Off-road grades: SUV trims muddle the line between off-road intenders and soft-road pretenders

What separates a crossover from an SUV? In the old days, a body-on-frame design along with a 2-speed transfer case for low gearing used to be the litmus test. Now, except for truck-based full-size SUVs, most vehicles in this most popular segment are based on unibody construction. Yet automakers continue to hark back to those days with trim lines they all call rugged.

To distinguish the crossovers that have supplanted cars on American roads, automakers have introduced so-called rugged grades that bundle popular features such as standard all-wheel drive, bigger black wheels, black trim garnishes, roof rails, some exhaust tips, and some cross-stitching on the inside. 

Then there’s the badging. Trailsport. Timberline. Trailhawk. Wilderness. Rock Creek. All the badging. Lest you forget the upcharge. It is truly surprising that there is no Rugged trim line. The all-new rugged SUV Rugged could get confusing. 

The $1,000-$4,000 upcharge for such rugged packages promises owners they can hit the trail without having to skip the on-road comfort of their SUV—crossover— and without having to rough it with a rough-and-tumble Jeep Wrangler. 

Jeep might have started it with a Trailhawk trim that codified its own Trail Rated designation. But even that trim has been diluted on some models away from standard four-wheel drive with a 2-speed transfer case and off-road suspension bits. Some Jeep Trailhawk crossovers merely look the part. 

Which of these trim levels are off-roaders or soft-roaders? Which are off-road pretenders and which are off-road intenders worth the upcharge? We’ve tested them all, and here’s what we’ve found. 

2022 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk is one of the more capable Jeeps that is not a Wrangler.

Jeep Trailhawk

Available models: 2022 Cherokee, Grand Cherokee, Compass, Renegade

Trim basis: Cherokee X

Added price: The Cherokee Trailhawk costs $2,650 more at $39,140, including $1,595 destination. 

Cosmetic differences: LED fog lights, black grille surround, black hood decal, black cladding, wider wheel flares, and more black accent bits.  

Standard mechanicals: A 3.2-liter V-6 makes 271 hp and 239 lb-ft of torque and connects with a more durable 9-speed automatic and four-wheel drive. 

Added equipment: Jeep equips the Cherokee Trailhawk with its uprated 9-speed automatic Active Drive II that has the rear axle disconnect to improve efficiency on the highway as on Active Drive I, but it also adds a low range gear, a mechanical locking rear differential, and a Rock mode for bona fide crawling. Also helping the crawl and overall off-road performance is a 1.0-inch higher suspension lift, a heavy-duty engine cooling system, skid plates, and 17-inch wheels wrapped in Firestone Destination all-terrain tires.  

Off-road intender or pretender? The Cherokee Trailhawk is one of the more capable Jeeps that is not a Wrangler. It’s an Intender and then some. The Grand Cherokee embraces some of the mechanical upgrades and follows in the Cherokee’s imprints, but the Compass and Renegade are more for show. 

2022 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road builds off the Adventure trim and rides on Falken off-road tires.

Toyota TRD Off-Road 

Available models: This one is confusing. There are four TRD grades: Camry TRD builds off the XSE for beefier suspension and brakes, as well as black exterior accents. The TRD Sport does similar on the Tacoma and Sequoia. Those full-size SUVs and trucks can be had with the full TRD Pro treatment, and include the 4Runner and Tundra as well as Tacoma and Sequoia. Then there’s the TRD Off-Road available on Tacoma, Sequoia, and the RAV4. We’re limiting this to the Toyota Off-Road RAV4. 

Trim basis: RAV4 Adventure

Added price: At $38,130, the RAV4 TRD Off-Road costs $3,685 more than the RAV4 Adventure. 

Cosmetic differences: The Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road carries LED fog lights, sharper running lights, all-weather floor mats, front skid plate, and orange accent stitching inside. Same as the Adventure, it has a transmission cooler, 150-amp alternator, roof rails, and a different grille. 

Standard mechanicals: It uses the same 203-hp 2.5-liter inline-4 (183 lb-ft) with an 8-speed automatic transmission and torque-vectoring AWD. 

Added equipment: TRD-tuned front strut suspension and multilink rear with stabilizer bars front and rear, 18-inch black alloy wheels wrapped in Falken off-road tires.

Off-road intender or pretender? Compared to the TRD Pro models, it’s a pretender. But compared to the RAV4 Adventure, it’s an intender. It gives shoppers the option to take its bestseller off-road without having to upgrade to a much larger truck or SUV. 

