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Capable Crossovers: Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-9 and Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk

What comes to mind when I mention Kia, Mazda and Jeep together? What if you were dreaming of the perfect new rig that can take you on miles of tarmac as well as mild off-pavement tracks? Would that rig be the Kia Sorento, the Mazda CX-9 or a Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk? You may think Jeep has the only off-road chops in this trio, but we'll dissect the three—to discuss off-road capability versus on-road comfort. Not every adventure rig needs to be from Toyota, Land Rover or Jeep. These three vehicles can help you get out there to explore the countryside, get you to your favorite trailhead or help you adventure your way through a Saturday afternoon. Let’s discuss.

CX-9 and Sorento on wooded trails

I recently attended the Colorado Climb, a unique inaugural event that encompassed several vehicle manufacturers and vehicles, to see how capable they are in a variety of settings. In addition to tarmac, I had the chance to drive vehicles on hard-packed dirt, loose rocks, moderate inclines and declines as well as water crossings. Two tracks were offered: a moderate track for AWD rigs and a more difficult track for 4x4s and those with more off-road prowess.

2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk Elite 4X4

Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk side view

No introduction is needed to the off-road capability of Jeep. Jeep has a long history of thousands of dirt-packed and muddy miles. The Jeep Wrangler is the top dog, as it has been for years, but the five-passenger Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk should be considered for those searching for a rig that is four-wheel-drive, has a locking differential and has oodles of technology to aid in its off-pavement capability (such as Active Drive II and Selec-Terrain system with Active Drive Lock or hill descent control and Selec-Speed Crawl Control). The Active Drive II system includes a low range and neutral mode for added capability. The low mode is great for low-speed grip, whereas the neutral mode enables available flat towing behind your RV. Selec-Terrain has customized settings: auto, sport, snow, mud and sand.

Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk

Our olive green pearl Trailhawk Elite test model donned accoutrements such as heated and ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, remote start system, foot-activated power lift gate, windshield wiper de-ice and auto-dimming rear view mirror. This 24 hwy, 18 city and 21 combined mpg Trailhawk has a base price of $33,320 but showcased a $40,245 sticker at the event. The 3.2L, 24-valve VVT V6 engine was quite comfortable on the pavement and did surprisingly well off-pavement. Its automatic transmission with autostick sequential shift control was responsive and engaging when traversing over the more difficult trail with the other 4x4s. The Trailhawk was a little billy goat, climbing up and over just about anything I threw at it. I needed to use the rear locker and Selec-Terrain system a few times, but with a bit of controlled driving and adjusting of its off-road features, I successfully traversed over smaller boulders and tight off-camber situations. Overall: impressive.

Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk undercarriage

Additional technology features included items like adaptive cruise control, full speed collision warning with crash mitigation and LaneSense lane departure warning. Also included were Uconnect 4 with an 8.4-inch display and nine-speaker system with subwoofer, an eight-way power driver seat with four-way lumbar and a full size spare (vs tire patch kit). This nine-speed 271hp 4x4 has a maximum towing capacity of up to 4,500 pounds when equipped with Trailer Tow Group or Trailer Tow Prep Group. Without, it can tow 2,000 pounds.

Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk

With a wheelbase of 107 inches, the 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk Elite 4x4 has a five-year or 60,000-mile powertrain limited warranty with three-year or 36,000-mile basic limited warranty. This Trailhawk also had a multitude of airbags: from multi-stage front airbags, side curtain front and rears, to front seat mounted side airbags, there is an array of safety that will envelope you.

Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk on trails

“The trail offered 10 inches of water crossings, but the Cherokee 4x4 can ford up to 20 inches of water at 10 mph. With three innovative 4x4 systems which includes a two-speed PTU with low range and a locking rear differential, the Jeep Cherokee delivers crawl ratios of up to 51:2:1, an improved approach angle of 29.9 degrees, a departure angle of 32.2 degrees, breakover angle of 22.9 degrees, 60 percetn grade Jeep fore/aft capability of 31 degrees and 45 percent grade Jeep fore/aft capability of 24.3 degrees,” says Kelley Enright, FCA's Midwest Region Communications Manager. “The running ground clearance is 8.7 inches. All of these combinations make it the most capable mid-size SUV in the segment.”

Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk on wooded trails

2019 Kia Sorento SXL AWD

One wouldn’t necessarily think that Kia has a quill in its arsenal for off-pavement adventuring, but think again. The seven-passenger, three-row-seating Kia Sorento should be considered. This 24 hwy, 19 city and 21 combined mpg Sorento is a bit more expensive than the Jeep, having a base price of $46,490 and stickering at $48,020 at the test drive. The 3.3L, six-cylinder SXL is offered up with 290hp and an eight-speed automatic transmission. Our titanium silver tester was equipped with the optional all-wheel drive system that featured a locking center diff. The Sorento was strong and even on pavement, shifting smoothly as necessary. The Sorento SXL traversed over hard-packed dirt easily, navigated through small rocky stretches successfully and overall did a great job on the moderate AWD track. Its relaxed demeanor was comfortable, ride quality solid, as well as interior cabin refined and quiet when hitting the trails.

