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Colorado Climb 2018: Off-Roading in the Rockies with Eleven Trucks, SUVs, and Crossovers

Taking the Scenic Route to the Top and Finding Ourselves Pleasantly Surprised

Nathan Leach-ProfferPhotographerBrett T. EvansPhotographer, Writer

We buy crossovers, SUVs, and trucks in part for the sense of ruggedness they impart. With a higher stance and added ground clearance compared to most cars, they just seem to be a bit more ready and able to tackle the nearest trail.

But is that perception justified? Are our machines actually that capable, or is it just marketing hogwash? We wanted to find out, and luckily, the good folks at Rocky Mountain Redline had just the venue for us to try: Colorado Climb 2018.

Situated in Breckenridge, the first-ever Colorado Climb brought together 11 trucks, crossovers, and SUVs from nine different manufacturers, with two different trails to try them out on. Our base camp was the Golden Horseshoe Tour Company, seated in the hills above Breckenridge at 9,000 feet. From there, we climbed.

Headed up Humbug Hill would be the Acura RDX, Honda Pilot, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-9, and Ram 1500 Laramie Longhorn. The trail to Georgia Pass (elevation 11,600 feet) would (hopefully) be dominated by the likes of the GMC Sierra 1500 AT4, Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk and Wrangler Rubicon, Lexus LX570, Ram 1500 Rebel, and Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road. We knew to expect good results from the Wrangler and Tacoma, but how did the others fare? In two words: Surprisingly well.

HUMBUG HILL

2019 Acura RDX

We last got a taste of the Acura RDX in another scenic resort town: Whistler, British Columbia. There, however, our drive was almost exclusively on paved, smooth roads, with enough twists and turns to prove the available Super Handling All-Wheel Drive’s mettle in enthusiastic driving. On Humbug Hill, however, SH-AWD got its exercise shuffling power between the right and left rear wheels, as the trail’s diagonal washes forced one or the other to lift off the ground with regularity. That stiff chassis does wonders for handling and ride comfort, but it’s not ideal for off-road articulation.

Still, the RDX stuck it through the whole trail, running up and down the narrow switchbacks several times during the event. The RDX’s SH-AWD proved it could dispatch mild off-roading with as much ease as twisty two-lane pavement, coddling its occupants in comfort as it made sure the wheels with grip got the power. You’ll never confuse it for a Land Cruiser, but the RDX won’t let you down either—as long as you don’t venture too far into the wild.

2019 Honda Pilot

We’ve already sampled the Honda Pilot’s off-road capabilities when the company invited us to the press launch of the recently refreshed 2019 model, but that trip’s four-wheeling was done on a Honda-designed course. Even though it was rougher than expected, it still wasn’t a great test of the Pilot’s real-world off-roading talents.

Luckily, Humbug Hill’s twisting, sometimes rock-strewn path provided us with better insights into the Pilot. Using a true torque-vectoring system similar to Acura’s SH-AWD, Honda’s i-VTM4 is calibrated for better sand, dirt, mud, and snow performance. And it really does work in rough conditions. Like the RDX (and each of the crossovers assembled), the Pilot lifted a rear wheel on every rut, but the responsive system did good work putting power to the ground where it would do the most good. Our forward progress was uninhibited, no matter the conditions.

2019 Kia Sorento

Kia is proud of the fact that a factory-fresh Sorento was able to handle Hell’s Revenge in Moab, Utah. Armed with that information, we weren’t too surprised the Kia did well on Humbug Hill. Unlike the Honda Pilot, the Kia Sorento’s all-wheel-drive system uses brake-based torque vectoring, meaning the system applies selective braking force to a spinning wheel to shuffle power to the others. While not as sophisticated as clutch-based torque vectoring, it was just as effective in Breckenridge.

Furthermore, the Sorento has a locking center differential, which applies equal torque to both axles. This secure mechanical link between the front and rear ensured more responsive performance in some situations than a variable torque-vectoring system—while the Honda and Acura would require a beat or two of front wheelspin before figuring out to send power aft, the Kia would just power through it since the rear wheels had equal torque already. Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks, and both systems handled the surprisingly rough trail just fine.

