Welcome to Automobile Magazine‘s Family Crossover Comparo, our comparison test of the kind of vehicle that you see during America’s summer vacation, the three-row family crossover.
As we noted in our Day One introduction, we’ve gathered eight of the best all-wheel-drive, seven-passenger family crossovers, and we’re going to sort them out. We’ve driven all of them at the same time on the same roads, and we’ve made our notes and organized our facts and then argued about the results.
The way we see it, these are the best family crossovers available in America right now. We’ve done our best to ensure that our test vehicles represent a useful level of features — nicely equipped, as they say — yet don’t cost too much. Given the practical realities of acquiring so many test vehicles at the same time, they aren’t all priced exactly the same, but we’ve done our best.
These family crossovers are: 2013 Chevrolet Traverse, 2013 Dodge Durango, 2013 Ford Explorer, 2013 Honda Pilot, 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe, 2013 Mazda CX-9, 2013 Nissan Pathfinder and 2013 Toyota Highlander.
To make our comparisons as direct as we can, we’ve organized a different kind of scheme, matching the vehicles in brackets just as is done in an athletic tournament. The losers will be knocked out one by one until the winner presents itself.
Today, we present an accounting of four vehicles, with two head-to-head match-ups. Tomorrow, we do the same, matching the remaining vehicles and reducing the field to four. The winning vehicles from today and tomorrow will then go head-to-head in a Final Four comparison on Thursday, and we will declare the winner on Friday.
We start the tournament with these randomly selected match-ups:
2013 Hyundai Santa Fe vs. 2013 Dodge Durango
2013 Dodge Durango Citadel AWD
The 2013 Dodge Durango has a lot going for it. It’s got masculine good looks, plenty of cargo space, a sleek, luxurious cabin, and a pedigree that puts comparisons to that other three-row family hauler — the minivan — completely out of mind. As soon as we saw it, the Durango had us interested. Associate web editor Donny Nordlicht calls it the best-looking vehicle of the group. West Coast editor Michael Jordan observes that the Durango’s upright stance and toothy, truck-style grille make it look like “the crossover for guys.”
Praise for the Durango’s looks kept on coming. Road test editor Christopher Nelson notes, “Everything is pumped up a bit. It’s the most luxurious crossover here.” It had better be, since our seven-passenger Durango’s price of $46,925 is the heftiest of the day. Leather-trimmed heated and cooled front seats come standard, ensuring year-round comfort. An optional rear entertainment system will keep kids occupied during long drives, and standard navigation will make sure the drive doesn’t last longer than it should.
The Power of a Truck
The Durango’s 3.6-liter V-6 engine delivers 290 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, which is right in line with the competition. It manages 16 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway, about middle of the pack for our test group. The 2013 Durango also distinguishes itself with its 6200-pound tow rating, putting the Santa Fe’s 5000-pound rating to shame.
“Can we take into account that the Durango gets a new transmission for 2014?” asks Nordlicht. The gallery responds with a resounding, “No.” This pretty much settles it. With its dated five-speed automatic, the Durango is painfully slow to accelerate, giving you plenty of time to ponder each of the car’s 5097 pounds as you inch away from the stoplights.
The Durango feels every bit as big as it is, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a pickup truck under the skin if you were to drive it blindfolded (not recommended). Jordan assigns the Durango to heavy-lifting duty as far as this group of crossovers is concerned: “This is the right vehicle to drive to Home Depot, but around town? It’s too heavy.” It’s hard to imagine the Durango making the school pick-up and soccer drop-off rounds, even if there is a Mercedes-derived unit body under the truck styling.
Christopher Nelson distills our complaints about the 2013 Dodge Durango into a single thought: “The Durango is a really good SUV, but I’m not sure if it’s a great seven-passenger crossover.” As impressed as we are by the Durango’s looks and brute strength, it tries too hard to be something it isn’t. – Annie White
The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited AWD is the wild card in this comparison. It’s the least expensive of our eight entrants and sells in the smallest numbers. Fresh off a redesign and rebadging, the seven-passenger 2013 Santa Fe (formerly the Veracruz) shares its looks and its new name with the shorter, five-passenger 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport. With a spindly five-bar grille and a sporty exterior, the full-length Santa Fe shuns the clumsy, boxy look that marks so many of its competitors. It aims to be more than the sum of its parts, and it often is.
