Ask AutoGuide No. 15 – Nissan Pathfinder vs. Ford Flex vs. Mercedes E350 Wagon

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Ask AutoGuide No. 15 – Nissan Pathfinder vs. Ford Flex vs. Mercedes E350 Wagon
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Like Mariah Carey’s ancestry, modern crossover vehicles have unusual roots. The award-winning American singer’s family tree is more varied than the flora of a rainforest understory. Her unique blend of nationalities includes African, Venezuelan and Irish. That’s more ingredients than Belorussian variety sausage. Who’s hungry for some lean, finely textured opossum?

Tracing the genealogy of crossovers back through the decades reveals some interesting vehicular history that’s not at all unlike Carey’s. Before their rise to prominence, minivans were go-to vehicles for family folk. But with success came stigma. Soon these versatile haulers were synonymous with “mommy-mobile” and fell out of favor with shoppers. Car buyers started to crave vehicles that could haul strollers and diaper bags without screaming “responsibility” louder than Judge Judy dressing down a deadbeat dad.

Mariah-Carey

Of course station wagons preceded minivans. They offered the interior comfort and driving dynamics of sedans along with loads of cargo space and a couple extra seats for good measure. “Back in the day” when polyester was stylish and mutton chops reigned supreme, these cars were the default option for parents with herds of kiddies to cart around. But they too became blasé as the public’s vehicular vanity swelled like a diabetic’s feet in August.

This week Jane contacted us asking for advice. She’s looking for an economical family car that can seat up to seven passengers and is fuel efficient. She also wants a vehicle that’s spacious and good for long road trips. A backup-camera, roof rack and multi-zone air-conditioning are must haves as well. Most importantly she has up to $55,000 to spend. What’s the best option for her, a wagon, a minivan or a crossover? Luckily she contacted the right people.

Suggestion #1 – 2014 Mercedes-Benz E350 Wagon

Information Card -- Mercedes E350-2Carrying on a proud history of versatility is the Mercedes-Benz E350 Wagon. This luxurious estate offers a raft of features with engaging dynamics and rock-solid construction; it feels sturdier than the foundation of a bomb shelter.

The E350 is really in a class of its own. No other high-end brand offers a wagon in the United States that competes directly with the E-Class. Sure Acura sells a grocery-getter version of its TSX and Audi is hawking a brand-new Allroad, but these cars are a size-class smaller than Mercedes’ elegant E.

And it’s a squeaker if there ever was one; it barely fits in with this week’s budget. The E350’s base price is a princely $54,400. Adding in shipping-and-handling charges it maxes out Jane’s credit card like a week in the Playboy Suite at the Palms hotel in Las Vegas.

What do you get for an outlay that’s tantamount to purchasing a starter home (can you tell I’m writing this from Detroit)? Well, the car coddles with 14-way motorized front seats, dual-zone climate control and a power lift gate. Look mom, no hands! Additionally it comes standard with the company’s advanced 4MATIC all-wheel drive system and Bluetooth connectivity for even more appendage-free functionality.

Under the E350’s hood resides a 3.5-liter gasoline V6 engine that delivers 302 horsepower with 273 lb-ft of torque. That’s plenty of giddy-up for a family wagon, though the car could use a little more low-RPM twist. Still, a smart seven-speed automatic transmission makes the most of things and rips off shifts like a Gatling gun.

SEE ALSO: 2014 Mercedes-Benz E350 Wagon Review

More plusses on the Benz’s tally sheet include a roof rack, which is perfect for carrying extra luggage, home furnishings or grandma, plus the car features seating for seven. Just like wagons of yore the E350 is equipped with a pair of rear-facing jump seats. They’re best for children but you can probably fit a miniature adult back there if necessary. What other cars on the market today offer that? The Tesla Model S is only other one we can think of.

When it comes to things like safety and fuel economy the E-Class is a winner as well. The 2013 model earned Top Safety Pick honors from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). On the consumption front the car stickers at 19 miles per gallon in city driving and up to 26 MPG on the highway.

Suggestion #2 – 2013 Nissan Pathfinder Platinum Premium AWD

Information Card -- Nissan PathfinderSounding decidedly down-market compared to the high-brow Benz is Nissan’s Pathfinder, a fine product in its own right. Like a former heroin addict this vehicle has kicked its deleterious body-on-frame habit. The latest generation rides atop an efficient car-based architecture, which is considerably more modern than the bones that supported its predecessor.

The Pathfinder is a three-row crossover that’s comfortable, efficient and surprisingly handsome. In range-topping Platinum Premium trim it should check all of Jane’s boxes and then some. It ships with roof rails, a navigation system, tri-zone climate control, leather seats and a 13-speaker audio system, to name but a handful of its features. Trust us, there are many, many more.

Another box it checks is price. The Pathfinder stickers for about $45,600 out the door, comfortably in-line with Jane’s generous budget. Of course that price includes shipping-and-handling fees.

Under their relatively sleek hoods all Pathfinders are powered by a 3.5-liter V6. This engine is one of the latest in a long line of Nissan bent-sixes. The VQ family is famous for its output, smoothness (in certain applications) and responsive power delivery. They’ve long been an industry benchmark and continue to impress. In the Pathfinder it puts out 260 horses with 240 lb-ft of torque, numbers that are slightly down compared to some of the vehicle’s competition, but it’s still in the hunt. A resourceful though sometimes annoying continuously variable transmission (CVT) makes the most of things.

SEE ALSO: 2013 Nissan Pathfinder SL 4×4 Review

That gearless gearbox helps deliver respectable performance and impressive efficiency. The vehicle ought to stretch a gallon of regular unleaded 19 miles in urban conditions and up to 25 on the highway. Carry the seven, divide by zero and that figures out to an average of 21 MPG. Not bad for a large crossover with all-wheel drive, sorry, “ALL-MODE 4×4-i System” in Nissan-speak.

