With the pandemic prompting more Canadians to deepen their connection to the outdoors, it’s no surprise that the vast majority of new vehicles sold in Canada today are either crossovers, SUVs, or pickup trucks.
More Canadians than ever are seeking out adventure-capable vehicles as they plan to travel closer to home and spend more time exploring their immediate surroundings in new ways.
Automakers have responded with increased availability of factory-built, capable vehicles that give shoppers an elevated level of off-road prowess and confidence straight off the showroom floor.
These new models are popping up across numerous price points and vehicle types, with participation from mainstream brands, luxury brands, SUVs, pickups, and everything in between. Still, some of the hottest action in high-capability machinery right now is happening in the universe of mainstream, family-ready crossovers, and that’s what we’ll focus on here.
Here’s a look at some of the most capable crossovers for 2021, some of the features that make them tick, and what new drivers can expect from each vehicle.
I’ve primarily selected the models below because they’re equipped and engineered to give novice off-road drivers added confidence as they begin to get out and explore while providing additional capability to grow into over time. If you're planning on embarking on any advanced trails or doing some serious off-roading with tricky obstacles, these crossovers likely aren't going to keep up, but they should be more than capable of bringing you to your next secluded hiking spot, campsite, or biking trail.
2021 Ford Bronco Sport Badlands
From $42,494*; 2,200 lb towing capacity
The Ford Bronco Sport Badlands is one of the market’s newest crossover models. Designed for easy, confident use by novice and experienced off-roaders alike, the Bronco Sport Badlands’ most valuable asset is probably its suspension system, which features exclusive tuning and hardware to ensure it delivers consistently good ride quality even over rough terrain.
Ground clearance and wheel travel are above average, while skid plates, all-terrain tires, and a driver-selectable four-wheel drive system with multi-mode terrain selector provides a comprehensive toolkit of hardware and software designed to take the stress out of off-road driving. For instance, at the flick of a dial or tap of a button, the Bronco Sport can optimize its driveline for added traction in mud or sand, while another button press engages the locking rear differential, which mechanically binds the rear wheels together for an on-demand mechanical traction boost when required.
With all-terrain tires and skid plates installed, drivers are backed up with above-average protection from punctures and damage when checking out new trails.
The Bronco Sport Badlands balances capability with a nicely managed on-road ride that’s sufficiently quiet and smooth for comfortable daily use. The turbocharged engine and powertrain are generally smooth, quiet, and well-behaved too.
This is a nicely rounded package that feels solid, durable, and well-mannered, both on road and off.
Don’t miss the handy cargo area, complete with its own lighting system, high-durability finishes, and even a slide-out tabletop that can double as a workspace or serving area at the jobsite or campsite.
2021 Subaru Crosstrek Outdoor
From $31,870; 1,500 lb towing capacity
At just over $30,000, the Subaru Crosstrek Outdoor amounts to a solid all-around crossover with some added confidence for use on the road less travelled. The Crosstrek manages to deliver one of the most comfortable rough-road and backroads drives in the segment, and the new Outdoor model carries on with the trend.
Extended use of unpainted body cladding helps deliver a more rugged look while protecting more of the Crosstrek Outdoor’s exterior painted surfaces from damage. The X-Mode system features a multi-mode setup, optimizing the AWD system for challenging terrain at the touch of a button.
A comprehensive array of safety equipment is standard, adding further confidence.
In a vehicle like the Subaru Crosstrek Outdoor, drivers can expect car-like driving manners and fuel efficiency, a ride that stands up nicely to challenging terrain, and the added capability and protection served up by its unique body cladding and AWD system optimizations.
2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness
From $43,870; 3,500 lb towing capacity
The Subaru Outback Wilderness combines an extensive styling overhaul with added capability and electronics designed to get drivers out exploring with performance to spare.
Standard equipment on this model includes a punchy 260-horsepower turbo engine, enhanced X-Mode capability for terrain-specific optimization of the AWD system, and all-weather upholstery designed for enhanced durability and comfort.
Engineers also increased ground clearance to 9.5 inches, added a front skid plate to protect vital driveline components beneath, and fitted upgraded suspension components and all-terrain tires.
By tuning the suspension for added stability and strength on rough surfaces and equipping it with tires designed to stand up more confidently to those rough surfaces, drivers are able to explore with added comfort and peace of mind.
With more clearance, grip, and suspension travel, the Outback Wilderness takes the title of the most capable Outback ever.
2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail / TRD
From $41,250; 3,500 lb towing capacity
Toyota offers the Canadian-built RAV4 in a multitude of configurations, including the RAV4 Trail AWD. From $39,390 plus $1,860 in destination fees, the RAV4 Trail AWD is the starting point for shoppers after the most off-road-capable RAV4 models.
Intended for use by the RAV4’s most adventurous shoppers, the RAV4 Trail features a torque-vectoring differential, which helps more precisely control power delivery to the ground in challenging situations. A standard towing package enables a 3,500-lb towing capacity.
Add the optional TRD Off Road package for an extra $3,520, and Toyota will fit an assortment of equipment optimized to the RAV4 by its off-road specialists.
The package includes a skid plate to protect vital powertrain components from damage, all-terrain tires on 18-inch wheels, and a specially enhanced suspension system designed to tie it all together.
Exclusive badging, lighting provisions and a premium infotainment system upgrade are included as well.
2022 Ford Explorer Timberline
From $52,924; 5,300 lb towing capacity
The Ford Explorer Timberline’s backwoodsy looks and long list of hardware upgrades make it an enticing crossover to consider where capability is a priority. The most off-road capable version of the Explorer starts with a dramatic new look, as well as added ground clearance enabled by a new off-road optimized suspension.
All-terrain tires deliver added surefootedness in challenging terrain, while better resisting damage and punctures as you explore the road less travelled. Skid plates offer similar protection for the vital organs beneath the machine, placing a protective steel panel between parts of the vehicle driveline and the rocky terrain beneath. Improved approach and departure angles mean the Explorer Timberline can climb onto, and off of, steep things with less risk of damage to its bumpers.
A Torsen limited-slip differential is also included. This allows the Explorer to better balance power distribution to its wheels, even in very challenging conditions.
The Torsen-style differential is an expert at dramatically reducing wheelspin in situations where traction levels vary widely between individual wheels. As a result, Explorer Timberline drivers can expect plenty of mechanical traction before electronic assists are required.
From their seat, drivers can also expect a more refined experience from the driveline in challenging situations, negligible digging and wheelspin, and a smooth and powerful feel when accelerating on slippery on-road surfaces.
A 300-horsepower engine is standard, as are rubberized floor liners, and a full array of electronic terrain management technology.
The entire Jeep brand is built around high-capability vehicles, making your Jeep showroom a sort of one-stop shop for a wide selection of off-road-ready models occupying a wide range of sizes and price points.
Jeep’s popular Trailhawk designation is found on the brand’s most off-road-capable models, including the Compass, Cherokee, and Grand Cherokee.
With the Trailhawk designation, a variety of upgrades selected for the specific model are fitted, typically including revised suspension systems, improved approach and departure angles, driveline upgrades like locking differentials, and even recovery hooks, which make it easy to hook up to another vehicle for a tug, if required.
In my Northern Ontario locale, the Jeep Grand Cherokee seems to be the most popular Jeep on the road. The large SUV nicely balances off-road comfort with a smooth and quiet highway drive, and 2021 model-year units are running some of the most proven driveline tech on this page, too.
*Please note that pricing in this article includes the non-negotiable destination fees.