2019 Mazda CX-9

It’s no secret your author is a Mazda fan, and the CX-9 proves why. With a cosseting interior, premium styling, and responsive on-road handling, the CX-9 lives up to Mazda’s “soul of a sports car” marketing ploy. Rough roads are clearly not the three-row crossover’s strong suit.

Yet the CX-9 did everything we asked of it with minimal drama. Admittedly, it was the only crossover to regularly scrape its front air dam over nearly every obstacle, and its traction control–based all-wheel drive was less responsive than the preceding four, but it still made it through every challenge. A responsive turbocharged engine suffered little power loss from elevation (something that can’t be said of some of the other vehicles here), and the obedient transmission held onto First gear for easier hill descent. Though not ideal for off-roading, the CX-9 can easily handle the occasional trip to a remote camping spot or trailhead.

2019 Ram 1500 Laramie Longhorn

As the only vehicle on Humbug Hill with low-range four-wheel drive, the Ram 1500 Laramie Longhorn was overkill. In fact, the only time we wondered whether the Ram could hack the trail was during a very narrow section where a tree root had exposed itself on the side of the road. And admittedly, the Ram’s longer wheelbase frequently necessitated a three-point turn on most of Humbug’s tight switchbacks. No matter: Since our travel companions gave the Ram plenty of space on the trail, we had no problem pausing for a moment to correct trajectory in those smaller spots.

Humbug’s Victims

Unfortunately, off-roading can sometimes be a contact sport. Although it was deemed an easier trail, Humbug still took from us a pound or two of flesh. The first offense happened to the Pilot, which suffered a pinch flat from a particularly mean rock hanging from the edge of the trail. Unfortunately, the Pilot’s pilots didn’t realize it for several dozen feet, allowing the trail to do some damage to the rim as well. A short pit stop put the temporary spare into action, but fearing more damage, the Pilot was retired for the day in order to be re-tired. (We’ll be here all week.)

Humbug also took a toll on, surprisingly, the Ram. Our operating theory is that the power-retracting running boards failed to stow themselves, possibly because one of the passenger doors was inadvertently left slightly unlatched. On one of the rougher breakovers, the running board bent neatly in half and needed to be removed from its hinges. Ram offers a running board override, which forces them to remain either stowed or deployed—had the Ram’s driver (no, it wasn't us, and we don't know who it was) utilized the feature, the problem never would have presented itself. Operator error on this one.

GEORGIA PASS

2019 GMC Sierra 1500 AT4

The GMC Sierra 1500 AT4’s most obvious pairing in the Georgia Pass run group is the Ram 1500 Rebel. We’ll do our best not to compare the two, especially since the Sierra AT4 was slightly aired down from highway tire pressure, but it’s hard not to acknowledge either the Sierra’s classier exterior styling or its already-dated interior compared to the aggressive Ram. However, in most other aspects, the AT4 and Rebel match each other blow for blow over the rocks and ruts of Georgia Pass.

Power from the AT4’s available 6.2L V-8 is abundant and easy to access, with ample torque available near idle. Furthermore, its 2-inch–higher suspension compared to other Sierras imbued it with plenty of clearance over the small boulders that littered the path, while monotube shock absorbers provided a controlled, composed ride (some credit might belong to the aired-down tires). The road’s lone creek crossing was no problem for the Sierra, and its locking rear differential came into play smoothly when called upon.

2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk

The Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk was the lone unibody-construction vehicle put into service on Georgia Pass, but we needn’t have worried about it. The Trailhawk package’s low-range transfer case, 1-inch lift, and revised front and rear fascias ensure good off-road performance and ground clearance. We admittedly picked a wrong line once or twice, putting the skidplates through their paces and finding ourselves grateful for the protection.

The Trailhawk was probably the least comfortable on Georgia Pass of any of the vehicles assembled, but it still had more than enough gumption to handle the trail. It even handled a stream crossing with total poise, dispatching the river rocks at the bottom without disturbing those of us riding aboard. We ran the Trailhawk in 4-Lo for some of the trail, more out of curiosity than necessity, and we experienced firsthand how the locking rear differential helps out in slippery or crossed-up situations. It all added up to a genuine Jeep driving experience.

