Way back, near the end of the 1900s, vanity drove moms and dads from the decidedly unradness of station wagons into the newly invented cavernous embrace of the minivan. But around the turn of the century, moms and dads who had grown up in captain's chairs perched behind sliding doors decided their generation was too Xtreme for minivans and needed something more Xciting. The SUV burst into mainstream America and thrived, becoming the favorite of soccer moms and den-leader dads. That is, until gas prices rose and the realities of driving a glorified work truck set in.

The tastes of the inhabitants of the earlier Y2Ks had become more advanced, mature, and realistic. They wanted the usability of the minivan, the economy of a car, and the rugged outdoorsy look of the sport/utility vehicle. The CUV, or crossover utility, was born in a flurry of compromises and a flourish of marketing.

We gathered six of the top contenders in the CUV category for the slap fight to end them all. Our rules were as follows: The base price of the specific model and trim level had to be under $40,000, but optional equipment was allowed to stray above that line. The CUV had to offer three seating rows, be powered by a V-6, and feature either AWD or 4WD.

No doubt, most of you have noticed a few big omissions. Before you start sharpening your torches and lighting your pitchforks, invites were sent to Ford, Chevrolet, and GMC. None of them were able to make their schedule of fleet vehicles match up with the month window we had to do the test.

Ride and Handling

The ride and handling characteristics in this segment are easily ignored by some buyers. Excuses range from "It's an SUV, it's supposed to ride like that" to "I'm not buying it to go racing." The fact is, ride and handling should be important in any vehicle. Nothing makes a road trip more unbearable than suffering through a choppy ride while making constant steering corrections because a vehicle won't track straight. None of these vehicles will be autocrossed, but they should be able to drive cross-country without exhausting driver or passenger.

The Pilot and Santa Fe fell to the bottom of this category. The Pilot felt like it's trying to be an off-roader, a bit top-heavy with a constant swaying sensation. Senior features editor Jonny Lieberman summed up the experience as "loose, rubbery, wobbly, and just out of date." The Santa Fe is unrefined and underdeveloped. Digital integration director Mike Floyd acknowledged the low priority most buyers give to ride and handling, but then said, "The other competitors are better."

The Mazda continues to be praised for being fun to drive. It won our last CUV comparo for that reason. Unfortunately for it, our new Big Test format puts more emphasis on real-world use and comfort, relegating it to mid-pack due to a suspension a bit too stiff for everyone but enthusiasts. The Highlander was slightly higher than mid-pack, feeling more like a minivan for dirt roads.

At the top of the spectrum the Durango and Pathfinder accomplished the same tasks in different ways. The Durango is a luxury rig. It has mass and cruises down the road pushing bumps back into the pavement. The Pathfinder is supple and well-tuned; it rolls down the highway and only struggles a bit on rough roads. Both vehicles track straight and true on the highway; they aren't pushed around by bumps, so the driver isn't constantly making corrections. Both offer great visibility, so they're as easy to drive in parking lots as on the open road.


Performance

As with handling, most buyers in this category care about quarter-mile times about as much as they do astrophysics. Luckily for everyone involved, it seems the manufacturers have decided on a general level of performance appropriate for this segment. All the 0-60-mph times are less than a second apart and quarter-mile times are even tighter.

The Durango is rated at 290 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, which is remarkably close to the Santa Fe's 290-hp and 252 lb-ft. The Hyundai was only 0.2 second faster in the quarter mile, even though the 5131-pound Durango, the group's heavyweight, is 823 pounds heavier than the flyweight Santa Fe.

The Highlander was certainly the performance standout in this group, even with mid-pack weight-to-power numbers. Weighing in at 4532 pounds and packing only 270 hp, it recorded the fastest 0-60-mph time at 7.1 seconds, the fastest quarter mile at 15.4 seconds, and the shortest stopping distance at 112 feet. At the other end of the spectrum sat the Pilot with 8.0 seconds to 60 mph, a 16.2-second quarter mile, and 122 feet from 60 to 0 mph.

The Pathfinder and CX-9 sat below the Highlander with the Pathfinder nipping acceleration by 0.2 second in both the 0-60 and quarter mile at 7.3 and 15.6 seconds, while the CX-9 stopped 3 feet shorter from 60 in 113 feet.

The real concern isn't numbers but driver confidence. Everything here "felt" adequate with no glaring standouts. The Mazda and Honda both suffered from outdated drivelines, the CX-9 with a six-speed automatic, while the Pilot is just months away from being retro-quaint with its five-speed. The Durango's eight-speed did a great job of masking the CUV's extra weight, while the Pathfinder groaned along with a CVT.