With fuel prices remaining relatively low, and no huge price jumps forecast in the near future, the appeal of larger vehicles is back. Sure, a subcompact crossover is appealing as a “jack of all trades.” But trying to scoot five teenagers and their school gear around in a Honda HR-V or Jeep Renegade is difficult. Although minivans are the perfect affordable family vehicle, the stigma of the “grown up” vehicle is enough to keep many shoppers at bay. Enter the three-row midsize crossover SUV. Offering the convenience of a minivan and the image of someone who might run through some mud once in a while, a midsize three-row SUV truly can be the Swiss army knife of the automotive industry.
Today we look at two of the top-selling three-row crossovers on the market: the 2016 Dodge Durango and 2016 Honda Pilot.
Pilot vs. Durango: Styling and Engine Choices
Updated for the 2014 model year, the Dodge Durango’s muscular styling is pure bravado. Where other crossovers have worked to soften their image, Dodge has gone in the opposite direction and doubled down on the Durango’s tough-guy persona.
But the Durango’s rough and tumble personality is much more than a styling choice. Its brawny 3.6-liter V6 produces 290 horsepower, but plays second fiddle to the optional 5.7-liter Hemi V8. When the V8 is paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission, the Durango uses all 360 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque to prove that a family-friendly vehicle doesn’t have to be lethargic.
All-new for 2016, the Honda Pilot has taken the opposite approach, softening the lines of the boxier outgoing model and replacing them with a smoother, flowing design. The new model shares more than a few design elements with the ever-popular Honda Odyssey minivan.
The all-new Pilot is powered by a revised 3.5-liter V6 engine that produces 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque, which is quite comparable to the base engine found in the Durango. The Pilot does not have a high-performance variant, but it is hard not to fall in love with Honda’s brilliant V6. I often refer to the engine as a sewing machine. It is smooth and consistent and historically runs for many years without as much as a hiccup.
Three-Row SUV Fuel Economy
Both the Durango and the Pilot are available with all-wheel-drive, and both have a reputation for being compliant in the snow and rain. Fuel economy in the 2016 Durango varies depending on model, but V6 variants with rear-wheel drive are rated at 19/27 mpg city/highway. All-wheel-drive models are rated at 18/25 mpg. Choose the Hemi V8, and the Durango is rated at 14/22 mpg, regardless of whether you opt for rear- or all-wheel drive.
Fuel economy in the 2016 Honda Pilot depends on the choice of transmission. With the standard six-speed automatic the Pilot is rated at 19/27 mpg city/highway, which is identical to what the V6-powered Durango offers. If you choose all-wheel-drive, fuel economy drops to 18/26 mpg. Opting for the nine-speed automatic that’s offered on higher trim levels provides a slight enhancement in efficiency: front-wheel drive models are rated at 20/27 mpg city/highway and all-wheel drive Pilots earn 19/26 mpg.
Neither the Durango nor the Pilot has a significant edge in fuel efficiency. However, the Pilot with the optional nine-speed transmission does provide a small advantage, especially if you are comparing all-wheel drive models.
Different Driving Dynamics
The Durango is comfortable on the road despite its rough and tumble exterior, with the possible exception of the sport-tuned R/T model with the 20-inch wheel and tire package. Dodge has done a nice job dialing in the suspension on all models for a great blend of performance and luxury. Unlike the vast majority of crossover SUVs in the segment, the Durango actually feels a little bit like a sports sedan from the driver’s seat. Revving up the massive Hemi V8 only enhances the effect. Steering is precise and braking is up to the task.
The Pilot is a well-mannered vehicle that excels on the highway and is obedient in the city. Honda’s approach is to create a compliant vehicle that is comfortable in the majority of driving situations, one that excels at cross-country trips but feels at home as a daily driver. I was able to take the Pilot on a six-hour trip across the state with my family and found the ride quality to exceed all expectations. Thanks to the Pilot Elite’s driving aids, including adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist, highway cruising was an absolute pleasure.