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness

2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness

2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness

Subaru Wilderness

Available models: 2022 Forester, 2022 Outback

Trim basis: Forester Premium, Outback Onyx Edition XT

Added price: At $38,120, the Outback Wilderness costs $1,850 more than the Onyx XT. At $33,945, the 2022 Forester Wilderness costs $4,625 more than the Forester Premium. 

Cosmetic differences: The Wilderness models sport a skid plate up front, more cladding on the wheel arches, a new fog light design, and a black hood decal that deflects sunlight. Inside are water-resistant seat surfaces and copper badging and contrast stitching. 

Standard mechanicals: 260-hp 2.4-liter turbocharged flat-4 that makes 277 lb-ft of torque with a CVT, all-wheel drive, and a limited-slip rear differential. Subaru softened the suspension tuning to account for the greater ride height and modified the final drive ratio for better low-end torque when climbing. 

Added equipment: Ground clearance increases from 8.7 inches to 9.2 (Forester) or 9.5 (Outback); raised bumpers; increased approach and departure angles; black 17-inch black alloy wheels with Yokohama Geolandar all-terrain tires; water-resistant upholstery. 

Off-road intender or pretender? Intender. The Wilderness grade enhances what was already an off-road capable car. The Forester’s compact package, good low end torque, and extra grip makes it even more like a rallycross car, and up the fun factor where the pavement ends. The only downside is it lacks the surround-view camera projections of rivals, which helps with rocky paths and narrow trails. 

2022 Ford Expedition Timberline

2022 Ford Expedition Timberline

2022 Ford Expedition Timberline

Ford Timberline

Available models: 2022 Explorer, 2022 Expedition

Trim basis: XLT

Added price: At about $72,000, the Expedition Timberline is $10,000 more than an Expedition XLT with 4WD and a less potent engine. 

Cosmetic differences: The Expedition Timberline wears an orange-rimmed grille with black cladding and different bumpers that increase the approach angle from 23.3 degrees to 28.5 degrees and departure angle from 21.9 degrees to 23.7 degrees. LED headlights are standard.  

On the Explorer Timberline, higher bumpers increase the approach angle from 20.1 to 23.5 degrees, and the departure angle from 22 to 23.7 degrees. It also comes with standard steel skid plates to protect the engine, transmission, and rear-end components. Ford says the steering and stabilizer bars have been specially tuned.

Standard mechanicals: The Expedition shares the F-150 Raptor’s twin-turbo V-6 rated at 440 hp and 510 lb-ft of torque, and a 10-speed automatic transmission. The Explorer Timberline uses a 300-hp 2.3-liter turbo-4 mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission. It has standard all-wheel drive that can split the 310 lb-ft of torque between the front and rear axle.

Added equipment: Expedition Timberline comes standard with four-wheel drive and a 2-speed transfer case and black 18-inch wheels wrapped in 33-inch Wrangler all-terrain tires. Steel skid plates protect the increased exposure from the bumpers, and the knobby tires as well as new springs and other suspension upgrades raise the ground clearance nearly an inch more than the standard Expedition to 10.6 inches. A limited-slip rear differential helps it churn through the muck, and a Trail Turn Assist function locks the inside rear wheel and drags it through a turn to help this big beast navigate tight corners. Orange front tow hooks can lend a helping hand. 

The Explorer Timberline has a limited-slip rear differential that shuttles torque to the rear wheel with the most grip and keeps the other wheel from spinning, and ground clearance increases from 7.9 to 8.7 inches. It rides on 18-inch wheels with high-profile Bridgestone Dueler all-terrain tires, and has heavy-duty shocks that Ford uses on the Explorer Police Interceptor. A standard Class III trailer tow package with a 5,300-pound towing capacity enhances the do-it-all capability.

Off-road intender or pretender? Pretender, at least in the mud. Testing the Expedition Timberline off-road in the rain resulted in more slip over rocks than in smaller models, even with all-terrain tires. We could expect similar results with an Expedition XLT with 4WD. The lighter-weight Explorer Timberline does it better. 

2022 Honda Passport TrailSport

2022 Honda Passport Trailsport

2022 Honda Passport Trailsport

Honda TrailSport

Available models: 2022 Honda Passport

Trim basis: Built off EX-L grade. 

Added price: At $44,265 (including $1,295 destination), it’s $4,600 more than the EX-L, and about $3,000 less than the top Elite. 

Cosmetic differences: New rear bumper with a “skid garnish” meant to look like a silver skid plate; orange logo and other orange accents; orange contrast stitching on leather seats; black roof rails, 

Standard mechanicals: All-wheel drive, a 280-hp 3.5-liter V-6 making 262 lb-ft, and a 9-speed automatic transmission. 

