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2013 Family Crossover Comparison - Day Four

A.J. MuellerphotographerChris NelsonwriterPatrick M. Hoeyphotographer

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.

As the tournament continues, the competition 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.

As the tournament continues, here are the match-ups for our Final Four:

Honda Pilot vs. Nissan Pathfinder

  • The Pathfinder ticks a lot of the right boxes for us. There's a yin for every yang, yet it all evens out to a pretty good car.
  • "The suspension pounds the road, and you feel like you're wheeling around a mini bus," says Joe DeMatio.
  • "It's anonymously attractive," says Donny Nordlicht. Another editor responds, "Like a Labrador retriever, or black dress pants."
  • Shade of Gray: Arctic Blue. It's blue, no doubt about it, but the Pathfinder somehow turns gray when surrounded by seven gray cars. Are there really fifty shades of gray?
  • A nice manifestation of big crossover ideals. It looks big outside, but it's also big inside. So that's good. Also, it has excellent fit and finish.
  • Continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) isn't bad, but we'd prefer a conventional automatic transmission. Feel>fuel.
  • "Wasn't the Pathfinder cool?" asks a young editor. "Totally," replies old dog DeMatio. "No one who used to own a Pathfinder would own this thing, but you'd be a complete idiot to throw out such an iconic nameplate. "
  • Emergency second- and third-row fold-down time: 12.7 seconds. You'll get wet trying to load up your groceries in the rain, but it's just water, people.
  • Panoramic sunroof is a must for third-row passengers. Otherwise, pray they're not claustrophobic.
  • "It's a Nissan that presents itself as a luxury car," says Michael Jordan. "It makes me less impressed with the Infiniti JX35," replies David Zenlea.
  • Sales don't lie -- this is the most popular vehicle in this group among the American public, and by a large margin.
  • "It's the Wrangler jeans of the group -- it makes a lot of sense, but hell if I want to be seen in it. "
  • "It's a box and it drives like a box, but it's a very useful and well-built box," says DeMatio.
  • It's an appliance.
  • Shade of Gray: Alabaster Silver.
  • Most of us don't have kids, but forward-facing LATCH anchors in the third row are essential to some people, like proud dad Rusty Blackwell. Can you guess which of these four had them? Yep: "Two in the third row," notes Blackwell, "and six in the second row, which is impressive."
  • Honda has brand equity. You know that, when you buy this Honda Pilot as a used vehicle in five years, it'll run for at least another eight years.
  • Emergency second- and third-row fold-down time: 13.7 seconds. That extra second over the Pathfinder might not seem like a lot, but what if you're trying to load up your groceries in the rain when zombies come out of nowhere? It could mean life or death…
  • "You wouldn't want to take the Pilot on a road trip," says Jordan. "It's made only for trips to and from the soccer field. "
  • The Pilot is fortunate to have Honda's reputation of reliability attached to it. Otherwise, it probably wouldn't be a top seller.

The 2013 Honda Pilot is functional, straightforward, and as boring to drive as it is to look at. The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder is functional, too, but it leans toward passenger comfort rather than all-around utility. Because this reflects our own choices in the way we drive crossovers, the Pathfinder is awarded the win. - Christopher Nelson

Winner: 2013 Nissan Pathfinder Platinum. The Pathfinder moves into the final round.

Hyundai Santa Fe vs. Mazda CX-9

  • This is the biggest surprise of the day. No one expected this crossover to make it past the first round, or be as good as it is. And it's pretty damn good.
  • "How much horsepower does that V-6 engine have?" "290." "Wow, it felt like more than that. "
  • The third-row seats are bolted directly to the floor, and the second-row seats shake when no one is sitting in them and the car is in motion.
  • Shade of Gray: Iron Frost.
  • The greatest panoramic sunroof we've seen aside from that of the Land Rover Range Rover Evoque. Definitely worth springing for the $2900 Technology package.
  • It feels agile and light on winding roads, although not as sporty as, say, the Mazda CX-9.
  • Shifts from the transmission are slow but not clunky. It's a wash.
  • Emergency second- and third-row fold-down time: 5.3 seconds. (Quick time assist goes to the two handles on both sides of the cargo area that remotely fold down the second-row seats.) Forget the zombies; they'll never catch you. You might not even get wet when you're trying to load up your groceries in the rain.
  • Things that make this your classic Hyundai: finish that's much better than fit; rear suspension that clunks over road imperfections; and a sport mode that changes steering effort and nothing else.
  • "I'm blown away," says DeMatio. "Getting into this car reminded me that crossover interiors don't have to be grim and depressing. This is the most carefully packaged vehicle in the group. "

2013 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring

  • People like us -- people who care about the driving experience -- will err on the side of the Mazda. But most people -- those who actually buy seven-passenger crossovers -- won't.
  • "Mazda nails the basic dynamic qualities that other automakers overlook, which makes this the most enjoyable seven-passenger crossover to drive," says Zenlea.
  • Worst third-row seating of the bunch. Tiny side windows, no panoramic sunroof, and no cup holders. And it's not if you'll fit, it's how you'll fit. Knees up, heads down.
  • Shade of Gray: Meteor Gray.
  • "The interior is a horror story -- a black hole," says Jordan. "Really?" replies Nordlicht. "I think it's upscale without being pretentious. "
  • 22 mpg on the highway? Yeah, this old Ford V-6 needs to go away.
  • If you want to see what the outside temperature is, why do you have to press the "outside" button? Why can't it just always be on display?
  • Emergency second- and third-row fold-down time: 25.4 seconds. If you're loading up your groceries in the rain when zombies attack, getting wet is the least of your worries. Leave the food, or the zombies will eat you.
  • "The seats make you sit very upright," says Jordan. "It's like you're getting your portrait done. "
  • "The CX-9 is a fabulous value," says Nordlicht.

The Mazda is the best driver's crossover, but it's too one-dimensional to be a family-friendly beach cruiser. We're as shocked as you are, but it seems like the new Hyundai Santa Fe is going to upset an Automobile Magazine favorite. - Christopher Nelson

Winner: 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited. The Santa Fe moves into the final round.

Come back to automobilemag.com tomorrow for a head-to-head comparison of our finalists (we go to a local drive-in for an old-fashioned, family-style meal) and to find out which crossover comes out on top.