The challenge: Find the best vehicle for a winter sports adventure, deep into snowy Utah.
Trucks.com selected four vehicles that aren’t typically compared against each other in the automotive industry. We included the top-selling Chevrolet Tahoe SUV and a Ford F-150 pickup. But not everyone wants a hulking vehicle that’s often hard to park and sucks up gasoline. So we added a Subaru Outback station wagon and the Tesla electric Model X crossover. We wanted to see how an all-electric vehicle fares in the snow.
We also recruited a panel of expert-level skiers and snowboarders to help us evaluate how well the vehicles fit an active winter sports lifestyle. Our panel included outdoor enthusiast Arielle Shipe, backcountry skier Justin Mayers, adventure photographer Samuel Lippke and board-riding attorney Steve Isbell.
They drove with us on the 430-mile round trip from Las Vegas to Brian Head, in southern Utah, about an hour and a half up Interstate 15 from St. George.
At an altitude of 9,800 feet, Brian Head is among the highest towns in the continental U.S., providing a perfect setting for vehicle testing on icy roads in subfreezing weather. We were blessed with a snowstorm that enabled us to test the vehicles in the worst of conditions.
Our advice to car buyers is take a wide view and consider how you drive and where you drive before settling on a particular model or body style. We took this approach when evaluating four vehicles that aren’t typically compared against each other: the Chevrolet Tahoe SUV, Ford F-150 pickup, Subaru Outback station wagon and the Tesla Model X electric crossover.
We put each of these vehicles through their paces on the 430-mile round-trip trek from Las Vegas to ski and snowboard in Brian Head, Utah. The idea was to use our staff and a panel of winter sports experts to evaluate how these vehicles would function on a typical three-day dash to the mountains. It is the first of a series of Trucks.com Adventure Drives to compare the usefulness of various sets of vehicles for outdoor activities.
Each has at least the minimum we would expect for an adventure drive vehicle: seating for four or more adults, four-wheel or all-wheel drive to handle, ice, snow and the occasional dirt road and enough space for equipment.
They had elaborate infotainment suites that provided navigation and a range of music options. Each had automated driver-assistance features to enhance safety and ease the burden on the driver during long trips.
The biggest difference was in pricing. The $39,605 Subaru seemed like a bargain when compared with the $169,550 Tesla. It also was tens of thousands less than the $64,715 Tahoe and $67,215 F-150. To be fair, these are manufacturer suggested retail prices of the test vehicles provided by the respective automakers for our evaluation, and they stuffed them with options. The Tesla Model X starts at $79,500, but that less-expensive configuration will have a smaller battery and less driving range.
Each vehicle has something to offer. The Subaru is the practical choice that works as well in the city as it does at the ski resort. The electric Tesla is green, projects a “cool” vibe and with its advanced technology offers a preview of what to expect in vehicles in the future. The Tahoe is an excellent blend of truck and people-hauler. The F-150 offers the utility of a pickup truck with a roomy cabin for five adults.
Here’s a breakdown of how these vehicles matched up in key areas beyond price.
Trip mileage and fuel costs
With vehicles this varied we expected to see a wide range in fuel costs for our trip. We weren’t disappointed.
The battery-electric Tesla was off the charts with a “fuel” cost of essentially zero. On our journey we recharged at a free Tesla-owned supercharger in St. George, Utah, and then topped off at a hotel in Brian Head that offered free charging. Pleasant as that was, access to no-cost power might not always be the case.
We expected the Tahoe and F-150, both powered by V8 engines, to have similar fuel costs, and they did. We paid just over $14 per 100 miles in each, or about $61 for the trip. The smaller, lower-profile Subaru was less expensive to fuel — $11.59 per 100 miles or about $50 for our journey. An $11 difference isn’t huge for a single weekend, but the differential adds up over a year of driving. Our average gas price was $2.55 a gallon.
