Compact SUV mud-n-ruts throw-down
In January, we Big Tested eight compact SUVs and ranked the aging Jeep Cherokee seventh, adding this caveat: “If you’re planning to take your compact CUV off-roading, bump the Cherokee to the top of your list.” But then we got to wondering, is the Cherokee still the king of the soft-roader hill? The Toyota RAV4 Adventure trim level now gets a Jeep-ish Multi-Terrain Select dial of its own, Mud & Sand and Rock & Dirt settings, hill descent control (HDC), a new dynamic torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system, and increased ground clearance (8.6 inches versus other RAV4s’ 8.4). Is this enough to dethrone the Cherokee in this segment of the segment? To find out, we ordered up one of each and headed to our local off-road park to find out.
Before setting out, we carefully examined each ute from top to bottom (using our lift) to assess their off-road bona fides. Our going-in assumptions about the Jeep were reinforced by its two front and one rear recovery hooks, all of which are open so they can accept a fabric loop or a metal hook on the end of a recovery strap. It carries a full-size spare tire of the same specification as the tires on the ground, mounted on a steel wheel (note that this eliminates the bi-level cargo floor, which adds 1.8 cubic feet on Cherokees with mini-spares). Off-road buttons actuate a genuine 2.92:1 low range, a rear differential lock, HDC, Selec-Speed control (off-road cruise control to maintain a steady, slow pace), and a five-position Selec-Terrain knob (Auto, Snow, Sport, Sand/Mud, Rock). The transfer case even includes a neutral mode to allow flat-towing. The engine air intake is located high in the right front fender to enable deep fording (the spec is 20 inches, but we went deeper), and nearly every vulnerable component, hose, or line running underneath the Cherokee is protected by steel skidplates. Of course, all of this gear adds weight—some 740 pounds (336 kg) of it relative to the Toyota—which explains its 8/9-mpg (29.4/26.1-L/100 km) city/highway fuel economy penalty with our tester’s base 3.2-liter V-6. (Spending $500 USD for the optional 2.0-liter turbo only shrinks those deficits by 2 mpg (117.6 L/100 km).)
The RAV4 by contrast features a compact T165/90D18 spare tire and no skidplates; that silver thing in front is a plastic falsie, and the plastic underbody sheathing is strictly for aerodynamics. Worse yet, it offers no recovery points whatsoever—no screw-in recovery eyelets in the bumpers and no shipping tie-downs underneath. (Ours was built in Canada.) All Adventure models are prepped for 3,500-pound (1,587-kg) trailer towing (bigger radiator, oil and trans-fluid coolers), but ours had no hitch, either. So before pulling the RAV4 off the rack, I attached a tow strap to the rear suspension subframe and vowed to have the Toyota lead the way into any potentially “sticky situations” so the Jeep or our Toyota 4Runner recovery vehicle could tug it out using this strap. Doing this after getting stuck would be super un-fun. On the upside, there is a 110-volt outlet in the cargo area for powering campsite compressors and the like.
1st Challenge: Fist-Size Rock Pile
This seemingly innocuous low pile of roundish rocks looks easy, but the rocks don’t interlock much, making it a little treacherous to climb even on foot. Both vehicles made quick work of scaling and descending this obstacle, and the RAV4 had a chance to impress us with its rear-axle torque distribution, reversing up one section with one wheel well up in the air and the diagonally opposite front momentarily airborne.
2nd Challenge: Hell’s Steps
This massive rock staircase is designed to challenge lifted Wranglers and Defenders, so our expectations were minimal for either of these car-based entries. We started out in the Jeep, set to low range, diff lock, and Rock mode. The knobby, tall-sidewall (245/65R17) Firestone Destination all-terrain tires plus approach and departure angles that, at 29.9 and 32.2 degrees, are at least 10 degrees steeper than the RAV4’s allowed us to ascend about four “stairs” in the Jeep (with spotters assisting), with its impressive 48.4:1 low-range crawl ratio making it easy to scale rocks very slowly. Chin clearance ultimately stopped us from climbing the fifth step. The RAV4 valiantly climbed up onto the first full stair before its 19.0-degree approach angle stopped it. We contemplated placing a loose rock or two under the left front tire to clear the next step, but as the Jeep required no such assistance, we stopped here.
3rd Challenge: Sharp Downhill Left Hook
This dirt trail involved a steep incline with a sharp crest and decline around a very tight left turn to avoid a fallen tree. The Toyota’s suspension can’t articulate quite as much as the Jeep’s, so in the middle of the sharp left, its left front and right rear tires spent a moment or two airborne, with the front spinning a bit as the torque-vectoring rear end helped maintained forward motion. The Jeep’s front tire spun momentarily, too, but the Cherokee suspension keeps its feet on the ground better. On the downside, slightly larger wheelbase and turning circle dimensions required the Cherokee to reverse and reposition a bit before negotiating this turn.
