Adventure Drive: Testing Trucks, Bikes and Racks in the Santa Cruz Mountains

In this adventure

Forget zero-to-60 times or horsepower measurements. What really matters to mountain bikers is whether the vehicle they’re driving has a tow hitch and upholstery that resists bloodstains.

That’s what we learned when we partnered with Specialized Bicycle Components, the giant bike company, and a group of mountain biking enthusiasts to test four trucks and SUVs equipped with various bike racks carrying all-new Stumpjumpers. They were the 2019 Subaru Ascent Limited, 2018 Range Rover Velar S, 2018 GMC Canyon Denali and 2018 Toyota Sequoia TRD Sport.The road trip covered hundreds of miles along the Northern California coast and included stops to trailheads in the redwood-covered Santa Cruz mountains.

The bikes drew rave reviews, but none of the vehicles was perfect. Their shortcomings inspired the team to construct a composite of the ideal vehicle for mountain biking and measure our test fleet against it.

The ultimate vehicle for mountain biking is a rugged SUV with decent off-road capability to access remote trails via dirt roads or across rugged terrain. It needs an all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive system designed for more than a few snowy days. These vehicles must have adequate clearance to traverse occasional uneven landscapes. It can’t have oversized wheels or low-profile tires. Such a combination looks great but is a bad recipe when driving over potholes or dirt.

Next, any basic mountain bike transporter must have space to pack gear, tools and camping equipment in a secure cargo area. Comfortable seats are required for long journeys to mountain biking meccas such as Lake Tahoe; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Moab, Utah. Cloth seats don’t cut it. Mountain bikers bomb through dirt and mud. They sweat and stink. They crash a lot. They want upholstery that won’t absorb blood and sweat. All weather floor mats and a cargo mat – for the SUVs – also are a requirement.

A tow hitch is mandatory. There are lots of ways to haul bikes. Hanging them off the back of the truck, especially in some of the new racks from innovative companies such as 1Up USA, is the easiest. Roof racks are hard to reach and take up space where many mountain bikers would rather mount a Yakima SkyBox or similar pod to hold tents and other camping gear.

Technology is important. The combined and mountain biking team relied on adaptive cruise control for highway driving. With some variation by automaker, the system allows drivers to set a maximum speed and then uses sensors to track vehicles in front, slowing and speeding up with traffic. It allows for feet-free driving. Drivers still must pay careful attention, but adaptive cruise control does reduce fatigue. Blind-spot alerts are another key safety feature of the ideal mountain biking vehicle. These display a light in the side-view mirrors when it is not safe to make a lane change. Big vehicles with bicycles hanging off the back have lots of blind spots. The safety aid makes driving easier.

After testing a variety of vehicle-based navigation systems, the and mountain biking crew found that most were not very satisfying. This represents a failure by automakers and an opportunity for improvement.

Click Here for Full Specifications on Our Four Adventure Vehicles

Subaru did it the best. The GMC was adequate. On one occasion the Range Rover Velar navigation system gave a voice command to turn right when the map said to turn left. The Toyota Sequoia required a poorly designed cellphone app that was mirrored on an almost unreadable dash screen.

Nearly everyone in the group found themselves defaulting to a phone-based system — primarily Google Maps in the vehicles equipped with the Android Auto system or Apple maps for those with Apple CarPlay. The Apple system was especially useful for impromptu breaks. Just ask Siri for directions to the nearest Starbucks or Taco Bell and the map and directions pop up on the dash screen.

A vehicle with cell connectivity so that it can double as Wi-Fi hot spot is a plus. The small size of a cellphone limits its range. A truck or SUV can carry a more powerful antenna that’s more likely to get reception in remote areas.

Attention automakers: Multiple USB ports, including in the rear seating area, must be standard equipment. Our group was shocked at how clueless the big auto companies are. In an era where everyone is connected to their phone, please provide a way for every phone to stay connected to power.

Driving dynamics are important. The vehicle needs to have firm handling to navigate twisty mountain roads and have enough power to pass big rigs on the main highways. Finally, the ideal mountain bike hauler needs to have decent fuel economy. Mountain bikers want to be spending their time and money on the trails or having a post-ride beer rather than at the gas station.

Here’s how the lineup matched the composite mountain bike adventure vehicle:

GMC Canyon Denali

General Motors lent the GMC Canyon Denali, a luxury version of a midsize pickup truck. The Canyon is a nice-driving truck that starts at about $22,000. Our test vehicle was loaded with options, including the fancy Denali trim, bringing the price to almost $46,000.

The Good:

The Crew Cab configuration accommodates up to five passengers, although four adults is a more realistic limit. It met the upholstery test — nice, tough leather throughout. It has USB ports — two in the front and two in the back. The Apple CarPlay integration is among the best of any automaker. The embedded navigation system also fared well when compared against the other vehicles. The center console controls were easy to identify and operate. The truck has forward-collision alert, which, like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, considers an absolute necessity. The front seats were comfortable, the rear less so.

