Suburban Dad: And the Vacation Winner Is...

By Suburban Dad  on August 12, 2008

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After more than 2,500 miles, the votes are in and tabulated. My wife and I, along with our three kids, have finished our 15 days on the road, going from Chicago to Rochester, N.Y., then Gettysburg, Pa.; Washington, D.C.; Burlington, N.C.; and home again. We made the journey in four three-row SUVs, including a Ford Flex, Dodge Journey, Mazda CX-9 and Honda Pilot, and each was as idiosyncratic as my kids.

First, we'll take a look at the stats from our trip, which seems a lot longer on paper than it did in person:

  • 2,706 miles over 15 days
  • 50 hours (more or less) behind the wheel
  • 145 gallons of gas
  • $568.75 spent on gas
  • Average gas mileage of 18.67 mpg (which, frankly, is higher than I expected)
  • $3.49 a gallon was the cheapest gas price we saw (and paid) on our trip, and that was in Mechanicsburg, Pa.
  • $4.39 a gallon was the highest gas price we saw (and didn't pay, though it wasn’t far from the cheapest gas around) in Washington, D.C.

Now, here’s how each of the cars fared in different categories:

Looks

  • 4th Place: Honda Pilot. Apparently, that boxy look that I'm not too fond of didn't win over my family either. It was voted least attractive by three of us (out of five), and never ranked higher than second. My wife, who gave the Pilot that second-place vote, said the Pilot "was more typical-looking and truck-like." Don't worry Honda; you do better in later categories.
  • 3rd Place: Mazda CX-9. Just a point ahead of the Pilot was the CX-9. This surprised me a bit, since I thought the Mazda was the second-best looking SUV. Among the rest of my family, it never ranked higher than third. "I'm not wild about the looks of the CX-9," my wife said, "but it was nice-enough looking." Ouch. That’s what she says about my haircuts.
  • 2nd Place: Dodge Journey. I thought this was both the best-looking SUV of the bunch and the one that looked the least like a "family" car. Several other family members picked this as their second-favorite car in the looks department, right behind the…
  • 1st Place: Ford Flex. The Flex's styling will definitely be polarizing, but no other car on the trip drew as much attention as the Flex. Complete strangers walked up to me to ask about it, and that has to be a good sign for Ford. My wife, who picked the Flex as her best-looking car, called it "very retro."

Roominess

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This category's a little more objective, and here's how it broke down:

  • 4th Place: No surprise here; the Dodge Journey came in last, with all five of us voting it such. It's a little unfair to castigate the Journey for this, because it's also the least-expensive of all four cars. I think with one fewer kid it would have fared much better in this category.
  • 3rd Place: Mazda CX-9. Don't misunderstand this ranking; the CX-9 was pretty comfortable for all of us. It just paled in comparison with the top two. In fact, my wife said, "coming from the Journey, it was extremely spacious."
  • 2nd Place: Ford Flex. My wife liked how the Flex had "lots of room — great for a long journey for a family of our size." I liked how the cockpit offered tons of headroom and legroom, and with seating for six even the kids in the second and third rows had plenty of personal space.
  • 1st Place: Honda Pilot. There wasn't much debate here; I was the only member of the family to pick the Flex over the Pilot. While the Pilot didn't have as much headroom as the Flex, it had a really wide second row with plenty of legroom, and that 60/40-split third row made it desirable for the kids, which is saying a lot.

Comfort

  • 4th Place: Dodge Journey. I suspect my kids turned on the Journey more for space than for comfort; their memories of being crowded probably colored their votes. As for me, I found the Journey’s seats comfortable, it just turned up behind the other three. All the cars on our trip focused well on passenger comfort.
  • 3rd Place: Mazda CX-9. This was close, with the CX-9 barely falling to the Honda Pilot. I loved the creature comforts in the CX-9 and found the controls easy to use. "The CX-9 seemed classier," my wife said.
  • 2nd Place: Honda Pilot. Although my wife said the Pilot “comfortably fits the most people," it fell to the second spot because it paled in comparison with the winner…
  • 1st Place: Ford Flex. This was a runaway winner; everyone picked it as their top  choice for comfort. My wife lauded the seats ("like sitting in an armchair at home," she said) and was happy there was a refrigerator in the backseat because "it kept the kids entertained." She also applauded it as the car with the easiest third-row access.

