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2013 Family Crossover Comparison - Day Five

David ZenleawriterA.J. MuellerphotographerPatrick M. Hoeyphotographer

When you're out there in America on your summer vacation, the three-row family crossover is what you see.

Over the past week, we've compared eight of the best all-wheel-drive, three-row family crossovers that you'll find on the highway today. 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. And now we've sorted them out and separated the best from the rest.

You can read about the mission we set for ourselves on Day One and, the driving report for each vehicle, either on Day Two or Day Three. On Day 4, the tournament got tougher, as our smart-ass comments make painfully clear. Here we present the final match between the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe and 2013 Nissan Pathfinder.

On this final day, the process involves less driving and a lot more arguing, as the comments below indicate. It's not just about whether these family crossovers excel in this category -- because they all do -- but instead it's about finding the right kind of combination that meets our expectations.

Hyundai Santa Fe vs. Nissan Pathfinder

2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited
The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe drives like the car-like crossover that everyone wants, blending around-town maneuverability with highway comfort. More surprising is its ability as a utility vehicle, because it has a package that's always useful, whether you're hauling people or all that vacation stuff that people bring along with them.

The Building Blocks
At the heart of the 2013 Santa Fe lies a Hyundai Sonata, and that's a fine thing to have these daysHyundai's popular mid-size sedan. This crossover's wheelbase stretches 110.2 inches, and the overall package measures 193.1 inches in overall length, 74.2 inches wide and 66.5 inches high.

There's 146.6 cubic feet of passenger volume within, including 41.3 inches of front- seat legroom, 41.3 inches of second-row legroom, and 31.5 inches of third-row legroom. You can pack 80.0 cubic feet of cargo behind the front seats, 40.9 cubic feet of cargo behind the second-row seats, and 13.5 cubic -feet of stuff behind the third-row seats.

This all-wheel-drive Santa Fe is motivated by a 3.3-liter V-6 that makes 290 hp and 252 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed automatic transmission helps the 4297-lb Limited model get 18 mpg City/24 mpg Highway/20 mpg Combined. The bottom line as you leave the dealership is $38,840.

What We Said
For us, the interior is the most important part of a three-row crossover. It's made to carry people and some of their stuff, and everyday goodness probably is more important than all-day comfort. Even so, we appreciate the finer things in life and this 2013 Santa Fe looks like a premium vehicle, with a fine mix of soft-touch materials and interesting color choices.

It's easy to climb in and out of the 2013 Santa Fe, and we found plenty of cupholders and entertainment choices, which is what we were looking for in a lunch-hour foray to the Sonic drive-in. At the same time, we were reminded again that third-row seats are always just for kids, and the Santa Fe's example proved more unpleasant than we expected, since the seats themselves are lower, thinner, and generally less accommodating than those in the Nissan Pathfinder (such a design, though, makes for a flat, useful cargo floor when the seat is folded down). The Santa Fe regains the advantage when it comes time to carry stuff rather than people, because its third- and second-row seats fold faster and with less effort.

It might be surprising, but the 2013 Santa Fe impresses with its sheer muscle, which is the dimension where you want a utility vehicle to set itself apart from a daily sedan. It's one of the most powerful vehicles in our test with 290 hp and yet is also one of the lightest at 4297 pounds. Hyundai says it'll tow up to 5000 pounds.

2013 Nissan Pathfinder Platinum
In one bold step Nissan has left behind the SUV personality that used to define the Pathfinder and substituted instead a people-oriented characterpersona that emphasizes highway comfort. When it comes time to move people around, the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder sets itself apart.

The Building Blocks
The 2013 Pathfinder takes its personality from the Nissan Altima sedan that you'll find under its skin, as it goes down the highway with an easy-riding rhythm. Its wheelbase measures 114.2 inches, while overall length stretches 197.2 inches, width measures 77.2 inches, and overall height measures 69.6 inches.

The specifications say that this is a larger vehicle than the Santa Fe with 157.8 cubic feet of interior volume. At the same time, the difference is actually a little hard to find, as the Pathfinder has 42.3 inches of front- seat legroom, 41.7 inches of second-row legroom, and 30.7 inches of third-row legroom. You can pack 79.8 cubic feet of cargo behind the front seats, 47.8 cubic feet behind the second-row seat (42.4 cubic feet with fixed captain's chairs instead of the sliding bench), and 16.0 cubic -feet of stuff behind the third-row seats..

