This is 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 testing scheme. Yesterday, we presented an accounting of four vehicles in two head-to-head matchups. Today, we're doing the same thing, matching four vehicles and knocking two of them out of contention. The winning vehicles from today and yesterday will go head-to-head in a Final Four comparison on Thursday, and we will declare the winner on Friday.
- 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe prevailed over the 2013 Dodge Durango
- 2013 Honda Pilot bested the 2013 Ford Explorer
Today the competition continues with these randomly selected match-ups:
- 2013 Chevrolet Traverse vs. 2013 Mazda CX-9
- 2013 Nissan Pathfinder vs. 2013 Toyota Highlander
2013 Chevrolet Traverse vs. 2013 Mazda CX-9
2013 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD
Although it has had as many mild facelifts as a Hollywood housewife, the Mazda CX-9 hasn't changed much since it went on sale some six years ago. Not that it has had to, since we called it "one of the best-handling big crossovers on the market" when it became a 2008 Automobile Magazine All-Star.
The 2013 Mazda CX-9 has not changed much since then because, like a shark, the CX-9 has not had to evolve to remain at the top of the food chain. Even so, it is now reasserting itself among the crossover competition with its most significant refresh to date (even though calling it "significant" is generous). The most noticeable changes can be seen on the front fascia, where Mazda tweaked the grille, headlights, and ducts. Otherwise, it's business as usual.
Doing the Utility Thing
The CX-9 still has 17.2 cubic feet of cargo space when all the seats are upright. With both the second- and third-row seats folded flat, you're looking at 100.7 cubic feet of cargo space. This may seem like a lot, but the cargo area feels as long and as narrow as a hotel hallway, so packing isn't easy. Sitting in the third-row seat is also a tight fit, even for grade-schoolers.
So, while the 2013 CX-9 doesn't do the functional thing as well as it might, it still drives well. Calling the seven-passenger, all-wheel-drive Mazda "sporty" is a stretch, but it's an apt term when you compare it to the company it keeps. The 4552-pound CX-9's suspension is damped well. The steering is reassuringly direct -- if you were to drive a minivan for comparison, it would feel like you're steering an elephant with its ears. Even so, when you arc the CX-9 through a tight corner, you know you're in a seven-passenger crossover, not a Miata. Things this big don't rock; they roll.
Drive Away for Less
Regardless, the 2013 Mazda CX-9 feels like a much smaller vehicle than it is. You get that vibe from the driver's seat, too. Part of the reason might be the 3.5-liter V-6 with its output of 273 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque, which works well with a six-speed automatic transmission that changes ratios pretty frequently to make the most of the power. It gets 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway.
The Mazda CX-9 also remains a great value. The price for this Grand Touring model is $39,605, and it has a long list of standard luxury features, such as 20-inch wheels, rain-sensing windshield wipers, automatic xenon headlights, automatic tri-zone climate control, a rearview camera, a blind-spot monitoring system, and keyless entry and ignition.
So there you have it: the 2013 Mazda CX-9 is a lot of the same with a touch of new. Put another way, it is exactly what the Mazda CX-9 needs to stay relevant. -- Christopher Nelson
2013 Chevrolet Traverse AWD 2LT
The Chevrolet Traverse is another crossover that's trying to stay relevant. The Traverse helped dig GM out of the grave it buried itself in four years ago, yet what has the Traverse received in the way of thanks? It wasn't until the introduction of the 2013 Traverse that this seven-passenger, all-wheel-drive crossover received an overdue allotment of updates.
The first thing you'll notice is that the 2013 Chevrolet Traverse is much prettier than its predecessor. Chevy massaged every inch of the Traverse's sheetmetal, a task we think was well worth the investment. The Chevy version of GM's big crossover also has received some major interior upgrades, including a 6.5-inch touchscreen interface and a rearview camera as standard equipment.
Big Space, Lots of Stuff
This Traverse has a long list of standard luxury equipment, comparable to those in the Mazda CX-9, but with two major differences. The Chevy has a power liftgate and remote start, features that Asian-label crossovers are only just beginning to include. Nevertheless, if you get crazy with the options sheet, the Traverse 2LT with navigation becomes a $40,000 vehicle. Oh, and you want leather-trimmed first- and second-row seats? You're quickly on your way to our test vehicle's price of $42,880.
In a way, the Traverse also has a similar powertrain to the CX-9. The single-exhaust 3.6-liter V-6 makes 281 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque, and it works through a six-speed automatic to deliver 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway. It also feels a bit dated in its performance, just like the Mazda V-6. That said, it has enough power to coax this 4956-pound dreadnought out of the harbor, and the six-speed automatic transmission changes gears quietly and smoothly. Even so, we're not sure that the package is up to carrying everything you need for a full summer vacation at the lake, even with its tow rating of 5200 pounds.
Both the 2013 Traverse and the 2013 CX-9 have nicely appointed interiors, with comfortable seats, good materials, and fine build quality. The cabins feel much different, however. The CX-9 feels like a sports car that's been pumped up like a balloon to become a passenger vehicle, whereas the Traverse feels exactly how you'd expect a three-row crossover to feel. There's enough natural light coming in the windows to make all three rows feel spacious, and you're never squeezed into a seat that's in desperate need of more elbow room -- plus there's cargo space besides.
Do Sales Matter?
The Chevrolet Traverse also walks all over the CX-9 in the popular vote. Consider that Chevrolet sold almost 200,000 examples of the Traverse in 2011 and 2012 combined, while Mazda sold only a third as many CX-9s in the same time period.
Despite the fact that the 2013 Chevrolet Traverse excels over the 2013 Mazda CX-9 in so many practical categories that relate to utility and comfort, the Mazda has a performance margin over the Traverse in every dynamic respect. We've found that driving makes a difference not only in safe maneuverability around town but also secure maneuverability in those remote places where vacation travel takes you. It's this factor, which is all-important to Automobile Magazine, that makes the Mazda CX-9 the winner in this match-up. -- Christopher Nelson
Winner: 2013 Mazda CX-9