2016 might just go down as the year in which the crossover SUV eclipsed the traditional car.
This past summer crossovers and SUVs finally started outselling cars in North America, making it clear that the market has shifted and these all-purpose tall wagons have what families want.
We gathered the latest and best midsize three-row crossovers for a big AutoGuide.com comparison, each of them in fully-loaded trim so we could get a taste of every possible feature they offer. While the market is flooded with subcompact and compact crossover runabouts, most families would gladly jump to the midsize segment for the larger cargo space and a handy third row that is rarely comfortable in this segment, but does make it possible to be the hero shuttling around extended family for the holidays or other occasional passenger duties. If you use a third row regularly, the minivan or a large SUV remain the vehicle of choice in our eyes.
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Our test revolves around the 2016 Mazda CX-9 Signature we’ve had as a long-term tester for several months. It brings a new level of refinement to the interior, along with impressive efficiency from its 2.5L turbo-four, but will its stunning good looks be enough to make us overlook its shortcomings in cargo and passenger space?
To put the CX-9 to the ultimate test, we collected the Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorento, and all-new GMC Acadia, which represents the new wave of GM midsize crossovers hitting the market.
SEE MORE: 2016 Ford Explorer vs 2016 Honda Pilot
Notable absences include the Ford Explorer, the top seller in this segment, but in previous tests we’ve found it has fallen behind the curve in terms of quality and value, so we passed on it. The updated 2017 Toyota Highlander and Nissan Pathfinders were not yet available at the time of the test.
So which of these family haulers gives you the most bang for your buck and all-around versatility?
Before we get into each individual vehicle’s strengths and weaknesses, here are the key specifications:
On paper, the Kia Sorento may not seem like much. Its engine is a nice V6 and it’s not too heavy, but it’s not terribly efficient. It’s quite small, with the least trunk space and not much more passenger space, and although handsome, it’s nothing spectacular to look at inside or out. But like the Santa Fe, it sneaks up on you.
Getting into either of the first two rows is easy and the seats there are okay, and the materials around you are all a quality we normally associate with Volkswagen, not the Korean brands. The third row is painfully tight for adults but fine for kids.
But as you settle in, everything starts to make sense. There are trays and spaces for all your stuff. The uncluttered dash, smart layout and responsive screen make managing phone, audio or nav a breeze. Visibility is as good as anything in the segment, and the small size means it is maneuverable and easy to drive and park.
SEE MORE: 2016 Kia Sorento Review
The engine isn’t the most powerful, but it’s smooth and definitely provides enough grunt for its weight, and the transmission never misses a beat. It rides well, comfortable but well controlled, and the steering is reassuring, making driving effortless.
And like the Hyundai, it has everything you need and most of what you want (though adding rear seat entertainment wouldn’t hurt) for a reasonable price.
Although you may not be able to pack in as big a Costco run with all the seats up, living with the Sorento is just plain easy, and that is the most important quality of all.
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Verdict: Midsize Three-Row Crossover Comparison
When it comes down to it, all five of these crossovers are great choices, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The CX-9 is chic and fun, a driver’s car and frugal, but not for someone who needs the most space or features or likes to walk around the vehicle when the tailgate is open.
The Honda Pilot is the practical choice, and while it offers all the latest features, it can be frustrating to deal with when you’re not appreciating how easy it is to load the huge trunk or lounging in the spacious seats. The Acadia does everything well, but at a price. The Santa Fe has great value and is reasonably practical, but just doesn’t quite impress enough to win.
The Sorento is simply greater than the sum of its parts. If you can live with the modest cargo space and cramped third row, everything else about it is easy to live with, from its smart interior to its good driving manners so I really enjoyed my time in it. The Sorento is the clear winner in my books because it’s the choice I’d make for my family.