The Trucks, SUVs and Crossovers That Surprised Me Most at the Texas Truck Rodeo

These SUVs and trucks may be more capable than you think.

Kevin McCauley for TAWA

It’s no shock that a 2020 Land Rover Defender 110 SE will rock an off-road course without breaking a sweat. All-wheel-drive, a twin speed transfer box, terrain response modes, air suspension, and an undeniable prowess on dirt and hills equates to a high-quality experience. At this year’s Texas Auto Writers Association Texas Truck Rodeo at Star Hill Ranch in Austin, I put it to the test along with three dozen other vehicles.

The Rodeo was conceived by Tim Spell and Tom Wolfgang in 1993 and has been staged all over central and south Texas since then. (Full disclosure: I'm the current president of TAWA, and I helped plan this event, which is designed to pool truck testing in one place and help buyers know how best to spend their money.)

Kristin V. Shaw

In that first year, pressure was on the association leaders to host a track day like other automotive journalist organizations were hosting. Considering the enormity and importance of the truck and SUV market in Texas, Spell and Wolfgang thought having a truck-only event would help TAWA stand apart and ring true in a uniquely-Texas way. The first Rodeo was in November of 1993 and the inaugural Truck of Texas honors went to the 1994 Ford F-150 XLT SuperCab. 

The results haven’t been announced for the 2020 event yet, but there have been some standouts and revelations in post-event conversations with colleagues, and I found that many stock vehicles are more capable than expected.

2021 Ram 1500 TRX

The 2021 Ram 1500 TRX had a full dance card; I was thrilled to have an early peek at the capabilities of Ram’s newest darling under oath that I would not break the embargo. (Read The Drive's first test here.) This vehicle was designed to fly and is clearly targeting the Raptor with cheeky T.Rex Easter eggs secreted under the hood and in the console. 

Kristin V. Shaw

Driving it over rocky articulation points proved to be no problem for the TRX, and it kept its tires on the ground, reaching down like a ballerina on pointe. On the road, the launch mode was as thrilling as it was billed to be and the rumbling sound brought a huge smile to my face. That part was no surprise.  

2020 Mazda CX-30

At the other end of the spectrum, Mazda’s new CX-30 took the obstacles incredibly well for such a small vehicle. A new traction assist feature for the 2020 model and compact body style gave it an edge I didn’t expect. 

Surprisingly competent, the CX-30 was nimble on the off-road and very smooth on road. The premium audio setup didn’t hurt, either. Now if they would just improve upon that control command knob. 

2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

Wait. What was a Rolls-Royce SUV doing at a dirty, dusty, muddy off-road event? Last year at the Rebelle Rally, an annual all-women off-road competition, Emme Hall and Rebecca Donaghue drove the Cullinan to a first-place trophy. The Cullinan can take its licks and the Rolls-Royce team likes to show that it is capable of being more than a beautiful hood ornament. 

I was a little nervous about getting a single scratch on it but Elizabeth Williams from the brand encouraged me to take on the rocky, uneven course. I skipped over the potentially-sharp cobblestone obstacle, however, because Cullinan tires are neither easy nor cheap to replace.

2020 Nissan Frontier

The 2020 Frontier features an all-new 3.8-liter, direct-injection V6 engine and new nine-speed automatic transmission, both of which will be key elements in the next-gen Frontier launching for 2021. 

What used to be a bare-bones pickup has been shored up in many ways, adding push-button start, power door locks, windows, and more for 2020. It’s still a bargain, with a quiet and smooth ride. It flexes where it needs to flex and gave me a lot of confidence in the ride. 

2021 Infiniti QX80

The QX80 may have a grocery-hauler image as a luxury SUV, but it proved its mettle recently on the punishing Rebelle Rally course with rookies Alice Chase and Nicole Wakelin. Not only did they appreciate the power in the 400-hp V8, the vehicle was comfortable enough to sleep inside. One night they opted to bunk in the QX80 instead of pitching a tent because the interior is so luxurious. 

It didn’t have any problems tackling articulation obstacles or the hills, and it does it in style. It also has a towing capacity of up to 8,500 pounds, which fits nicely into an outdoor lifestyle. It’s deceptively tough under the surface. 

2020 Ram 3500 Heavy Duty

Ram’s giant HD truck is almost 250 inches long with a 160.5-inch wheelbase. On the first run of the hairpin turn at the bottom of a steep hill-descent obstacle on the course, it could not quite make it, but a quick adjustment to the angle fixed that. Ram says it’s the only heavy-duty pickup with a factory-installed supplemental air system for cabin comfort, and I can vouch for that. It’s huge and it’s also plush.

2021 Kia Telluride

Kia’s mid-size SUV has taken home a slew of accolades across the industry since it debuted in the spring of 2019. (We're big fans here at The Drive, too.) It arrives from the plant in Georgia with a long list of standard features and technology in a stylish package. 

It’s also true to its off-the-beaten-path name and I felt it could handle light off-roading well; where it really shines, however, is on the highway, where it shows off a sleek riding and driving experience. 

2021 Hyundai Kona

I was also impressed with the small-statured Hyundai Kona, which starts at just over $20,000 for the base model. Hyundai says its dual-clutch transmission beats competitors because it can handle more torque with minimal power interruption throughout the engine operating range. 

This proved to be true to form as the Kona traversed the basic course with flying colors, and the limited-slip differential on the AWD variant helped this crossover take on the basic course with ease. 

2021 Toyota 4Runner

The last time the 4Runner was updated was in 2010, which kicked off the fifth generation. Some people complain that it hasn’t been changed in a while, but after driving it on the course, I agree with the if-it-ain’t-broken-don’t-fix-it crowd. You certainly know what you're getting here.

The 2021 Trail Edition arrives with a trick movable cargo tray and matching cooler, both of which add a nice touch. It also comes standard with Toyota’s safety suite, and the brand has shown a commitment to that in the last few years. 

2021 Subaru Crosstrek

Subaru owners have an affinity and loyalty for their vehicles that says a lot about the brand, but I’ve never owned one. After driving the Crosstrek Sport on the course, it became one of my favorites. It blew me away with its capable driving, and I felt like I could take it anywhere and it would excel. The price is spectacular, too: it starts at under $23,000. 

Which one would you go with?