The Best Three-Row Midsize SUV: Wirecutter Reviews
2017 Nissan Pathfinder SV: A large, roomy interior, high towing capacity, and good gas mileage are the key draws of the Nissan Pathfinder. Its third-row seat is also one of the best in the class and is particularly easy to get in and out of. And the SV version is reasonably priced at a little under $37,000 as we configured it, which is similar to the price of our top pick, the Honda Pilot EX. However, the Pathfinder SV isn’t as comfortable to drive as the best in the class (reviewers have criticized its relatively rough ride and clumsy handling), it doesn’t offer a full suite of advanced safety features, and it has gotten low reliability ratings from Consumer Reports and J.D. Power.
The Pathfinder excels in all interior measurements, with plenty of room for passengers and cargo. With its third-row seat folded down, it boasts the most cargo space of any of the vehicles we compared. Its 3.5-liter V6 engine delivers a strong 284 horsepower as well as a frugal 22 mpg in city/highway combined driving with all-wheel drive and 23 with front-wheel drive, making the Pathfinder one of the most fuel-efficient SUVs in the group. And it can tow a hefty 6,000 pounds, which is the highest towing capacity in the group after the Dodge Durango.
While the Pathfinder is generally well equipped, it offers forward-collision warning and auto braking only on the most expensive trims, priced at about $45,000 or more. And it doesn’t offer a lane-departure warning system at all. In our configuration for the SV, we did add a $1,150 option package that includes blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic warning systems.
Of the five trims available, we think the SV version is the sweet spot. The entry-level S trim costs less, at about $33,000, but lacks any advanced safety systems, as well as otherwise nice-to-have features such as automatic headlights, smart keyless entry, and rear parking sensors. Moving up from the SV to the SL trim gets you a handy 360-degree camera system, a powered rear liftgate, and heated leather seats. But we think the SV is a better overall value. In addition to the safety features mentioned above, the option package we added also includes a navigation system.
2017 Ford Explorer XLT: Coming in at about $40,000, the Ford Explorer XLT is the most expensive SUV we compared. It’s also one of the largest. The Explorer has the most-comfortable third-row seat for adults and good cargo capacity, but its fuel economy is surprisingly poor. While the Explorer provides a comfortable ride and strong engine power, it doesn’t handle as well as our picks, its advanced safety features are expensive, and it’s gotten relatively mediocre ratings in IIHS safety tests.
With its third-row seat up, the Explorer provides the most cargo space in the group, and it has plenty of room with the seat folded down. With both the second- and third-rows folded, though, the Ford’s cargo space is only average, with several other models providing more. With 290 horsepower, its 3.5-liter V6 engine provides plenty of oomph, but its gas mileage is among the worst in the group: only 19 mpg in combined city/highway driving with all-wheel drive and 20 with front-wheel drive. You can opt for a more fuel-efficient 2.3-liter turbocharged four that gets 21 with AWD and 22 with FWD (the same as the Honda Pilot) and gives you more torque for extra oomph, but that adds another $500 to the vehicle’s price.
In terms of safety, the Explorer isn’t a convincing sell. To get forward-collision warning on the XLT trim we like best, you have to ante up for a pricey $4,700 option package (we declined in our configuration). And the Ford got only a Marginal rating in the IIHS small-overlap front crash test and a Poor in its headlights evaluation. This makes the Explorer one of only four models in the class that didn’t earn a Top Safety Pick designation.
We chose the XLT trim because the entry-level Base version doesn’t offer any advanced safety features and has a more-basic infotainment system than most of the models we compared. With the XLT, we were able to add blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic warning systems, Ford’s latest Sync 3 infotainment system (with an 8-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto), and such niceties as automatic climate control, a powered driver’s seat, and navigation, but it bumped the price by over $5,000. What we’d like is a trim in between the two that allows you to get advanced safety features and a competitive infotainment system for less money than our XLT (like our top pick does).
2017 Hyundai Santa Fe SE: The Hyundai Santa Fe has a lot going for it. It has earned some of the highest ratings of the group in IIHS and government crash and safety tests. It boasts one of the longest warranties in the class. It’s expected to have good reliability, based on Consumer Reports and J.D. Power ratings. It rides and handles well, and it is more maneuverable than most. And the SE trim we configured is well equipped, while costing about the same as our top pick. But it’s one of the smallest models we compared, with average passenger and cargo space, and to get some of the more desirable advanced safety features, you have to move up to the $41,500 SE Ultimate version and add a $2,100 option package. Overall, we like the Santa Fe’s corporate cousin, the Kia Sorento, better.