There’s an 8-inch touchscreen in the center dash that is easy to read in just about all light conditions. It’s backed up by an array of knobs and buttons that are intuitive for controlling climate and other functions.

It had a bed liner, mounting points in the bed for attachments, handy built-in bumper steps and the all-important tow hitch to attach a bike rack. But using a small-sized Dakine DLX pickup pad, the crew was able to haul five Stumpjumpers in the bed without removing the front wheels. That’s more than the number of adults you can comfortably fit in the truck.

There’s a peppy 3.6-liter V6 engine with 308 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque. The four-wheel drive powertrain is mated to a smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission. It has reasonable 20-inch wheels equipped with Bridgestone Dueler P255/55R20 tires. That’s a good combination for highway driving and jaunts into the rough.

The truck has an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 19 mpg in combined city and highway driving. It has a 21-gallon fuel tank. That gives it a range of about 400 miles.

The Bad:

Although a truck bed is a convenient place to toss dirty gear and bikes, it’s not a great spot to leave a brand-new Stumpjumper overnight. That’s why the mountain bikers in our group favored large SUVs.

“Being able to put the bike inside an SUV for security is really nice,” said Bryon Dorr, a mountain biker and outdoor adventurer from Reno, Nev. “When you have a $9,500 bike and you want to leave it overnight, you can put it inside.”

Dorr speaks from experience. He’s had one bike stolen and another stripped of components, both in Santa Cruz, Calif.

The truck lacks adaptive cruise control, which maintains a set speed and following distance from the vehicle in front. It is a great stress reliever on long journeys. It also improves safety. Recent insurance industry tests found that a sampling of models from four automakers that had front-collision alert systems with automatic emergency braking were less likely to hit a vehicle in front if they also had adaptive cruise control engaged.

It also doesn’t offer a blind-spot alert system. The mountain bikers and team relied constantly on that warning system in the other vehicles. It really helps out for large trucks and SUVs loaded with bicycles and other gear.

The truck’s lane-departure alert system is irritating. It beeps when the sensors on the vehicle conclude it is about to drift across the lane markings.

“I don’t like that it beeps every time I go over the white line. I think it’s unnecessary,” said Kayley Burdine, a pro mountain biker and fitness instructor from Mobile, Ala. “I always cross the lines at times on a curvy mountain road.”

It’s best turned off.

Although the leather seating is tough and durable, the finish elsewhere in the interior didn’t match up with what consumers will expect in a $46,000 truck sporting the brand’s luxury trim. There was too much plastic, including an automotive industry cardinal sin for luxury trim — faux wood panels.

Running boards — they were a feature on the truck that it just didn’t need. They might be handy for packing a rooftop container, but for the mountain biking trip, they just got in the way. This truck isn’t big enough for occupants to need an assist in and out.

Other negatives included the lack of push-button start, no dead pedal to rest the left foot and a comparatively short 5-foot-2-inch bed.

2018 Range Rover Velar S

Jaguar Land Rover lent its new five-passenger Range Rover Velar S. The Velar S is one step above the vehicle’s base trim. It brings all-terrain capability to the premium mid-size SUV segment. There’s a price that matches. Range Rover Velar pricing starts at $50,895 including destination charge. As configured for the test, the Velar S has a sticker of $68,615.

The Good:

This was the best driving vehicle in the group. In its dynamic mode setting, the Velar glided through curvy mountain roads, eating up the corners with a firm, planted feel. And it looked great.

“It’s sleek and attractive,” Burdine said.

“The pick-up is great and it feels very solid on the road,” said Justin Mayers, a mountain biker and skier from Jackson, Wyo. “The steering is responsive but not too sensitive.”

Its Range Rover heritage guarantees that the Velar can head into the fields without difficulty. The brand put range in rover. It has a sophisticated all-wheel drive system, available four-corner air suspension and a maximum ground clearance of 9.9 inches. Traction technologies include terrain response and active rear locking differential.

Although the team had reservations about the navigation system, it offers a nice feature. The mapping could be pulled down to the lower screen on the dash console. That allows drivers to play their favorite music and track where they’re headed at the same time. This is a reason why likes split screens where a vehicle’s architecture allows good integration. The system has another good feature. It doesn’t lock out passengers who might want to reroute the navigation to a new destination or detour. Most brands don’t allow that.

Seating is comfortable, and the Velar passes the leather test with flying colors. The interior was the best of any of the vehicles. This vehicle works equally well for an elegant date night to a Michelin star restaurant and foray into the muck where a driver might wind up needing to replace one of its Michelin Latitude Tour HP tires.

