On Autos: Three big crossovers target families’ needs

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The 2017 Nissan Pathfinder is among the roomy, family-friendly full-size crossovers. (Brady Holt/The Current)

For many Northwest residents, a big car is more hassle than handy — a pain to maneuver and park in crowded city conditions.

But plenty of families are still more than willing to trade some maneuverability for a roomy interior with three rows of seats. Among the leading options are full-size crossovers, which offer more style than a minivan and superior space efficiency and gas mileage compared to a traditional truck-based SUV.

Three recently tested full-size crossovers — the extra-spacious Volkswagen Atlas, the surprisingly sporty Mazda CX-9 and the relatively affordable Nissan Pathfinder — demonstrate the appeal found in this type of vehicle. All have base prices in the low $30,000s, can comfortably fit five adults and as many as seven in a pinch, and offer a respectable degree of comfort and refinement.

The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas offers a roomy interior and composed driving dynamics. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The Atlas, new for 2018, is perhaps the best all-around family vehicle of this trio — and possibly of the entire market class. Volkswagen’s first foray into the three-row crossover segment boasts a cleverly designed cabin that makes excellent use of the Atlas’ ample dimensions.

Not only is there generous passenger space in all three rows, but luggage capacity is also ample. There’s 21 cubic feet of space behind the third-row seat — unlike some competitors, the Atlas can carry a decent amount of cargo even when all the seats are occupied — and folding down all the seats results in a whopping 97 cubic feet. That figure beats every competitor except the larger and bulkier Chevrolet Traverse. Credit VW’s usefully boxy shape and its slim seats, which take up little space when folded and also help achieve a conveniently low cargo floor.

The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas offers a cleanly styled interior. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Volkswagen also made the new Atlas one of the more fun-to-drive big crossovers. Although it looks and feels like a big box when it’s parked, it displays respectable ride and handling composure on the road at all speeds. It also has a relatively tidy turning circle for such a big vehicle: 38 feet.

There are a few weak points. Although there would have been space to fit a third passenger into the third-row seat, Volkswagen elected to cap the Atlas’ seating capacity at seven — unlike a Honda Pilot or Toyota Highlander, which can squeeze in up to eight. Furthermore, the cleanly styled but unadventurous interior may seem dull or downscale to some.

There’s also room for better gas mileage. The tested front-wheel-drive Atlas is rated for 20 mpg in mixed driving with its 3.6-liter V6 engine, and all-wheel-drive drops that figure to 19 mpg — among the worst EPA ratings in the class. A 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is also planned soon, but don’t expect efficiency miracles in this heavy crossover. Real-world mileage did beat the EPA estimate, at least: A tested front-wheel-drive V6 Atlas averaged a respectable 24.5 mpg in a week of driving.

The 2017 Mazda CX-9 stylishly disguises its seven-passenger interior volume. (Brady Holt/The Current)

For sleeker styling and better fuel economy, the Mazda CX-9 is another appealing choice. It doesn’t offer the Atlas’ extra-roomy cabin, but it does still fit seven passengers without too much fuss. And unlike most vehicles this size, the CX-9 looks and feels like a much smaller car. Although it’s actually more than an inch longer than the Atlas — at a substantial 199.4 inches — one observer was surprised to learn that it even fits a third row at all. Mazda’s designers worked magic, crafting a svelte shape that slimmed down this big vehicle.

The deception continues inside, where a low, slim dashboard and high center console bring to mind a lithe sports sedan more than a seven-passenger family-hauling barge. Some buyers will favor an airier, more open cabin, but the Mazda’s compact feel has its own clear appeal. The CX-9 also doesn’t feel big and bulky on the road, with even livelier handling than the Atlas. It’s not quite a driving enthusiast’s dream ride, but it inspires confidence and then lives up to expectations when it’s pushed harder.

The 2017 Mazda CX-9 interior has the look and feel of a sports sedan rather than a big crossover. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Mazda achieves excellent gas mileage from a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, especially in gentle driving where the small engine doesn’t have to work too hard. It’s rated for an excellent 24 mpg with front-wheel-drive and 23 mpg with all-wheel-drive; the tested all-wheel-drive CX-9 averaged 26.2 mpg during a week of mixed driving.

An updated 2018 CX-9 is due soon with standard emergency automatic braking and blind-spot monitoring; while these are already included on most 2017 models, wait for the 2018 if you’d prefer the base model.

The 2017 Nissan Pathfinder isn’t especially polished, but it’s roomy, affordable and respectably pleasant. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The Nissan Pathfinder, recently updated for the 2017 model year, also offers appealing family-friendly qualities at a relatively affordable price. While the interior styling isn’t especially fresh or modern, and while the ride and handling aren’t particularly polished, the Pathfinder delivers a comfortable interior and a fuel-efficient V6. Most models get an excellent 23 mpg in mixed driving with front-wheel-drive or 22 mpg with four-wheel-drive, despite their smooth and powerful engine. A weeklong test in the fully loaded Pathfinder Platinum 4WD, whose EPA rating falls to 21 mpg, saw a respectable 24.5-mpg average.

But if you can, consider waiting for the 2018 Pathfinder, due in dealerships soon. Like Mazda, Nissan is adding emergency automatic braking as standard equipment on most of its 2018 models, including the Pathfinder, and this valuable system remains a pricey option on most competitors. Unless you are planning to get a fully loaded model anyway, Nissan’s decision adds great appeal for buyers interested in both safety and affordability.

The 2017 Nissan Pathfinder is functional but isn’t as modern as some competitors. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The Pathfinder also has another feature widely available that’s a boon for city driving: a surround-view camera system, which shows drivers all the obstacles around them as they park or otherwise maneuver in tight spaces — particularly handy in plus-sized vehicles like this one. Although this feature is spreading to the competition as well, Nissan makes it available even on cheaper Pathfinder trims.

The Pathfinder, CX-9 and Atlas also have some particularly strong competitors: The Honda Pilot is slightly smaller than this trio yet delivers spacious passenger accommodations along with a smooth, quiet ride; impressive gas mileage; and reasonable prices. Meanwhile, the significantly smaller Toyota Highlander isn’t as roomy or refined as these models, but it’s maneuverable, fuel-efficient (especially in the available gas-electric hybrid model) and, like the 2018 Pathfinder, equipped with a host of standard safety features. Lastly, the significantly smaller Kia Sorento is a leading contender for buyers seeking three rows of seats, a luxurious experience and a minimal amount of extra bulk.