Full-size crossovers have similar attributes

HONDA’S HULK: The Pilot is quite large for a brand once associated with compact economy cars.
HONDA’S HULK: The Pilot is quite large for a brand once associated with compact economy cars.
GEORGE KENNEDY

It’s the age-old conundrum—you’re starting a family and need a vehicle to carry the kid(s), along with the gear that comes with them. But you also do not want to own a vehicle that tells others your youthful years are firmly in the rear view. Back when the station wagon was king of the road trip, “hip” families were fleeing to the minivan, and when the van became passé, folks adopted the crossover.

The crossover market grew to a million-and-a-half vehicles on a simple premise: You need the space and versatility of a wagon or minivan, but you do not want to own a minivan. The full-size crossover is equal parts minivan and wagon, with some SUV elements baked in. Just remember, not all crossovers are created equal.

Look at how different the full-size crossover market is. The Nissan Pathfinder, Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, and Toyota Highlander all start around $30,000, but each offers unique approaches to satisfying buyers’ needs. And those buyer needs are not always the same. Some buyers are coming from a minivan and expect that level of space, others are coming from a traditional SUV and expect some semblance of off-road capability.

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Some of the names listed here were once affixed to traditional body-on-frame SUVs. But like Warren Haynes adapting from southern rock to the jam band Gov’t Mule, these icons of the SUV years have adapted to the crossover craze, keeping some rugged attributes. The Ford Explorer, for example, now rides on a car-based platform, but features an advanced Terrain Management system. Equipped on Explorers that have the optional four-wheel-drive, this system is able to control the traction control and braking to optimize the vehicle for various off-road driving conditions. There are settings for Mud/Ruts, Sand, and Grass/Gravel/Snow, as well as an Auto setting. It won’t allow the Explorer to cross the Andes, but it will let it venture onto a rocky road, desert trail, or particularly snowy roads.

For a crossover to have what it takes to hit the trail, it needs two things: ground clearance and a four-wheel-drive system with a 4WD Lock function. Limited-slip differentials are found on most modern cars and are great for maintaining control on a slippery road, but in the mud or sand, it works against the vehicle. A lock function keeps all four wheels moving at the same time, and keeps you out of trouble. This type of 4WD setup is found on the Nissan Pathfinder and Honda Pilot, both of which offer added capability over the standard AWD setup. This may not seem like a crucial feature to have for daily driving, but is valuable if you venture out onto Duxbury Beach or the drivable beaches on the Cape.

If you are driving to those summer destinations, or up north, there is good chance you are trailering some sort of toy. Be it a small motorboat in the summer or a snowmobile in the winter, towing is a key element to these crossovers. The Explorer, Pathfinder, and Highlander all have tow ratings of 5,000 pounds. The Pilot has a respectable 4,500-pound rating while the Chevrolet Traverse leads the pack with a 5,200-pound tow rating.

Capable towing requires solid power under the hood. Some of these crossovers have standard V6 powertrains, while others are unfortunately standard with anemic four-cylinder setups. The Traverse, Pilot, and Pathfinder come with standard V6 engines making between 250 and 280 horsepower. The Explorer and Highlander are available with V6 engines, but come standard with underpowered I4 engines. No matter what vehicle you choose, you will be paying more to get the best models for towing and trail driving.

More than ever, buyers are leaving their hulking SUVs for the improved fuel economy of crossovers. The front-wheel-drive Pathfinder leads this pack, with fuel economy of 20 city, 26 highway. The FWD Pathfinder ties city mileage with economy of 20 city and 25 highway, but requires selecting the underwhelming four-cylinder engine. The AWD Pathfinder is still impressive, delivering 19 mpg city and 25 highway. All entrants in this segment will likely have fuel economy that is in the mid- to high teens in the city and low- to mid-20s on the highway. We really have come a long way from expecting an eight-passenger vehicle to have an average mpg in the low teens.

Before buying a crossover, you really have to ask yourself how you are going to use it. If there is any chance of getting off the beaten path, the four-wheel-drive systems of the Explorer, Pilot, or Pathfinder are a must. If you plan on hauling kids and a lot of their gear, you may prefer the 116 cubic feet of storage space provided by the Traverse. Regardless of which you select, every vehicle has respectable towing, fuel economy, and passenger space. The fact that all of them can blend the vastly adversarial attributes of capability and fuel economy speaks to the ingenuity of every vehicle in the segment. Perhaps fear of not looking cool is not the only reason the crossover market is more than 1.5 million vehicles strong.