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Dear Kelley Blue Book: Off-road Mid-size SUVs

With over 300 new models in Canadian showrooms, it can sometimes be challenging to nail down the vehicle that meets your needs and wants. If you are in the market for a new car, truck or SUV with specific requirements, drop us an email at Dear Kelley Blue Book [KBBSupport@coxautoinc.com] about your new vehicle requirements to get unbiased car-buying advice.

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The Challenge: Looking for a Mid-size SUV That Can Tackle Any Off-road Adventure 

 

One reason modern SUVs have become so popular is due to the ruggedness inherent in past SUVs becoming smoothed over like stones in a creek. Unlike the original herd of utilitarian, truck-based SUVs from the 1960s, favoured by owners who liked to fish and hunt, many of today’s SUVs are merely taller, passenger car-based wagons or minivans limited to on-road commuter duties.  

However, if you are shopping for a new, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, mid-size SUV that can venture off-pavement, there are still a few examples. To find out which one is the best choice overall, we’ve rounded up four vehicles that promise to take you off the beaten path and bring you back for day-to-day on-road driving duties.  

 

The Contenders 

 

2020 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk 

Amongst our contenders, the 2020 Jeep Grand Cherokee may be the most versatile. Even the most basic trim comes nicely equipped and can be outfitted with numerous upgrades, including cutting-edge driver-assist features. At the same time, higher-end trims rival luxury and high-performance SUVs costings tens of thousands of dollars more. There is no Spartan Grand Cherokee, with even the base $46,945 Laredo offering a comfortable interior that is well-appointed. The standard powertrain is a 3.6-litre 6-cylinder engine producing 295 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, hooked up to an 8-speed automatic transmission. 

For maximum off-road capabilities, we recommend the $60,195 Trailhawk trim, which adds Jeep’s Quadra‑Drive II 4x4 system and Quadra‑Lift Air Suspension, among other specific items. While steel springs give a consistent ride and height, the Trailhawk’s Quadra-Lift air springs can lower the Grand Cherokee to allow easier access or rise up to 27 centimetres permitting clearance over even the most challenging obstacles. Once off-road, the Trailhawk’s generous ground clearance and versatile 4-wheel-drive system provide the confidence to go places its rivals dare not tread. 

 

2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 

In search of the best mid-size off-roading SUV, it’s no surprise we’ve shortlisted a pair of Jeeps. Both the Wrangler Unlimited and Grand Cherokee are classified as mid-size SUVs. Both come with Jeep’s well-earned off-road reputation. But after that, the Wrangler Unlimited and Grand Cherokee offer distinctive experiences. Starting at $44,095, the four-wheel-drive, Wrangler Unlimited is one of the most-capable off-pavement vehicles you can buy. 

True off-roader drivers will want the off-road-ready Rubicon model that starts at $52,045. A 295 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque 6-cylinder and 6-speed manual gearbox is standard. To better match the equipment levels of our contenders, we suggest adding the Hardtop ($1,195) Off-road tires ($295), Jeep’s Trail Rated Kit ($250) and 8-speed automatic transmission ($1,795) for a total of $55,580. Unlike Wranglers and CJs of the past, the Rubicon is competent on paved roads, offering an SUV-like ride, decent feedback from the steering and brakes, and more luxury and tech features inside the cabin. But don’t think the Wrangler has gone soft. The Jeep still offers removable carpet, allowing the interior to be hosed down, removable doors and top and even a folding windshield. 

 

2020 Land Rover Defender 110 

With a history that dates back to 1948, the 2020 Land Rover Defender has been completely reimagined to address 21st-century needs while maintaining a link to its storied past. The 3-row, 4-door Defender 110 starts at $65,300 CDN. The 5-passenger $76,700 2-door Defender 90 is slated to arrive later in 2020. Marketed as Land Rover’s most capable off-road vehicle, the Defender comes with standard air suspension and Land Rover’s Terrain Response system that can be set to Normal, Wade, Rock Crawl, Mud and Ruts, Grass/Gravel/Snow, or Sand modes. Capable of seating for up to seven passengers, the new Defender’s interior is sparse, simple and stripped down. 

While rivals come with 6-cylinder engines standard, the base Defender P300 comes with a 2.0-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder producing 296 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. If you want more cylinders, opt for the $76,000 P400 MHEV (Mild Hybrid Electric Vehicle) that gains a 395 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque mild-hybrid and electronically supercharged 3.0-litre 6-cylinder. Both engines are paired with an 8-speed automatic transmission. If you want the most capable off-road version, the $93,600 CDN Defender X adds Electronic Active Differential, Terrain Response 2 (automatically monitors driving conditions and selects the most suitable terrain setting), Configurable Terrain Response (individually configures the powertrain, steering, differentials and traction control settings), and All Terrain Progress Control (sets and maintain a steady speed in challenging conditions such as mud, wet grass, ice, snow and dirt, between 1.8 and 30 kilometres per hour). 

 

2020 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro 

Like the Jeep Wrangler, the 4-wheel-drive 2020 Toyota 4Runner’s mechanical genes don’t stray too far from the original Toyota FJ40 from the sixties. Based on Toyota’s mid-size Tacoma body-on-frame pickup truck platform, even the base $48,120 4Runner is more capable than the average car-based SUV once the pavement runs out. All 4Runners come with a 5-speed automatic transmission and a 4.0-litre 6-cylinder engine that makes 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque. The V6  offers plenty of muscle for passing, towing and getting up to freeway speeds. On challenging terrain, the Toyota SUV excels with a relatively short front overhang, fairly narrow body, and lots of ground clearance. 

Of the trims available with the 2020 4Runner, the $62,120 TRD Pro is the most capable off-roader. It looks the most rugged, with a hood scoop, skid plates, chunky tires and raised suspension. Plus, every version has a roof rack as standard. Beyond looks, the TRD Pro adds water-resistant seat fabric, locking rear differential, and multi-terrain selection with crawl control. TRD Pro-exclusive Fox Internal Bypass shocks are paired with specially-tuned TRD springs designed for excellent ride comfort and produce additional lift, giving each TRD Pro an aggressive, heightened stance for improved off-road capability. 

 

Our Choice 

The long-awaited 2020 Land Rover Defender offers outstanding off-road capability, unmistakable brand DNA and heritage, and advanced tech, making the luxury SUV a standout off-road. Despite its utilitarian personality, the Defender 110 can take a severe beating while treating its occupants to a smooth, controlled ride. However, compared to its mainstream brand contenders, the most significant caveat is the Land Rover’s premium pricing. Especially considering some interior parts feel cheap, the lack of hard buttons that contradict the Land Rover’s rugged roots, and tight 3-row seating that relegate them for occasional use only. 

Next to the 2020 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, the 2020 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro is arguably the most capable off-roader here. But in general, the Toyota's truck-like rather than car-like ride and handling and only 5-gears in its automatic transmission (resulting in relatively poor fuel economy) drops the 4Runner from contention. 

 

Which leaves us with our pair of Jeeps.  

If off-roading is at the top of your priority list, the 2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon is tough to ignore. It's arguably the most capable contender when the pavement runs out, and the latest generation is more tolerable on-road for day-to-day transportation.  

But if you are shopping for the best overall mid-size SUV off-roader, we recommend the 2020 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk. Despite its impressive off-road credentials, the Trailhawk is a remarkably civilized machine. In both city and highway driving, the Grand Cherokee exhibits the ride comfort of a luxury SUV with the power and handling of a large sedan. 

 

If you’re in the market for a new vehicle and have a unique buying request, please contact KBB.ca at KBBSupport@coxautoinc.com.  

 

 

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