Colorado Climb: Off-road in the Rockies with trucks, crossovers, and SUVs
Climbing the mountainous terrain west of Denver, Colorado is a true test of vehicle capabilities. We recently had the chance to take trucks and SUVs from several manufacturers including RAM, Jeep, Honda and Toyota up the mountain near Breckenridge, Colorado, to learn their capabilities (and limits) at over 11,000 feet.
Going off-road is fun, but for many crossover and SUV owners it's not the norm. Only rarely do people who own capable vehicles actually take them into the wilderness. While we regularly get off the pavement in the autos we drive, we still jumped at the chance to push the limits of new model year vehicles in the Rocky Mountains at the Colorado Climb event.
The Colorado Climb was designed and put together by Rocky Mountain Redline, who also organized the excellent ice driving event we attended earlier this year. We drove to Breckenridge from Cheyenne, Wyoming, in a beautiful Mercedes-Benz AMG GLS 63 they'd provided us, parked in the valet lot (it is, after all, a Mercedes) and checked into our lodgings at the Beaver Run Resort & Conference Center. We were greeted by Redline and given the itinerary of events, starting with dinner and a safety briefing and a good night's rest to acclimate to the high altitude.
We left the hotel the next morning and got back into our AMG GLS 63 for the drive up to Golden Horseshoe Tours – a re-creation of a gold miners' base camp and rendezvous point – in the foothills of Georgia Pass. Our goal was to drive all of the dozen vehicles on hand up to the Continental Divide summit at Georgia Pass, going from the 9,000-ish feet (2,743 m) of the gold miner's base camp to the 11,585-foot (3,531 m) summit of the trail. The directions we took to get there depended on the vehicle we were in. Lighter-duty, lower-clearance crossovers and sport utilities took a more circuitous, easier route while taller, more capable trucks and SUVs took a more direct, rockier route. Neither ascent was easy on the vehicles involved, but all would prove capable of making it if driven well.
Our goal was to test the vehicles to their limits, as much as possible, without damaging either the vehicles or ourselves in the process. We start with the crossovers.
2019 Acura RDX SH-AWD A-Spec
Out of all of the vehicles present, this was the most surprising. Not just because of its capability, which was more than we'd expected, but because it seemed so out of place. The A-Spec RDX is aimed towards performance on the road, not off of it. This is a beautifully-designed luxury crossover that performed well beyond what even its engineers might have thought to test, coping with all the dirt, grime, and stone we maneuvered through to go up that mountain.
The RDX required some finesse to get through the terrain, of course, but no more than most of the lower-clearance crossovers we were driving. An eye towards going around large rocks and skirting boulders in favor of softer dirt won the day.
2019 Honda Pilot AWD Elite
We drove the 2018 Pilot at the Ice Driving Adventure and found it to be a split personality when the safety controls were off compared to when they were on. At this particular event, in the 2019 model, things were much the same. The Pilot's changes for the 2019 model year didn't mess with the drivetrain and the familiar button-push shifting was still in place.
The 2019 Honda Pilot's all-wheel drive system is well executed and managed to keep traction nicely in our off-road excursions.
2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk Elite 4x4
The Cherokee was an obvious choice for off-pavement get-around-ability. The Trailhawk model has more ground clearance than most crossovers in its class, wears beefier tires to match.
In our excursion, the Cherokee went with the "big boys" up the tougher trail and, while one of the less capable on that trail, it held its own. As the most capable of the Jeep Cherokee models this wasn't hugely surprising, and like the 2019 Cherokee Limited we spent some time with recently, the Trailhawk showed itself to be worthy of the Jeep name.
2019 Kia Sorento SXL AWD
We admit that it's been a while since we've been behind the wheel of a Kia Sorento. Introduced as new in 2015, the 2019 model brings a better transmission and drops the turbocharged four-cylinder in favor of the more popular V6 powerplant. Some styling changes and a standard third-row seat are also new for this year. As an off-road machine, the Sorento kept up with all of the other crossovers on the trail.
What we learned, though, is that weight distribution in the Sorento requires more thought when maneuvering over and around larger obstacles. The Sorento's wheelbase is similar to that of the Honda Pilot, but it has a little less travel (in feel at least, in reality it's about the same) and so there's more pucker to the "am I gonna make this?" question. In the end, though, that slightly more jittery persona meant that the Sorento was less likely to become overdrawn.
