Americans want more off-road-style vehicles and automakers are here for it

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SUVs have been on a long strange trip.

The segment really got started after World War 2 when the Willys "Jeep" became a civilian and gave Americans an affordable new way to enjoy the great outdoors.

It was followed by more vehicles from the Jeep brand and the likes of International Harvester Scout and Ford Bronco in the 1960s, the latter of which was first to adopt the "Sports-Utility Vehicle" description in its marketing.

More refined models were added to the mix with and started getting used as family cars, then AMC changed the game by turning the Concord car into the four-wheel-drive Eagle in 1981.

The AMC Eagle is considered one of the first crossover SUVs. (AMC)

The Toyota Rav4 kicked the crossover craze into gear in the 1990s while the cool factor of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer lured people away from sedans, station wagons and minivans by the hundreds of thousands, even if the dirt parking lot at the soccer field was as far as they would ever go off the pavement.

Today, SUVs of all sorts account for over half of the vehicles sold in the U.S., which means they are officially mainstream, so automakers have found a new way to make them fashionable again: By going back to the future.

Aping the continued success of brands like Jeep, Subaru and Land Rover, many companies are turning their street-smart utility vehicles back into off-roaders with new trims that improve their rough road capability, or at least make it look like they do. There is even a minivan along for the ride and the new trend is arriving just as more Americans are getting involved in outdoor activities, driven in part by the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are a few of the latest SUVs aimed at the "active lifestyle" customers automakers are looking to appeal to today:

CHEVROLET TRAILBLAZER ACTIV: $27,020

The Trailblazer Activ is available in front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive. (Chevrolet)

The subcompact Trailblazer Activ is available in front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive and gets tougher styling than the other trims, plus improved ground clearance and designed for more rugged terrain than the rest of the lineup can handle.

TEST DRIVE: 2021 CHEVROLET TRAILBLAZER ACTIV

FORD EXPEDITION TIMBERLINE: $72,245

The Ford Expedition Timberline borrows its steel skid plate from the F-150 Raptor pickup. (Ford)

Ford has created a new Timberline trim for the Explorer and Expedition that makes them more suitable for off-road use, with underbody protection, all-terrain tires and all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive systems tuned to be better on rough surfaces. Signature dark green upholstery adds a woodsy feel to the Expedition that best lives up to the model's name.

HONDA PASSPORT TRAILSPORT: $44,265

The Honda Passport TrailSport is a mostly cosmetic upgrade. (Honda)

Honda's new TrailSport trim launched on the Passport midsize crossover SUV, but will spread to other Honda SUVs. For now, it's a mostly cosmetic upgrade that includes more aggressive front and rear styling and a slightly wider track for its all-season-tires, but Honda says that later versions will get functional modifications, as well.

TEST DRIVE: THE 2022 HONDA PASSPORT TRAILSPORT TRUCKS UP

MAZDA CX-50 MERIDIEN: $41,225

The Mazda CX-50 is built in Alabama. (Mazda)

Mazda's new Alabama-built compact crossover SUV was designed to handle light off-roading in all trims, but the Meridien builds on that with additional features like all-terrain tires and rocker panel protection.

TOYOTA SIENNA WOODLAND: $46,835

The Toyota Sienna Woodland is the first off-roady minivan. (Toyota)

The SUV may have stolen the minivan's mojo, but the ultimate people carrier is back with a vengeance. The Sienna Woodland comes with a standard hybrid all-wheel-drive system good for 35 mpg and gets the requisite increased ground clearance — from 6.3 inches to a whopping 6.9 inches — and redesigned front and rear fascias expected of one of these packages, plus a standard tow hitch and roof racks to help bring along enough gear for the seven passengers inside.

TEST DRIVE: THE 2022 TOYOTA SIENNA WOODLAND IS THE MONSTER TRUCK OF MINIVANS

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