer. The traction mode for each type of terrain is calibrated to allow just enough wheel spin to keep you going forward without any fishtailing drama. We tried it on a barely hikeable Class 4 rock scramble, and the Tacoma easily clambered up.
Also, Toyota significantly refined the interior with better-grade plastics and fabrics that feel less utilitarian, added a GoPro mount, and made the entire truck more aerodynamic for less wind roar.
The Verdict: A stem-to-stern reboot that was well worth the wait.
Nissan Titan XD Pro-4X
$40,000; estimated 19 mpg combined
The Test: Facing a steep 40-foot-high trail of mixed rock and sand leading into the mountains east of Scottsdale, Arizona, we put Nissan’s giant new pickup into four-wheel drive, locked the rear differential, turned on the truck’s front cameras for a clear view of the terrain immediately ahead, and stepped on it. The massive five-liter V-8 turbo diesel engine churned to life and easily pulled the 8,990-pound monster to the top without breaking a sweat.
Thanks to 555 pound-feet of torque, the XD sits in that sweet spot between basic truck and commercial-grade super-hauler, and it would have no problem scrambling its way to a remote riverbed packed with equipment, dogs, and friends. Nissan is catering to the trailhead camper with the XD’s optional locking cargo boxes ($985), which provide handy storage in the bed yet still allow for a sleeper-shell setup. Ambient LED lighting and a 110-volt outlet near the tailgate make the XD seem purpose-built as a rolling base camp.
The Verdict: Plenty of truck to handle shuttle duty for decades to come.
$33,995; 106 MPGe city/hwy, 42 mpg combined city/hwy (gasoline only)
The Test: With a full charge on a balmy fall day, we blitzed deep into the Rockies from Denver to see how far the Chevy Volt could travel using only its battery. We made it uphill to 8,615 feet and 47.3 miles before it switched smoothly from electric to hybrid mode. Not bad.
The improvement over the old 38-mile range is achieved partly through an upgraded battery and drivetrain. The Volt’s four-cylinder, 1.5-liter backup engine is now more powerful and fuel-efficient. On our trip back down from the high country, we could barely believe the numbers: the onboard computer claimed it used only 0.6 gallons of fuel by the time we got home. That’s 78.8 miles per gallon. Bummer: it took us 20 hours to recharge a fully depleted battery using a standard 110-volt household outlet.
The Verdict: This electric car with benefits—a gas engine—keeps getting better.
$14,650; 34 mpg city/39 hwy
The Test: The awesomeness of the Smart Fortwo’s petite 22.8-foot turning circle isn’t apparent until you whip a U-turn on a two-lane road in downtown Portland without scraping the curb. And the short 9.7-foot length means you’ll find parallel parking everywhere.
While tiny cars usually deliver a skittish ride—the prior edition was downright terrifying on the highway—the entirely revamped Smart Fortwo feels confident. That’s partially thanks to a wheelbase that’s four inches wider than the outgoing model’s.
No, it’s still not large enough for weeklong road trips, with just enough room behind the two front seats for a couple of suitcases. Flip the front passenger seat forward and you gain a hair more, but it’s not quite enough for a mountain bike. Still, this fuel sipper with a diminutive 0.9-liter engine is perfect as a cheap, useful commuter that happily makes day trips to the trailhead and back.
The Verdict: America’s tiniest two-seater gets slightly less tiny and a lot more confident.
Lexus RX 450h AWD
$52,235; 30 mpg city/28 hwy
The Test: The RX 450h is full of surprises. This hybrid version of the five-passenger RX 350 crossover is very fast and off-road capable, with two more inches of ground clearance than the stock Mercedes-Benz GLC300 4matic. It also smokes the city fuel economy of the Benz—though we wish it had more range in electric-only mode and the option to plug it in to charge.
Crave the XC90’s pedestrian-detecting tech? Upgrade with the Safety System + ($635), which will adjust your steering line should you start to stray from your lane. Want the taut feel of a Mazda CX-3? Get the F Sport edition ($55,645), which offers a more engaging ride and better handling. Still, the cargo space (56 cubic feet) was lacking.
The Verdict: Cleaner for the city but can still get grimy in the country.
Mercedes-Benz GLC300 4matic
$40,950; 24 mpg city/21 hwy
The Test: Finally, a Benz SUV perfectly sized for the U.S. Mercedes beefed up the cargo space, managing to get slightly more (56.5 cubic feet in all) into the GLC300 than Lexus put in the RX 450h, while still keeping it lighter by over 700 pounds. It remains a compact crossover, but it’s wider and longer, so it offers far more elbow room on road trips. And this Benz feels quick on its toes on the highway and back roads, with surprising acceleration from the two-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. It’s not sports-sedan fast, but it’s plenty speedy to keep pace with rivals in this class.
And we love the standard Crosswind Assist feature, which uses the stability control to correct the steering angle in a gale (or when an 18-wheeler blows by). A worthy investment: Air Body Control suspension ($1,900), which allows you to manually adjust the ground clearance between 7.2 and 8.2 inches.
