Families today have big appetites and big wants. Thoughts of shopping at Costco or transporting half the team are more than enough to rationalize a vehicle that can swallow seven, be they vats of canola oil or soccer players. And while the minivan, wagon, and SUV often meet those needs, they suffer from social stigmas. Automakers, ever so keen, have been establishing and touting a relatively new breed of sport/utility known as "crossovers," a segment that's outpacing the staggering growth of SUVs in the 1990s. In fact, in 2006 more crossovers were sold than SUVs, for the first time ever.
These CUVs ditch truck underpinnings for car platforms and cross over the boundaries of minivan, wagon, and SUV, imparting a bit of each while carrying few if any of the stigmas. Naturally, there exist varying subsets within the segment, none more popular than the premium midsize CUV. These crossovers offer carlike characteristics, all-wheel drive, and the requisite luxuries-leather seats, power tailgate, backup camera, navigation and DVD systems, and six airbags-all wrapped in a package that can carry seven adults.
Scouring this class of CUV exposed three brand-new models, each plenty ripe to compete in a comprehensive taste test. The Acura MDX, now in its second generation, wears show-car sheetmetal and an SH-AWD badge to signify a sophisticated "Super Handling All-Wheel Drive" system. By routing power not only fore and aft but also side to side via a direct yaw-control component, SH-AWD promises sport-sedan-like handling and optimal delivery of the MDX's 300 horsepower. GMC's Acadia, one of three all-new crossovers from the General to share the unibody Lambda architecture-the other two are the Buick Enclave and the Saturn Outlook-is saddled with bringing a crossover mentality to a truck brand. For this test, we opted for a topline SLT-2 AWD, the most professional grade possible. The CX-9 is the only seven-seater in Mazda's lineup, making it the only alternative for customers who come knocking for the now-deceased MPV minivan. As such, it's the be-all family crossover for the zoom-zoom brand. Rounding out this threesome, we selected a Grand Touring AWD, which, as its name suggests, is the grandest of the portfolio, with abundant standard equipment and an Active Torque Split all-wheel-drive system.
To determine which crossover sits atop the crest, we packed our jackets, notepads, and cameras and headed for the winter wonderland that is Sierra Summit, an understated mountain resort off of Highway 168, just 65 miles northeast of Fresno. The 600-mile round trip would not only give us ample time on the highway, but also plenty of action on the serpentine roads that zigzag around Shaver Lake. Following two days of driving and a half day of testing the slickness of the slopes (oh, yeah, we packed our skis), we soaked in a 104-degree hot tub deliberating until our fingers resembled prunes. Fatigued yet relaxed, we had a winner-cross over to see.