Choosing the right car isn't easy, so we want to help by letting you know what we'd buy with our own money. Today, we're diving into midsize crossovers, a segment that cuts a wide swath across the industry. There are more choices than ever before, and most of the vehicles in this segment are actually pretty good, which makes it hard to narrow down, but that's our skill set. We keep the price under $35K, which is the average price of a new vehicle in America today. But before we give you our choices, let's find out what a midsize crossover actually is.
What is a Midsize Crossover?
The terms "crossover" and "SUV" are tossed around almost interchangeably by carmakers, depending on who they want to appeal to. But there is a relatively clear definition of "crossover".
- Crossover: a light-duty unibody (body and frame are one) vehicle based on a car platform. For example, the Toyota RAV4 crossover shares the same TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture) platform with the Camry. This makes the RAV4 a crossover. The Toyota 4Runner, however, would be an SUV because it's truck-based, sharing underpinnings with the Toyota Tundra pickup truck.
- Midsize Crossover: this is a subcategory of crossovers, sandwiched between the smaller compact and the larger full-sized crossover segments. Though there's no hard dimensions, midsize crossovers can have two or three rows, with room for between 5 and 8 occupants (including the driver). The first two rows can typically fit adults comfortably. Typically, all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive are at least optional, if not standard.
What are We Looking For?
There's a lot out there to choose from in terms of key criteria, but we break things down into a few important desirable traits.
- Safe: the crossover should get at least a Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS and a Five-Star crash test rating from the NHTSA.
- Attractive Styling: this means it's at least a little attractive to look at both inside and out. After all, you have to live with it. This is a more subjective category. Even though most cars are decent, some stand out, while others are objectively hideous.
- Comfortable: a six-foot-tall adult should fit comfortably in the second row. The third row should at least hold shorter adults, not just kids. Seats should be well-cushioned and supportive with good adjustability and seating position.
- Fun to Drive: we don't want a car that's heavy and ponderous to drive. It should also have good steering that's precise (not floaty) and responsive (turns immediately).
- Easy Tech: the in-car technology shouldn't be frustrating. Instead, there should be good physical controls, not just screen buttons. The screen should be easy to read and menus easy to navigate.
- Good Cargo Space: Midsizers aren't huge, but with the seats folded flat, a good one should have at least 70 cubic feet of cargo space with a low load height (objects don't have to be lifted high to load) and a flat load floor that's also wide. If there's a third row, there should be at least 15 cubic feet of space behind the third row.
New Under $35,000: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas
Volkswagen knocked this American-built crossover out of the park, and they actually needed to after the whole diesel scandal that rocked the brand. Here's how it fares in our important categories.
- Safe: it's a Top Safety Pick from the IIHS and gets 5 Stars from the NHTSA. It missed the very top score because of "marginal" headlights and LATCH child seat ease of use. We can attest that both are decent.
- Attractive Styling: the Atlas is definitely chunky but in a good way. The exterior styling is masculine and tough, while the inside is well-laid out, and very easy to use.
- Comfortable: there's a shocking amount of room in here for all occupants. The seats are also very good in terms of bolstering for turns and overall support for longer trips.
- Fun to Drive: nothing this big should be so good to drive, but VW does a great job. The Atlas has great steering, turns well, and brakes well. It could use a bit more power from both the base and optional engines, though.
- Easy Tech: the infotainment system won't win any design awards, but everything is clean and responsive. Menus are easy to toggle through, and the screen is very visible.
- Good Cargo Space: It's huge inside. There's 56 cubic feet behind the 2nd row and a whopping 96 cu. ft. with all seats folded flat.
- BASE PRICE (New): $30,750
Used Under $35,000: 2017 Mazda CX-9
We've loved the 2nd-generation CX-9 since it came out, largely because it has just about everything you want AND it's superb behind the wheel, almost like a larger sports car instead of a crossover. Here's how it did in each one of our important categories.
- Safe: it's a Top Safety Pick+ from the IIHS and gets 5 Stars from the NHTSA.
- Attractive Styling: we don't think there's a better-styled crossover at this price. It's got sexy curves, great proportions, and the interior is stunning with materials and design that should be reserved for pricier steeds.
- Comfortable: though it's not as big inside as the Atlas, 1st and 2nd-row space is good. The third row is a little cramped for adults. Ergonomics and seat comfort are top notch.
- Fun to Drive: this thing turns like a sports car with punchy acceleration, sharp steering, and some of the best body control in the industry.
- Easy Tech: the infotainment system is simple and easy to use. Though you can't operate the touchscreen while the car is moving, the central control knob can manage all infotainment functions easily.
- Good Cargo Space: the 14 cubic feet behind the third row is 1 shy of what we'd like, but at least it has a solid 71 cubic feet with the seats folded flat.
- BASE PRICE (Used, Touring AWD): $33,000