The Verdict: Luxury you’d expect from a Mercedes that holds its own as an affordable adventure rig.
$27,550; 24 mpg city/28 hwy
The Test: The Tucson is a perfect example of doing more with less. Hyundai paired a tiny 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with a seven-speed gearbox, and a turbocharger boosts horsepower to an adequate 175. On hills and muddy farm roads winding through western Wisconsin, its AWD system and Sport mode—perks not found in other value-minded compact crossovers—made quick work of twisty stretches.
You’ll save at the pump, too, since unlike many turbos, the Tucson runs on regular fuel, not premium. For the money, the midlevel Tucson Sport with AWD is the model to choose, as it over-delivers with a quiver of standard features more commonly seen on vehicles costing $5,000 more. Among them: a hands-free powered trunk hatch, a back-up camera, and rear cross-traffic alert. Combine that with a spacious backseat that’s suitable for six-footers and a cargo area that can easily swallows dogs, bikes, and weekend packs and you’ve got a well-outfitted vehicle at a killer price.
The Verdict: The only car you’ll need through years of lifestyle changes and adventure pursuits.
$24,200; 58 city mpg/53 highway/56 combined
The Test: Toyota’s flagship hybrid is known for its environmental friendliness, but not necessarily for being the smoothest ride on the road. That changes this year. While the prior Prius suffered from vague steering and excessive body roll, this edition features a redesigned suspension, is far stiffer, brakes hard without drama, and corners predictably.
A sports car? With a 1.8-liter engine, definitely not, but it’s a helluva lot of fun to drive. This Prius is also roomier, since Toyota shrunk the rear battery, freeing up a 27 cubic feet of cargo space, enough to fit two mountain bikes with wheels off. On top of that, the suite of high tech features now comes with automated parking. Still, not everything needs an overhaul. One holdover attribute that we like: the aerodynamic body (which saves even more gas).
The Verdict: A more athletic and efficient Prius that drives more like a car, less like a robot on wheels.
$19,960; 27 mpg city/32 hwy
The Test: As we discovered on the tight asphalt winding up the Santa Monica Mountains, the Mazda’s feel for the road is more sports car than budget-minded crossover. That makes sense, since the new CX-3 shares the same two-liter, four-cylinder engine as the new MX-5 sports convertible.
On paper, its 146 horsepower doesn’t inspire awe, but Mazda wrings more juice out of it by planting the engine in the lightest vehicle in its class, installing a crisp six-speed transmission, and stiffening the suspension for performance. Even with our aggressive driving, the CX-3 delivered 27 miles per gallon.
We only wish there had been snow on the ground to test Mazda’s proactive AWD system: it uses 27 sensors to gauge slip, air temperature, precipitation, and how quickly the steering wheel is being turned, then determines whether to power all four wheels. Perks aside, there’s hardly enough space (44.5 cubic feet) to jam in a bike with the rear seats down, and at 6.1 inches the clearance is what we expect on a compact.
The Verdict: The driving enthusiast’s choice for practical AWD transport.
Range Rover Sport Td6
$66,450; 22 mpg city/29 hw
The Test: The rest of the world has been driving diesel Land Rover SUVs since the mid-eighties, and with good reason. First, diesel delivers extraordinary torque at very low RPMs. Off-road, that translates to easier crawling at slow speeds, which afforded us sure footing while using the Brit barge to climb 40-degree rock-strewn track in southern Spain and wade through two feet of standing water.
A feature called All-Terrain Progress Control brakes for you and applies just the right amount of throttle to each wheel, never exceeding the available traction. All the driver has to do is steer. On-road confidence shouldn’t be discounted, either. While it’s generous to label this a sport SUV, the driver gets enough feedback so that zipping around town is downright enjoyable.
The other bonus of diesel is that the three-liter Td6 nets 32 percent better fuel economy than the V-6 gas version. One gripe: the mighty 11 inches of ground clearance pinches cargo space down to only 62 cubic feet—though it’s still enough to fit skis and bikes for two.
The Verdict: Incredible off-road talents, minus the gas-guzzler stigma.
$35,080; 20 mpg city/29 hwy
The Test: After topping out at 4,533 feet on the Stinger—an arduous ten-mile climb to the top of Southern California’s Mount Figueroa on crumbling tarmac, gravel, and double-track—we were sold on the Colorado’s new 2.8-liter four-cylinder turbo diesel engine. It purred up grades topping 15 percent, up a long freeway incline at 65 mph towing a 1,500-pound trailer, and over wheel-sucking sand off-road.
But towing power and braking controls equal to pickups twice its size are only half of the Colorado’s appeal. The other half? Eye-popping efficiency numbers. We averaged nearly 27 miles per gallon on our hill climb and off-road adventure up the Stinger. Inside, the cabin boasts amenities like 4G LTE wireless hot spot capability and Apple CarPlay connectivity—just plug in an iPhone and access contacts, maps, music, and Siri from the eight-inch dashboard touchscreen.
Chevy’s excellent clean diesel is a hefty $3,730 over its gas-powered brethren, but compared with the four- and six-cylinder gas options, the Duramax engine unleashes the Colorado’s true potential as a 500,000-mile, long-haul trucker.
