$37K Three-Row SUV/Crossover Shootout
Last season, MotorWeek teamed up with our colleagues at cars.com and USA Today to sort out the best minivans on the market. Now, we’re back together again, checking out another staple of the growing American family; mid-size, three-row, seven and eight passenger crossover and sport utility vehicles. So, let’s head on down to the carport and see which utes suit today’s soccer parents to a “t”.
JOHN DAVIS: Like our previous no-holds-barred shootouts, we set a price point that manufacturers had to respect. Each of the seven rivals had an as-tested price of no more than $37,000 before destination charges. Not surprisingly, none of the group came equipped with four or all-wheel drive. That would have added up to two thousand dollars more.
Included in our three-row utes shoot out are the popular Chevrolet Traverse.
The third-generation Dodge Durango.
The fresh from a total redesign Ford Explorer.
The traditionally shaped Honda Pilot.
The sporty and stylish Kia Sorrento.
With it’s wide mouth grin, the Mazda CX-9.
And, a perennial class benchmark, the Toyota Highlander.
For our showdown, we headed northwest of Chicago to the village of Hoffman Estates, Illinois. There, along with editors from Cars.com and USA TODAY, we jumped behind the wheel of each utility to give it a thorough drive off. We also got advice from a local family, the Kochs, as to what’s hot and what’s not in people movers. Our evaluators folded every seat, opened every hatch, drove for fun and fuel economy, and quickly narrowed our picks down to a final four.
Coming in fourth is this Dodge Durango. Our rear-wheel drive tester was the only full frame SUV in the group. It’s also the only one with an available V8 and real truck towing. But, our V6 Durango Crew just made it under the price limit at $36,695. Getting high marks all around, the Durango’s design is impressive. This SUV’s exterior is sleek and well-proportioned, and the interior has a premium look and feel.
BEN DAVIS: The Durango was my favorite of the bunch. Beautifully, elegantly styled both inside and out. Very luxurious feel inside.
JAMES R. HEALY: Durango was just a wonderful looking truck that doesn’t quite deliver when compared to some of these others. It wouldn’t be a bad choice, but it probably isn’t quite the family choice.
TAREK KOCH: They’ve just done a fantastic job with the Durango, I feel, from a standpoint of taking it down a notch, yet putting some good upgrades in the car. The size I like, the comfortableness getting in and out of the car, the third row seating along with the storage room that you have, the leather interior. It’s a great feature. It looks nice, it feels nice.
JOHN DAVIS: Third place goes to a wily veteran, the Mazda CX-9. Coming equipped with a spirited front-drive V6, the CX-9 crossover utility delivers great handling and a genuine “Zoom-Zoom” feel. Our option filled model had a bottom line of $36,200.
KRISTIN VALERA: CX-9 was one of my favorites to drive. It had a great car-like feeling to it. I also appreciated the blind spot monitors. On the flip side, there’s no air vents for third row passengers. Which could be a problem.
JAMES R. HEALY: CX-9 is a very nice blend of sporty and classy… It has very good room in the second and third rows and it’s a nice package overall, but I suspect the others have overtaken it a little bit in technology, but if you like to drive and you like a lot of fun while you’re driving, but don’t want to give up the smooth modern feel, CX-9 might be a good choice.
JOHN DAVIS: Earning silver in this marathon is the Chevrolet Traverse. Introduced back in 2009, the Traverse crossover is a top competitor in its class. The ride was smooth and enjoyable. And a lot of compliments went to the all around, clear driving visibility.
DAVE THOMAS: I was surprised by how comfortable the Traverse was on the road. What I think a lot of shoppers will be surprised about is, despite its large size, it’s really easy to navigate around places like a parking lot.
JOE WIESENFELDER: Even though a lot of these vehicles drive pretty much the same, I think from the perspective of a family buyer, there are some differences. I think the Traverse rides the nicest. It feels pretty quiet as well.
JOHN DAVIS: Our modestly equipped front drive Traverse also had the group’s least expensive as-tested price of $32,925.
And now onto our winner. Coming in at Number 1 is the Honda Pilot.
Redesigned for 2009, the Pilot’s 250 horsepower V6 has the best fuel economy of the final four. Its squarish styling, more pure SUV than crossover, delivered loads of usable interior room too. Our very well-equipped front driver stickered at $36,170.
TAREK KOCH: The Honda Pilot was a car that I never thought of looking at. It’s more of a boxier car than I would prefer. The aesthetics of it from the outside just don’t appeal to me. Today, surprisingly, after getting in the car and driving the car, I enjoyed it. It was a nice ride. What it offers on the inside of the car makes up for what I don’t necessarily like in the aesthetics of it.
JAMES R. HEALY: Pilot might be the best all around choice, if you can get past the blocky styling. But it’s very practical, it seats 8, has a lot of things that you want in an SUV. Cupholders everywhere, space, sliding seats. Very good package all over.
BEN DAVIS: I always liked the burly chunky brawny style of the Pilot, from the exterior’s point of view. And the inside…it carries over pretty much just the same. It’s a really well done vehicle. Everything you touch is perfectly balanced, be there a switch, stalk, or any kind of button. In my opinion, I think it’s the best of the foreign efforts in this shootout.
KRISTIN VALERA: Honda Pilot has a conversation mirror that flips down from the center console, which is great. A lot of us parents wish we had eyes on the back of our head and this actually gives us that capability.
JOHN DAVIS: Now, while the Honda Pilot won our shootout, all of the seven three-row utilities are viable family choices. We should note that the Toyota Highlander missed the cut due to its sub-par handling and the abundance of hard plastics in the interior. The Kia Sorento suffered because it was by far the group’s shortest overall, making the third row less useful. A disappointing interior with a non-sliding second row, combined with a high price to cost the technology laden Ford Explorer a finalist spot.
Utility vehicles have changed a lot! No longer mostly for off-roading, they’re now the preferred choice for all-weather suburban street hauling. They’re also now very civilized to drive and sport comforts and luxuries that many homes still lack. The Honda Pilot maybe this jury’s first choice. But, each of our seven delivered well on what an up-to-date, three-row utility must be to win over the hearts and wallets of today’s demanding American families.
2012 Chevrolet Traverse
2012 Dodge Durango
2012 Ford Explorer
2012 Honda Pilot
2012 Kia Sorrento
2011 Mazda CX-9
2011 Toyota Highlander