Added equipment: 18-inch wheels with 245/60R18 Firestone “highway terrain” tires and chunky sidewalls, and a 10-mm wider track.

Off-road intender or pretender? The Trailsport sports the look, regardless of the trail. It’s a pretender only because any AWD Passport has a good enough system and 8.1 inches of ground clearance for mild off-roading on well-established trails. 

2023 Hyundai Palisade

Hyundai XRT 

Available models: 2023 Palisade, 2022 Tucson, 2022 Santa Fe

Trim basis: SEL with Convenience Package

Added price: $2,300 more on the Palisade SEL AWD to $41,545; add $2,150 on Tucson SEL to $33,145; and $1,600 more on the Santa Fe SEL to $34,045 (includes $1,295 delivery). 

Cosmetic differences: 20-inch black alloy wheels (19-inch on Tucson, 18-inch on Santa Fe), different lower bumpers with fake skid plate molding, a black grille, black roof and cross rails, and black synthetic leather seats, as well as a sunroof. The Tucson and Santa Fe add black mirror covers. The AWD version adds a locking center differential and Snow and Tow modes. 

Standard mechanicals: Palisade has a 291-hp 3.8-liter V-6 and can tow up to 5,000 lb. Santa Fe uses a 191-hp 2.5-liter inline-4, with a tow rating of 3,500 lb. The Tucson employs a 187-hp 2.5-liter inline-4. All models have an 8-speed automatic and front-wheel drive standard. 

Added equipment: The AWD version of the Palisade adds a locking center differential, Snow and Tow modes, and hill descent control, but that applies to any AWD Palisade. 

Off-road intender or pretender? Pretender. 

2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro

2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro

2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro

2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro

Kia X-Line and X-Pro

Available models: 2023 Sportage, 2023 Telluride

Trim basis: EX for the X-Line and SX for X-Pro

Added price: For $32,085, the Sportage X-Line is $1,000 more than Sportage EX, and the loaded $38,085 Sportage X-Pro Prestige is $1,500 more than the SX Prestige. Telluride TBD. 

Cosmetic differences: The Sportage X-Line wears distinct bumpers, fake skid plates, and gloss-black side mirrors, roof rails, window surrounds, and 19-inch wheels with all-season tires. A black roof with two-tone options distinguishes X-Pros, as well as LED fog lights and LED projector headlights on X-Pro Prestige grades. Inside, a mechanical gear shifter replaces the dial shifter in the console on other models.

The Telluride X-Line adds roof rails, 10 millimeters of extra ground clearance, 20-inch wheels, and a Tow mode with sway control and also adjusts the transmission’s shift program. 

Standard mechanicals: The Sportage uses a 2.5-liter inline-4 that makes 187 hp and 178 lb-ft of torque with an 8-speed automatic. The Telluride has the same 3.8-liter V-6 rated at 291 hp and 262 lb-ft and 8-speed automatic as the Palisade. 

Added equipment: Standard all-wheel drive for the Sportage X models, while the Telluride X come in front-wheel drive. X-Line has four drive modes, Normal, Sport, Smart, and Snow, but no more off-road functionality than other grades. Sportage X-Pro models add a locking center differential to fix torque 50/50 between the axles, hill descent control at speeds up to 15 mph, a surround-view camera system, and 17-inch wheels with off-road tires. 

The Telluride X-Pro swaps out the X-Line’s 20-inch wheels for 18-inch wheels with Continental all-terrain tires, and it can to 500 lb more to 5,500 lb. It can be had with a self-leveling rear suspension.

Off-road intender or pretender? X-Line pretends, while the X-Pro intends. We haven’t tested the 2023 Telluride X-Pro

2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek

Nissan Rock Creek

Available models: 2023 Pathfinder

Trim basis: TBA

Added price: TBA

Cosmetic differences: The exterior gets black trim elements, and the interior flashes black synthetic leather upholstery with orange contrast stitching. A surround-view camera system comes standard, as does a tow hitch and wiring harness, second-row captain’s chairs, and LED fog lights.

Standard mechanicals: A 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 295 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque with premium fuel. 

Added equipment: Standard all-wheel drive, an off-road suspension with a 5/8-inch lift that raises the ground clearance to about 7.7 inches. The 18-inch wheels pretend to be beadlock-capable, but the all-terrain tires are real, and a roof rack that’s totally tubular can hold 220 lb.

Off-road intender or pretender? Intender. When equipped with the available surround-view camera system, it helps see beyond the blocky rear end and bold front. The seven drive modes automatically adjust traction control, simplifying the transfer between mud and dirt and snow, for instance.

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