The Best Adventure Vehicles Of 2013

Once upon a time, an automobile didn't need to be labeled as an adventure vehicle in order for you to buy into the idea. You'd know one when you saw one. Still would today.

They were the strong and silent types, made of metal, shaped like a toaster, and painted in a flat finish that could take some stripes. Like a Series Land Rover with her gorgeous flat grill and spare tire right on the hood. Or the cubic Volkswagen Syncro 4x4 with a Westfalia camper. Or a faded powder blue Jeep CJ7 with a Mexican blanket draped on the front seat.[slideshow:756]

It's not what they look like that matters most—their styling merely tips the hat to the capabilities that reside within. Under the squared sides and flat fronts are the important bits, like two-speed transfer cases, locking differentials, loosey-goosey axle articulation, brassy chassis built to accept dirt-road floggings, and efficient cargo spaces unhampered by curvy plastic interiors and other trappings of convenience. 

Times have changed—chiefly in comfort and safety—and we can't exactly say that's a bad thing. Old Jeeps, for example, earned the colloquialism Kidney Buster because, well, a day behind the wheel was enough to do the job. In fact, for all the musky, rugged vibes radiating from adventure vehicles of yesterday, our modern lives have a few more demands. Back seat DVD players, anyone? Side air bags? Traction control? And if form truly does follow function, the functions of comfort, convenience, fuel economy and safety put the squeeze on the aesthetics of early adventure vehicles.

That's enough nostalgia. We must accept the things we cannot change, and accept that a car has numerous duties to perform. You and I are probably not too dissimilar: I have children to transport to school as well as distant trailheads I'd like to sample. So I want my ride to have some capability for the weekend fun and comfort for the weekly grind. Is that too much to ask? Fortunately, it's not.

Click here to see the 14 best adventure vehicles of 2013.

In the 2013 line-up of new cars, what are the best possibilities for the ultimate (adequate?) adventure vehicle? And by what criteria should they be judged?

Tough question.

It's an idiosyncratic recipe of things like ground clearance, comfortable cabin, 4WD, power for towing, exceptional fuel economy, good looks, nice road manners, fold-flat rear seats, and, while we're at it, I'd like it to be cheap and American made. Alas, we can't have it all. But we can have something on this list. Everything here is available new now, and that's the only commonality in what follows. There are SUVs, trucks, a van, a station wagon and even a hybrid.

That said, we couldn't help but compare apples to oranges. We came up with a "Stoke Score" that ranks these 14 contenders by adventure readiness in seven categories, with bonus points for additional features in the traction control and driving dynamics department. The categories are:

• 4WD: A matter of opinion maybe, but we gave a better score for having selectable 4WD rather than full-time AWD. Two-wheel drive, as you might expect, rated lower.

• Ground Clearance: The higher the better, my off-roading friend. Those distant trailheads aren't always preceded by freshly paved tarmac.

• Wheelbase: A longer wheelbase—the distance between the centers of the front and rear wheels—means more stability and better climbing.

• Maximum Payload: Being able to transport heavy gear without worrying about overloading your engine is always a good thing.

• Towing Capacity: Whether you're towing a camper or your boat, you want a vehicle with the power to get it done.

• Storage Capacity: Enough room for your gear is nice, too. We took into account the number of cubic feet of storage space and, when applicable, the length of interior space with the seats folded.

• Gas Mileage: 'Nuff said.

In the case of a tie—and we had a shocking four-way for first place—we used price as the deciding factor.

Rest assured, though: despite their looks and excessive plastic parts, the capabilities of today's vehicles might surprise you. Here goesthe 14 best vehicles for outdoor adventure 2013!