Stepping into the Santa Fe makes you immediately rethink what a three-row crossover can be. “Interiors don’t have to be grim and utilitarian and depressing just because you’re in a crossover,” gushes deputy editor Joe DeMatio. Associate web editor Donny Nordlicht says the cabin of the Santa Fe is “one of the best interiors on the market under fifty thousand dollars.” Comparisons are even drawn to the Audi TT. And, OMG, the panoramic sunroof. Santa Fe, you had us at hello.
Crossing the Country
Taking the 2013 Santa Fe on the road did little to sour our affair. The 3.3-liter V-6 engine makes 290 hp and 252 lb-ft of torque, putting the Santa Fe right in the peloton for three-row crossovers. Nothing special, but not lagging behind, either. The Santa Fe won’t peel your eyelids back on acceleration, but we are favorably impressed with the action of this crossover’s six-speed automatic transmission. Nordlicht is among the impressed, saying, “It will hold the gears and postpone the shifts if you want it to, like it understands what you’re doing.”
Need more good news? The Santa Fe’s EPA rating of 18 mpg in the city is bested by only one crossover in our test, the Nissan Pathfinder. Meanwhile, the Hyundai’s rating of 24 mpg highway is also among the best of this group.
Riding the Tilt-a-Whirl
So what’s the fly in the ointment? Step into the third row for a spin around the block and you’ll feel like you’re on a bad amusement park ride. Knees in nose, seat bouncing, road noise for days. Sure, the third row is meant only for kids, but even they will be holding epic roshambo tournaments for a chance to get a seat upgrade into one of the comfortable captain’s chairs in the Santa Fe’s second row (standard in the Limited trim level; a second-row bench is available in the GLS trim).
In addition, the calibration of the rear suspension seems too soft, and the setup will bottom with a clunk even with light loads. In addition, while the slow steering is meant to keep you from getting into trouble when the whole family is on board, it is still too unresponsive to us. Such things keep the seven-passenger Santa Fe from being truly transcendent.
Even so, the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe has us unexpectedly infatuated. “This is the surprise of the day,” proclaims road test editor Christopher Nelson to general nodding among our group of test drivers. We can imagine the all-wheel-drive Santa Fe ferrying two adult couples to dinner on the town as easily as carting a family on a cross-country road trip. With the Santa Fe, Hyundai has figured out how to make an attractive, desirable three-row crossover for less than $40,000 — quite an accomplishment. – Annie White
Winner: 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe
2013 Ford Explorer Limited AWD vs. 2013 Honda Pilot Touring 4WD
2013 Ford Explorer Limited AWD
The 2013 Ford Explorer Limited AWD has a nameplate that has dominated the utility vehicle market for more than two decades. It is also the best selling of all the eight crossovers here, and more than 160,000 buyers per year can’t be wrong, can they? Well, yes and no.
Buyers will appreciate the 2013 Explorer’s 290-hp 3.5-liter V-6, which ties with the 2013 Dodge Durango and the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe as the most powerful engines in the group. That horsepower doesn’t go to waste, either. Ford’s six-speed automatic is smooth and unobtrusive and the steering is direct and well weighted, both of which give the driver confidence despite this seven-passenger, all-wheel-drive vehicle’s curb weight of roughly 4600 pounds.
Power and Technology
Power isn’t found just under the hood, as the seven-passenger, all-wheel-drive Ford Explorer is the only crossover in our test to offer a power-folding third row. In fact, the 2013 Explorer Limited that we tested is so replete with technology and convenience features that its price of $45,415 is the second highest in this group.
All of those extras are features that everyone likes, such as power-folding mirrors, heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel, a power tilt-and-telescope steering column, power-adjustable pedals, automatic wipers, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-path detection, automatic high beams, and active parking assist.
There’s one piece of technology on display here, though, that doesn’t meet our expectations. The MyFord Touch infotainment system might be designed to appeal to tech enthusiasts, but it proves counterintuitive to operate, yields inconsistent results, and requires the driver to look away from the road too often. JeanKnowsCars.com senior editor Molly Jean says it’s “a kid’s toy,” not an adult-rated communication interface. One of the editors was even overheard cursing the system over our two-way communication radios when he tried to use MyFord Touch to change the music track it was playing on his iPod.
Does This Make Me Look Big?
