It has been a little over two years ago since we got together with and USA Today for a 3-row family utility comparison test. That standoff saw the Honda Pilot take the top spot. Well, much has changed in 7 and 8 passenger crossovers since then, with updates for just about every entry. So let’s see if the Pilot can keep its place as the family hauling star, or if there’s a new sheriff in town. 

For big families with lots of stuff, only a 3-row utility will do.  And while smaller crossovers are getting the most attention lately, it’s the near full-size ones that remain a must have for many.

We’ve set up camp in Southern California with and USA Today to do a deep dive with 7 of these big haulers. And, with the help of a local family that’s looking to make a big-ute buy, we went in search for the most comfort and features for the money.  

As in our previous challenges, there was a sticker price cap, in this case $40,000.  All utes are 2014 models, have V6 power with automatic transmissions, and get a Combined Fuel Economy rating of 19 or better.  Most were 2-wheel-drive, with only a pair of all-wheel-drive contenders. 

Our contestants are…

…The recently re-freshened Chevrolet Traverse…

…The always rugged, yet increasingly refined Dodge Durango …

…our previous 3-row challenge winner, the Honda Pilot…

…The now larger Hyundai Santa Fe…

…the athletic Mazda CX-9…

…the sleek, new Nissan Pathfinder…

…and finally, the freshest design in the group, the Toyota Highlander…

So, after every seat had been flipped and folded and every 3rd-row tried and tested, the Chevrolet Traverse ranked 7th, defending champ and aging Honda Pilot 6th, with the Mazda CX-9 in fifth place.

As for the top finishers, the Nissan Pathfinder, a 2013 Drivers’ Choice honoree, garnered 4th. Pathfinder has successfully transitioned from rugged to refined. Fuel economy is among the best at 21-Combined, though power among the lowest from the 260–horsepower 3.5-liter V6. Price, even with all-wheel-drive and a very luxurious interior, was still mid-pack at $39,515.     

BRIAN ROBINSON: Like a lot of people, I was a little disappointed when the Pathfinder went the crossover route, but it’s grown on me over the years; it’s got a great ride, the interior is well done, and it’s got all of the features most families need.

JOE BRUZEK: The Pathfinder’s high quality interior isn’t that far off from being as nice as a luxury SUV.

JOHN DAVIS: The 3rd generation Toyota Highlander is the freshest face here, however that advantage only garnered a 3rd place finish. It shared the Pathfinder’s Combined MPG rating of 21, though squeaked 10 more horsepower from its 3.5-liter V6. But its price slotted just below at $38,947; making for a very appealing overall package.  

CHRIS WOODYARD: The Toyota Highlander was just an all-around well executed vehicle; nice leather, nice premium interior, and some great touches; my favorite: it has an intercom feature in which the driver can talk to the passengers in the rear seats.

JENNIFER GEIGER: I love the Highlander’s gigantic center console and enormous multimedia screen; other than that, it really doesn’t impress.

JOHN DAVIS: Our 2nd place finisher, the Dodge Durango was the priciest brute at $39,930. It drives most like a traditional SUV, and tied for most powerful thanks to the 290–ponies from its 3.6-liter V6. Yet, it still rated a decent 20 miles-per-gallon Combined. All of our evaluators had good things to say about the Durango’s well-appointed interior and great Uconnect infotainment system. 

KELSEY MAYS: The Durango’s brash styling carries over to the interior where cabin quality is pretty good; and if you care about passengers in the 3rd row, the Durango, hands down the best 3rd row in the group.

BRIAN ROBINSON: The Durango really has that old-school SUV feel, which appeals to a lot of people, myself included. It’s got a great ride, feels very powerful, the interior is well done; probably one of my favorites here.

JOHN DAVIS: As in some other recent comparisons we’ve done, the 1st place Hyundai Santa Fe’s price may not have been the lowest here at $39,540; but it sure brought plenty of goods along with it, packing more features and more luxury than any other SUV in our comparison. And, despite the smallest V6 at 3.3-liters, it tied the Durango for top horsepower at 290, but did so with better fuel economy, at 21 MPG Combined.  

JENNIFER GEIGER: With the Santa Fe, Hyundai offers the total package; there’s loads of features, premium feel cabin, and it’s really comfortable to drive on the highway.

ED SABALBURO: …when I got in the car and started checking out the features, I was impressed with the quality of the interior… …the features like the cooled seats you can’t get in the other cars.

JOHN DAVIS: Whether you’ve got a big family or just need the extra space, all of these three-row haulers should get the job done.  In this comparison, the Santa Fe used the typical Hyundai formula of offering more for less to work its way to the top. As it did in our 2014 Drivers’ Choice Awards. And then Santa Fe continues to pile it on by sharing both the most power and best fuel economy. So, it’s pretty straight forward, the Hyundai Santa Fe is the new three-row star!


  • 2014 Chevrolet Traverse:
  • 2014 Dodge Durango:
  • 2014 Honda Pilot:
  • 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe:
  • 2014 Mazda CX-9:
  • 2014 Nissan Pathfinder:
  • 2014 Toyota Highlander: