When you design a crossover with three rows of seats, there are typically two approaches:
One is to go all-business, creating a big box with lots of space and family-friendly amenities.
The other is to make a car that’s more elegant, sporty or otherwise stylish, at the expense of maximizing utility.
This month, we enjoyed back-to-back tests of two, three-row crossovers, which offer excellent blends of both qualities. While neither car is without faults, both provide plenty of room for passengers and cargo — along with qualities that elevate them above mere functionality. The 2019 Mazda CX-9 offers sporty styling and handling, while the all-new 2020 Hyundai Palisade is loaded with luxury amenities and an upscale design.
We will start with the Palisade, Hyundai’s biggest-ever SUV or crossover. It has been turning heads since its debut this summer, providing a no-compromise alternative to less interesting, less spacious and more expensive sales leaders like the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer.
Like its mechanical twin, the Kia Telluride — which we tested this past spring — the Palisade has room for up to eight passengers in more comfort than you usually find outside a minivan. It glides serenely down the highway like a Honda Pilot, yet with more responsive steering and handling when the exit ramp has a sharp turn. Its V6 engine is both powerful and decently economical, with EPA estimates of up to 22 mpg in mixed driving. (The tested model beat EPA estimates, to return 25.4 mpg during a week of Maryland driving.)
All throughout the Palisade’s cabin, you can see that Hyundai checked all the boxes. Most cabin materials are high-grade, and everything fits together smoothly — a clear cut above competitors like the Ford Explorer and Chevrolet Traverse. The dashboard design is modern yet user-friendly, and its extra-wide touchscreen infotainment system lets you see more settings at once.
Hyundai also cleverly designed the center console to rise up and meet the dashboard, which not only looks like a luxury sedan but also makes room for a spacious storage area below it. It leaves enough room for a purse between the front seats while still providing a full console. The only tradeoff is that some drivers might prefer a traditional gear selector rather than the Hyundai’s space-saving push-button selections.
Aside from this storage area, the main way the Palisade differs from its Telluride twin is the exterior design. The Telluride is boxy and has simple, clean lines; the Palisade has more decorations and ornamentation. Tastes will vary about which design is more successful; most critics have favored the Kia, and we’re inclined to agree. The Telluride also has more standard equipment at a similar base price, slightly more cargo space behind the third-row seat and some richer-feeling buttons and knobs on the dashboard.
But if you are looking for any three-row crossover, the Palisade and Telluride are cannot-miss choices. They are supremely well-rounded and well-executed, and they also feel more luxurious than most mainstream-brand crossovers — even those costing thousands more. The Palisade is priced from $32,595 and stays below $50,000 with all the options.
Budget-minded shoppers should be aware that few discounts from the sticker price are available yet for this high-demand vehicle, but it’s a great option even without a big discount.
While the Palisade is a big, posh vehicle, the Mazda CX-9 displays a different style of luxury. Its graceful styling hides this car’s bulk — it is actually longer and taller than the Palisade, but it looks trim and unimposing. The CX-9 also feels agreeably compact from the driver’s seat. Its cabin is designed to feel cozy rather than massive, and its low dashboard is more like a car than a truck’s.
Even more impressive is the way the CX-9 tackles a winding road. While not quite high-performance, its effortless composure makes you feel like you’re driving a much smaller car — it feels natural to take curves at a speed you’d never consider in most big seven-passenger crossovers. Suspension revisions this year improved its ride quality, while maintaining this handling prowess.
The CX-9 does feel small in a couple of negative ways. There are just seven seats rather than eight, and third-row legroom is tighter than in the Hyundai, but even adults can still fit without excessive squeezing. And cargo volume trails the class leaders, particularly behind the third-row seat.
Its infotainment screen is also on the small side at 8 inches, compared to 10.25 inches on the Palisade, though Mazda does now support Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration.
Also, the Mazda’s engine is not super-potent — a 227-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder that can make 250 horsepower if you use premium fuel — but there is plenty of zip for normal driving. The EPA rates it for up to 24 mpg in mixed driving, though a week in the CX-9 yielded about the same 25 mpg as the V6-powered Palisade.
Overall, though, the CX-9 can be the perfect three-row crossover for someone who needs a fair bit of room — albeit less than the Palisade — but does not want to feel like they are driving a bus.
The Mazda’s artful exterior and interior design and its excellent handling make it easy to forget that there’s room for seven people inside. Prices start at $33,325, though, unlike the newly released Palisade, the CX-9 is often available at a substantial discount from its MSRP.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.