Entertainment Options

This category was a little more difficult, given the players and their variety of entertainment choices.

  • 4th Place: Dodge Journey. This was the closest category so far, with no one car taking a definitive lead. The Journey did have a godsend when it came to entertainment though: its DVD player kept the kids from complaining how cramped they were, and it had a much crisper screen than the CX-9.
  • 3rd Place: The CX-9 faltered because its navigation screen and DVD screens' "quality was poor," my wife said, "fuzzy." Still, it barely edged the Journey.
  • 2nd Place: The Flex was dinged by the kids because it didn't come with a DVD player, but the voice-activated nav system, regional weather maps, movie times and more — not to mention the awesome Sync system for my iPod that tied in with a really top-notch sound system — made it my top choice.
  • 1st Place: The Pilot took the award, in part I suspect because the player was more recessed into the ceiling than the other DVD players. It also had a great setup for the iPod, but it suffers from the fact that it forces iPod users to scroll through interminable lists to find the artists, albums or — god forbid — the tracks they want.

Gas Mileage

This one's completely by the numbers, using the combined mileage we got with each during out time with it:

  • 4th Place: Mazda CX-9, 17.7 mpg
  • 3rd Place: Dodge Journey, 18.1 mpg
  • 2nd Place: Honda Pilot, 18.56 mpg
  • 1st Place: Ford Flex, 21.6 mpg

Driving Fun

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This category falls fully onto my shoulders, as I drove virtually every mile in these cars (minus about 40 in the Pilot).

  • 4th Place: The Flex. It feels like a heavier car, and it's slower on the takeoff than the rest. It does have passing speed when it needs it, though, even at high interstate speeds.
  • 3rd Place: Honda Pilot. The Pilot feels more like a truck-based SUV than any of the other cars in this challenge, even though it's not a truck-based car.
  • 2nd Place: The Dodge Journey. Very peppy with strong acceleration and good straight-line braking. Very little body roll in the corners. "Very sporty and zippy," my wife said.
  • 1st Place: The CX-9 was a joy to drive, and was the one that best belied its size. It was very quick, was able to pass other cars quickly and easily, and had a wide-open view of the road. I could have done with less road noise, though.

Overall score

After all of that, I suspect you can tell what's going to win.

  • 4th Place: The Journey comes in last, but don't sell it short. If you've got a family with only two kids (or even three small ones), then the Journey may work well for you, especially if you use it as more of an around-town car than a vacation car.
  • 3rd Place: The Mazda CX-9 was dragged down by its gas mileage but buoyed by its driving fun (perhaps the two go hand-in-hand). The CX-9 was also the most expensive car, as tested, that we drove.
  • 2nd Place: The top two cars easily outdistanced the bottom two, and the Honda Pilot took second place. It won raves for its space, entertainment options and mileage, but lost points for the way it drove. Its storage space is legendary, but in the end, the title went to…

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  • 1st Place: "The Ford Flex is the best, no question," my 13-year-old daughter pronounced, and she spoke for the family. Between the car's unique looks, its cool electronic features, its roominess and its comfort, it set a tone that none of the others could match. While my wife would have preferred to sit higher up, like in the Pilot, even she named the Flex as her overall winner. Considering how much the Flex wowed our friends and relatives, it probably deserves the top spot, although Ford should note than more than a few people thought that its name meant it could run on E85.

Our thanks to Ford, Dodge, Mazda and Honda and the local fleet services for providing the cars for our vacation challenge. Cars.com paid for the gas for the trip.

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