What’s the Best Three-Row SUV of 2016?

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Three-Row SUV Challenge 2016

CARS.COM — Families still love their SUVs and three-row SUVs are among the most popular rides for shoppers in these days of inexpensive gasoline. They offer lots of cool features, tons of usable space and cargo room, and come with plenty of ways to pamper the kids. These SUVs seat from six to eight occupants and come with the latest in tech features for entertainment, driving and safety.

Three-Row SUV Challenge 2016
Results | What You Get | Child-Safety Seats | Video

Our criteria for this test: Each SUV had to cost less than $45,000, including its destination fee, and had to have an EPA combined rating of 19 mpg. Contenders included the 2017 Dodge Durango, 2017 Ford Explorer, 2017 GMC Acadia, 2016 Honda Pilot, 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe, 2017 Kia Sorento, 2016 Mazda CX-9 and 2017 Nissan Pathfinder. Shoppers in this category like to get a lot of value for their money, and these SUVs came nicely equipped.

Our judges for this Challenge were:

  • Mike Hanley, a Cars.com senior editor
  • Fred Meier, Cars.com Washington, D.C. bureau chief
  • Jennifer Newman, Cars.com managing editor
  • Brian Robinson, a producer from the PBS show "MotorWeek"
  • Anna and Jeff Givens; Anna, 45, is a homemaker, and Jeff, 50, is an engineer. They have two boys, ages 6 and 8. Jeff drives a 2006 Mini Cooper S that he maintains, while Anna drives a 2011 Toyota Sienna.

You can learn how we conducted testing below the results. Here's how these SUVs finished:

8 2017 Nissan Pathfinder, 655 points

The verdict: "I appreciate the Pathfinder's overall roominess and V-6 power," Hanley said, "but its dated interior styling and lack of important features disappointed me."

2017 Nissan Pathfinder

What They Liked

Comfort galore: "The interior is light and airy, and the front seats were among the most comfortable," Meier said, and the other judges agreed: "The cabin is open and airy with good room in all three rows," Hanley said.

Easy third-row access: "Third-row access is easy thanks to levers that slide the second-row seat forward, creating a wide pathway to the wayback," Newman said. "The 'latch-and-glide' second-row seat action allows third-row access even with a front-facing car seat in place," Meier added.

Great visibility tech: "The 360-degree camera with moving object detection is a must-have for parking and safety," Meier said. "Why don't all these trucks have it?" Newman concurred: "Nissan's Around View Monitor, a multi-angle camera system, makes parking and backing out of spaces a lot easier in these big SUVs."

And...: "The Pathfinder's V-6 feels strong and continuously variable automatic transmission drone is minimal," Hanley said. "The Pathfinder's second-row legroom measures 41.7 inches — the biggest of all the competitors," Newman said.

What They Didn't

Transmission issues: "The Pathfinder's CVT is like a tween whining about homework: It moans and groans nonstop!" Newman said. "The revised CVT with artificial shifts — if you put your foot in it — is better, but it still lets down an excellent V-6," Meier said.

Design failures: "The controls seem more like a throwback," Jeff said. "Dated, I would say." "From the automaker that sells the stylish Murano and Juke comes its antithesis in the refreshed 2017 Pathfinder, which now looks like a throwback to the SUV designs of 10 years ago," Newman said. "Some of the interior materials and controls have a cheap feel, particularly the plastic 'metallic' trim," Meier added.

Value missing: "I was shocked that the $40,000-plus Pathfinder didn't have a moonroof of any kind," Hanley said. "To get a full range of safety electronics, including collision prevention, you have to move to the costlier top trim," Meier said. And "there are no USB ports or 12-volt outlets for plugging in devices in the third row," Newman said. 

And...: "For as big as it is, there doesn't seem to be as much room in here," Robinson said. "The ride quality is good, but the Pathfinder is floaty on the highway and is a leaner in sweeping turns," Meier said. "The views from the Pathfinder's various cameras aren't that crisp," Hanley said, "and the buttons and knobs fill the middle of the dashboard, giving the control panel a cluttered, unintuitive look."

