$40,000 3-Row SUV Challenge: What the Judges Said


Here are our judges for this Challenge:

  • Joe Bruzek, Road Test Editor,
  • Jennifer Geiger, Assistant Managing Editor,
  • Kelsey Mays, Consumer Affairs Editor,
  • Chris Woodyard, L.A. Bureau Chief, USA Today
  • Brian Robinson, Producer, “MotorWeek”
  • LadyAnn and Ed Sabalburo, a Southern California couple with a young daughter and a second child on the way; they own an Acura MDX currently and are thinking about moving up to a bigger SUV.

We set a maximum price of $40,000, including a destination charge, and a minimum EPA combined city/highway mileage rating of 19 mpg. There were eight SUVs that met our criteria:

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

Ford representatives declined to participate in the Challenge.

$40,000 3-Row SUV Challenge
Index | Results | Mileage Test

Here’s how the scoring broke down: The experts’ scores accounted for 75 percent of the total score; 15 percent came from the family’s scores; and 10 percent was based on fuel economy. Here is what the judges had to say about each car, in order of how the SUVs finished:



2014 Hyundai Santa Fe

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The Verdict: “With the Santa Fe, Hyundai offers the whole package,” Geiger said. “Loads of features, a premium cabin and pleasant road manners. Just make sure you pack wisely.”

What They Liked: The judges liked a lot. “Unbeatable high-profile features for the money,” Bruzek said. “The Santa Fe delivers in almost every way, especially in all the extra value packed in,” Woodyard said. “Cooled [front] seats, a panoramic moonroof, rear sunshades and a heated steering wheel for under $40K?” asked Mays. “An embarrassment of riches, these features.” “The multimedia system is intuitive and pairing my phone and launching Pandora streaming audio took only seconds,” Geiger said. But it wasn’t all about the features. “It’s a blast to drive through canyon roads or just to the grocery store,” Bruzek said. In our mileage drive, it achieved the best fuel economy of the group. “Stout acceleration and nimble handling reveal the Santa Fe’s spry curb weight,” Mays said. “It’s the lightest SUV in this group.” LadyAnn added, “It’s not a sexy brand at all, but they really have nice features.” Ed gave it the biggest validation. “It blew me away after driving it. I was running the numbers in my head to see if it would work.”

What They Didn’t: The biggest drawback was its smallest area. It gets “an F for cargo room behind the third row; some compact cars offer more trunk space,” Geiger said, while others commented on limited headroom back there. “It definitely feels like a two-row SUV, with an added third row,” Robinson said. “It doesn’t feel like it was designed with three rows in mind.” “The Santa Fe’s sleek, sloping roofline looks great, but it comes at the cost of rear visibility,” Geiger said. “Despite all the luxury features,” Mays said, “actual family content is thin. Our tester lacked climate controls and legitimate cupholders in the second row, while the third row gets both. Bizarre.”



2014 Dodge Durango

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The Verdict: “The Durango combines brash styling with an entertaining ride-handling mix and the best multimedia setup in this group,” Mays said.

What They Liked: They liked the combo of features and driving fun, which seems to be the focus for Dodge (and by extension, Fiat-Chrysler). “Dodge’s 8.4-inch Uconnect system still sets the standard for touch-screen usability,” Mays said, while Bruzek praised the “high-quality interior materials.” Ed was “impressed with the tech; this is customizable.” But it wasn’t only the looks and fun. “Power is brisk and shifts are prompt,” Geiger said. “The confident ride quality is similar to a luxury SUV rather than a sub-$40,000 one,” Bruzek said. “It has a great trucklike ride without feeling heavy,” Robinson added. Finally, “the tumble [second-row] seats made it easy to get into the back row,” Woodyard said. “This is a car I would consider buying,” Ed said. “It has a lot of features, bells and whistles, and there’s something for everyone.”

What They Didn’t: “Accelerator lag is an issue in Eco mode,” Mays said. Bruzek said it more succinctly: “Default-on Eco mode needs to die.” “The lack of sliding second-row seats prevent taller adults from negotiating a little extra space,” Mays said, while Geiger called out that “cabin storage isn’t great; for an SUV this big, it’s got a pretty small, un-purse-friendly center console.” And finally, Robinson noted that he still has “reservations about long-term reliability.”


