2014 Three-Row Crossover Comparison Test

Mike Schlee
by Mike Schlee

Until the mid-1980s, those with large families usually bought station wagons with a who-cares-about-safety rearward facing third row of seats. But then the minivan was introduced and everything changed. For the next fifteen years, troops of kids were transported here and there in these pragmatic boxes on wheels. As is often the case though, consumer taste’s changed.

Today the three-row station wagons rival the mountain gorilla on the critically endangered species list while the minivan has become more passé than bridge clubs. Now there is a new king of big family transport – the three-row crossover utility vehicle (CUV).

And the Crossover Takes Over

After a brief foray with three-row body-on-frame SUVs in the early 2000s, the vast majority of auto manufacturers have settled on unibody crossovers to handle passenger duties of six or more. Last year, more than 1.7 million of these CUVs were sold in the U.S. compared to less than 525,000 minivans.

With nearly two million annual sales up for grabs, manufacturers are constantly tweaking their products to entice customers. Over the last year alone, all-new versions of the Hyundai Santa Fe, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota Highlander hit the market while the Kia Sorento and Dodge Durango received significant updates. To see which CUV is the best value for the money, we gathered these five crossovers along with three older models; the large Chevrolet Traverse, the best-selling Ford Explorer and the eight-passenger Honda Pilot. Which one emerged as the victor in this stacked field? Read on to find out.

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The Chevrolet Traverse is by and far the largest vehicle here with 116.3 cubic feet of total cargo space behind the front seats. For some perspective, that is almost as much total interior space as Chevrolet’s other monster utility vehicle, the Suburban. It also means the Traverse has nearly 30 cubic feet more interior space than the next largest vehicle, the Honda Pilot, and almost as much space behind the second row of seats as the Kia Sorento does behind the front row.

This also leads to great passenger space. Aside from being one of three vehicles in the test to offer eight-passenger seating, the Chevy wound up in a four-way tie for best middle row comfort and only trailed the Dodge Durango in third row comfort. But after space and comfort, not much else impressed with the Traverse.

Space, But Not Much Else

Power comes from GM’s ever-present 3.6-liter V6 making 288 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque in this application. Although both those numbers are near the high-end in this comparison, the 4,956-lb Traverse is the second-heaviest vehicle in the shootout and power never felt plentiful. As well, some staff members found the engine was overly loud under acceleration. A large engine and heavy weight also lead to poor fuel economy. Officially rated at 16 MPG in the city and 23 MPG on the highway, we were only able to average 17 MPG, which is within spitting distance of the V8-powered Durango.

SEE ALSO: 2013 Chevy Traverse Review

Inside, the Traverse took a lot of heat from our reviewers. Many did not like the fit and finish or the

overall design of the interior and it finished dead last in both categories. The features list on this crossover is pretty sparse, rivaling the Highlander for least equipped vehicle despite costing over $5,000 more than the Toyota.

With an exterior and driving experience as equally blasé as the interior, the Traverse quickly earned the title as the “mom jeans” option in this comparison. If space and power are the two most important features in a three-row crossover, this vehicle is worth a look. Otherwise, there are more appealing options out there.

Fast Facts:

  • PRICE AS TESTED: $43,750
  • ENGINE: 3.6-liter V6, 288 hp, 270 lb-ft
  • TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
  • CARGO CAPACITY (behind second row): 70.3 cu. Ft.
  • Cargo room
  • Passenger space
  • Ride comfort
  • Poor NVH
  • Fuel economy
  • Interior quality
  • Interior design

7th place – Ford Explorer Limited 4WD

Our Ford Explorer tester arrived with nearly every option box ticked off, including the dual-pane moonroof, tow package, 20-inch polished wheels, adaptive cruise and the mysterious 302A option group. That ran the price up over the $50,000 mark, making the Explorer the second most expensive vehicle in the test.

Besides being expensive, the big Ford was also thirsty, has one of the worst second rows of seats and left a bit to be desired with the fit and finish. The once leading-edge interior design is starting to show its age, despite being all-new in 2011. Of course, it almost goes without saying that MyFord Touch still

isn’t making any friends and the new QNX software can’t come soon enough.