Research the 2017 Nissan Pathfinder | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

7 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe, 689 points

The verdict: "While the Santa Fe lags behind some newer designs in the group in refinement," Meier said, "it makes up for it with a boatload of features for the price and an excellent powertrain."

2017 Hyundai Santa Fe

What They Liked

The go factor: "Its engine feels like one of the most powerful here," Robinson said, and Meier agreed: "The strong V-6 and positive shifting are satisfying in town and on the road." "The Santa Fe's V-6 engine and responsive six-speed automatic are an appealing pair," Hanley added.

Great value proposition: "The 10-year powertrain warranty is definitely persuasive. I like that they stand behind their products," Jeff said. "The long list of surprise-and-delight features, including a handy 360-degree camera and huge panoramic roof, make the Santa Fe a value leader," Meier said, and other judges agreed: "With heated and ventilated front seats, a huge panoramic moonroof, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto," Hanley said, "the Santa Fe has a ton of features for the money."

Tech heaven: "The Santa Fe has active safety features such as lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control, which worked well in everyday driving," Newman said. "The tech interface is quite good," Robinson said, and "the Infinity audio system and Clarify sound enhancement make it a choice for music fans," Meier added. And, Hanley said, "The Santa Fe's camera system offers multiple views and great image clarity."

And...: "The Santa Fe's low step-in height makes it easy for little ones to independently climb into this SUV," Newman said.

What They Didn't

Hard to see out: "Rear visibility is poor because of the Santa Fe's small rear window and large head restraints that seem to eat up the view," Newman said. "The large A-pillars and mirrors create a blind spot," Meier agreed.

Seat punishment: "The front bucket seats have hard, uncomfortable backrests," Hanley said. "The third row sits really low to the ground," Newman said, "so there's no thigh support for adults and teens, who won't want to sit back there for any length of time." Other judges also agreed.

Ride regrets: "It's not outrageously noisy," Robinson said, "but noticeably noisier than most here." "While it handles confidently," Meier said, "the ride is busy and bumpy compared to others here."

And...: "The center of the dashboard is heavy on buttons, and the layout makes them hard to use," Hanley said.

Research the 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

6 2017 Ford Explorer, 693 points

The verdict: "The Explorer is still a solid SUV and has light-years better multimedia," Meier said, "but it's losing some ground in overall refinement to newer designs."

2017 Ford Explorer

What They Liked

Multimedia maven: In a huge turnaround, Ford's new Sync 3 won over all the judges and turned what used to be a huge liability into its most valuable asset. "The Sync has gone from one of the worst to one of the best," Robinson said. "The new Sync system and the return of real knobs turn Explorer's multimedia system from deal-breaker to deal-maker," Meier said. "The Sync 3 touchscreen multimedia system is easy to use," Hanley added, "featuring highly legible graphics and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto." And Newman said, "The Explorer's Sync 3 multimedia system is the standard all others should be measured by."

Looks like an SUV: "The traditional SUV shape and the blacked-out Sport Package will appeal to a lot of buyers," Meier said, "and not just cops." "It's a sharp-looking crossover, for sure," Robinson added.

Cargo friendly: "The design of the folding third row makes for a deeper cargo area when the seat is up," Hanley said. Meier agreed: "A clever third row folds to a flat floor, but opens to create a vanlike open bin for the most cargo space with three rows up." There's "lots of space inside," Newman said.

And...: "The Explorer's suspension provides a good blend of handling prowess and ride comfort," Hanley said. "The Explorer's interior has an upscale look with faux-suede inserts in the seats and door trim," Newman said.

What They Didn't

Cramped driver's area: "The front bucket seats are especially narrow, which compromises comfort," Hanley said, and Meier agreed. "Thanks to intrusion from the left, the driver footwell was uncomfortably narrow and, at 6-foot-2, my left foot was almost under the brake," he said.