MMS ID 61335 (created by CM Utility) automatic-content-migration

2014 Toyota Highlander

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The Verdict: “The Highlander pairs a handsome cabin with good technology, but that third row is a joke,” Mays said.

What They Liked: “From the fabric-wrapped A-pillars to the cavalcade of rich, overlapping cabin textures, the Highlander did a 180 on cabin quality with this redesign,” Mays said. “Toyota found its way, at least here.” “It has very comfortable seats and a plush ride that make for a comfortable commute,” Robinson said. “I feel like it’s a very thoughtful design,” LadyAnn said. “They put a lot of thought into the details.” The Highlander’s innovative below-the-dash shelf also won applause from several judges. It’s not just cosmetic; the engine earned kudos, too. “This is the responsive acceleration I’m looking for,” Ed said. “That’s what I need to get through an intersection.” “The engine and transmission work harmoniously together for brisk acceleration,” Bruzek said.

What They Didn’t: The Highlander’s small third row didn’t win over many judges. “It was very tight,” said LadyAnn. “You’re kind of squished in.” “Toyota says this seat fits three,” Mays said. “Right, and ‘Oblivion’ was cinema gold.” “Cargo room behind the third row is larger than before,” Bruzek said, “but it’s still small.” It wasn’t the only issue. “A vehicle that’s about 10 inches off the ground hardly needs running boards,” Woodyard said. “Fasten your seat belts: A stab of the gas pedal induces some uncomfortable squirrelly-ness thanks to our front-wheel-drive models’ torque-steer problems,” Geiger said. “You have to step up to the all-wheel-drive version to get adequate handling performance.”



2014 Nissan Pathfinder

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The Verdict: “Like a lot of people, I was disappointed when the Pathfinder went the crossover route,” Robinson said, “but it has really grown on me since then. The ride is great, and it offers just about anything most families need as far as comfort and convenience features.”

What They Liked: “The interior quality is borderline-luxury nice,” Bruzek said. “It’s both attractive and functional with an appealing blend of quality materials and easy-to-use-controls,” Geiger said. “From directional map scrolling to zooming in and out, the navigation system packs an array of common-sense shortcut keys,” Mays said. “And none of them are touch-sensitive!” “When we were parked and idling, I didn’t hear any engine noise,” Ed said. “I couldn’t tell if it was running.”

What They Didn’t: “I’ve driven Pathfinders before,” Ed said. “I don’t think this is a huge improvement.” Several judges noted “pokey” acceleration. “The so-called next-gen CVT [continuously variable transmission] automatic is less responsive than Nissan’s earlier CVTs,” Mays said. “It sucks some fun out of passing maneuvers.” And “the Pathfinder is one of the loudest vehicles in its class with high levels of road noise and an obtrusive engine note,” Geiger said. Bruzek complained about “no sunroof, blind spot monitoring system or cooled seats for the price.” And the “luxurylike ride falls to pieces when roads get twisty,” Robinson said.



2014 Mazda CX-9

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The Verdict: “True to the zoom-zoom marketing gimmick, it was the best-handling vehicle in the bunch,” Woodyard said, “but it’s blah in other respects.”

What They Liked: The CX-9 certainly feels like a driver’s car. “It’s agile around corners and has firm, precise steering,” Geiger said. “There’s fantastic handling for an SUV,” Bruzek added. It’s not just driving acumen. “It’s really clean; I like the interior,” LadyAnn said. “I think that the leather quality is one of the best.” “Seat comfort extends past the first row,” Mays said. “The second and third [rows] have some of the best cushions in this group.” “There’s easy access to the third row,” Bruzek said, and Robinson noted that the “big rear doors make for easy access.”

