$37,000 SUV Shootout: State of the Three-Row SUV

As I shuttle my kids to day care and preschool, I pass driveways littered with minivans and three-row SUVs/crossovers. Some have both. These are the go-to vehicles of suburbia because parents of even just two children want the ability to cart more kids and cargo for carpools, soccer practice and road trips.

The SUV/crossover has become a popular alternative to the oft-shunned minivan, a revamped, practical segment we treated to a Shootout earlier this year.

Automakers also have focused on the status-friendly SUV and crossover with laser-beam intensity. It's so important that Ford has transformed the iconic Explorer SUV into a crossover — though that comes after its unsuccessful attempt at a large crossover, the Flex.

This time the move worked for Ford. Explorer sales have taken off, despite complaints about its entertainment and control interfaces.

It's not just Ford focusing a lot of attention on this segment. Dodge discontinued its Durango SUV after gas hit $4 a gallon, but the automaker brought it back as a crossover this year. How does the brand distinguish itself in the crowded field? By calling the Durango an SUV and emphasizing its capability even though it's the same setup as the Explorer, Toyota Highlander and others.

The Cars.com/USA Today/"MotorWeek" Shootout highlights the competitiveness of this field. All the editors seemed flummoxed at the Shootout, trying to decide on a clear winner or personal favorite. Neutralizing opinionated journalists is no small feat. We can only imagine the conundrum a consumer faces.

There are the tried and true selections like the Honda Pilot, which gets a mild revision for 2012, and the Highlander. They were out-flashed by newcomers like the Explorer and Durango, but the Highlander and Pilot still had the substance that's made them best-sellers for years.

Price is also a competitive element among large SUVs.

Dark horses such as the Mazda CX-9 and Kia Sorento offer more performance at the sacrifice of interior room and comfort.

And none of us thought there was an ugly duckling in the bunch.

So, how does a car shopper decide?

It will likely come down to three things: price, features and space.

Options such as DVD players, leather seating, navigation systems, Bluetooth connectivity and iPod integration are available on almost every crossover in the market, but some are more affordable than others. In terms of space, it's much easier to quantify that the Chevy Traverse is the most spacious. It's also the largest crossover on the market, and buyers would have to measure their garages before buying one.

The biggest surprise of the three-row crossover segment is that today's fastest-growing automakers either don't have one in their lineup — Volkswagen — or aren't fielding competitive models — Subaru and Hyundai.

We suspect they won't wait long to jump into the game. If you think the segment is competitive now, imagine it with three more solid players hitting the field. Luckily for car shoppers, we're impressed with what's out there right now. It'd be hard to make the wrong choice. 

© Cars.com 10/14/2011