Kia Sorento through water 2

“We understand most of our Kia Sorento owners may not take their SUVs to anywhere extreme as Moab’s Hell’s Revenge or even Humbug Hill in Breckenridge, but it’s nice to know that a weekend adventure well off the beaten path is possible,” states Neil Dunlop, Public Relations Manager of Kia Motors America. He further explained that Sorento’s off-road ability is now being promoted in Kia’s television commercial, in which a Sorento with minimal modifications (aftermarket all-terrain tires, protective skid plate and disconnect sway bars) conquers Moab’s famous Revenge trail. I, personally, wouldn’t take my $40,000 AWD SUV over Moab’s slick rock but Kia wanted to show that their mighty seven-passenger Sorento could do it, so I did it.

Kia Sorento rear three-quarters

In addition to Sorento’s locking center differential and AWD system, the SXL features hill-start assist control (perfect for those steep hills) as well as multiple airbags (including seat-mounted side and full-length side curtain airbags). Tech features include forward collision avoidance control with pedestrian detection, lane keeping assist, smart cruise control, blind spot collision warning as well as rear cross-traffic collision warning and driver-configurable vehicle modes.

Kia Sorento rear three-quarters

Interior creature comforts include items like dual-zone automatic climate control, an awesome Harman Kardon premium audio system with Cari-Fi, Nappa leather seat trim, heated and ventilated front seats along with a heated steering wheel. Exterior accoutrements include niceties like LED head, fog and tail lights, panoramic roof with power sunshade and smart hands-free power lift gate.

Kia Sorento interior

While the wheelbase of the Sorento is slightly larger than the Trailhawk’s at 109.4 inches, the Sorento can tow an impressive 5,000 pounds. The 2019 Kia Sorento SXL AWD boasts an industry-leading warranty too: 10-year/100,000 mile limited powertrain warranty and 5-year/60,000 limited basic warranty with roadside assistance.

Kia Sorento interior side

2019 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD

Historically known as manufacturing “driver’s cars,” Mazda has a long-standing pedigree of cars that envelope the driver and their experiences on the road. But, what about their experience off the road? Could Mazda play alongside (or even dominate its direct competitors) when galloping over rocks or loose dirt? My answer is yes. The CX-9 boasted an engaging experience in all the types of terrain I drove it in. The CX-9’s ride quality was smooth, controlled and comfortable. Insulation played an important role in keeping rough roads and engine noise quiet.

Mazda CX-9 beauty shot

“The CX-9 is available with Mazda’s predictive i-ACTIV AWD that is designed to inspire confidence in various road conditions. The i-ACTIV AWD system monitors 27 different driving variables more than 200 times per second and continuously adjusts the AWD to match driving conditions. CX-9’s i-ACTIV AWD adjust power from the front to the rear wheels, preventing slips before the driver would ever feel slip,” said a Mazda spokesperson. They further explain that the CX-9, much like all of Mazda’s vehicles, is engineered to provide a smooth driving experience to help make the vehicle feel like an extension of the driver. That’s been apparent from every Mazda I’ve ever driven. From spirited driving to climbing steady grades, the CX-9’s turbocharged and fuel-efficient engine provides 250hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. Even with less horsepower than the Jeep Trailhawk (which packs 271hp) and the Kia Sorento SXL (donning 290hp), the Mazda CX-9 feels peppy and engaging—it’s definitely a driver’s car. 

Mazda CX-9 through water

The CX-9 Grand Touring model garners 26 hwy, 20 city and 23 combined MPG and has tons of technology features (like a 360° view mirror, front parking sensors, blind spot monitoring, radar cruise control, rear cross traffic alert, rear parking sensors, lane departure warning and lane keep assist feature as well as smart brake support). Interior wows include leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats with heated steering wheel, second row window sunshades and heated seats, windshield wiper deicer and Bose 12-speaker system along with eight-inch color display (with rear camera and navigation system).

Mazda CX-9 interior

Additional CX-9 traits include power open/close rear lift gate (not hands free), adaptive front lighting system with LED head, fog, DRLs and LED combination taillights, a power glass moonroof, heads-up display, additional sound proofing and an improved suspension setup. This SUV’s wheelbase is an oversized 115.3 inches and has a tow capacity of 3,500 pounds. The Mazda CX-9 also includes a five-year or 60,000-mile powertrain limited warranty and a three-year or 36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty with 24-hour roadside assistance.

Mountain goats

Final Thoughts

If you aren’t sure what type of rig is right for you, then test drive all three of them to get a feel of what you like. Although the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk is a five-passenger vessel, it’s a very capable machine with oodles of interior niceties. If you’re looking to add light rock crawling or steeper inclines/declines to your repertoire, than the Jeep Trailhawk is your vehicle. If you’re in the market for a seven-passenger AWD that boasts a rear locker and industry-leading warranty, the Kia Sorento SXL AWD is your best bet. Mazda’s heritage as a driver’s car must also be considered. The CX-9 Grand Touring AWD has tons of technology, safety features and is a solid driving experience. All three models are strong contenders to help you explore your surroundings.

Shopping vehicles? Learn more about the 2019 Toyota TRD trio.

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