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2013 Family Crossover Comparison - Day Three

David ZenleawriterA.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.

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.

Today the competition continues with these randomly selected match-ups:

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

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

2013 Nissan Pathfinder vs. 2013 Toyota Highlander

The Nissan Pathfinder has been like an aging rock star struggling for relevance. One of the progenitors of the SUV craze, it fell to the wayside as the segment evolved. But now the all-new 2013 Nissan Pathfinder has found itself some new managers and is aiming for the top of the charts.

Much like the opening lines of a catchy pop song, the Pathfinder's styling is at once fresh and a little familiar. A flowing Coke-bottle shape clearly communicates that this is now a unibody, carlike crossover rather than a body-on-frame truck. Nissan designers also resisted their weirder impulses (reference the Cube, Juke, and Murano CrossCabriolet) and instead went for what one of us describes as "proportional and clean" and another thinks is "anonymously attractive."

Living the Crossover Life
The interior likewise aims for the segment's sweet spot. First- and second-row passengers have acres of space. The third row feels more hospitable than the specifications (30.7 inches of legroom) would suggest. "The optional moonroof helps brighten things back there," notes deputy editor Joe DeMatio.

Nissan is more adventurous with interior materials than most mainstream brands. Berber-weave floor mats and a nicely grained, almond-color dash warm up the cabin and further distance this crossover from its SUV forerunner. It's also worth noting that the materials are mostly the same hard plastics that we knock in competitors like the Toyota Highlander; Nissan's designers deserve credit for figuring out how to work with the cheap stuff in an impressive way. At $44,395, you pay for such details, of course.

Power with Responsibility
We thought Nissan's notoriously noisy 3.5-liter V-6 and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) would be a match made in hell. In fact, the engine and transmission get along reasonably well. The V-6's growl signifies 260 hp and 240 lb-ft of torque, and it sounds infinitely better than the buzzy four-cylinders we typically associate with CVTs. It's hard to argue with the results, since the Pathfinder's fuel-economy rating of 19 mpg city/25 mpg highway edges out the rest of the pack. "Pretty impressive for a large, four-wheel-drive crossover," notes DeMatio.

In driving environments representative of the typical crossover experience -- say on the freeway or in the parking lot at Chuck E. Cheese -- we enjoyed the Pathfinder's linear steering and comfortable ride. Even so, the 4471-pound crossover had a tough time hiding its size when pushed in corners.

Some of our more aged, tenured editors wistfully recalled what a sensation the original Nissan Pathfinder had been in the 1990s, when its snappy made-in-America design set it apart from mainstream trucks. Today's 2013 Nissan Pathfinder, like most of the pop songs on the radio in this new century, is polished and professional, if not particularly memorable. Yet, just as teens no longer line up to listen to rockabilly, most American families no longer want to drive around the suburbs in a truck. - David Zenlea

2013 Toyota Highlander Limited V6

The 2013 Toyota Highlander is in many respects the grand dame of this segment. Toyota started offering a third row in the Highlander back in 2004 to make it an alternative to minivans and bulky, full-size SUVs. The second-generation model introduced in 2008 remains a strong seller that we simply can't ignore, even though an all-new version (based on the Camry, just as here) is on the horizon. Yet the opportunity to drive the 2013 Highlander back-to-back with its newer competitors provides evidence of the way this segment has evolved.

The most notable shift is in size. The Highlander finds itself on the small end of this group, more like a mid-size crossover with bonus seats in back than a dedicated three-row vehicle. (It's still a bit bigger than other 'tweeners like the three-row Kia Sorento and Mitsubishi Outlander.) Toyota makes up some ground with smart packaging. The second-row center seat, for instance, folds neatly into the front center armrest. Still, the Highlander's third row seats were more cramped than those of any other vehicle in this group.

No Offense
The 2013 Highlander also betrays its age with its austere styling. There's nothing offensive about the Highlander's sheetmetal, but neither is there anything interesting. The interior proves versatile when it comes to utility, but it's trimmed throughout with rental-car plastics, which is noticeable in a vehicle priced at $41,855. "Toyota needs to get its act together in terms of interior quality," notes road test editor Christopher Nelson. That said, some appreciated the Highlander's minimalism. "I like the slim A-pillars, the shallow dash, and the ability to sense the front of the vehicle," says deputy editor Joe DeMatio.

The Highlander's hallmark remains its hassle-free driving experience. Although all the crossovers we tested drive like cars, the 2013 Highlander convinces you it really is a car. Credit the Camry-derived underpinnings and a silky smooth, 270-hp V-6 that gets 17 mpg city/22 mpg highway. Mind you, we're not talking about a very interesting or sporty car. The 4464-pound Highlander features the same flaccid steering and soupy handling that knocked the Camry out of contention in our recent comparison test of mid-size cars. There are, no doubt, plenty of buyers who desire an effortless, isolated driving experience, but they don't read Automobile Magazine.

Some Respect, Please
Even if we don't love the 2013 Toyota Highlander, we left this test with a healthy respect for it. "As old as this crossover is, it's still quite good," concludes DeMatio. Yet among this group of new and recently updated models, that's not quite good enough. An all-new, significantly larger Toyota Highlander debuts later this year. If it can build on the strengths of the outgoing car, Toyota should again have a formidable contender. For now it will have to settle for an honorable first-round exit. - David Zenlea

Winner: 2013 Nissan Pathfinder