The navigation system on the Model X is the most expansive. It has a massive 17-inch screen and, unlike the other vehicles on our drive, puts no restrictions on driver or passenger use when the vehicle is in motion. (Almost — it won’t allow you to watch the latest “Star Wars” movie or a rom-com.)
This is good and bad. While access in motion has its benefits, drivers need to pay attention to what is happening outside the vehicle while underway. Simultaneously navigating traffic and typing an address on a screen to find your way to a new destination is not a good idea. That’s why the vast majority of automakers lock down the navigation system when the vehicle is in drive.
Yet when traveling down a highway there are many reasons for a passenger to access the navigation system, including finding restaurants, gas stations, restrooms and recharging.
Both the Ford and Chevy locked out their systems, preventing touchscreen commands. The Subaru partially locked down the system but offered limited searches for gas stations and the selection of prior destinations. All of the systems allow some level of voice input, but although that technology is improving it still is remarkably frustrating and doesn’t work well for browsing. A key problem: the systems often misinterpret a question. For example, asking about the Brentwood Inn can generate the directions to Brentwood, Ind. And you can’t just ask, “Where’s the nearest Starbucks?” as you would a passenger and have the vehicle find it and reroute the navigation.
When a passenger is confronted by a locked-down navigation system, there are several hacks to try: The first is to use Waze or Apple CarPlay. Both typically work with no lock-out functions, although Waze asks users to confirm they are passengers. Android Auto does not allow a passenger to change a map destination when the vehicle is in motion.
The industry appears to be split on the issue. For example, the German manufacturers and others don’t lock navigation systems when the vehicle is moving.
One feature we would like to see more broadly adopted is the use of physical buttons and/or a joystick controller. This is a way to perform a task and still allow the driver to keep eyes on the road. It might seem a bit retro as most navigation systems are emulating tablets and smartphones in the use of touchscreens. But dedicated buttons are easy to understand, and a well-designed joystick, like the latest version of BMW’s iDrive, are intuitive. The best systems have a center button within easy reach of the armrest that can orient the hand — this allows functions to be selected without looking.
Active Safety Tech
Over the course of our adventure, we looked closely at the current generation of active safety technology and are excited about its potential, particularly for long drives. Think about a typical drive to a winter resort. People jump into their vehicles after work on a Friday, bomb to the local mountain and drive home Sunday after two days on the slopes. It’s fun but exhausting. The potential for driver fatigue on the drive home is substantial. Automated driver-assistance systems such as adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping alert, blind-spot warnings, assisted steering and automatic emergency braking reduce the risk that could lead to a crash.
As with its navigation system, the Tesla’s active safety technology was unique. When activated, its AutoPilot system managed the steering, acceleration and braking of the vehicle. All the driver had to do was keep hands on the wheel. This is a marvel to experience. But several in our panel of drivers said they were uncomfortable with how close it seemed the Tesla would steer to large vehicles such as a semi-truck in an adjacent lane. (The Subaru Outback came in for similar criticism.)
After some discussion, the group agreed that what triggered this discomfort was uncertainty over whether the technology was working as designed. This is something for the automakers to consider: How are drivers to know the system is fully engaged and the sensors working?
There’s something else to note about the Tesla. The company calls its system AutoPilot. Although Tesla warns drivers that they must still pay attention to the road — one driver was locked out of the system for ignoring warnings to keep hands on the wheel — the name implies they can relax more than they should. We would change it to Co-Pilot.
In contrast to our nervousness regarding AutoPilot, we liked Subaru’s advanced safety technology package — EyeSight. A display in the instrument cluster shows whether the sensors “see” both sides of the lane, just one side or neither when lane-keeping assist is engaged. The system chimes when a sensor loses its lock. This type of feedback gives drivers confidence in what essentially is a black box robotic system. It also keeps the driver engaged.
