By Brady Holt
When automakers position their products against the competition, big tends to be an advantage: “Our car has more room than their car.”
If you’re looking for a crossover with three rows of seats, that’s a pretty significant advantage. When you have a large family, every inch of legroom and every cubic foot of cargo space can be a pretty big deal.
Understanding this dynamic, most brands have steadily increased the sizes of their three-row crossovers. And the two newest models on the market — the Subaru Ascent and Volkswagen Atlas — came well-suited to compete in the size wars.
But maybe you feel some of these models have gotten out of hand. Maybe you don’t want something as big as an Ascent or Atlas, or a Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot or Chevrolet Traverse, to name three other best-sellers. Yet you still want three rows of seats and available all-wheel-drive.
If that sounds like you, three recently tested models belong on your shopping list: the popular 2018 Toyota Highlander, the newly-updated 2019 Kia Sorento and the value-priced 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe XL.
The Highlander brings a pretty impressive spec sheet. Although it’s a relatively tidy 192.5 inches long — about the same as a Toyota Camry sedan — it makes room for up to eight passengers, even while several larger competitors max out at seven seats.
It also brings an appealing balance of above-average power and above-average fuel economy. Most versions use the tested 3.5-liter V6, which makes 295 horsepower while achieving an EPA-estimated 23 miles per gallon in mixed driving with front-wheel-drive and 22 mpg with the tested all-wheel-drive. The tested AWD vehicle averaged an even more impressive 25 mpg. A gas-electric hybrid model hits a whopping 29 mpg in mixed driving, but it can be pricey; there’s also a base four-cylinder engine that drinks more gas than the V6.
On the road, the Highlander avoids feeling bulky and clumsy. You have a high, commanding driving position but not the width, length or wide turning radius of a bigger crossover. The ride is reasonably smooth and quiet, and handling feels natural.
A neat feature in the Highlander is Toyota’s Easy Speak system, also found in the Sienna minivan. It projects the driver’s voice into the rear speakers to better reach passengers in the far back. Another class-exclusive touch is a separate opening for the rear windshield glass, letting you bypass the slow process of opening and closing the full power liftgate to grab or toss in something small.
However, though Highlander is no less expensive than many of its roomier competitors — it starts at $32,275 and hit $47,655 in the tested Limited Platinum trim — it lacks the luxurious polish that’s increasingly common in this class.
The cabin has some dressy design elements, but also many areas of low-grade plastics and awkwardly clunky moving parts. There’s no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone integration, and the audio system’s knobs are awkward to grasp. Several competitors also have more upscale driving experiences, with more hushed, absorbent rides or agile, responsive handling.
Toyota claws back on value with generous standard safety technology and two years or 24,000 miles of free scheduled maintenance, but it remains on the pricey side for its class.
One more luxurious competitor comes from an unlikely source: Kia, better known for low prices and a long warranty. The 2019 Sorento — currently the brand’s best-seller — brings arguably more graceful exterior styling than the Highlander, along with unquestionably richer interior materials. The Sorento not only looks more upscale than the Highlander inside, but it also boasts more user-friendly and more technologically-advanced controls.
Despite this polish, the Sorento does also bring lower prices and a longer warranty that Kia has always promised. While prices easily soar from the base $26,890, they remain lower than comparably-equipped Highlanders (and most other competitors).
A 2019 update also improved fuel economy with the most popular engine: a 290-horsepower 3.3-liter V6, now mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Efficiency still lags 1 mpg behind the comparable Highlander, though.
The Sorento’s biggest weakness is its cabin space. The Highlander already makes you sacrifice some room to get its smaller dimensions, particularly in the third-row seat, but the Sorento takes it a step further. There isn’t much room even in the second row, much less the third, and there’s minimal cargo space with all seats in use. It also only seats seven rather than eight passengers.
Meanwhile, a model from Kia’s sister brand offers another Highlander alternative: the 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe XL, a newly-renamed version of last year’s Santa Fe (that name now applies to a smaller vehicle). Although it’s older than the Sorento or the Highlander, it drives with a spry confidence that eludes the other two. Its cabin isn’t as dressy as the Sorento’s, but it’s sufficiently modern and it offers more room. There aren’t eight seats like in the Highlander, but the Hyundai’s seven passengers will be more comfortable. As in the Sorento, though, cargo room is skimpier than most three-row crossovers until you fold the third row down.
The Santa Fe XL brings two key downsides: mediocre fuel economy (ranging from 21 to 19 mpg in mixed driving, depending on the model) and a limited availability of the best safety features. A suite of advanced accident-avoidance technology is standard on the Highlander and widely available on the Sorento, but it’s restricted to an option on the top Santa Fe XL trim — which also cuts seating capacity to six. (The 2019 Santa Fe, an all-new five-passenger crossover, also includes them as standard equipment.)
Those issues ding the Santa Fe XL’s status as a value contender. And some buyers will prefer a lower base price than its $31,830, though Hyundai offsets that with generous standard equipment. But its extra-agreeable driving experience makes it worth a test drive.
Buyers who don’t want an oversized crossover would also do well to consider the Mazda CX-9. While it’s larger than these three, it feels cozy from the driver’s seat and compact on a winding road. The GMC Acadia is another seven-seat crossover that’s bucked the trend of plus-size dimensions, though it can get expensive.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.