The engine, a 3.0-liter supercharged V6 engine with 380 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque, is more than adequate to meet any highway or off-road challenge. It is mated to a ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, which might have been the smoothest shifting among the test vehicles.

It met the driver-assistance challenge. The Velar comes with automatic emergency braking. It also has an adaptive speed limiter that allows the driver to set the maximum speed. There is lane-departure warning that issues a buzz on the side of the vehicle approaching the lane. An optional Drive Package came with blind-spot monitoring and helpful traffic sign recognition that displayed the current speed limit in front of the driver.

“That’s a good feature for somebody with a heavy foot like me,” Burdine said.

Land Rover equipped the test Velar S with fairly high-profile Michelin Latitude Tour HP 235/55R19 tires on 19-inch wheels. The three other vehicles in the test rode on 20-inch wheels. Range Rover’s choice is a good one, offering sharp on-road handling but also providing added compliance and functionality for off-roading.

The Bad:

The infotainment system with its giant screens looks great, but it’s difficult to use. Someone spending nearly $70,000 for an SUV will probably spend time learning how to get the most out of Range Rover’s electronics. But believes controls should be simple and intuitive. Cellphone use causes enough distracted driving. Don’t compound that by installing an infotainment system that requires a chunk of driver attention to operate. Depending on the task, the system was slow to respond.

“They didn’t make it easy, but I worked with it,” Burdine said. “The Subaru was easier to get the hang of quickly.”

There were other problems. The massive glass console is a fingerprint magnet, a direct result of not having redundant knobs and buttons found in other vehicles. The Bluetooth connectivity cut out and lagged behind the other brands. The Velar model tested also did not come with adaptive cruise control, a glaring absence on such an expensive vehicle.

Although it is a Range Rover, the Velar doesn’t have that much range. It was the worst of this group of trucks and SUVs. It gets an EPA rated 20 mpg in mixed city and highway driving and has a 16.6-gallon gas tank. That adds up to a range of 332 miles when driven to the last drop. Adventure vehicles need either better fuel economy or bigger gas tanks. They are meant to be driven long distances.

The test vehicle lacked a tow hitch — a deal breaker for mountain bikers. It’s available as a $665 factory option when ordering the vehicle. The test vehicle also lacked roof rails, which would be another alternative for transporting mountain bicycles. Roof rails are a $410 option on the Velar, but our test vehicle with its panoramic sunroof did not have them.

The team and Specialized came up with a hack, the vacuum suction cup-mounted SeaSucker rack. It’s a good solution for one bike. But a true adventure vehicle needs the options that people who are passionate about outdoor activities use. And that generally includes a tow hitch and roof rails.

“With no protection on the roof a slight ding could cause scratches or cracks as opposed to the bed or a hitch,” Mayers said. “To mount the bike up there you have to hold it over your head and jump up. The roof racks my friends have are generally on shorter vehicles.”

2019 Subaru Ascent

Subaru lent its new Ascent three-row crossover SUV, the biggest vehicle the automaker has sold in the U.S. market. The 2019 Subaru Ascent starts at $32,970. As configured, the sticker price of the Ascent Limited version that tested is $42,920.

The Good:

With some minor adjustments, the Ascent hit just about all the right notes. The model tested lacked a tow-hitch, a $499 option, and crossbars for the roof rack, a $201 option. Both can be purchased as aftermarket equipment. We attached Yakima crossbars that affixed to the Ascent’s raised roof rails using the brand’s Timberline towers for the trip.

The Ascent has ample cargo space and comfortable seating. There are eight seatbelts for those looking to haul a kids’ soccer team. The seating is comfortable for long drives, and the leather upholstery can be cleaned of blood, sweat and tears.

It has Subaru’s well-regarded all-wheel drive system, which could be enhanced by careful tire selection for the 20-inch wheels. An all-terrain tire such as the General Grabber AT2 would give it just a touch more off-road capability. It was equipped with all-season Falken ZIEX 245/50R20 tires.

The Subaru was well ahead of the other vehicles when it came to technology. It was intuitive and deep, starting with the four USB ports distributed throughout the cabin.

The Subaru Ascent has an easy to read 8-inch display screen that features full navigation plus smartphone integration with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. This provided high-resolution images from the rear-vision camera. The Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity allowed for clear conversations and audio streaming.
The adaptive cruise control worked the best of any of the vehicles, although like the others, the lane-keeping system was still irritating.

“I think the Subaru handled the adaptive cruise the best. You could really adjust how far you wanted to be away from the vehicle in front of you,” Burdine said.

“The adaptive cruise control display was amazing. It’s nice to see what the car can actually see in front instead of kind of guessing if it’s locked on,” Mayers said.

The Ascent has automatic emergency braking.