Car-Like Dynamics with Adjustable AWD

We did like the way the big Ford drives though. The 290 hp 3.5-liter V6 was liked by many and the Explorer was voted to be one of the most car-like competitors to drive, even if our observed fuel economy average of 18.7 MPG was, itself, not very car-like. Our testers were torn when it came to ride comfort as some like the Explorers ride while others found it to be noisy at certain speeds.

The Ford is also one of only two vehicles that are semi-serious about off-roading. With the terrain management system, the Explorer can adjust its all-wheel drive system to suit various conditions like sand, snow, gravel, rocks and ruts.

SEE ALSO: 2013 Ford Explorer Sport Review

Most of our staff members like the rugged, boxy looks and found the driving position to be comfortable, although outward visibility isn’t great. But in a vehicle designed to cater to passengers, the Explorer falls short. Along with having one of the worst second rows of seats, the third row was rated near the back of the pack as well.

The Explorer really isn’t that bad of a crossover, it is just old and out-classed. A smooth driver with a classic SUV look, the Explorer is ready for a refresh.

Fast Facts:

  • PRICE AS TESTED: $50,140
  • ENGINE: 3.5-liter V6, 290 hp, 255 lb-ft
  • TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
  • CARGO CAPACITY (behind second row): 43.8 cu. Ft.
  • Car-like drive
  • High tech
  • Some off-road ability
  • Price
  • Fuel economy
  • Fit and finish
  • Second row seating

The fact that this crossover didn’t come dead last speaks volumes about how well it was designed from the start because it’s been pretty much been the same old crossover since people still believed balloon boy was real. As a senior citizen in the automotive world, it should come as no surprise that everything inside the Honda Pilot felt dated from the gauge cluster to the center stack to the wiper blades. Items like satellite radio, navigation and heated seats were included on our test vehicle, but the layout and switch gear all seem down market compared to the more modern offerings in this comparison. Even the Traverse’s interior looked more modern than the Pilot’s.

At an as tested price of $42,250, The Pilot costs more than the Santa Fe, Sorento and Highlander. Hurting the Pilot further is the fact the two Korean offerings come equipped with cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel and panoramic sunroofs at that price.

Fundamentals Flawless

As should be expected from a Honda product, most of the fundamentals have been nailed in the Pilot. The cabin layout is hands-down the most practical and the boxy shape that allows for both great sight-lines and a lot of interior space. Aside from offering the second most total cargo room at 87 cubic feet, the Pilot was able to allow seven seats to still be operable during our luggage testing – a number only beat by the Traverse that allowed eight.

The boxy shape does have some drawbacks however as it created excessive amounts of wind noise on the highway. The suspension feels squishy in normal driving, yet is harsh over rough roads. The steering also drew some ire as it was overly soft and featured plenty of on-center play that lead to constant corrections during highway driving.

SEE ALSO: 2013 Honda Pilot Review – Video

Under hood is Honda’s 3.5-liter V6 with 250 hp and 253 lb-ft paired to a five-speed automatic. Despite having the ancient automatic, the Pilot is officially rated at 17 MPG in the city and 24 MPG on the highway. During our testing, it finished mid-pack with an observed fuel economy average of 20 MPG.

The current Pilot is in desperate need of a redesign and rumor has it one is not far off. However, if you must own a mid-size Honda crossover, the Pilot still is somewhat competitive.

Fast Facts:

  • PRICE AS TESTED: $42,250
  • ENGINE: 3.5-liter V6, 250 hp, 253 lb-ft
  • TRANSMISSION: 5-speed automatic
  • CARGO CAPACITY (behind second row): 47.7 cu. Ft.
  • Boxy shape
  • Spacious interior
  • Good second row seating
  • Good third row seating
  • Harsh ride
  • Poor NHV
  • Out of date
  • Sloppy drive

5th Place – Kia Sorento SX AWD

The Kia Sorento is another vehicle that had our staff divided. Some found it to be the most responsive vehicle in this test in terms of engine and handling response, while others found it to be a big bowl of “meh”. With only 290 hp and 252 lb-ft of torque from a 3.3-liter V6, the Sorento rivaling the 360 hp Hemi powered Durango for quickest in the test may sound far fetched. However, the 3,894 lbs. Sorento has a whopping 1,500 pound weight advantage over the monstrous Dodge.

