As with years past, an enclave of 26 automotive journalist tested new SUVs, CUVs, and trucks at the 2018 Mudfest. The 24th annual off-road automotive affair culminates in the Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year – a prized trophy for the manufacturers that enter.

And so, on a bright, sunny, 80-degree day, journalists amassed at The Ridge Motorsports Park for two days of on-road and off-road testing. Participants maneuvered through an autocross-style cone course with slalom, a backup test, sharp cornering, quick acceleration, and panic braking.

Vehicles were entered into six categories: Subcompact SUV, Compact and Midsize SUV, Family SUV, Luxury SUV, Pickups, and Extreme, along with the overall winner of the NW Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year award.

When I say competition is hot, we mean it – it was 80 degrees out on the track one day. No, no… Manufacturers were given a select few spots, as the competition was limited in the number of vehicles allowed entry.

Of those that made the cut, only six could win in category and there could be only one overall winner.

Subcompact SUV – 2018 Hyundai Kona Ultimate AWD

The 2018 Hyundai Kona is an all-new SUV powered a 175-hp, 1.6L, turbocharged gas engine. It offers all the conveniences city dwellers desire (AndroidAuto and Apple Car Play, hands-free, and more) and the pint-sized package that city parking spots demand. While it’s unlikely that the average Kona buyer would off-road, those in the PNW with access to ample mountain roads will be happy to know they’re set to drive those rutted paths. The AWD proved to be adept at the off-road course, while the on-road course had small-car fun.

Compact & Midsize SUV – 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

The 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4×4 is part of the new JL generation, improving upon the inconveniences of the last generation (ZIPPERS!) and forging a bright, modern future for this classically designed SUV. It sports a 3.6L V6 engine and an 8-speed automatic transmission with all the off-roading gear (hardy axles, improved suspension, rock rails….) wheeler’s need to get dirty and still go to work afterwards.

Family SUV – 2018 Volkswagen Atlas

The all-new 2018 VW Atlas is the three-row winner – sporting all of the room families want without all the top-heaviness that they don’t. While maneuvering around the slalom course and the go-kart track, the Atlas performed like a much smaller vehicle. The interior also proved to be comfortable and smooth during the off-road portions, as well as having a great sound system.

Luxury SUV – 2018 BMW X2

When you really don’t want the SUV experience, but still need the space, look to the Ultimate Driving Machine. The 2018 BMW X2 was what we’d expect in driving performance on the on-road section of driving but performed above expectations on the off-road course. This small, luxurious SUV gives drivers the creature comforts of modern living while touring the muddy world of the outdoors.

Pickup – 2019 Ram 1500 Rebel

The 2018 Ram 1500 Rebel is a beast – and we like that! This model was powered by the growling 5.7L HEMI V8 connected to an 8-speed automatic transmission. Not only is it the off-roading-capable, towing/hauling pickup truck that you expect, it’s got the modern amenities we didn’t even know we needed. It even rewinds radio stations so you can listen to the whole song when you run across your favorites.

Extreme – 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

Again… I think there’s a Jeep thing going on this year… But, it’s just such a great performer on both tracks. The extreme course was child’s play to what Jeeps are routinely put through across the nation on any given weekend. But it is good to point out that the JL Wrangler beat out Chevrolet Colorado ZR2, the Toyota Tacoma TRD-Pro 4×4, the Nissan Titan Pro-4x, the Ford F-150 4×4 SuperCrew Diesel (with back and butt massagers), and others that took on this year’s Extreme course.

NW Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year – 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

We’re betting that at this point, Jeep winning the overall competition isn’t a surprise to you. With the performance on both tracks, its improved amenities and comforts, and the ease with which they’re redesigned the open-air experience makes this a one-of-a-kind vehicle.

“The 2018 Jeep Wrangler has evolved from a uniquely capable off-road-only machine into a thoroughly modern SUV with safety, technology, and on-road ride comfort that makes it an excellent choice for both workdays and weekends,” says NWAPA President John Vincent of U.S. News & World Report. “Amazingly, the Wrangler became a better off-road vehicle even as it gained on-road refinement.”

The all-new Wrangler JL series is a serious off-roader that is more than capable of tackling anything concrete jungle throws at it. The handling was more responsive than previous generations when navigating the slalom course, it was better at maneuvering around high-speed corners on the go-kart track, and the technology inside made it more connected than ever.

Yet, it’s still a Jeep at heart. Enthusiasts spoke and Jeep listened. The windshield can still drop, the doors, top, and… everything… comes off with ease. It’s still an off-roading beast well deserving of its 2018 title. It’s still the iconic mud-slinging, fun-wheeling vehicle that enthusiasts know and love.

Side note: I got the CX-5 dirtier than anyone… I even gave it a 3-tone interior – the Mud interior refinement is not factor offered.