Call me crazy, but here's a thought: What if people actually used their rugged SUVs and crossovers to do rugged things? You know, getting to hiking and camping spots, or hauling mountain bikes and kayaks. Stuff like that. People do it all the time — in ads, anyway.
The beauty of rugged rigs lies in their one-two punch of all-wheel drive and spacious cargo bays. Want to drag a house-size tent to the middle of nowhere? Go ahead. Bring the fondue pot, some pinot grigio and a big-screen TV, too.
That said, I'm profiling affordable offerings here. Those driving Range Rovers and Mercedes G-Class SUVs will be staying in ritzy resorts, right?
Compact and capable
Wilderness weekends don't require massive vehicles. You can throw backpacking gear into any Subaru for a spontaneous trek away from noisy neighbors. Imprezas, Foresters and Outbacks are practically the official cars of the Northwest, and their symmetrical all-wheel drive can handle any bumpy roads you encounter.
The sleek Mazda CX-5 will tempt you into taking the long, curvy route to the hiking trail, it's so much fun to drive. And you may already own a Honda CR-V, since it's the most popular crossover in America. Its cargo hold is the in-class champ based on my unique trunk test: It swallows 12 bundles of Costco toilet paper behind the back seat, compared with 10 or fewer for most competitors. That equals a lot of sleeping bags.
Sleek urban style comes to national parks everywhere courtesy of the Kia Sportage. Sculpted under former Audi designer Peter Schreyer's eye, it's as sharp as a Porsche Design pocketknife.
Chevrolet's Equinox has positioned itself as a contender, with a choice of four- or six-cylinder power. Hyundai has two swoopy five-seaters, the Tucson and the Santa Fe Sport. Both feature panoramic roofs for unobstructed views of Olympic Mountain peaks.
The popular Ford Escape offers chiseled good looks, up to 240 horsepower and a slick optional hatchback that rises when you wave your foot under the rear bumper — great for arms full of firewood.
Toyota's 2014 RAV4 gets two huge improvements: The spare tire is gone from the rear end, and the rear side-opening door has become a proper liftback. That means protection from the rain while you decide between pitching the tent or checking into a cabin.
As rare as Sasquatch around here is the Dodge Journey. Pity. Cameras and wallets hide under the unique front passenger-seat cushion. Removable storage bins in the back-seat floor can be used as coolers. The small third row carries two extra scouts in a pinch. Always be prepared.
For the crew
There are adventures that require three usable rows, and good choices are as plentiful as trees in a forest. The Chevy Traverse has been substantially upgraded for 2013. The Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot remain family favorites, and the Toyota Highlander gets an all-new design this fall.
Nissan's 2014 Pathfinder has been completely reimagined and is much roomier. Wait until fall for the hybrid that's an extra $3,000. The Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe have V-6 power and three rows of seating. (The Santa Fe is different from the Santa Fe Sport, mentioned above; the Sport is rakish and angular, while the regular Santa Fe has a more conservative design.)
For truly rugged conditions, go with the Jeep Grand Cherokee or Toyota 4Runner. Both can haul a family and its gear to truly remote locations. The Jeep is now available with a fuel-stingy but torque-rich EcoDiesel engine. The new Summit trim is more luxurious than any lodge.
Regardless of what you drive, get out and explore. This is a beautiful corner of the world, and all-wheel drive is a great way to discover it.