Which Family SUVs Go Off-Road with Rugged Double Duty and Durability? The Texas Truck Rodeo Put Them to the Test

Feature Image Kittys Glam Rides Natalie Merola A Girls Guide To Cars Fca Tawa Texas Truck Rodeo3 Copy
The new Jeep Grand Wagoneer is spacious with a view of the city map above our heads. ?:Natalie Merola

It’s a pandemic, ya’ll. We wore masks because you need to know.

In the age of COVID-19, families are finding new ways to travel without staying in hotels by connecting with nature and the open roads. While some may opt for an RV, airstream, or camper, you don’t have to transition into the truck life to make the most of an off-roading experience.

SUVs are more than capable than ever and give family buyers the ability to do double duty with camping and the regular routine hauling the kids to and from school. If we want to get technical here, SUVs are pretty much trucks with extra rows. Here is what you need to know if you want your SUV to perform like one.

2020 Toyota Rav4 In Lunar Rock

The TRD trim looks like a natural with these blue skies ahead. ?: Natalie Merola

Ground clearance is key for overcoming rocks

The off-road driving course at the Texas Truck Rodeo tested each SUV’s ground clearance and capable terrain modes. Some did better than others, but there were a few reasons why.

For an off-road SUV, you want something that sits higher. This ground clearance gives you maneuverability across rocks, dirt, mud, and sand. The last thing you want in an off-road SUV is a low stance or a machine without skid plates, which are large metal plates attached to the underside of your vehicle that will protect the delicate machinery from rocks or branches. Although it makes for a great photo, you don’t want to rip off the front bumper or damage anything underneath it when driving up or down a rocky hill. The higher the SUV, the more agile it will be over variable terrains.

Jeep is well known for its height and climbing up and down rocky, hilly terrain without bottoming out. It’s nimble and strong, so it looks great and is highly functional. This one handled the terrain well and gave a memorable off-road experience only a Jeep could. However, this may not fit that many little ones if you have to pack in a car seat or two in the second row. It would serve better for a family with older children.

The Kia Telluride may fit your entire family and cargo, but it isn’t typically branded for off-roading. Its low stance is not ideal for climbing uneven, rocky terrain downhill the same way you’d drive a Jeep Rubicon. You’ll have to weigh your options if you want to accommodate a bigger family in a lower-sitting car.

Related: The Best 7 Seater SUVs for Back to School Carpools

Kittys Glam Rides Natalie Merola A Girls Guide To Cars Fca Tawa Texas Truck Rodeo1 Electric Jeep 4Xe

Four-wheel drive gives you the maximum power when off-roading to all four tires. It adds a little more to the tires that require getting you up a hill or downhill as well. ?: Natalie Merola

4WD vs. AWD: What do you need to off-road?

There are plenty of good reasons to choose 4WD or AWD, and that will largely come down to what your family needs from your vehicle. Knowing the difference between the two will help you make the best choice.

Four-wheel drive, or 4×4, means that you can go off-road and the power will go to all wheels, but if you need more power on a specific wheel, the power will kick in where it needs to help you. This is why the Jeep does so well in the great outdoors for its utility. This is perfect for driving the family to the lake house or riding through the woods. 

When living somewhere with inclement weather or varying terrain, it’s important to look into an AWD or all-wheel drive SUV. Does it snow where you live? Are you driving through hills or mountains more often? Is it icy out? The drive modes allow you to be in control by applying the right power via your all-wheel drive. The SUV will apply power to all four tires, but if need be, it can assist with focusing power on the front tires. There’s a big difference with traction control with AWD. It’s great for telling your SUV how you want to drive, given the current weather or driving conditions. 

AWD is great for people who drive in variable, seasonal conditions. It’s a great base if you need something as functional as it is practical for your daily activities. 4WD is designed for more extreme conditions and taking on rugged terrain. So, if you need a powertrain for driving through a few bumps and hills, you can get by with AWD. If you’re going to be fording large, steep cliffs or really deep snow, 4WD might be more up your alley.

The Kia Seltos LX for example is a capable AWD SUV to climb hills along the roads around town, but it isn’t necessarily meant for extreme, maximum off-roading. You’re better off driving this trim to the campsite or the mall, but don’t write it off! I think the Kia SX Turbo AWD is a bit mightier and more capable off-road. 

Related: 2020 Ford Explorer: With Hot New Features and a New Look, This is Not Your Daddy’s 7 Seater SUV

Kittys Glam Rides Natalie Merola A Girls Guide To Cars Fca Tawa Texas Truck Rodeo Rolls Royce Cullinan

Would you dare to off-road in over $400K?! Only if it is purple, of course. ?: Elias Garcia

Terrain modes create the perfect family adventure

Not all terrain modes are created equal. Some are more intuitive than others—you can press a button and let it do all the heavy lifting for you—while others need you to read your owner’s manual before your first drive. Whatever the case, make sure you’re familiar with what those modes do before you take your SUV on a big off-road journey.

If you live in suburbia and don’t have many hills or dirt roads, you probably aren’t too concerned. However, if it isn’t a hot climate and you experience ice or slick conditions like here in Texas, its important to know how to activate your terrain modes.

The Toyota RAV4 TRD PRO Off-Road may have low ground clearance and do better on light trails, but it’s still great for those family adventures. Ideally, this all-wheel drive SUV has the terrain modes you need for gaining traction in the worst of situations through mud, snow, sand, and slick roads. It’s ergonomically placed in the middle console and stabilizes your ride, while ensuring all wheels are engaged.

And if more power is needed in the front to crawl through terrain, the front axle power helps you climb out. However, it doesn’t have skid plates, so be careful you’re not causing more harm than the thrills you seek.

Kittys Glam Rides Natalie Merola A Girls Guide To Cars Fca Tawa Texas Truck Rodeo Rolls Royce Cullinan

The Rolls Royce Cullinan is the extra glamorous off-roading experience you didn’t know you needed. ?: Elias Garcia

Overall, these SUVs drive better on terrain

Everyone has a different price point when shopping for the perfect family car. It can add some dollar signs, especially if you’re looking for a family SUV that is also capable off-road. With ground clearance, downhill descent, terrain modes, and 4WD, the Land Rover Defender, Jeep Rubicon, and Infiniti QX80 were powerful and effortlessly climbed. And if money isn’t an object, the Rolls Royce Cullinan is a strong AWD consideration. The sheer fact that you can take a glamorous ride like a Rolls Royce off-road blows my mind, but it can be done like you’re floating on a cloud. 

Related: 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo AWD: Bejeweled and Enchanting like a Citrine

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I'm Natalie "Kitty" Merola. I'm a cool mom who loves fabulous style + beauty accessories, fast cars, video games,... More about Natalie Merola