For nearly two decades, the Toyota Camry, the Honda Accord, and the Nissan Altima have been slugging it out atop the mid-size car segment. After so many years of close combat, it's only natural that the feud has spilled over into a new arena -- tall wagons.
Nissan was to the first to explore this territory in 2003, when it essentially added a tall body and a lifted suspension to the Altima platform and christened it the Murano. It's been so successful over the past seven years that one has to wonder why it took so long for the other two big Japanese carmakers to follow suit. Well, they're here. The Murano, redesigned for 2009, now faces high-roofed versions of the Accord and Camry in the form of the Honda Accord Crosstour and the Toyota Venza.
Like their sedan progenitors, these three light crossovers match up very closely, each seating five people and powering the front or all four wheels with a 3.5-liter V-6 (the Venza can be also be fitted with a 2.7-liter four-cylinder). However, the vehicles do differ quite significantly in shape and purpose, ranging in character from traditional crossover (Murano) to luxurious large hatchback (Crosstour). We gathered well-equipped versions of each vehicle to see which mutant mid-sizer best fulfills the needs of this fledgling segment.
Third Place: Toyota Venza
On paper, the Venza is the clear winner here. It strikes the best balance in this group between carlike driving dynamics and crossover-rivaling utility, which is, of course, the stated reason for this subsegment to exist. Although it has essentially the same size footprint as the Crosstour, it offers nearly twenty cubic feet more cargo room with the rear seats folded down and even edges out the taller Murano. Toyota engineers did a particularly good job packaging the rear struts so they only barely intrude into the cargo hold (take a good look, Honda).
So, why the last-place finish? In a word, execution. The lack of attention to detail is most noticeable inside, where, despite the aforementioned packaging advantages, the Venza's interior ranks dead last. A mess of mismatched, shockingly ill-fitting plastic panels form the Venza's dash, and the controls for the air-conditioning and radio feel five years old. It's not what we'd expect from any Toyota, let alone one carrying a Lexus-like price tag of $34,759.
The exterior also seems like it needed a bit more time to coalesce. It has the best basic profile among this bunch (which is, admittedly, not an attractive group of vehicles as a whole), but fussy lines in back and a toothy grille up front give the impression of a Lexus RX that melted in the sun.
As noted, the Venza drives very much like a car -- an exceptionally boring car. Under most conditions, body control is decent and steering is reasonably precise. But push the Venza at all on a curvy road, and only the optional 268-hp V-6 feels up to the task, as the cushy brakes and Cool Whip suspension squirm in protest. The garish, twenty-inch wheels do nothing to help in this department, as the soft dampers seem to send them bouncing in four different directions through bumpy corners. Overall, it's not much better than a well-mannered crossover or minivan. Given that Toyota's lineup is chock full of just such vehicles, from the RAV4 to the Highlander and the Sienna, we must wonder what this new model actually brings to the table, aside from added sales volume on the cheap.
There's nothing egregiously wrong with the Venza, and yet, there's nothing remotely appealing about it, either. Executed properly, the Toyota could easily be the best in this group, and yet right now, its styling, driving dynamics, and interior quality all scream mediocrity.
Second place: Nissan Murano
Whereas Toyota has overdosed on crossovers, Nissan finds itself filling the gap with only two. With the smaller Rogue battling the hotly contested compact segment, it's up to the Murano to offer the utility of a larger vehicle to anyone not interested in the brand's aging line of body-on-frame SUVs.
That the Murano is attempting to fill larger crossover shoes is clear as soon as you see it parked next to the Honda and the Toyota. Its roof juts out several inches higher than the other two, and its masculine sheetmetal, revolutionary seven years ago, now comes off as almost traditionalist compared with the Venza's tough-wagon aesthetic and the Crosstour's downright weirdness. Not coincidentally, we find its angles and creases the most agreeable of this group, if still not quite attractive.
Inside, the Murano made great strides in materials quality with its 2009 redesign, and its new plastics are much better than those in the Toyota. The overall dash layout is a bit drab but ergonomically sound, and the optional Bose radio uses the same driver-friendly interface found in most Infinitis. Our only complaint, from a comfort standpoint, is with our $33,000 test vehicle's foamy, flat seats. As noted, it loses to the Venza in terms of overall cargo room, but it still offers plenty of space for big, bulky items.
The problem with the Murano's crossover leanings quite literally become apparent when you leave the confines of the city for slightly more challenging roads. It floats and sways unnervingly through turns, the inevitable result of having the group's highest roof and narrowest track. On stretches with more than one bend, it typically fell several car lengths behind the other two vehicles, which were hardly setting a bristling pace. Even the venerable VQ V-6 is outmatched here, as it equals the output of the other two but betrays its advancing age with a nonstop sound track of pained growls and vibrations.
The Murano's spaciousness and interior refinement still make it a solid choice, but as other brands have fleshed out their lineups with a crossover for every taste and budget, the Murano feels like it's neither big and useful enough to play with other mid-size crossovers nor nimble enough to run with these tall wagons.
First place: Honda Accord Crosstour
As we took turns behind the steering wheels of the mind-numbing Venza and the ponderous Murano, we couldn't help but wonder why anyone would choose them over similarly mediocre-to-drive crossovers and minivans. The Crosstour, in contrast, would run rings around most of those big people movers. During most maneuvers, the big hatchback feels exactly like the Accord on which it's based, the distinctively small Honda steering wheel further disguising its girth through tight bends. Only when pushed beyond the norms of sane suburban driving does the Crosstour make clear that it's carrying 600 pounds more than a V-6 Accord, overwhelming its front tires with predictable, easy-to-correct understeer.
The Accord connection is strong in the cabin, too, thanks to a familiar dash layout, but there's also a strain of Acura DNA in the nicely bolstered seats and the plush berber carpeting. Like most high-end Hondas and Acuras, the Crosstour's busy center stack suffers from button-itis, but they're nothing an owner couldn't fully decipher in a few weeks. Overall, the cabin feels fully fitting of a $37,000 vehicle, which is more than we could say about the Venza and even the Murano.
The chink in the Honda's armor can be found aft of the rear seats, where struts and stereo speakers choke the rear cargo area. These obstacles, combined with the sloping rear liftgate, all but preclude the Crosstour from hauling big-ticket items. Considering Honda's well-earned reputation for excellent packaging, it's something of a disappointment that the Crosstour fails to use its size nearly as well as the other two vehicles in our test.
And yet, we have no reservations about naming it the overall winner in this group. Ultimately, we don't it see as the job of these tall wagons to possess world-beating utility. Indeed, Honda's showroom alone offers two strong choices for those seeking maximum cargo space -- the Odyssey and the Pilot (not to mention the significantly less expensive and more compact CR-V and Element). What the Crosstour offers instead is more luxury and a better driving experience than the typical people mover. That's something we can stand behind.