The Verdict: A midsize, four-door 4x4 pickup that punches above its weight.
$46,570; 19 mpg city/26 hwy
The Test: We were blown away after logging 27.9 miles per gallon in the Pilot. That’s an impressive number for any crossover, yet we averaged it navigating through 3,100 miles of city traffic in Portland and Seattle, and cruising through Montana and Wyoming at 80-plus mph. Credit Honda’s new hyper-efficient 3.5-liter, 280-horsepower V-6 engine and nine-speed gearbox (available only in the high-end Touring and Elite trims). Shedding 250 pounds of bulk from the previous edition doesn’t hurt, either. The result is a behemoth of a Honda that handles more like a premium sport SUV.
Also new for the Pilot is an AWD system that can modulate gearing and traction for muddy, sandy, or snowy conditions. An unexpected treat is Honda’s Lane Keeping Assist System, which autopilots for roughly ten seconds at a time—long enough to whip out a pair of sunglasses or plug your phone into the charger.
The Verdict: A luxurious, all-season, tech-packed carriage disguised as, well, a Honda.
Volvo XC90 T8
$68,100; 53 MPGe
The Test: With a nearly $70,000 price tag, this is the sole seven-passenger SUV that includes an electric-only mode and also comes standard with all-wheel drive. And unlike other hybrids, we were able to get the XC90 all the way up to 50 mph in EV mode. Coupled with a 13-mile range, that means you can tackle many of your daily chores using no gas at all.
Another neat trick: the XC90 is relatively short, so it handles adroitly at speed. Yet Volvo managed to squeeze a whopping 32 inches of knee room into the third row. That wise use of space also applies to the XC90’s 86 cubic feet of cargo capacity—24 more than the Range Rover Sport Td6. Collapse the third row, fold down the second row’s center seat, and stow skis for four passengers as well as boots and garb for an entire weekend escape to the slopes.
And lest we forget, you get pedestrian- and cyclist-detection features that can fully stop the XC90 in the event of an impending impact.
The Verdict: A hybrid ride for transporting the family, along with everything else.
Toyota RAV4 Hybrid XLE AWD
$28,370; 34 city mpg/31 highway
The Test: Toyota designed the RAV4 Hybrid to drive just like its gas-powered brother, so that there wouldn’t be any reason not to go with the Hybrid. Steering is taut, and there’s less body lean due to the bolstered rear suspension. It is heavier—300 pounds more than the all-gas version—but felt more than capable climbing up a long highway ascent that topped out at 5,000 feet.
Despite the RAV4’s decent-at-best 6.3 inches of ground clearance, driving on rocky and dusty two-track was hardly an imposition, while the crossover switched smoothly and automatically between front and rear electric motors, depending on available traction. The 70.6 square feet of cargo room is plenty for use as a mobile gear shed.
The Verdict: A composed and confident hybrid with the same fun crossover ride of its gas brethren.
$23,100; 22 city mpg/31 hwy
The Test: Given that Fiat is owned by the makers of Jeep, we expected the 500X to comfortably handle the double track at the end of a remote mountain canyon. Still, we were surprised at how our front-wheel-drive test car handled a short stint of rock crawling up an embankment. When the right front wheel lost contact with the ground, the Fiat switched all the power to the left wheel to pull the vehicle up and over the crux.
The 2.4-liter, 180-hp, 4-cylinder engine won’t win any drag races, mostly because its nine-speed transmission is there to maximize fuel economy, not performance. Over 140 miles of city, highway, and mountain roads outside Denver, we logged 27.3 mpg. If you go with the FWD trim, consider the base model 1.4-liter turbo engine and sweet-shifting 6-speed manual transmission, a combination that is more fun to drive flat out. Interior room is adequate for front and rear passengers, but the cargo area behind the rear seats is negligible. Serious gearheads will want to install a roof rack to haul their toys.
The Verdict: Easy to live with in urban/suburban life, with just enough off-road DNA to handle the drive to the ski hill on a powder day.
$28,950 (cargo van); $32,500 (passenger van); 20 city/20 hwy
The Test: On the surface, a minivan seems more suited to soccer moms than adventurers. But first impressions only count for so much. We chased a rally-car driver down the narrow mountain road between Dunton Hot Springs and Durango, Colorado, in the all-new Metris minivan from Mercedes-Benz and within seconds forgot we were piloting a 208 hp, 4-cylinder turbo, seven-passenger tank.
What really sets the Metris apart, though, is that it’s only sold through Mercedes’ commercial division (read: it’s built to be more utilitarian and bombproof than luxurious). But if you’re aiming to ditch your stationary home and convert to the van life, look no further than the cargo model. The body is wide enough for a 4x8-foot mattress, and max payload is 2,500 pounds, so installing drawer storage won’t wreck the ride. The Metris has a nearly 5,000-pound towing capacity, so you can haul your around-town rig behind you on long road trips.
The Verdict: Can’t afford the Sprinter van of your wanderlust dreams? The Metris is a more affordable, yet nearly as capable, option that fits in a garage.