The issue with today’s active safety technology is that it can create a false feeling of security and encourage the driver’s attention to wander. In an emergency, when the driver might have to take over quickly, the transition from a relaxed, inattentive state to focused can take seconds — too late to prevent a collision. Overall, the active safety technologies we like the most help the driver when needed, but in ways that are supportive of the driver and not a replacement for the driver. Active emergency braking is a good example.
Our view is that with the current generation of technologies, drivers should be fully alert and in control. All of these systems are best considered a combination of driving aid and safety net. They never replace the driver.
The less-sophisticated system in the Chevrolet provided a good level of support but could never be used or confused as a driver substitute. Of the vehicles in the test the Tahoe had the fewest active safety systems. That’s likely to change with the next-generation Tahoe expected to reach dealers next year. The limited driver assistance was evident when comparing active braking, which on the test Chevrolet worked at speeds under 30 mph, and the subtle active steering to keep the SUV centered in its lane. Chevy offers a more advanced version of active braking as an option, but it was not on the vehicle we tested.
The F-150 came with Pre-Collision Assist to issue warnings and slow the vehicle in the event of an imminent collision. It also featured Adaptive Cruise Control with Stop and Go. The technology allows the driver to set a following distance behind vehicles in its lane and match their speed. The truck will accelerate or slow on its own, even gracefully braking down to a complete stop.
Advanced technologies in the Ford and Subaru were very similar. The active steering in each was much harder to ignore when it made corrections on the highway. Panelists awarded both systems high marks. Minor quibbles seemed to come down to personal preference. On both Ford and Subaru the function can be turned off in locales where it becomes more irritating than helpful, such as in city driving.
We had plenty of fresh snow at the 9,800-foot elevation Brian Head, Utah, resort for evaluating the four-wheel and all-wheel drive capabilities of each vehicle. The Tesla led us to ask: Could an electric vehicle match the performance of a conventional gasoline SUV or truck? Like most consumers, our panelists were not really familiar with electric cars and were skeptical.
After driving, they were surprised at how well the Model X compared. It had the best driving dynamics and handling of any of the vehicles, even on roads covered with snow and ice. The position of Tesla’s heavy batteries creates a low center of gravity that makes for superior handling. Crucially, the vehicle was fitted with winter-rated Pirelli Scorpion tires. Likewise, the Subaru with its compact boxer engine also has a low center of gravity, improving its agility, especially in inclement conditions.
At the other end of the spectrum, the comparatively ponderous Tahoe and F-150 value ground clearance and have much taller suspensions. One recent marketing trend is equipping vehicles with larger and larger wheels. They look cool on the highway but make less sense on a real adventure vehicle. A standout feature of the Midnight Edition Chevrolet Tahoe on our drive was correctly sized 18-inch wheels and off-road tires. These look the part of an adventure vehicle and offered real advantages when romping through the snow or hitting the occasional pothole. Many manufacturers warn against the use of chains with larger wheels because of the likelihood of cosmetic damage.
It wasn’t that long ago that trucks and ride comfort couldn’t be mentioned in the same sentence. Their steering and suspensions were stiff and their cabins were noisy. Overall, their utilitarian origins were evident. This all falls under what the auto industry calls NVH for noise, vibration and harshness.
These days, things have changed. The Ford F-150 pickup truck and Chevrolet Tahoe SUV we drove are great examples of the fundamental shift. The most car-like ride was clearly the Model X — not surprising as it is closely related to the Model S sedan. The Subaru Outback, also car-based, offered a very comfortable ride reminiscent of a midsize sedan. But even the sole pickup truck of the bunch, the F-150, was praised by our drivers as surprisingly quiet and comfortable. Panelists also liked the Chevy Tahoe’s ride comfort and handling.
When it came to interior quiet, the Tesla leveraged its electric powertrain to lead the pack. There were no complaints, though, about the noise level in the Outback, Tahoe and F-150. The aggressive off-road tires on the Tahoe did “slap” a bit on dry pavement, but overall the truck-based Tahoe and F-150 offered surprisingly quiet rides.