As with Kia, Hyundai provides an attractively long bumper-to-bumper warranty of 5 years/60,000 miles and a powertrain warranty of 10 years/100,000 miles. The basic warranty is eclipsed only by the VW Atlas’s 6 year/72,000-mile coverage. The Santa Fe’s small size can be an advantage when parking and maneuvering in tight areas, but it limits the SUV’s interior space and doesn’t pay off with fuel economy that’s any better than many larger models.
Of the Santa Fe’s three trims, we like the entry-level SE best, although we had to add more than $3,600 in options to equip it with blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic warning systems and a smart keyless entry and ignition system. That also meant we had to get a powered driver’s seat, leather upholstery, heated front seats, and a power rear liftgate, which we might have otherwise done without.
2018 Chevrolet Traverse LT Cloth: Redesigned for the 2018 model year, the Chevrolet Traverse is one of the largest vehicles in the segment, and it ranks highly for both passenger and cargo space. Plus, the Traverse’s 3.6-liter V6 engine is the strongest in the group, while providing acceptable fuel economy. The LT Cloth trim we like best, however, is one of the priciest vehicles we compared—over $39,000 with no options—and still doesn’t offer a number of advanced safety features.
The Traverse’s large size gives it a number of advantages. It provides the second-greatest amount of passenger space in this group and the largest amount of cargo space by a fair amount. Plus, the Traverse’s second row folds and slides forward in such a way as to create one of the largest openings to the third row that we found. Its 310-hp engine provides the most power of the vehicles we compared, although its fuel economy is only average: 20 mpg in combined driving with all-wheel drive and 21 with front-wheel drive.
Of the Traverse’s six trim levels, you have to move up to the third rung—the LT Cloth—to get any advanced safety features. Blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic warning systems are standard on that version, but you have to go up to the Premier, for almost $49,000, to get forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems. While the LT Cloth also gives you such niceties as a smart keyless entry and ignition system, a power rear liftgate, a powered driver’s seat, heated front seats, rear parking sensors, and the option for second-row captain’s chairs, its price is more than $2,000 higher than our top pick, which is better equipped.
2018 GMC Acadia SLE-2: Like its corporate cousin, the Chevy Traverse, the GMC Acadia SLE-2, priced at just below $39,000, is one of the more expensive vehicles we looked at. But it provides only average passenger and cargo space, and you have to move up to the highest trim levels, starting at about $45,000, to get advanced safety features that are readily available on much less expensive vehicles. A positive note is that, unlike the Traverse, it’s available with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that gets an excellent 23 mpg in combined city/highway driving, with either front- or all-wheel drive, although that engine’s 193 horsepower is the least in the group.
As with the Traverse, we chose the third-rung SLE-2 trim level of the six, because it’s the least expensive version that offers any advanced safety features at all. In our configuration, we added a $790 option package that got us blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic alert warning systems, as well as rear parking sensors. For 2018, such niceties as three-zone automatic climate control, a smart keyless entry and ignition system, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto are standard across all trims. Of note, choosing any color except white tacks on another $400 or more onto the vehicle’s price.
2017 Mazda CX-9 Sport: The Mazda CX-9 Sport is the lowest priced SUV we compared, and it’s one of the sharpest-looking and most-fun-to-drive midsize SUVs on the road. “I’ve never had a vehicle this large that I didn’t want to quit driving,” said Stef Schrader of Jalopnik. It also gets the best overall fuel economy of the group. But the CX-9 has one of the smallest interiors of the group, with some of the least passenger and cargo room. And it forces you to get a higher-priced trim level, topping $40,000, to get a number of the advanced safety features we look for.
The Mazda’s 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine delivers 250 horsepower (on premium fuel, 227 on regular gas), which, despite being notably less power than its competitors’ V6 engines, still gives the CX-9 lively acceleration. Where it pays off is in gas mileage: Its 24 mpg in combined driving with front-wheel drive (23 with all-wheel drive) leads the group. On the downside, the Mazda has one of the tightest third-row seats and among the least cargo volume.
The entry-level Sport version has the lowest price in our group, mainly because of a lack of good trim choices. It comes reasonably well equipped with three-zone climate control, pushbutton ignition, and a good infotainment system. But to get blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic warning systems and smart keyless entry, you have to move up to the Touring version, at almost $39,000. Yes, that also gets you leather upholstery, a power rear liftgate, and powered, heated front seats, but that would make the CX-9 one of the most expensive vehicles we looked at. We’d like to see a better compromise.