2019 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD
Like the Acura, the Mazda CX-9 seemed far out of its element on the off-pavement mountain climb. This is a very well-balanced, exceptionally driveable machine on the road, but despite that tighter suspension and smarter steering the CX-9 had no problems keeping up with the Joneses through the tough terrain. It was surprisingly astute, in fact.
This generation of the CX-9 was introduced in 2016 and sees only a few packaging changes for the 2019 model year.
2019 GMC Sierra 1500 4WD AT4
This was our first encounter with the all-new 2019 Sierra, which is far different in design than the previous-generation we towed with in Utah earlier this year. This new off-road-oriented AT4 model was introduced in New York, and is made to compete with the more robust, off-pavement options from other manufacturers ... and does a good job of it.
The most notable point is that where the GMC Sierra is more upscale in feel, appearance, and accoutrements than is the also-competing Ram Rebel (below), it is less in your face about its true off-road prowess and capability than is the Rebel. The Sierra AT4's persona is less rugged and for a certain segment of buyers that could be an attractive alternative to the flashiness for the Ram and Ford options.
2019 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4x4
When the all-new Wrangler was shown at the LA Auto Show in November of 2017, it became one of the biggest automotive stories we'd had in some time. The specifications were impressive and this being our first time physically behind the wheel of the new-generation Wrangler, especially off the roadway, it was kind of a big deal.
The 2019 Wrangler Rubicon, even in the longer wheelbase Unlimited model, has the same first impression that someone watching Steve Vai play guitar might. It's so darn good at what it does that it makes it appear too easy. Nothing on our trail was much of a challenge for the Wrangler, but with the Jeep setting the bar for every other off-road machine, that wasn't a surprise.
2019 Lexus LX 570
Easily the most often underestimated SUV at the Colorado Climb event, the 2019 LX 570 was often hesitant in other drivers' hands. Having thoroughly worked this-generation of the LX before, I knew what to expect from this multi-time Baja race winner. The Lexus LX 570 is as capable as the legendary Land Cruiser it's based upon, but with far more luxury.
That luxury is icing on the highly capable cake. The LX is expensive, sure, but it's also very rugged and get-there-ready. Of the vehicles in attendance, only the Jeep Wrangler was more astute off the pavement than is the big Lexus LX 570.
2019 Ram 1500 Longhorn 4x4
The Ram 1500 Longhorn was a sort of odd man out in the crossover lineup for our mountain climb. Taking the easier trail, its main limitation was size. It's a big rig, and this particular model had the largest cab and bed length configurations available. This required some finesse around turns on the trail and even some mirror folding (standard capability in a Ram) to avoid swiping a side mirror off.
Apart from those issues, the 2019 Ram 1500 was the more capable of the vehicles on the easier trail as we climbed the mountain.
2019 Ram Rebel 4x4
The 2019 Ram Rebel is Ram Truck's most capable off-roader and it makes no bones about that. We are very familiar with the Rebel's capability, having thoroughly tested it just a month or so back. At no time was the 2019 Rebel showing any difficulty on the mountain at the Colorado Climb, making everything seem as easy as it would be in the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.
We compared the 2019 Ram Rebel, which is completely new, against the GMC Sierra AT4 above. The Rebel is much more exciting and confident, in terms of its attitude, than is the GMC. Some may not like that in-your-face appeal, though, and we can see where the market leaves room for both trucks.
2018 Toyota Tacoma TRD Offroad 4x4
As the only non-2019 model in attendance at our off-road adventure up the mountain, the Tacoma seemed to have something to prove. Introduced in 2017, the Tacoma TRD models have a lot of goodies under their bodywork aimed specifically at wilderness travel. Those came into play on the mountain in Colorado, making getting around easy.
The Tacoma has a punchy V6 powerplant that tends to rush forward when the throttle is not carefully managed, but its low gearing and large amounts of wheel flex are excellent for what we were doing. A short wheelbase and truly midsize pickup truck footprint make for great confidence out in the wilderness.
The final take
The vehicles at the Colorado Climb were not necessarily all comparable to one another. They were, however, a good showcase of what kind of capability today's "average" crossover, SUV, and pickup can have when out in much harsher terrain than most owners would venture into.
The Colorado Climb was a good lesson in what modern vehicles are truly capable of, and in how they can consistently outstrip your expectations, even at very high altitudes and with varied driver capabilities.