What They Didn’t: But those large doors “are just waiting to meet other doors in a parking lot,” Robinson said. The biggest source of discontent came from the CX-9’s entertainment and navigation screen. “My phone’s screen is almost as big as the CX-9’s tiny navigation display,” Bruzek said. “The multimedia system looks and operates like it’s from 2005,” Geiger said. “I have to take my eyes off the road to read the screen,” Ed said. “To me, it’s not usable. Why don’t I just put my phone up there?” “Its tiny third row is not child-safety-seat friendly, and it is the only one of the group that doesn’t have a top tether anchor,” Geiger said. “Forward-facing convertibles cannot be safely installed back there.” Finally, “it’s unrefined engine and road noise are not very appealing,” Bruzek said.


MMS ID 60658 (created by CM Utility) automatic-content-migration

2014 Honda Pilot

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The Verdict: “The Pilot remains a roomy option for passengers and cargo, but the overall package is becoming less appealing as it ages,” Bruzek said. “It’s one of the oldest SUVs in the Challenge.”

What They Liked: “Call me crazy (or just in the minority), but I like the boxy/militaristic exterior design,” Robinson said. For most everyone else, visibility was the easiest attribute to, ahem, see. “Tall windows, an upright windshield and narrow pillars still make the Pilot easy to see out of,” Mays said. “It’s a bit more upright and open,” Ed said. Every other judge also called out the great views. That boxy design also meant that “all seats have excessive amounts of headroom,” Bruzek said. “Power from a stop is decent,” Geiger said, “and passing and merging aren’t a problem, thanks to its responsive automatic [transmission].” Finally, Bruzek called out its “seemingly unlimited front storage for phones, wallets, purses, drinks and more.”

What They Didn’t: Geiger disagrees. “Cabin storage isn’t great. For an SUV this big, it’s got a pretty small, un-purse-friendly center console.” Several judges called out the dated interior. “The cabin is an aesthetic disaster,” Mays said. “There’s an injection-molded feel to the interior that’s not inviting at all,” Robinson said. Bruzek found the “complicated multimedia system overloaded with buttons,” while Geiger wished the Pilot came with a touch-screen: “The navigation system’s control knob is not the easiest to use, and its menu structure is frustrating.” And “Honda can say all it wants about noise-canceling speakers and other sound abatements,” Mays said. “The Pilot’s wind-catching shape makes it a noisy road-tripper.” The family was also underwhelmed. “This wouldn’t even warrant a visit to the dealer,” Ed said. “That’s too bad, because I love Honda.


MMS ID 60653 (created by CM Utility) automatic-content-migration

2014 Chevrolet Traverse

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The Verdict: “Families will love the Traverse’s huge cargo area and roomy cabin, but the love affair will end after Mom and Dad get behind the wheel,” Geiger said. “It handles like a truck, and parking lots are not its friend.”

What They Liked: Size matters for the Traverse. Many judges found it to be the roomiest of the bunch. “It has minivanlike cargo room,” Bruzek said. LadyAnn found the third-row room to be “actually pretty impressive,” while Geiger noted that “the back is the best side: It’s got a roomy, easy-to-access third row and loads of cargo space behind the rear seat.” But it’s not only space. “The ride quality is very good,” Robinson said. “It makes me want to load this thing up and go on vacation.” Mays said it “combines a poised ride with the handling of a smaller SUV,” a trait that Bruzek agreed with, calling it “surprisingly agile in tight spaces.” Its “direct-inject V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission are the best engine-transmission combo in this group, with strong, smooth-revving power and quick downshifts,” Mays said.

What They Didn’t: There’s not a lot for $40K. “This is the ‘no’ SUV,” Woodyard said. “No keyless entry, no power rear hatch, no navigation, no blind spot rearview mirrors. No, no, no.” “Our tester skimped on features big and small,” Mays said, “even as it fell within $500 of the group’s average price.” Mays also dinged the Traverse for its seats: “You sit on the seats rather than in them,” he said, “the result of Chevy’s overstuffed cloth chairs.” “The brakes do not inspire confidence,” Geiger said, “with a spongy pedal feel and pulse-y motion.” And Robinson was unimpressed with the tech appeal. “The infotainment screen is small and many words on it are also small, making it hard to read at a glance.” Bruzek bemoaned its “entry-level, rental quality.” photos by Evan Sears. 


$40,000 3-Row SUV Challenge
Index | Results | Mileage Test


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