The Pathfinder is comfortable, spacious and efficient. It’s a strong option for Jane and a solid all-around large crossover. It’s even subtly stylish.

Suggestion #3 – 2013 Ford Flex Limited AWD

Information Card -- Ford FlexFunky, that’s the best adjective to describe Ford’s fashionable Flex. It’s boxy like a Conestoga-special and every bit as functional, but thankfully it’s waaaay faster than a wooden crate drug around by oxen, especially with the optional EcoBoost engine.

But you’re probably thinking “Wait a minute, the Flex isn’t a minivan. What the hell are these AutoGuide crackpots talking about? They said they were covering a station wagon, a crossover and a miniature caravan.” Well hold your oxen you stickler for details, like Lucille Ball we’ve got some splainin’ to do.

You see, the Flex is essentially Ford’s minivan. The company basically gave up on the segment after generations of less-than-competitive products. Remember the Aerostar? We’ve made ourselves forget. What about the Windstar? Sure, that monstrosity was safe but its reliability was poor and it wasn’t very refined. And then there was the Freestar, essentially a reworked, rechristened Windstar with all of its predecessor’s liabilities and no real advancements. Like a simian trying to send an e-mail Ford never figured out how to build a competent minivan, so they moved on to crossovers, and the Flex is the result.

And right off the top it’s ready for action. Even a fully-loaded all-wheel-drive Limited model fits nicely within Jane’s budget. Optioned accordingly, including a $195 roof rack that should be standard, the vehicle stickers for a little more than $49,000, including destination charges, excluding any rebates.

In addition to these features it comes with leather seats, adaptive cruise control, the company’s MyFord Touch infotainment system and a power-operated tailgate.  It’s got just about everything except the kitchen sink, though it does offer a small combination fridge/freezer between the second-row seats. Passengers could actually make smoothies (BYOB – bring your own blender).

Far and away Ford’s Flex is the style leader of this group. Temperature-wise it’s cooler than Pluto’s moon (Charon); it’s so sharp you’d think designers raided the needle-disposal bin in an airport restroom, with slab sides, a flat roof and distinctive ends. For most people it’s either love or loathe, and we’re firmly in the former category (Ed. Just some of us are).

SEE ALSO: 2013 Ford Flex Review

The Limited all-wheel-drive model can be powered by an optional 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine. Thanks to a duet of turbos it delivers a robust 365 horsepower and shocking acceleration because the Flex is far from light weight, spilling over the scale at nearly 5,000 pounds. What a fatty!

Where this vehicle falls down is in the efficiency department. According to the U.S. EPA it stickers at 16 miles per gallon around town and only 23 on the highway. Those relatively poor figures result in a combined score of just 18 MPG.

DISHONORABLE MENTION

So far we’ve highlighted three different vehicles from three different manufacturers headquartered on three different continents. Is that enough variety for you? If not there are literally dozens of other cars that could fit the bill for Jane. Here are a few that came close but didn’t quite make the cut for one reason or another.

2013-Honda-Pilot

The Honda Pilot is an excellent all-around crossover that’s filled to bursting with clever features. It drives reasonably well, is quiet and decently efficient. But it’s old, and that’s its biggest fault. The vehicle dates back to 2009! It also makes do with an antiquated five-speed automatic transmission. Sure, it works well but it does the Pilot no favors in the efficiency and driving departments. If you buy one now you may feel ripped off when the new model comes out.

2014-Toyota-Highlander

Next up, the 2014 Toyota Highlander. This is a beautiful new crossover that was revealed at the New York Auto Show a few months ago. Aside from carryover powertrains it looks like it’s going to be a really solid vehicle, and its striking design clearly demonstrates the company’s focus on delivering emotional, engaging products. The only problem is it’s not out yet! Hurry up Toyota; we want to review this thing!

GM-Lambda-Trio2

Lastly, GM offers a handful of potential vehicles for Jane in the form of its large, Lambda crossovers. The Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave are spacious… and that’s about it. Other than that these things are unremarkable in just about every way. If space and affordability are a top priority by all means check one out, but for the most part stay away; there are better choices.

THE VERDICT

Dollars to doughnuts, what’s the best option Jane? Well, she can choose between a classic station wagon in the form of the Mercedes E350, a large crossover with the Nissan Pathfinder or a styling statement and minivan replacement with Ford’s Flex. If we were in Jane’s situation, what would we do?

In simple terms here’s the breakdown: The E-Class is superb. It’s handsome, beautifully built and efficient, but it’s really expensive for what you get. The Flex is fun, funky and reasonably affordable, but not all that efficient. And that leaves just one vehicle, the Nissan Pathfinder. Its combination of fuel economy, capability and comfort make it a fine family vehicle and a great option for Jane.

As always, good luck Jane in your quest for a new car and thanks again for taking the time to Ask AutoGuide.

If you need a little assistance shopping for your next vehicle feel free to do the same. Send a short message to ask@AutoGuide.com. Let us know the basics of what you’re looking for. How many seats do you need? What size of vehicle do you want? How much are you willing to spend? With some of those fundamentals out of the way we’ll get busy to come up with two or three must-see vehicles that you’ll have to put on your test-drive list.

  • Mark

    The 2014 Acura MDX should have won this, and it’s not even mentioned. You didn’t like the Honda Pilot because it’s getting old, yet you didn’t think of the MDX?

  • Brett

    What about a real minivan? The Odyssey is new enough and the Quest is just as boxy-goofy-stylish as the Flex.