What’s the best three-row family crossover for $45,000?


The three-row family SUVs that typically get highlighted are special off-road versions, or the top-of-the-line Platinum Elite Limited versions with quilted leather and heated everything that few people actually buy. Or can afford to buy. Today, we’re here to look at the volume-selling portion, or those in the middle of each three-row SUV’s trim lineup. True, $45,000 is still a big chunk of change, but it’s also 2023 and that’s the way it is. We certainly could’ve gone lower, but we figured $45,000 was a nice round number and it gave us a bit more variety of choice. 

Now, if you want to know what we think are the best three-row SUVs, check out our list here. That would be an objective take on the segment where we take into consideration the average buyer. This list is literally what our individual editors would get for whatever reason. That should become quickly obvious. 

As always with this little weekly game, there are rules. For this week, they are:

  1. It must be new.
  2. You must spend within $1,000 of the MSRP. You can’t use $40,000 on the SUV and spend the rest on Uppa Baby gear.
  3. EV tax rebates cannot be applied to lower the cost.

Jeep Grand Cherokee L Laredo

Senior Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski: I thought long and hard about this one. I happen to own an SUV with three rows of seats, and while my Suburban is old, thirsty and very trucky, the reasons I chose it are otherwise solely due to utility. So if I were shopping for a new three-row ‘ute to replace it, I’d have to choose something that can tow and has a real four-wheel-drive system with low range. Yes, I know a crossover like the Hyundai Palisade would be more comfortable for long trips than a traditional SUV, but that’s less important to me than sheer capability. Turns out you can just barely squeak under our $45,000 price cap with a Jeep Grand Cherokee L Laredo 4×4.

There’s just enough imaginary budget left to add the Luxury Tech Group, outfitting the Laredo with heated seats and steering wheel, a power liftgate, remote start and a bunch of interior charging ports. Jeep’s Uconnect 5 is a solid piece of software, and it works well enough on the Grand Cherokee L’s base 8.4-inch screen. But most importantly for a proper sport utility vehicle, the rear-drive-based chassis and 293-hp 3.6-liter V6 engine with the desirable eight-speed automatic gearbox can tow 6,200 pounds, and do so with greater ease than its more car-like rivals. The Trailer Tow Group improves powertrain cooling and adds load-leveling suspension. This SUV also boasts Jeep’s class-leading four-wheel-drive tech, complete with a traditional two-speed transfer case. It’ll get the job done even when the going gets tough.

Kia Telluride EX X-Line

Senior Editor John Beltz Snyder: We’ve got a Hyundai Palisade in the Snyder household, so that’s what I’d likely have picked if I could find a suitable configuration within $1,000 of our target. I looked at the Kia Telluride configurator, though, and saw the EX X-Line right in that wheelhouse, with a respectable feature set. All-wheel drive is part of the X-Line package, along with the increased ground clearance. It also has heated and ventilated leather-trimmed seats, a sunroof, wireless phone charger and Highway Driving Assist. Picking one of the fancier colors (I love the Midnight Blue) would have pushed me past our price target, so I went with the also excellent Dark Moss. I also really dig those wheels. In all, not a bad replacement for the Palisade. Looks cooler, too.

Honda Pilot EX-L

Managing Editor Greg Rasa: It’s rare that you can say a three-row family SUV is handsome. Most of them are anonymous boxes. The list of really attractive choices is short. In the luxury segment, it’s Volvo XC90. In non-luxury, there’s the Mazda CX-90 and now, thanks to its redesign for 2023, the Honda Pilot. And, well, that’s about it. The Pilot used to among the ubiquitous many — one of the boringest, really — but it’s got some chiseled good looks going for it now. It at least looks rugged, even if you never take it off pavement, which you won’t. The interior’s much improved, too.

The 2023 Honda Pilot starts at $36,300 before destination in base LX trim. Our budget won’t quite let us buy into the rugged new TrailSport trim, but we can take two steps up from base to EX-L trim, starting at $42,300. For that, you get leather seating, Apple CarPlay, power tailgate, parking sensors, and more. Add AWD for $2,100, towing package for $750 and second-row captain’s chairs for $300, and you’re at $45,450. Done.

Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek

Senior Editor James Riswick: I originally intended to pick the Pilot here, but then the TrailSport proved to be too expensive and I totally missed the “AWD” button in the configurator (that Rasa found) that would get an EX-L up to $45,000. Then, Snyder totally built the exact same Telluride I would have, and where would the fun in that be? As such, allow me to introduce you to the Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek. While other outdoor adventurey trim levels like the Pilot TrailSport, Telluride X-Pro and Explorer Timberline are all over our $45,000 limit, the Rock Creek is comfortably under it at $43,020. For that, you get an off-road-tuned suspension, cool beadlock-looking 18-inch wheels in gloss black, Toyo Open Country all-terrain tires and a 0.6-inch lift that admittedly still leaves it an inch short of a standard Subaru Ascent (I thought about that but the steering stinks and man is it now ugly). There’s also a very compelling design package, including gloss black trim, matte black plastic bumpers and fenders, a tow hitch and a platform-type roof rack. I dig it, especially with the $790 two-tone Scarlet Ember/Super Black paint job I added (I also added a $345 Cargo Package that adds cargo mats, nets and dividers to bring me up to within $45,000). For my family, a three-row crossover would be used for outdoor adventurey road trips, so having a trim level specifically designed for such would make sense. Of course, I have not driven a Rock Creek. I’ve tested a regular Pathfinder and found it to be perfectly serviceable, which should be just fine given my original choices were a Pilot and Telluride. I have some concerns with ride, handling and noise with those Toyo off-road tires, but then Snyder only mentioned noise as a drawback in his first drive, so if it drove me nuts, I’d just have to yell at him for stealing my damn Telluride. 

2024 Mazda CX-90 Turbo Preferred

Mazda CX-90 Turbo Preferred

News Editor Joel Stocksdale: Truthfully, if I was really buying in this segment, I’d save up a couple grand more to get the plug-in hybrid version of the CX-90 for its combination of power and efficiency. But seeing as we’ve got a hard budget cap, I’ve gone with a more modest CX-90 Turbo. It does have the turbocharged 3.3-liter straight-six, but it’s the lower-output version. This one makes 280 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque as opposed to the 340 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of the Turbo S. That’s also less output than the hybrid. Still, it’s right on par, or better than some of the V6s above. But the key thing for me is that it still has the spectacular chassis and steering of its more powerful siblings, the things that really made me fall for it on the first drive. Plus the six will be just as smooth even with less power, and the looks inside and out will still feel upscale. It’s maybe not quite as spacious as some of the above options, but it’s not that often that I need people-carrying space. And if the cargo space isn’t enough, the version I picked can tow 3,500 pounds, so worst-case scenario can involve a U-Haul trailer in the undetermined future.

The Turbo Preferred is actually the second lowest rung on the CX-90 ladder, but it still comes nicely equipped. On the outside it has LED lighting with auto high-beams, 19-inch alloy wheels, sunroof, power hatch, and, for $595 extra, Mazda’s gorgeous Soul Red Crystal Metallic. Inside, I opted for the “Griege” leather interior, which is a sort of dark beige that brightens things up a bit, but also looks dark enough that it hopefully won’t be tinted by whatever I’m wearing. It also has three-zone automatic climate control, heated power front seats, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and a 10.25-inch infotainment screen. I also opted for the second row bench (no cost) because that’s more useful for my rather large dog. All-in, this CX-90 came to $45,415.

GLB250

Mercedes-Benz GLB 250 4Matic

Road Test Editor Zac Palmer: Well, aren’t these a lot of rather boring-looking cars? I’m here to halfway change that with my three-row 2023 Mercedes-Benz GLB 250 4Matic. I sure do wish the budget allowed for the spicy GLB 35, but I’ll just have to make do with the lower output 2.0-liter turbo paired with the eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. It still gets an adjustable suspension system and adaptive dampers alongside the 4Matic AWD system, so this little ‘ute is reasonably entertaining to drive. Not to mention, it looks better than every other three-row SUV proposed here.

The first place I went on the options list was to check the box for the optional third row that costs a hefty $850. It’s an essentially useless third row for humans larger than children, but since it’s there, I meet the requirements for this task. From there, I had some money left over for the stunning Rose Gold Metallic paint and 19-inch silver and black wheels. A pretty (and free) beige MB-Tex interior option matches the Rose Gold well, and I sprung for the $325 Natural Grain Brown Walnut wood to complete the look. I could’ve saved a few dollars, but decided to spend the rest of my budget on a heated steering wheel and Mercedes’ impressive 64-color ambient lighting setup for a final price of $45,935. I think I won this round.

Kia Sorento Hybrid SX Prestige

Associate Editor Byron Hurd: Ugh, three-rows. Not the car for me by any stretch of the imagination, but try as I might, I couldn’t sneak a spoiler into this that fit the pricing profile (looking at you, Carnival) so I settled for a three-row that doesn’t really feel like one: the Sorento. A hybrid SX Prestige with some cargo accessories (appropriate, given that’s the only “SUV” duty it would ever see) comes to $45,415 — almost perfect. Would have been nice to spring for the PHEV, but hey, rules are rules. 

This would be a decent fit, though. Plenty of cargo room with the third row stowed and hybrid power (and fuel economy — 36 city, 33 highway and 35 combined)) for all the times it’s not. It would also be a decent little airport express pickup machine. Sadly, I just don’t have much use for a car in this class otherwise. A truck makes way more sense for me, but again, rules.

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