As could be expected the Tesla Model X, equipped with the highest level of its AutoPilot driving aid, featured a self-park mode. Ford has been a proponent of self park from the genesis of the technology, so the F-150 had the brand’s most recent iteration of the active-park assist technology. Both systems worked essentially as advertised, but over the course of the adventure there were few instances when the feature seemed particularly beneficial.
One might have expected the F-150 with its lengthy 145-inch wheelbase to be difficult to maneuver. Though the vehicle offers challenges in tight, urban driving situations, it proved no problem on the adventure. The Model X and Tahoe have virtually identical wheelbases (116.7 and 116.0, respectively) and the Tahoe is only slightly longer overall. The Tesla was easier to handle and maneuver than either the F-150 or the Tahoe.
The Subaru, a relatively diminutive vehicle in this group, also was noteworthy for its agility. Its lifted suspension and intelligent four-wheel drive system gave drivers confidence.
Seating and Cabin Comfort
Seats that look comfortable and work well for driving around town can be troublesome on an extended drive. A pillowy-soft seat will probably wear out its welcome after hours at the wheel, while firm, even support reduces discomfort. Additionally, seats and seating position play a key role in safety. Poorly designed seats can contribute to driver fatigue.
Along with well-positioned support, seats should offer a wide range of adjustment to allow them to better conform to drivers’ various shapes and sizes. A wide range of adjustments also enables drivers to reach controls and pedals without feeling cramped or having to stretch.
In theory, vehicles that offer a more upright, natural driving position have an advantage in both comfort and safety. In practice, every one of our roster of vehicles offered high levels of comfort for the driver and front passenger.
Back-seat comfort was a different story. Four-door pickups, including the F-150, often have rear seats with very upright seat backs. This increases legroom, but some of our passengers complained that the Ford’s seat-back angle became uncomfortable over longer drives.
All of the test vehicles offered significant amounts of cargo space, but each in a different way.
Our Ford F-150 SuperCrew test vehicle offered 52.8 cubic feet of cargo area in the bed, potentially augmented by the 51.9 cubic feet of lockable interior storage behind the vehicle’s front row of seats. But if there are rear seat passengers that space mostly disappears.
The full-size Chevrolet Tahoe offered the most versatile lockable cargo-carrying options. With each of its three rows of seating in place it offered 15.3 cubic feet of cargo space, bigger than the trunks of most full-sized sedans. With the third row folded 51.7 cubic feet of stowage became available. With both second and third rows out of the way storage rose to a cavernous 94.7 cubic feet.
The Subaru Outback demonstrates just how versatile the venerable station wagon configuration is. With its seat backs raised, 35.5 cubic feet of cargo space was available. With seat backs folded, that jumped to 73.3 cubic feet. The Outback’s relatively low overall height (66.1 inches) and roof rails also mean that a roof-rack mounted storage pod can be easily accessed.
The Tesla Model X offered substantial storage space but also some storage frustrations. The electric propulsion system opens up space under the hood for 6.6 cubic feet of cargo space. Tesla refers to the area as the “frunk,” and it can accommodate a couple of soft bags.
In addition, the Model X’s tall roofline enabled the vehicle to offer up to 81.2 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seats. Our test vehicle was a two-row version — a three row with less cargo capacity is also available — and folding the second row of seats opened up a large cargo area but obviously eliminated some seating positions. The “falcon-wing” rear doors that pivot upward also prevent the use of a roof rack. A hitch-mounted storage pod is available, as is the hitch-mounted ski rack we used on our adventure.
Tow Hitch/Towing features
Our adventure didn’t involve towing, but since towing is an important consideration for many who buy these vehicles we do have observations. If you plan on towing heavy loads such as a boat or horse trailer, the two V8-powered vehicles are the obvious choices. At the same time, we were impressed by the Tesla Model X’s 5,000-pound maximum towing capacity, a capability many of us didn’t expect.