Tech unfriendly: "This is a family hauler, but the only USB ports are in the first row," Newman noted. "The second row has one measly 12-volt outlet and the third row gets nothing."

Not a blast to drive: "It feels cumbersome and trucklike compared to most of these," Robinson said. "The transmission was very busy hunting gears in highway cruising," Meier said.

Cargo friendly, but not people friendly: "The second-row bench is split 60/40, but the larger portion doesn't slide to create more legroom for the unlucky third-row passengers behind it," Newman said. "It seems to me that there's more cargo space than seat space," Robinson said. And, Newman added, "It's a multistep (and color-coded) process to flip and fold the third-row seats into the cargo well."

And...: "The interior is cold and uninviting," Robinson said. "Small rear-door openings make it harder to get in and out of the second row," Hanley said. "The test vehicle had some fit-and-finish issues," Meier added, "with interior trim alignment and panel gaps." Jeff agreed: "There are issues with the door panel lining up and paint blemished. The fit and finish could be better."

Research the 2017 Ford Explorer | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

5 2017 Dodge Durango, 702 points

The verdict: "With its burly exhaust note and brash styling, the Durango is far and away the most trucklike SUV of the bunch," Hanley said.

2017 Dodge Durango

What They Liked

It's capable: "The Durango has real off-road and towing credentials," Robinson said. "That's why, despite being the second-most expensive, I gave it a high 'worth the money' score." "The Durango's 3.6-liter V-6 chews up highway on-ramps," Newman said, and Meier agreed: "The V-6 and eight-speed powertrain delivers V-8-like smooth power; it's my favorite powertrain in the bunch."

Seats of excellence: "The Durango's second-row seats tumble and slide forward easily," Newman said, "and it can be done one-handed, which is a major plus for multitasking parents. The pathway to the third row is wide enough for grown-ups to navigate." Meier liked the "tilting second-row seat that leaves no floor obstructions and offers good third-row access." "There's good headroom and legroom for adult passengers in the stadium-style third row," Hanley said.

Easy-to-use tech: "Despite newer competitors, Dodge's Uconnect touchscreen multimedia system remains one of the easiest to use," Hanley said. "The dash has a clean, logical layout," Meier said, "and the touchscreen is up where you can see and reach it."

And...: "Sometimes, it's the little things that stand out, and the Durango's ability to fold the third-row head restraints from the driver's seat is one of my favorite features in all these SUVs," Newman said. "I wish all of the competitors had this feature."

What They Didn't

Engine troubles: "The powerful V-6 is also thirsty, getting 19/26/21 mpg city/highway/combined and an average of 21.7 mpg in our mileage drive," Newman said. "That means a lot of time shelling out gas money." "The Durango's engine feels powerful but can get noisy," Robinson said. "From a dead stop, it could use a little bit more punch," Jeff said.

Ride regrets: "The Durango's ride is much better than it used to be but still not as good as some here," Robinson said. "It feels heavy and not as maneuverable in tight situations."

Poor brake feel: "A spongy brake pedal detracts from the driving experience," Hanley said. "The steering was overly light and the brakes too loose," Meier added.

Lack of space: "Feels smaller than it is inside," Meier said, "thanks to big A-pillars that curve in at the base and a low windshield."

Poor storage trade-offs: "If you get the rear entertainment system, you'll sacrifice a lot of center console storage space," Newman said, "because the Blu-ray player — something that won't be used all the time — takes up most of the space all of the time." Hanley added, "The Durango doesn't have many storage cubbies in the cabin."

And...: "At this price, many shoppers will expect all-wheel drive, but our Durango had rear-wheel drive," Hanley noted.

Research the 2017 Dodge Durango | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

4 2016 Mazda CX-9, 715 points

The verdict: "Versus the other three-rows, the CX-9 is more a two-and-a-half-row, but it offers more style and driving dynamics for buyers with minimal needs for the wayback," Meier said.

