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 Dodge Durango vs. 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe
- 2013 Ford Explorer vs. 2013 Honda Pilot
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
2013 Hyundai Santa Fe
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