It is obvious that towing was front of mind for the Ford engineers who developed the F-150. The model has a maximum towing capacity of 13,200 pounds. But there is more to the F-150’s towing capabilities than simply a whopping load capacity. Our test vehicle was equipped with a rearview camera and 360-degree surround view system that facilitate hitching a trailer. Ford also offers what it calls Pro Trailer Backup Assist that enables drivers to direct the truck’s hitch to the trailer tongue by using a center console-mounted dial. When underway the blind-spot information system gives warnings that cover not only the length of the truck but also trailers up to 33 feet long.
The Chevrolet Tahoe was next best in terms of towing, offering 8,400 pounds of capacity. The Tahoe’s standard rearview camera is helpful in backing the vehicle and connecting a trailer, but the operation is more skill-dependent than for an F-150 equipped with the specialized backup-assist system.
The Subaru Outback was the lightweight in the trailer-towing comparison. Its small size and standard backup camera enable it to be easily maneuvered in trailer-tow situations, like running a snowmobile trailer to a trailhead. The Outback’s maximum towing capacity is 2,700 pounds.
It is hard not to be impressed by the Tesla Model X’s infotainment system if only for the sheer size of its display. A full 17 inches outranks the others’ 8-inch screens the way a big-screen TV beats an iPad. After using each of the systems in our four test vehicles, though, the Model X left us less impressed. While the touchscreen did offer big icons, the fact that the vast majority of functions are controlled through the screen means you touch it all the time. Fingerprint smudges are a problem. A volume control knob would be a much-appreciated addition.
We were surprised that even though the Tesla’s touchscreen looks like an iPad, the Model X fails to offer Apple CarPlay or Android Auto functionality. Its voice-activation performance is also rudimentary. Oddly, it lacks Wi-Fi hotspot capability too.
In contrast to the go-its-own-way Tesla, the three conventional vehicles in the comparison offered similar infotainment systems. Ford has finally triumphed over the shortcomings of Sync with its Sync3 and Sync Connect. With an 8-inch capacitive touchscreen, the interface offers big icons for simple functions plus good enough voice recognition to control several available apps. The system offers Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration.
The Chevrolet Tahoe is fitted with an 8-inch touchscreen, and its MyLink system has the most robust list of functions of the systems we compared. It is compatible with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, so music and phone calls can be made from the touchscreen. When not using a smartphone interface, MyLink features functional icons that are easy to activate even when the vehicle is in motion. Our driving panel found the voice activation of information, entertainment and even climate controls to be effective. Chevrolet also touts its GM OnStar driver information service that includes 4G LTE hotspot capability. The F-150 has recently matched the Tahoe’s hotspot availability.
Our test Subaru Outback was equipped with the Starlink multimedia system and the larger (8 inches) of the two touchscreen interfaces available. The system offers Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility, and its design emulates a smartphone. For the 2018 model year Subaru added a second microphone to enhance its voice-recognition performance, and that seemed to help. Several onboard apps like Aha and Pandora can be voice activated, as can cloud-based apps like iHeart Radio.
This adventure drive proved that there are several excellent vehicle choices for a winter sports vacation. Among our four vehicles, none could be called the clear winner. Instead, each offered strengths tempered by shortcomings. Those differences were largely the product of the differences in the various vehicle types rather than shortfalls in any of the individual vehicles we drove. This reinforced the important point that before consumers make their purchase decisions they should carefully consider which vehicle type — SUV, station wagon, pickup or electrically powered crossover — best suits their needs. Here’s a quick overview of the things to consider:
The adventure proved that versatility is the strongest suit of traditional SUVs like the Chevrolet Tahoe. SUVs can accommodate up to eight adults. With folding seatbacks they can be configured to carry a substantial amount of cargo in addition to passengers. The interior cargo space is also lockable in contrast to pickup trucks, whose open beds can accept extremely large loads but are unsecured.