The Explorer’s high beltline makes this vehicle feel big, more like a truck than a crossover. Almost everyone says the view from the driver’s seat compromises driver confidence. “It’s like sitting at the bottom of a black bathtub,” one editor says. Nevertheless, JeanKnowsCars.com senior editor Molly Jean insists the visibility is good, and she’s hardly the tallest of our drivers.
Despite the new-generation Explorer’s crossover platform, it seems less than spacious to us. “It’s amazing how big the Ford looks on the outside versus how small it feels inside,” says associate editor David Zenlea. Underpinning the 2013 Ford Explorer is an evolution of Volvo’s P2 platform, which was developed for the 1998 Volvo S80 sedan. Versions of it can be found under the Ford Flex and the Lincoln MKT, among other Ford vehicles. But the process of engineering this platform for the Explorer resulted in thick roof pillars, an obstructively wide center tunnel, and high, wide door sills that make entry and egress cumbersome for both front- and rear-seat passengers.
The seven-passenger, all-wheel-drive 2013 Ford Explorer has a number of redeeming qualities, yet it feels outdated and trucklike in this group of crossovers, even though its redesign dates only to 2011. That’s because, no matter how much new-fangled technology and horsepower Ford has added to this platform, the deficient packaging and limited outward visibility keep this crossover from being one in which we’d tote our brood. – Donny Nordlicht
2013 Honda Pilot Touring 4WD
Let’s get this out of the way: the 2013 Honda Pilot is old. The second-generation Pilot that we’re driving today debuted back in 2009, and although it received an update last year, this remains much the same Honda Odyssey-based utility package that first came our way in 2003. In fact, a significantly revised Honda Pilot is expected to be revealed within the next eighteen months. With this in mind, we slipped behind the wheel of the seven-passenger, all-wheel-drive 2013 Honda Pilot Touring AWD.
The 2013 Pilot’s boxy shape has more personality than the anonymous family-style look it replaced, but this rough-and-tumble link to truck-based SUVs has not aged well. Deputy editor Joe DeMatio remarks, “It looks like the box it came in.” Motor gopher Tom Foley also says that the angular interior looks meant for quick cleanup after a spell of barfing by your toddler, since there’s barely a hint of the soft-touch materials found in the other crossovers in this group.
Fuel Economy, not Power
The powertrain also feels behind the times compared to most of our octet. The 3.5-liter V-6 engine provides reasonable grunt with 250 hp and 253 lb-ft of torque, but the antiquated five-speed automatic transmission shifts slowly and clumsily as it continually shuffles the gears to keep the V-6 on the boil as it lugs around 4608 pounds. The steering is slow yet surprisingly direct, and the ride is soft.
It’s not all bad news with the 2013 Honda Pilot, however. Let’s remember that it wears the “H” badge on its grille, and Honda has built a reputation for reliable, efficient, and inexpensive-to-own vehicles, which is the kind of thing that can make or break a purchase for lots of shoppers. The Honda Pilot also trumps the Ford Explorer by achieving 1 mpg more on the highway and combined cycles (17/24/20 mpg city/highway/combined versus 17/23/19).
Number crunching also reveals that the Honda’s boxy shape pays dividends with respect to cargo capacity. While there are three cubic feet less than the Ford Explorer when all three rows are in use, the Pilot gives you 3.9 cubic feet more than the Explorer with the third row folded and a sizeable 6.3 cubic feet more when both the second and third rows are folded.
Another important number to those with families is “four,” as in the number of LATCH anchors for child safety seats. Besting all other competitors, the Honda Pilot has an impressive three LATCH points in the second row and a fourth one in the third row. (Those of you with several small children, the 2013 Pilot is your car.) Speaking of safety, the 2013 Honda Pilot is also a Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). We can also tell you that the Pilot’s upright greenhouse delivers great outward visibility, and the bright, well-lit cabin feels airy and spacious even when packed with people and stuff.
The 2013 Honda Pilot is the crossover you buy with the left side of your brain; it is a pragmatic choice, a reliable, known quantity. This is a vehicle that will please those who view cars as an impersonal transportation cube to get from point A to point B. Unfortunately, this is also the Pilot’s key failing. JeanKnowsCars.com associate editor Annie White expresses just what we are all thinking when she says, “Should we be okay with it being an appliance?” – Donny Nordlicht
Winner: 2013 Honda Pilot Touring 4WD