2017 Mazda CX-9

What They Liked

Knockout interior: "The CX-9 brings high style to this middle-brow party," Meier said. "Sleek lines stretch back from a literally fashion-forward grille and the interior materials and design bring Audi to mind." "The cabin quality impresses me with its rich leather, real aluminum and real wood trim," Hanley said, while Anna said "it feels luxurious."

Driving fun: "Oh wow. There wasn't much of a lag," Jeff said. "You can definitely feel the turbo kick in." You'll get "plenty of acceleration with its 2.5-liter turbo," Robinson said, and Hanley added that "the CX-9's turbo four-cylinder engine feels strong when accelerating up to highway speeds." "The 2.5-liter turbo four is a near equal of the V-6s here in power," Meier said, "and it beats their fuel economy. It's no Miata to drive, but its tight chassis, responsive steering and brakes, and a real Sport mode stand out in this group."

Safety tech wins: "The CX-9 is loaded with safety tech — adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert — and only it and the Honda Pilot have lane keeping assist," Newman said.

Second-row comfort: "The second-row seating position is comfortable for adult passengers," Hanley said, while Newman noted that "the second row was filled with family-friendly features like two USB ports, which are found in the fold-down armrest, sunshades, door cubbies and two dual seatback pockets."

What They Didn't

Not a value: "No way this should be the most expensive SUV here," Robinson said. "The rosewood trim is not worth that much."

Third row pays a penalty: "The CX-9 was redesigned for 2016, but third-row passengers are overlooked when it comes to amenities such as USB ports, 12-volt outlets or air vents," Newman said. "While the third-row seat is surprisingly comfy and sits high enough off the ground, it's cramped width-wise with the wheel wells encroaching on elbow room," she added, while Hanley bemoaned "The third row's very limited headroom." "The tiny third row has little room for heads or legs, and requires contortions to use," Meier said.

Questionable styling: "The CX-9's exterior styling stands out with its sporty design, but the SUV looks slightly off-balance with its long, low front end attached to an otherwise bulbous design," Newman said. "Interior materials are nice, but there's a lot going on here as well," Robinson said. "There are all kinds of lines and surfaces."

Awkward choices: "The multimedia system incorporates a knob controller and a touchscreen, but a lack of on-screen menus makes it harder to use," Hanley said. "The shallow phone tray on the forward console with power ports is just silly," Meier said. "You have to run cords from the console bin or the 12-volt port in the passenger footwell."

Research the 2016 Mazda CX-9 | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

3 2017 Kia Sorento, 735 points

The verdict: "I love the tech interface and overall control layout inside, the easy-to-use touchscreen, and lots of big knobs and buttons," Robinson said. "It feels comfortable and spacious, and you get a lot for the money."

2017 Kia Sorento

What They Liked

Comfortable ride: "The redone Sorento has impressively improved ride quality and cabin quiet, and it remains composed even on broken pavement," Meier said. "The ride quality is way better than the five-passenger Sorento we evaluated this summer," Robinson said.

Great value: "For its price of $43,295, the Sorento has impressive advanced safety features such as adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning and lane departure warning," Newman said. Hanley added that you'll also get "heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel and a panoramic moonroof."

Cool tech: "Unlike other hands-free liftgates, Sorento's proximity system also eliminates standing on one leg and waving your foot," Meier said. "Hurray!" Robinson "loved its overall control layout and infotainment interface," and Newman noted that "like its cousin, the Santa Fe, the Sorento offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto."

And...: "Though it has the same bones as the Santa Fe, the interior is a clear step above," Robinson said. "The 3.3-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic give the Sorento real zip," Meier said. "Long road trips will be a lot more comfortable thanks to the Sorento's bolstered front seats," Newman added.

What They Didn't

Van-ishing act: "The new, softer look is almost vanlike and makes me wish for the edgier styling that distinguishes other Kias," Meier said. "It looks the most like a minivan," Robinson added.

Small inside: "You'll need to pack light with the Sorento: It has just 11.3 cubic feet of space behind the third row," Newman said. "There's very little cargo room behind the third row," Hanley agreed. "There's not as much cargo space as some others in this Challenge," Robinson added.