This all-wheel-drive Pathfinder is powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 260 hp and 240 lb-ft of torque. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) helps this 4471-lb Platinum model get 19 mpg City/25 mpg Highway/21 mpg Combined. The bottom line as you leave the dealership is $44,395.

What We Said
When you climb into the 2013 Pathfinder, you're almost certain that you're sitting in an Altima sedan, as the dashboard architecture and puffy, comforted-oriented seats suggest. Although the specifications suggest that the Pathfinder should have a slight margin of interior space over the Hyundai Santa Fe, it went pretty well unnoticed by us. Otherwise it certainly seemed much like a luxury car.

It takes 12.7 seconds to fold down the Pathfinder's second- and third-row seats compared to the 5.3 seconds it takes to fold down the Santa Fe seats (remote latches for the second-row seats make such quickness possible). Meanwhile, the third-row seat seems is more accommodating, another attribute of the comfort-oriented seat design. At the same timeAlas, the Platinum edition's overstuffed upholstery makes a big difference in the character of the Pathfinder's load floor, as the seats don't fold flat and create an inclined load floor.

Nissan has done great work with CVT design, and the match pairing of between this one and the Pathfinder's 3.5-liter V-6 results in good drivability and fuel efficiency around town. is a good one, and the result is very drivable and very fuel efficient around town. At the same timeStill, this 260-hp engine has 4471 lbs with which to contend, so it prefers to cruise rather than accelerate noisily. Nevertheless, Nissan has taken some measures to ensure the Pathfinder can do the job as a tow vehicle and it's rated at 5,000 lbs in this capacity.

Winner: 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe

Think Inside Out
If you don't look too closely, it's easy to think that all three-row family crossovers are the same. You simply combine a car-like body with truck-like SUV styling, then add all-wheel -drive for meeting the challenge of driving in all kinds of weather.

Yet the precise blend of car and truck still varies from vehicle to vehicle, and, boy, does it matter. Some vehicles, like the Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot, fall toward the truck side of the spectrum, a little less refined than the others. Meanwhile, the Mazda CX-9 and Toyota Highlander drive exactly like cars, but they give up some utility to do so, notably in the comfortable spaciousness you want, even for the kids in the way-back row.

Within the middle, things are evolving quickly, and a vehicle like the Chevrolet Traverse that seemed like an amazing expression of modernity a second ago is now trying to keep up. At the leading edge we find crossovers that match style with refinement, as the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe and 2013 Nissan Pathfinder showed us as we posed them in front of our snappy Euro-style hotel in Holland, Michigan.

As a group, we think this is particularly true of the Santa Fe. It has both amenities and the appearance to be a premium vehicle, especially with this model's dramatic saddle-brown seat upholstery and soft-touch trim. The Hyundai also sets itself apart with its exterior styling, since as it maintains the distinctive proportions of a utility vehicle even as it aspires to something more than truckiness.

Smooth utility
Utility is still the name of the game here. While a crossover might spend most of its life trundling between home, school, and the store, it must have the ability to do so safely in all kinds of weather, so all-wheel -drive and an appropriate safety net of driving-related electronics are required. In addition, a family vehicle like this should be capable of crossing over into adventure during a family vacation.

The 2013 Pathfinder and 2013 Pathfinder are both good at what they do. To us, the Pathfinder seems more at home cruising steadily down the Interstate like the Altima from which it is derived. It's a fine people-carrier, a luxury car with more capability than most people will ever appreciate.

Yet we still prefer the way that the 2013 Santa Fe adapts to the unexpected, whether it's weaving through an alley with only a couple inches of clearance on either side or taking the back road to the tulip farm. The Hyundai keeps its composure even when the road surface doesn't, accelerates in a resolute way that reassures you, and gives you a broad field of view from the driver seat in a way that makes you feel safe.

What we've learned
The crossover still seems to us like the most popular package in America, as the strong sales of each of these vehicles should prove to all.

But for us, the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe points the way forward. It is a vehicle that has its utility act together, yet doesn't sacrifice too much in terms of weight, power, and fuel economy to do so. It can easily be reconfigured into one of many forms depending on whether your destination is the school, the store, or the tulip farm in Holland, Michigan. It has the technology that you should have to ensure safe transportation for your family, yet not so much that the price will steal your breath away.

And just as important, the 2013 Santa Fe looks and feels great while doing so. We'll admit that we like a certain measure of niceness in our utility vehicles, and this Hyundai lives up to our expectations in terms of looks and refinement.

Greatness is made up from a little bit of everything, and this is as true of family crossovers as it is of luxury sedans. The Hyundai Santa Fe is the new benchmark for us.