Interestingly, the old saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover” doesn’t necessarily apply to the midsize crossover segment. Well, at least not in this comparison. The Durango looks brawny and taut and the driving dynamic matches the exterior design quite well. On the other hand, the Honda Pilot looks a bit softer and gentler, which coincides with how the Pilot behaves on the road. I found both to be excellent performing SUVs. I appreciated the Durango’s feedback and fell in love with the Pilot’s soothing personality on the road.
The 2016 Dodge Durango offers comfortable seating for up to seven. The driver’s seat is roomy and the controls are all within reach for the majority of drivers. Dodge does a great job of placing the most important feature controls on the steering wheel. Second-row seating is generous for adults with plenty of legroom and headroom. The third row is raised higher than the other seats to enhance legroom and comfort. When you add in the video screens that Dodge has stealthily hidden in the backs of the first-row seats, the raised third row has a stadium feeling to it.
Cargo space is excellent. With all seats in place the Durango offers 17.2 cubic feet. By folding down the rear seats, maximum cargo space expands to 85.1 cubic feet, which is more than enough for transporting furniture and hockey equipment, or trips to the home-improvement store.
The Honda Pilot seats up to eight passengers when equipped with the second-row bench seat, which is standard in most trim levels. The driver and front passenger are treated to plenty of legroom, hip room and shoulder room. The front seats are plush, favoring comfort over sport. Controls are all within reach, and even loaded up Elite models find room for all of the accessories without crowding out the driver or overwhelming the driving experience with too many choices.
The second-row seats are also comfortable for two or three depending on the size of the occupants. Unlike the Durango, the Pilot includes seating for three passengers in the third row. The extra seat belt is a great option for emergencies and gives the Pilot a slight edge over the Durango, but seating three in the third row will make for a cramped experience for teenagers or adults.
Cargo space with all the seats in use is up to 16.5 cubic feet, expanding to a maximum of 83.9 cubic feet with the second and third rows folded. While the Durango may win the cargo numbers, the difference is small enough that it becomes a matter of preference. It is also important to note that while the Pilot may lose a cubic foot of cargo space, its additional seat could be used, at least in part, for storing a couple bags of groceries if both vehicles had seven occupants.
Durango and Pilot Pricing
The 2016 Dodge Durango starts at $30,495 and includes three-zone automatic climate control, a voice-activated Uconnect system, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and a nifty center console mounted rotary shifter. USB and Bluetooth connectivity, a 5.0-inch color touch screen and 18-inch alloy wheels are also included.
The 2016 Honda Pilot LX starts at $30,145 and comes with a seven-speaker audio system, USB and Bluetooth connectivity and a 5.0-inch color touch screen. The Pilot also includes a 4.2-inch color driver information center and 18-inch alloy wheels.
The two base vehicles are true competitors and picking a clear value-leader is impossible. Those interested in the brawny design of the Durango will find the base SXT to be a value-packed and family SUV. If you enjoy a softer ride and need an extra seat, the Pilot is the clear choice. But neither has any glaring faults or hidden concerns.
Enthusiasts will want to investigate the V8-powered Durango R/T, which starts at $41,995 and includes leather upholstery and heated first- and second-row seats. The R/T’s standard equipment qualifies the powerful SUV to be considered luxurious, albeit restrained. Steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters and a Beats audio system add to the premium feel, and the 8.4-inch touch screen with navigation is among the best infotainment systems in the segment. Twenty-inch alloy wheels finish the exterior off with a touch that is decidedly aggressive and upscale.
As nice as the Durango R/T is, the $46,570 Honda Pilot Elite is the luxury pick of the two. The softer nature of the Pilot results in a more premium feel, and the top-trim Pilot shares more than a few bolts with its Acura MDX counterpart. The all-wheel drive Elite is dressed up with leather seats, a gigantic panoramic sunroof, a heated steering wheel and heated second-row captain’s chairs. Opting for the Elite means losing a seat in the second row, but the aisle made by the missing seat enhances the ingress and egress of third-row passengers. My review vehicle was a Pilot Elite, and after spending a week with it I can’t imagine a better family vacation vehicle for the price.