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2013 Family Crossover Comparison - Day One

A.J. MuellerphotographerPatrick M. HoeyphotographerMichael Jordanwriter

When summer arrives, America hits the road. There's something about this country that calls out to all of us, so we yearn to go and see for ourselves. Sometimes it's Yellowstone National Park in the Rocky Mountains and sometimes it's the World's Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Kansas, and as Americans we embrace both with cheerful enthusiasm. When the weather turns warm, we're all about the road map, the road trip, and road food.

Best of all, it's no longer necessary to drive Clark Griswold's infamous Wagon Queen Family Truckster to get there, as in National Lampoon's Vacation (1983). Instead we have the three-row family crossover, a miracle of packaging efficiency, thoughtful convenience, and comfortable transportation.

It's not fashionable among car people to pay tribute to the crossover, but we're smart enough to understand that Americans have figured out what you need to cross the wide-open spaces of this country on all kinds of roads and in all kinds of weather. It turns out that an all-wheel-drive utility vehicle with the easy-going personality of a family sedan is exactly what you want.

That's what has led us to compare the eight best three-row family crossovers that you can buy right now: 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.

Crossovers, Automobile-style
We began with the full range of family-style crossovers, which we define as mid-size vehicles intended primarily for passenger use but also capable of weekend adventure. That includes the ability to pack a useful amount of stuff and perhaps do some light-duty towing as well.

We have chosen eight finalists that represent the best aspects of the category, whether it's packaging efficiency or simple drivability. By choosing one of them as the best, we hope not only to define the current state of the American family crossover but also the character that the people who read Automobile want in a practical, everyday kind of family vehicle.

We have specified the ability to carry three rows of passengers, and while we acknowledge that for most people this feature is useful only a limited number of times each year, it's always a consideration in the buying process. We have specified all-wheel drive because it snows in the mountains, rains in the woods, and can be muddy almost anywhere. Our selection of vehicles also includes only what is on sale today, since people are buying what's on sale today, not next fall.

Crossovers, Bracket-style
We can't pretend to be the average buyer because, well, that would be impossible. Just like you, we are who we are. If you want complete objectivity unconfused by education, enthusiasm, experience, and just plain good taste, well, good luck to you.

Also, we've again based our test on bracket-style, head-to-head comparisons between vehicles, just as we did with our comparison of mid-size sedans. We're not going to dumb down the comparison process into some kind of SAT test, where like geeks we carefully add up the points scored in a thousand little categories of performance. When you do that, you reward broad-based mediocrity, not excellence. And at Automobile, we're all about excellence.

The question of choice is personal and powerful, and we think that a one-to-one confrontation between vehicles reveals character in a way that giant test groups do not.

The Clark Griswold Factor
Every family must have a place to go, and our destination was the Tulip Festival in Holland, Michigan. Every May, 500,000 people make the drive to this eight-day celebration, which began in 1929 with a suggestion by a local schoolteacher to beautify this town on the shore of Lake Michigan by planting tulips in honor of the original Dutch settlers. Some 6 million tulips bloom in town each spring.

There are three parades, professional entertainment, fireworks, and dancers in wooden shoes (wear six to eight pair of socks before you try it). We stayed in the Euro-style CityFlats Hotel, looked at tulips, ate the heavy Dutch food, saw Big Red (the lighthouse at the harbor's entrance), and drove by the eighteenth-century Dutch windmill. Sadly, we missed the wooden shoe factory and the place where they do Delft dinnerware. The locals are so nice that they even shut down part of Kollen Park to let us take souvenir pictures. It was great.

Best of all, we made it a road trip. We set our own schedule, played our own music, found our own roads, and leaned out the windows and barked at the cows if we wanted to. We stopped for lunch at Bell's Brewery Eccentric Café in Kalamazoo (perfect for us, eh?). In addition, there were no airports involved at any point during our adventure, which is always a blessing.

The Road Map
Just like any road trip, it will take a while before you reach your destination.

Tomorrow and the next day, there will be head-to-head comparisons between the vehicles, with four vehicles involved each day. The day after that we'll sum up some of what we've learned during our tests, which include a rodeo-style timed test of third-seat stowage and a very messy lunch at our local Sonic drive-in. The last day, we'll stage the final head-to-head comparison and determine the winner.

You might want to start preparing the plans for your own summer vacation right now.