The Subaru has an added safety feature that likes. The Ascent’s reverse automatic braking applies the vehicle’s brakes if an obstacle is detected while in reverse. Will a hitch-mounted bicycle rack filled with bicycles result in an unwanted emergency stop? Subaru said that because a bike rack on the vehicle will be moving at the same rate and in the same direction as the vehicle in reverse it will not trigger the system.

The Ascent gets decent fuel economy — 22 mpg in combined city and highway driving — out of its turbocharged 260-horsepower horizontally opposed 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. That gives the vehicle a 425-mile range, the best of the group.

Add the tow hitch and the Ascent would come closest to hitting all the targets for the ultimate mountain bike adventure vehicle.

The Bad:

The interior was comfortable and nice, but the build quality could have been better. The team and mountain bikers noticed that the seams between the dash panels were not spaced evenly. There was a bit too much shiny plastic around the center console, which diminished the otherwise upscale feel of the cabin.

This is a big and heavy vehicle that could have used a bit more horsepower. Subaru probably opted instead to increase fuel economy and range.

Mounting a single Kuat bike rack on the crossbars created an annoying whistle that could be heard inside the cabin at high speeds.

The steering is a bit rubbery, giving the Ascent a minivan feel.

2018 Toyota Sequoia

Toyota lent its Sequoia, a full-size eight-passenger SUV. This is a four-wheel drive version that comes with the TRD Sport trim, which gives the truck-based SUV off-road capability. Sequoia pricing starts at $49,895. As configured, the Toyota Sequoia TRD Sport’s sticker is $54,240.

The Good:

Room, room and more room. There’s spacious seating for adults in almost every corner, making the Sequoia the best vehicle of those tested for hauling people and gear.
“There’s absolutely massive volumes of space in this vehicle,” Dorr said.

It has a tow hitch that the team used to test a massive four-bike Yakima rack as well as a lightweight, two-bike 1Up rack. Roof rails allow for mounting pods, kayaks and just about any other equipment on top of the Sequoia.

The truck is powered by a 5.7-liter V8 engine with 361 horsepower and 401 pound-feet of torque. The four-wheel drive system includes a locking center differential. That matched with the Sequoia’s ample ground clearance and its stylish blacked out 20-inch wheels with Bridgestone Dueler H/L P275/55R20 111H tires provided the vehicle with the ability to traverse unpaved roads and trails.

Toyota’s advanced safety technology package — Toyota SafetySense — comes standard across the Sequoia line. This advanced active safety suite bundles pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking. It has a good radar-based adaptive cruise control system. The Sequoia also has standard blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert, both helpful features when driving such a big vehicle.

The Sequoia also is very comfortable. The driving position is upright, which reduces fatigue. The driver’s seat has lumbar support and good adjustability. The seats are supportive. The steering wheel is in a good location for both tall and short drivers.

The Bad:

Although the TRD Sport trim is new this year, the underlying Sequoia was introduced in 2008 and is badly in need of a total redesign. Everyone in the group thought it was the most dated of the vehicles.

Although the engine is good, it’s mated to a woeful six-speed automatic transmission that’s far from state of the art.

“There’s a lag when you press the gas pedal, it kind of runs really high and doesn’t go anywhere. And then you finally get up to speed, but it just takes a lot of effort,” said Evan Soroka, a mountain biker and yoga instructor in Aspen, Colo.

And it is thirsty. The EPA rates the Sequoia at 14 mpg in mixed city and highway driving. Even a massive 26.4-gallon fuel tank yields a range of just 370 miles.

Besides a decent Bluetooth connection and the Toyota safety features suite, the technology on the Sequoia is primitive compared to the other vehicles. There’s just one USB port for a vehicle that can transport eight people. That means seven will have to bring the old-style 12-volt plug adapters and fight over the remaining outlets.

The navigation system requires the driver to download the Scout GPS Link to a phone. It gets mirrored on a tiny 6.1-inch screen that has abysmal resolution and becomes unreadable in the slightest glare. The connection kept breaking, prompting the Scout GPS Link to constantly announce that it was “rerouting.” It’s much easier to use and see Waze or other mainstream phone-based navigation apps.

The truck has cloth seats, a no-go for our mountain bikers or people who have dogs, go surfing or use a vehicle to transport them to any activity that generates sweat and grime.

The interior trim compared poorly with the other vehicles.
“It’s all plastic, and the cloth in here seems like it’s straight out of a 1990s Ford Taurus, which while durable, seems really old and dated,” Dorr said.
Turning up either the volume or bass on a basic Spotify playlist generated an irritating buzz from the plastic driver’s side door panel.

The vehicle also doesn’t match up well against the newer, large SUV competitors such as the Ford Expedition or Chevrolet Tahoe.