2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon

Painted Hella Yella for maximum visual impact, the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon was obviously one of the best off-roaders at the event. Thanks to a front sway bar disconnect, short-geared transfer case, BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires, and a high-clearance suspension, the Wrangler practically waltzed through the pass, requiring little of the driver except accurate steering and trail placement. Even then, with more ground clearance than some military vehicles, the driver could make a few mistakes and not even realize.

In a bit of role reversal from most of the vehicles in this test, where the Wrangler surprised was on the 30-minute drive from the trailhead to the hotel. Done on paved roads at 55 mph, the Wrangler was smoother and more controllable than some vehicles with half its off-road talent. And flipping the easy-fold roof back to create a big ol’ sunroof added to the Wrangler’s carefree personality.

2019 Lexus LX570

To the uninformed, the Lexus LX570 is a coiffed, primped, and posh luxury SUV for suburbanite types who have outgrown their RX350s and need something with three rows of seating. But to those in the know, the LX is an off-road legend wearing a three-piece suit. Based heavily on the Toyota Land Cruiser, the Lexus LX immediately proves that it’s serious about off-roading before it even sets off. The center console is festooned with drive-mode selectors, controls for the air suspension and transfer case, and more, each beautifully finished knob and button allowing the driver to tailor the LX to the task at hand.

And what a job it does. Over every bump and rut of the trail, the Lexus rode like one would expect it to, the suspension dispatching intrusions with gentility and the whole experience accompanied by the smell of rich leather and the sight of perfectly finished wood trim. Even with the air suspension maxed out, the ride was smooth and there was enough wheel travel to traverse large obstacles. And Crawl Control, Toyota’s low-speed cruise control, was a nice perk, allowing us to focus on steering and not on throttle modulation.

2019 Ram 1500 Rebel

The Rebel is a stunner, with polarizing styling, a gorgeous and modern interior, and plenty of grunt from the available 5.7L V-8. There’s a lot to love about the all-new pickup, particularly when the going gets rough. A 1-inch suspension lift, added underbody protection, beefy Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac tires, and an electronic locking rear differential set the Rebel apart from other 1500s, and each feature added plenty of value off-road.

This particular example featured a steel-sprung suspension, which is a new feature for the 2019 Rebel (the last-generation Reb was air suspension–only). On those coiled suspenders, the Ram was a bit stiff-legged, bounding over rocks rather than soaking them up. “Just hit it faster,” was the refrain from Ram representative Nick Cappa, who knew his truck’s sometimes flinty ride would smooth out with the addition of some momentum. And that proved to be true indeed, turning the Rebel into a whole bucketload of fun on Georgia Pass.

2018 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road

The Toyota Tacoma is a justifiable legend in the off-road community. Sharing engineering know-how with the stellar Land Cruiser 200-Series, the Tacoma was the first affordable off-roader to feature all-terrain speed control. The same Crawl Control system that appears in the Lexus LX570 gives Taco drivers the same convenience, allowing them to focus on line selection and steering while the truck creeps along at pre-selected speeds ranging from approximately 1 to 5 mph.

Also helping the Tacoma in its rugged mission is a hilariously fun suspension setup that allows for plenty of wheel travel. It’s a delight off-road, with the soft suspenders and Bilstein dampers offering good control, even at higher speeds and over largish obstacles. There’s a reason adventurers everywhere insist on driving Tacomas, and this experience underscored why that is.

Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center

While the Colorado Climb was a good way to get us into lots of different vehicles over some pretty interesting off-road trails, it was also designed to give back to the local community through the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, with a portion of the event’s proceeds going to a program to help BOEC replace its not-long-for-this-world 4x4 van.

This non-profit specializes in giving children and adults with special needs a way to experience the outdoors. The program has helped people achieve new heights (literally) through a wheelchair-accessible ropes course. The Adaptive Ski and Ride School allows people to experience skiing and snowboarding with equipment adapted to their needs—there’s even a program in place for people with visual impairments.

In addition to its summer and winter events, BOEC hosts the Heroic Military Program for veterans who have been injured in the line of duty. The organization also provides assistance to special-needs families who live in other parts of the country but who wish to participate in the summer and winter programs. Many of the BOEC’s participants rely on scholarships and financial assistance to participate, meaning the organization leans heavily on grants and donations to run effectively.

We’re glad to know that while we were popping tires and bashing skidplates, some of the money spent on Colorado Climb 2018 went to helping BOEC continue its programs.

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