The Kia Telluride Has Some Serious Off-Road Chops

I didn't expect the Kia to get far on one of the toughest trails in North Carolina. It made it to the top—but not without some drama.

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Ezra Dyer

Daniel is the gnarliest trail in North Carolina's Uwharrie National Forest. It's rated "extremely difficult" by the USDA Forest Service, which manages the Badin Lake OHV Complex.

The trail earns its intimidating status because of a section that requires you to basically drive up a wall of boulders and then negotiate a switchback with a fearsome drop on the outside corner. You scramble up to a rock-strewn clearing with spectacular views and back down the other side of the mountain via a moderately less brutal section of trail.

The only time I've run the entire trail was in an American Expedition Vehicles Jeep Wrangler Rubicon with 35-inch tires and locking differentials. You can reach the summit from the milder trailhead, but you've still got plenty of steep, rock-strewn climbs. Even on that section—the easier part—you see scraps of bodywork by the side of the trail. I once saw most of an exhaust system placed up in a tree, like a head on a pike, a warning to all ye who dare to drive here.

It wouldn't seem like the place to take a Kia, so that's what I decided to do, with the new Telluride.

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Not a road.
Ezra Dyer

Kia seems to think the Telluride has some genuine off-road ability, so I figure I'll drive it 100 yards up Daniel, frame out on one of the steep berms that bisect the trail and call it a day. This $40,135 Telluride EX AWD has Yokohama Geolander tires and a makeshift skid plate over the oil pan, but is otherwise totally stock.

The Telluride doesn't look particularly off-road-oriented. It doesn't have huge tires or a winch or an array of Poison Spyder parts ready to bolt on. But it does have good angles, which is a big part of the battle at Uwharrie. The Telluride's 17.0 degree departure angle isn't too far off a Ram 4x4's 18.9 degrees, and its 8.0 inches of ground clearance is also pretty close to the Ram's (8.2 inches under its skid plate). The Telluride's departure angle, 20.0, is decent, too.

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Ezra Dyer

The biggest of Kias also has a lot of traction. A center clutch distributes torque front to rear, and you can lock it into a fixed 50-50 split, allowing the AWD system to mimic an old-school transfer-case four-wheel-drive setup. There's no low range, but the eight-speed transmission's first gear is so steep you don't miss it. Neither are there front or rear locking diffs, but the traction control can mimic a locker's action by simply grabbing the brake on a slipping tire, thus sending torque to the side with traction. Let's call them virtual lockers.

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Not a problem. The traction control just sent power to the tire on the ground and the Telluride would smoothly pull itself out of situations like this.
Ezra Dyer

After procuring a trail permit at the Eldorado Outpost general store, I arrive at the trailhead, push the button to lock the center clutch and...just keep driving. I've already aired down the tires, so there's nothing else to do except see how far this eight-passenger, leather-bedecked Kia can make it. I don't expect a whole lot. I ran this trail last year with a Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, and Daniel was still a challenge.

The first test is those signature berms, which are like swole speed bumps. I once came here in a full-size 4x4 pickup and had to turn back almost immediately because it didn't have the breakover to clear the berms. By taking an angled approach, though, the Kia ambles up over the first berms without dragging. OK, not bad.

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A warning along the trail.
Ezra Dyer

The reward for that level-up is a rock-strewn climb up a steep grade. It doesn't look like anything the Telluride should be able to do, but I figure I'll try. The nice thing about this trail is that it's a constant climb, so if you get stuck you have gravity on your side to bounce your way out. You also have gravity putting the fear in you—there's a reason there are . If you goof up, you can end up a long way down the mountain.

With four-wheel independent suspension, the Kia doesn't have much in the way of articulation. But out here, on dry rocks, it doesn't seem to matter. On the way up the jagged hillside, the Telluride bounces and tilts at wild angles, oftentimes only keeping two tires in with the ground. But that's all it takes. The traction control system sends the torque wherever it can be used, and the Telluride keeps climbing. There's an occasional clunk from the underbody as loose rocks get kicked up (or I misjudge which ones are less than eight inches tall) and I hope that's the skid plate I'm hearing.

At one point I turn off the traction control and immediately start smoking the tires on rocks while making minimal progress. Traction control, that burnout-squelching fun-killer, is saving the day out here.

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On Daniel, sometimes the easy line is a no-go because your vehicle just won’t fit.
Ezra Dyer

About halfway up the trail, I've already covered terrain that I figured would've sent us back to the Outpost. I could quit now and declare the Telluride more trail-capable than any owner will ever need. But then I think, "What if I could make it to the top?" Unlikely. But may as well find out exactly where Daniel gets the better of the Telluride.

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Perhaps the first Kia to snag this parking spot.
Ezra Dyer

As it turns out, I never find that spot. Because the Telluride summits Daniel, possibly making it the first Kia ever to reach this particular place on earth. I snap a photo or two and then head back down to the one flat section of the entire trail, just below the summit. I need level ground. Because there's either a rattlesnake rhythmically hissing at me from the right front fender well, or I've cut one of the Yokohamas on a rock.

The good news is, there's no snake. The bad news is that I'll be driving out of Uwharrie's most difficult trail on a donut. This trail is hard enough on four functional tires. It's going to be brutal on three-and-a-half going downhill.

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Yep, it’s flat all right.
Ezra Dyer

On the way down, I scout so many lines I end up driving the trail and hiking it at the same time. But I pick my way out without sacrificing the donut, and the Telluride reemerges at Eldorado Outpost covered in mud and dust. The exhaust lost a hanger and one of the the rocker panels kissed a rock, but after installing a new Yokohama, the Telluride drives like new.

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Not ideal. But it worked. Overlanding!
Ezra Dyer

I probably should have turned around before I reached the summit. But the thrill of off-roading is entirely bound up in the process of accomplishing something you thought was beyond the capability of your vehicle, of feeling that tension as you wonder whether you're going to make it out or end up walking.

For the Telluride, Daniel Trail was right at the edge of its performance. Car companies love to show crossovers parked at the top of rugged mountain vistas, cliché lifestyle posturing for vehicles that were probably dropped there by a Chinook.

But the Teluride actually climbed a trail like that—and made it out on a space-saver spare.

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Ezra Dyer

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