'Utes will be served: Three-row family crossovers, ranked (briefly)

July 1, 2019

At The Car Connection our whiteboard is filled with family crossovers and their ratings. 

We have more than 30 crossovers on that board and everyone’s there: Atlas, Armada, Acadia, and Ascent—and those are just the A’s. 

Further down the board, we had to dry-erase marker in some new entries: the Palisade and Telluride, two new crossovers from Hyundai and Kia, respectively, that are closely related. The Explorer’s entry was wiped clean for 2020 and filled in with new numbers, it’s a new model. 

We know families are busy, so we narrowed the field to 10 that represented the broad swath of crossover SUVs available to family buyers—a lite bite before lunch, perhaps.

Here’s our verdict, far from comprehensive, but a primer for 10 mainstream crossovers that cover the ground of affordability and space. Our ranking here is based on current TCC scores, measured against our proprietary rating system that’s since been copied by other review sites. 

We know soccer practice is waiting, so here are some are relative values, popular choices, or budget picks—with one wildcard for good measure. 

Here is our rating, bottom to top, before dinner needs to be on the table. The kids can set the table.

2019 Dodge Journey

2019 Dodge Journey

2019 Dodge Journey—3.3

Among the lowest-rated new cars on The Car Connection, the Journey critically falls down, face first in its safety score. (Hopefully, it doesn’t fall down too far. The Journey earned a “Poor” rating from the IIHS in front-crash safety.) 

It has three rows of seats, but it’s saddled with an outdated 4-speed automatic transmission where rivals have twice that many cogs. We’re not dunking on the Journey (any longer) for one reason: it’s cheap. 

Families need cheap, and there’s no doubt many could use a car that’s no-frills transportation. 

It doesn’t do well in our ratings so it’s at the bottom of our list. 

2019 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (European model), to debut at 2018 Geneva auto show

2019 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (European model), to debut at 2018 Geneva auto show

2019 Mitsubishi Outlander—5.8

The Outlander is a three-row crossover that’s not as big as the bunch, but neither is its price tag. Available with a plug-in powertrain (the lone one on our list for now), the Outlander’s aged exterior has been updated a couple times in recent years to live in the now. 

The third row is mighty cramped, but available, and its infotainment system is difficult to understand. We’d skip the overworked inline-4 in favor of a thirsty V-6 that more adequately powers the Mitsu. 

Still, the Outlander’s $25,000 entry price is attractive to families on a budget who may only occasionally need the third row.

2019 Mazda CX-9

2019 Mazda CX-9

2019 Mazda CX-9—6.2

Easily the most stylish of the bunch, and perhaps the most fun to drive, the Mazda CX-9 is a vehicle for families with black horn rim glasses and fitted loafers. 

It looks smart is what we mean, and its interior in expensive versions is luxury-car stuff. Its turbo-4 engine isn’t a drag either and its handling helps us forget that it’s a three-row crossover. 

It’s not the biggest crossover of the bunch and its infotainment system actually drives us to distraction sometimes. 

Among family crossovers, the CX-9 is pretty good. Pretty and good, too. 

2019 Chevrolet Traverse

2019 Chevrolet Traverse

2019 Chevrolet Traverse—6.4

Count on a few things everywhere in America: taxes, reruns of “Seinfeld,” and a Chevy Traverse within spitting distance. 

There’s a good reason for that because the Traverse says what it does and does what it says. For hauling families and their gear across the Great Plains, few cars get the job done like the Traverse. 

Its value is toward the middle, where the Traverse LT offers three rows of seats, captain’s chairs, 18-inch wheels, and an 8.0-inch touchscreen for infotainment with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. Active safety is restricted to only the fanciest of Traverses, meaning what looks like a good value at about $32,000 to start inflates to $47,200 with options we consider essential.

2019 Subaru Ascent first drive

2019 Subaru Ascent first drive

2019 Subaru Ascent—6.8

The Subaru Ascent was new for 2019 and finally answered the question: “What car do I buy if our family orders hiking boots by the dozen?” 

All-wheel drive is standard and so is room for up to seven. (We’d stop short of putting three across in the back row.) 

The Ascent’s turbo-4 is stout and gets the crossover moving confidently, its interior is a big step up for Subaru, and 19 cupholders is just the right number for a family of four—at least it should be. 

The Ascent is a big Outback lookalike—whether that’s a good thing is up to you. 

2020 Ford Explorer ST - First Drive - Portland OR, June 2019

2020 Ford Explorer ST - First Drive - Portland OR, June 2019

2020 Ford Explorer—6.8

It’s the biggest on this list, but it’s not the biggest three-row that Ford makes. We’re still astonished by that. 

The new Explorer comes in a variety of shades including an ST performance version, (relatively) thrifty hybrid, and garden variety. 

Common among all three? Stretch-out space in the first two rows and a rear-wheel-drive bias that practically makes the Explorer a sports car. Well, maybe that’s a stretch, too. 

The ride is soft and the handling is confident. There’s more value toward base and XLT versions of the Explorer. The rest of the lineup gets expensive in a hurry, however. 

2020 Kia Telluride

2020 Kia Telluride

2020 Kia Telluride—7.0

The newest three-row crossover from Kia is wonderful like a long weekend. It's handsome and spacious in all three rows, especially in the rear where adults can sit behind adults sitting behind adults. You follow?

The Telluride shares most of its basics with the Hyundai Palisade—so you can guess where the Palisade will fall on this list. The Kia’s more rock and roll than the Hyundai, and opinions between the two are equally mixed. 

Universally we agree, the Kia’s a steal at just over $33,000. At the top, the Telluride maxes out at just over $45,000 and for the equipment, it’s a killer deal.

2019 Honda Pilot

2019 Honda Pilot

2019 Honda Pilot—7.0

If any crossover could split the Hyundai/Kia duo, it’d be the Honda Pilot. Not only was it our Best Car to Buy 2016, it’s also one of the best cars for families to buy—period. 

The Pilot was slightly updated for 2019 but everything we liked stayed the same. The Pilot has good space, a comfortable interior, cargo for days, and a quiet ride. 

The Pilot majors in the minors, too. Every surface, fitting, finish, and appointment feels solid and sturdy, ready for decades of family abuse and ground-in Cheerios. 

Its V-6 teams best with the 6-speed automatic found on everything but the Pilot Touring and Pilot Elite, and all-wheel drive is available. 

2020 Hyundai Palisade

2020 Hyundai Palisade

2020 Hyundai Palisade—7.0

It may be a three-way tie for first, but the Hyundai Palisade may separate itself once crash-test data is available. For now, it’s the most comfortable of the bunch and the most luxurious among mainstream crossovers. The Palisade is Hyundai’s attempt to break out of the sameness that has been a calling card for the automaker in the past. (It’s also not called Santa Fe, which is refreshing.)

The Palisade is closely related to the Telluride and both share the same running gear: 291-hp V-6, 8-speed automatic, and available all-wheel drive. The Palisade has a standard 8.0-inch touchscreen for infotainment, upgradeable to 10.3 inches, and remarkable space in all three rows. Best of all? It’s a few hundred dollars cheaper than the Telluride.

Wildcard

2019 Toyota Land Cruiser

2019 Toyota Land Cruiser

2019 Land Cruiser—5.4

Compared to the rest of our list, the Toyota Land Cruiser is not efficient, not all that spacious, the most expensive, but also the most Land Cruiser. 

If hauling the family places this summer includes “up the broadside of a mountain” this is the tool for the job. 

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