Third-row issues: "The third row is tight for taller passengers," Newman said. "I'm 5-foot-8, and my head grazed the ceiling and my knees were jammed against the second-row seatbacks." And, she noted, "only one of the rear seats slides forward to create a pathway to the third row." "This smaller three-row is tight in the back and it's a stretch to get there," Meier added, and its "cramped third row isn't comfortable for adult passengers," Hanley said.

And..: "The Kia's steering can feel unnatural and numb at times," Hanley said, while Meier noted that "The knobs on the dash are nice to have, but they were made for fingers smaller than mine."

Research the 2017 Kia Sorento | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

2 2017 GMC Acadia, 763 points

The verdict: "With its 2017 redesign, the Acadia lost 7 inches in length, but it gained so much overall," Newman said. "It's fun to drive with its powerful engine, and the family-friendly factor is high with its standard Teen Driver system, plenty of places to charge devices and comfy seating throughout."

2017 GMC Acadia

What They Liked

Blast to drive: "Whether on the highway or tackling steep hills, the Acadia's optional V-6 engine moved the SUV confidently," Newman said, and several judges agreed. "It's one of the best rides here," Robinson said, and Meier added: "Its strong V-6, tight chassis and firm steering give this three-row hauler an agile feel while retaining a comfortable ride."

Classy interior: "This is more trucklike and simpler," Jeff said. "I like the simpler layout." "The Acadia's dashboard controls are thoughtfully arranged and simple to use," Hanley said. "The interior has an upscale feel, with a clean design and comfortable seats with accent stitching," Meier said, and Robinson found "the material quality is very good."

Parents, and kids, can be happy: "The Acadia has a parent-sanity saver with its multimedia system button that allows you to lock the rear climate controls," Newman said, "so the endless back and forth between kids about it being too hot or too cold becomes a nonissue." And, she added, "Kids have so much stuff and the Acadia's second row has plenty of places for them to put it, with three door bins, seatback pockets and a pullout bin in the center console's rear."

And...: "The second-row captain's chairs do a good job comfortably carrying adult passengers," Hanley said. "The excellent GM multimedia system tops the group in user interface, 4G, Wi-Fi and still gives you real knobs for essential functions," Meier said.

What They Didn't

Second- and third-row issues: "The walkway between the second-row captain's chairs is narrow and though the captain's chairs fold and slide forward, there's no path to the third row," Newman said. She wasn't alone. "With the second row forward for third-row access, there is a lot of seat hardware to catch your feet, a lot more than others here," Meier said. "Hopefully there's a sibling that's willing to share the second-row legroom with any passengers in the third row," Newman said. "Legroom is tight when the second-row seats are pushed all the way back."

It downsized: "It's smaller than it used to be," Robinson said, "with much less cargo space." "Cargo space with the third row up is tiny, less than even smaller SUVs in this Challenge," Meier added.

Poor value proposition: "It lacks a full suite of safety tech, including emergency braking, at this price," Meier said. "Our Acadia was missing things like ventilated seats and certain active safety features that other SUVs in our test had," Hanley said.

Not the best ride: "Overall, it's very quiet," Robinson said, "but its engine noise can be excessive in highway merging situations. In addition, there's some transmission stumbling in on-off throttle situations."

And...: "The multimedia system's interface isn't as easy to use as some of its competitors," Newman said, "though it's not the worst of the pack." "It was hard to see the gauges once I had the steering wheel positioned where I wanted it," Hanley said.

Research the 2017 GMC Acadia | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

1 2016 Honda Pilot, 782 points

The verdict: "If you really need a minivan for hauling the family around but just can't pull the trigger, the Pilot is for you," Newman said. "It offers minivan practicality in an SUV body."

2016 Honda Pilot

What They Liked

Family choice: The Pilot was the choice of our testing family, Jeff and Anna Givens, even though it wasn't their highest-scored SUV. Jeff's reason? "I just trust Honda's reliability."