4th Challenge: Splash Pond
After wading through this pond in my Wellington Boots to verify it wasn’t bottomless and dialing up each vehicle’s mud setting, we motored through at about 15 mph (24 km/h), discovering a low spot my recce-wade had missed. Hitting this spot in each ute prompted an impressive windshield-high splash and subsequent bow-wake over the hood. Then just to make sure momentum hadn’t covered for a lack of grip from the RAV4’s less aggressive 235/55R19 Yokohama Avid GT tires, we drove that one back through, stopping in the middle, then slowly accelerating out. No problem.
5th Challenge: Boggy Waterways
Feeling somewhat vexed that none of our challenges had managed to get either vehicle stuck, we found a waterlogged, mud-bottomed “canal to nowhere” that didn’t devour or fully submerge my Wellies, so I set the Jeep up for max-attack Mud mode and entered with Selec-Speed set to 5 mph (8 km/h). Nice as you please, it trundled right through and up the other side, with the engine rpm only rising once, briefly toward the end. OK, surely this challenge will confound the Toyota. Nope! Granted, with less aggressive tire treads and no low range torque multiplication assisting, I had to work the throttle a lot more than Jeep’s cruise control had. But the plucky RAV4 popped out the other side, too. Feeling bound and determined to make use of the four tow straps we’d brought along, I decided to try the canal lane next door, which was just slightly deeper than my Wellie boots but seemed passable. I entered in the Jeep with the Selec-Speed set to 5 mph (8 km/h), but within about 40 feet, with the exhaust burbling from beneath the surface, I felt the skidplates high-center on the submerged muck. Selec-Speed revved fruitlessly until I braked and shifted to park. With water halfway up the doors, I exited via the windows to link our three remaining tow straps to the 4Runner after easily locating the Jeep’s tow hook in the murky water and slipping my loop over it. Minutes later, the Jeep was back on dry ground. We were impressed to note that not a drip of water came in through the door seals, and although the doors themselves filled with water, the stereo speakers in them were unaffected. We knew better than to bother sending the RAV4 into that canal.
Bonus Challenge: Slick Clay Ditch
Desperate to use the Toyota’s subframe-mounted tow strap, I attacked one last slippery clay ditch and indeed managed to get the RAV4 into hopeless wheelspin mode, but backing up and changing the angle of attack got me through this obstacle, too.
We were right. If playing in the dirt like you see us doing in these pictures holds any allure to you, the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk is the compact SUV for you. If you’re just outdoorsy and want an economical compact that will get you back out of your state park bivouac after a storm, the RAV4 Adventure offers an impressive leg up on all the other competitors in the space. And please. If you’re neither of the above, pick a different version or vehicle altogether, because on pavement the equipment added to make these two do what you see them doing here makes them heavier, noisier, and less efficient than you need.
|2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk||2019 Toyota RAV4 Adventure|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, 4WD||Front-engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||60-deg V-6, alum block/heads||I-4, alum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||197.7 cu in/3,239cc||151.8 cu in/2,487 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||271 hp @ 6,500 rpm||203 hp @ 6,600 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||239 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm||184 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,500 rpm||6,750 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||16.2 lb/hp||17.9 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||9-speed automatic||8-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||13.0-in vented disc; 12.6-in disc, ABS||12.0-in vented, disc; 11.1-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||7.5 x 17-in, cast aluminum||7.5 x 19-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||245/65R17 105T M+S Firestone Destination A/T||235/55R19 101V (M+S) Yokohama Avid GT|
|WHEELBASE||107.1 in||105.9 in|
|TRACK, F/R||63.6/63.5 in||62.6/63.3 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||182.9 x 74.9 x 67.8 in||181.5 x 73.4 x 68.6 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||8.7 in||8.6 in|
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE||29.9/32.2 deg||19.0/21.0 deg|
|TURNING CIRCLE||38.1 ft||37.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,380 lb||3,640 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||58/42%||57/43%|
|TOWING CAPACITY||2,000 lb (4,500 lb w/$795 trailer pkg)||3,500 lb|
|HEADROOM, F/R||37.9/38.5 in||37.7/37.7 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||41.1/40.3 in||41.0/37.8 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||57.6/55.1 in||57.8/56.4 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||54.7/25.8 cu ft||69.8/37.5 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.9 sec||3.0 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||4.4||4.5|
|QUARTER MILE||16.4 sec @ 84.9 mph||16.6 sec @ 85.2 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||128 ft||126 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.72 g (avg)||0.81 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||28.6 sec @ 0.57 g (avg)||27.5 sec @ 0.62 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,200 rpm||2,200 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$41,125||$38,865|
|AIRBAGS||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee, passenger thigh|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/60,000 miles||2 yrs/unlimited miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||15.9 gal||14.5 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||18/24/21 mpg||26/33/29 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||187/140 kW-hrs/100 miles||130/102 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.96 lb/mile||0.67 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded midgrade||Unleaded regular|