This lightness also adds up to impressive fuel economy. Rated officially at 18 MPG in the city and 24 MPG on the highway, we managed an average of 22 MPG during our testing period which put the Kia second only to the Pathfinder Hybrid. The Sorento also placed second when came to price, listing just higher than the lowest-in-test Highlander at $38,895. And unlike the Toyota, the Sorento came loaded up with features like heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel and a panoramic sunroof.

The Unrefined Small Guy

Efficient, affordable and responsive, the rest of the Sorento came off less impressive, relegating it to a mid-pack finish. The sporty pretensions of this crossover hurt it as the ride quality was deemed to be worst in test. Bumps in the road sent vibrations throughout the chassis and the vehicle never felt all that planted.

The Sorento was the smallest vehicle in the test and offers virtually no cargo space, although we were surprised to find the third row seats were not the worst in the test and actually somewhat accommodating.

SEE ALSO: 2014 Kia Sorento Review

We like the Sorento’s center stack better than the one found in the Hyundai and we also appreciated the easy, clean layout of the dashboard. However, the rest of the interior feels a bit cheap and the navigation system is out of date.

The smaller Sorento represents a good value with a killer warranty and the allusion that is a sporty alternative to regular three-row crossovers. If space and refinement are not high on your shopping list, then there’s an argument to be made for taking the Sorento for a test drive.

Fast Facts:

  • PRICE AS TESTED: $38,895
  • ENGINE: 3.3-liter V6, 290 hp, 252 lb-ft
  • TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
  • CARGO CAPACITY (behind second row): 36.9 cu. Ft.
  • Affordable
  • Fuel efficient
  • Responsive
  • Technology laden
  • Small inside
  • Rough ride
  • Fit and finish

Wait, how is the Nissan Pathfinder in fourth place? An how did it wind up behind the Hyundai Santa Fe? Didn’t the Pathfinder beat the Santa Fe in a comparison test last year? Yes astute reader, you’re correct. However, there is one major difference between that test and this test. In this comparison the Pathfinder arrived in Hybrid trim.

To become hybridized, the Pathfinder ditches its 3.5-liter V6 engine for a more efficient gasoline-electric set-up. Essentially a mild, assist-style hybrid, the vehicle comes equipped with a supercharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine paired to an electric motor to produce a total of 250 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque. This makes it the least powerful vehicle in this group and it shows.

Not Worth the Hybrid Trade-Off

The 4,714 lb. Pathfinder is slowest to respond and really strains to garner passing speeds on the highway. In the city, the transition between hybrid and gasoline power is somewhat rough and not being a two-stage hybrid, it can never run on electric power only.

Officially rated at 25 MPG in the city and 27 MPG on the highway, the Pathfinder Hybrid is rated significantly higher than all the other vehicles here. But when it came to real world testing, it could only muster a 23.5 MPG average that was still best in test, but not as lofty as the EPA ratings.

SEE ALSO: 2014 Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid Review

The Pathfinder offers a smooth ride, almost to a fault as some found it to be a bit floaty. It doesn’t enjoy changing directions quickly, but is otherwise easy to operate. The front seat drew a lot of praise for its comfort while the middle seat did not.

As we have said before, the trade-offs experienced with the Hybrid versions of the Pathfinder are not worth it. To put things in perspective, on a 100 point evaluation scale, the Pathfinder Hybrid missed coming in first place by only 1.1 points. Had a regular V6 Pathfinder been entered, it would have given up a few points in terms of fuel economy, but it would have gained points in price, engine and NVH. Who knows, that might have been enough to win the comparison.