Feature packed: "The Pilot leads the pack here in smartly designed family features and attention to details," Meier said, "including two levels of storage built into the front doors, the big roll-top console bins, child-seat Latch anchors even in the third row, a conversation mirror and height-adjustable armrests for multiple drivers."

Space galore: "All kinds of room for cargo, people, small stuff," Robinson said. "Whatever you need space for, it's here." "With a huge center console bin and plenty of nooks for loose items, the Pilot is a storage-space champ," Hanley said. "The light and airy interior enhances the spacious feel and expands visibility," Meier added.

Winning seats: "Just push the button on the Pilot's second-row seats, and they fold and slide forward," Newman said. "Kids will be able to get into and out of the third row by themselves." And, she noted, "it's the only SUV in our challenge to fit three car seats across the second row."

Quality you can see: "In most of the SUVs, rear visibility was a joke because of small rear windows and large head restraints," Newman said, "but the Pilot schools its competitors with its large windows that allows the driver to see everything, including out the back." Honda's "LaneWatch is very helpful," Robinson said.

And...: "There are enough ports and plugs to keep all of your family's portable devices connected and powered up," Hanley said. "The Pilot offers at this price a rear-seat entertainment system with a full plate of connections," Meier said. "It's one of the best rides here," Robinson added.

What They Didn't

Shifting failure: "There's a troubling delay from the Pilot's nine-speed automatic transmission when you floor the gas pedal," Hanley said, and others agreed. "The push-button gearshift pushes my buttons," Newman said. "Every time I used it, I'd have to stop, think about what gear I wanted it in, push the button and then check the digital readout to make sure I did it correctly. So annoying!" "We experienced some transmission clunkiness in slow-speed situations," Robinson added. "The power output is just adequate for this group, and the only remote reason I can see for the paddle shifters is the odd button console shifter," Meier said.

No entertainment: "Is an actual audio knob too much to ask?" Meier asked. "The multimedia system's graphics are incredible, but the lack of buttons and knobs for the simplest tasks like volume control or radio tuning is maddening," Newman said. "This setup meant I had to look away from the road to change a radio station or adjust the volume."

Safety miscues: "The 'safety at all costs' collision warning system goes off way too much," Robinson said. "Oncoming traffic on roads with gentle curves will set it off repeatedly." "The soft brake pedal doesn't inspire confidence when bringing this SUV to a stop," Hanley added.

And...: "Those poor third-row passengers: The seats are low to the ground and there aren't any places to charge the ubiquitous devices," Newman said. "Cue the whining!"

Research the 2016 Honda Pilot | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

How the Competitors Fared in Each Category

How We Tested

We took these three-row SUVs to the streets and countryside in and around Baltimore to put them through a week's worth of testing. We had an expert round-robin day, where our judges took all eight SUVs over the same roads to assess ride, handling, braking, noise and more. We drove a 170-mile real-world mileage route to judge real-world fuel economy. We also brought an in-market family to help us evaluate the SUVs. From all of the points we awarded in those tests, we found our winner.

The scoring broke down this way:

  • 72 percent from the judges' scoring
  • 18 percent from our shoppers
  • 10 percent from the mileage drive

We wanted to include crash-test scores as a scoring component, but a few of these SUVs have not undergone testing yet.

 

Dodge Dodge Durango Dodge Durango 2017 Ford Ford Explorer Ford Explorer 2017 GMC GMC Acadia GMC Acadia 2017 Honda Honda Pilot Honda Pilot 2016 Hyundai Hyundai Santa Fe Hyundai Santa Fe 2017 Kia Kia Sorento Kia Sorento 2017 Mazda Mazda CX-9 Mazda CX-9 2016 Nissan Nissan Pathfinder Nissan Pathfinder 2017 Car Buying FCA Multi Car Comparison SUVs Three-Row SUV Challenge 2016

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Former editor-in-chief Patrick Olsen was born and raised in California. He loves pickup trucks and drivers who pay attention.  Email Patrick

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