Traditional SUVs are typically powered by large engines that consume substantial amounts of gasoline. Carmakers are working to counter that with fuel-saving technologies such as turbocharging, cylinder deactivation and multi-speed automatic transmissions. Available four-wheel drive improves poor-weather driving, but it is usually accompanied by a fuel economy penalty. Finally, their truck-based platform provides real advantages when towing heavy loads.
The Chevrolet Tahoe continued to remind us why it has dominated the full-size SUV market for so long. Though not especially remarkable in a single area, the Tahoe does many things well. There’s plenty of space for people and equipment. It is comfortable, quiet and — for its size —handles reasonably well. Yes, it does burn significant quantities of fuel, putting buyers at risk to any spikes in gasoline prices.
Full-size pickup trucks, like the Ford F-150, are similar to conventional SUVs in their powertrains, often sharing components depending on the brand. They are typically powered by gasoline engines driving either the rear wheels or all wheels. In an effort to improve fuel economy, carmakers have embarked on strategies similar to those they employ for SUVs. Ford offers direct-fuel-injection and turbocharging, while Chevrolet, GMC and Ram Trucks offer cylinder deactivation. Ram also is adding a mild hybrid system to the latest version of its half-ton pickup.
A pickup truck’s cargo bed is its most obvious feature. A pickup can handle much more cargo than an SUV or a station wagon. The tradeoff is the cargo is not secure unless the bed is covered with an optional enclosure. A trend is increased interior space. Currently four-door pickups with room for up to six adults are becoming more common. The two-door “regular cab” pickup is becoming a museum piece.
In our adventure the Ford F-150 proved why it remains the best-selling pickup truck year after year. The F-150 is a large vehicle, but it offered much better maneuverability than several of our panelists predicted going in. Beyond that the F-150’s cabin is very roomy, quiet and accommodating for four adults. And for heavy towing, there is nothing better.
Many consider the station wagon an antiquated body style. But vehicles like the Subaru Outback demonstrate that the configuration still has life. Station wagons are typically based on car platforms versus truck platforms like SUVs. But they share the attribute of substantial lockable cargo space. Today’s station wagons are not equipped with a third row, so they are limited to five passengers. Split-folding rear seatbacks enable them to accept cargo of various shapes, sizes and lengths while also accommodating passengers.
Because they are car-based, station wagons typically offer good to excellent fuel economy. Still, carmakers equip them with fuel-saving technologies like turbocharging and multi-speed transmissions in an effort to make fuel economy even better. All-wheel drive and additional ground clearance enable today’s station wagons to negotiate inclement weather with impunity.
The Subaru Outback proved that there are multiple approaches to creating a winter-conquering vehicle. A big engine in a separate body-and-frame vehicle is one way. But an all-wheel-drive unibody car with an unconventional “boxer” engine configuration also turns out to be an excellent approach. The Outback was certainly the most cost-effective choice in our adventure.
Crossovers, like the Tesla Model X, combine the virtues of SUVs and station wagons. In fact, while there can be some technical differences it’s often difficult to distinguish from what automakers call SUVs, crossovers and station wagons. Based on car platforms, crossovers deliver decent fuel economy, ride quality and comfort. Their cargo space is more secure than the open bed of a pickup. Their interior space often matches or exceeds that of traditional SUVs.
Many crossovers are either front-drive or all-wheel-drive. The latter is better-suited to winter excursions. Most are powered by gasoline engines, but carmakers offer several hybrid crossover models. The Tesla Model X, based on the Model S sedan, is a battery-electric vehicle equipped with all-wheel drive.
The Model X is a polarizing vehicle often over-praised but also one that falls victim to ignorant myths about electric cars. We were pleased with how well this “litmus-test” vehicle responded to difficult conditions like snow- and ice-covered roads at altitude. The Model X has the courage to go its own way and to revel in its particular looks. It throws incredible complications like the falcon-wing rear doors in your face but also has an interior that is the epitome of simplicity topped with an amazing panoramic windshield. Charging requires planning for a trip such as ours. But driving the Model X is worth the effort.