Fast Facts:

  • PRICE AS TESTED: $44,710
  • ENGINE: 2.5-liter supercharged four-cylinder plus electric motor, 250 hp, 243 lb-ft
  • CARGO CAPACITY (behind second row): 47.8 cu. Ft.
  • Fuel efficient
  • Driver position
  • Comfortable ride
  • Good third row
  • NHV
  • Little hybrid payoff
  • Second row
  • Engine power

3rd Place – Toyota Highlander XLE AWD

Anyone who wonders why Toyota does so well as an automaker needs to look no further than the 2014 Highlander. All-new this year, the third-generation doesn’t really shine in any specific category, but it doesn’t offend either. Aside from exterior style and third row space, the Highlander scored at least mid-pack or higher in every category.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise then that the Highlander was voted to have the best balance of power, ride comfort, handling and fuel efficiency. Power continues to come from a 3.5-liter V6 making 270 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque. But don’t let those numbers deceive you; Toyota has programed this crossover to feel more powerful than it really is.

Upper Mid-Pack All-Around

Fuel economy was – surprise, surprise – just above mid-pack with official ratings of 18 MPG in the city and 24 MPG on the highway while our observed average came in at 20.7 MPG. Ride comfort and NVH were also rated above average and many staff members commented on how easy the Highlander is to drive.

The center console and front seat storage were deemed second best after the Pilot and most of AutoGuide.com’s editors liked the large infotainment display screen. Complaints were few, like the old-school heated seat buttons, a steering wheel that wouldn’t telescope far enough and a tuning knob some staffers found was positioned too far away.

The one area the Highlander did out-right win was price. At $38,360, it undercut all other crossovers on hand, but was also one of the least equipped vehicles. That said, it still came with most of the essentials like a sunroof, reverse camera, navigation, a power driver’s seat and heated front seats. And for such an affordable package the interior was surprisingly high quality.

SEE ALSO: 2014 Toyota Highlander Review

It is also the smallest of the eight-passenger crossovers in our comparison, but with 83.2 total cubic feet of cargo carrying capacity, it still offers more space than four of the entrants including the Ford Explorer. The second row seats tied for best in test, but that may come at the expense of the third row seats that were rated worst in test.

But if the third row is only needed in a pinch for smaller passengers and value is a top priority, the Highlander is tough to beat. It continues to rely on that magic Toyota formula of making vehicles consumers want.

Fast Facts:

  • PRICE AS TESTED: $38,360
  • ENGINE: 3.5-liter V6, 270 hp, 248 lb-ft
  • TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
  • CARGO CAPACITY (behind second row): 42.0 cu. Ft.
  • Price
  • Fuel efficient
  • Easy to drive
  • Easy to live with
  • Missing options
  • Third row seats
  • Driver position

The Dodge Durango is the best vehicle in the test; no question about it. So why then did it end up in second place? Well, two reasons – price and fuel economy. Like the Ford Explorer, the Dodge Durango came loaded up with virtually every option possible, pushing the as tested price to $53,660. That is a lot of money for a family hauler and the Durango is flirting with luxury crossovers at this price point.

Luckily, the Dodge has the substance to back up that price. It can be best summed up in two words – big and smooth. It has the smoothest engine, smoothest transmission and smoothest ride. It boasts the most power, the most number of gears, the heaviest curb weight, the highest price and greatest thirst for fuel. At an observed 16.7 MPG average, the Durango easily took the crown as least efficient vehicle.

Fantastic Drivetrain, Rich Interior

All that fuel is used to power a 360 hp 5.7-liter Hemi V8 pumping out 390 lb-ft of torque. Not only does this engine provide plenty of low end torque, it also sounds great thanks to a subdued V8 burble. The Durango is also heavy and with 5,397 lbs. to lug around and because of that, the power doesn’t feel all that spectacular even with the smooth shifting eight-speed automatic transmission.

More than just a great drivetrain, the Durango excels in many other facets. It has one of the most comfortable, sophisticated suspensions, an elegant interior, fantastic leather seats, the test’s highest rated third row seats, ultra-comfortable second row buckets and the best damn infotainment system on the market today.

SEE ALSO: 2014 Dodge Durango Review

Not everything is perfect in this Dodge though, the upper portion of the front seats feel like a wooden board and the fit and finish is just OK. For example, the volume and tuning dials in our test vehicle felt loose.

The Durango Citadel really is a class above in this comparison test, but it is also priced that way. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. If the absolute best vehicle, with the most comfortable seats and nicest drivetrain is all that matters, here is your crossover. If $53 grand seems a bit steep, scroll down and check out the more affordable overall winner.

Fast Facts:

  • PRICE AS TESTED: $53,660
  • ENGINE: 5.7-liter V8, 360 hp, 390 lb-ft
  • TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic
  • CARGO CAPACITY (behind second row): 47.7 cu. Ft.
  • Power
  • Interior
  • Rear seats
  • Ride comfort
  • Price
  • Fuel economy

1st Place – Hyundai Santa Fe Limited AWD

Hyundai has always built value packed vehicles and the three-row Santa Fe is no different. At a price of $41,275, the vehicle comes with heated and cooled seats, a heated steering wheel, navigation, a power lift gate and a massive panoramic sunroof.

It appears the manufacturer has tapped into the secret formula that Japanese brands have been using for decades to make vehicles just the way consumers want them. Like the Highlander, the Santa Fe was not a standout in many categories, but never faltered either. The only section during the entire comparison test that the Santa Fe scored highest in was the important easy to drive category; a score that can be attributed to the Santa Fe’s car-like driving characteristics.

Does Everything Right

Otherwise, the Hyundai ranked in the top half of most categories like ride quality and NHV. Power comes from a 3.3-liter V6 rated at 290 hp and 252 lb-ft of torque. It’s more than enough to motivate the 4,297-lb vehicle, but it doesn’t accelerate as energetically as its corporate cousin from Kia. Like the Sorento, observed fuel economy in the Santa Fe was near the top of the comparison with a 21.2 MPG average.

SEE ALSO: 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Review – Video

The interior layout of the Santa Fe was well-liked by most staff members, especially the brown leather seats. Front seat comfort ranked high and most testers found an optimal driving position without issue. The second row seats were adequate, but the third row leaves a bit to be desired. Another downside is that Limited-trimmed versions of the Santa Fe like our test vehicle are only available with second row captain’s chairs. If you need to carry more than six people, the Highlander is a better choice.

Hyundai really has taken a page out of Toyota’s play book and created a vehicle that does everything well enough, is efficient and doesn’t offend in any way. Add in a low price point as well as Hyundai’s formidable warranty and the Santa Fe squeaks out a narrow victory as the champion of three-row crossover utility vehicles.

Fast Facts:

  • PRICE AS TESTED: $41,275
  • ENGINE: 3.3-liter V6, 290 hp, 252 lb-ft
  • TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
  • CARGO CAPACITY (behind second row): 40.9 cu. Ft.
  • Price
  • Content
  • Fuel efficiency
  • Easy to drive
  • Third row space
  • Limited only seats six

Categorical Breakdown

Mike Schlee
Mike Schlee

A 20+ year industry veteran, Mike rejoins the AutoGuide team as the Managing Editor. He started his career at a young age working at dealerships, car rentals, and used car advertisers. He then found his true passion, automotive writing. After contributing to multiple websites for several years, he spent the next six years working at the head office of an automotive OEM, before returning back to the field he loves. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA). He's the recipient of a feature writing of the year award and multiple video of the year awards.

More by Mike Schlee

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2 of 70 comments
  • House Martell House Martell on Feb 19, 2015

    Dodge Durango: He's the top of the west, always cool, he's the best. He keeps alive with its Hemi V8.

  • Muddie1 Muddie1 on Feb 27, 2015

    Why wasn't the Mazda CX-9 in this review? It also has a 3rd row seat and is a midsize CUV.