The second-generation Mazda CX-9 shook up the large family crossover segment when it arrived here about a year ago, but it's not the be-all and end-all.
For instance, the colossal American-made Toyota Kluger and Nissan Pathfinder may not have the Mazda's badge or chic design, but they're both noteworthy prospects.
Here, we're testing this trio in their flagship specification levels to give you an idea of all the tech on offer, but note that you can have each around $20,000 cheaper if you opt for an entry version.
The test: Kia Sorento GT-Line versus Nissan Pathfinder Ti versus Toyota Kluger Grande.
Price and specs
The Kia Sorento GT-Line is both the smallest (relatively speaking) and most affordable of this trio, priced at $58,490 before on-road costs. Comparatively, the Pathfinder Ti is $66,190 and the Kluger Grande $69,906.
It's worth noting you can the Sorento with the same engine and all-wheel drive (AWD) for $44,490 in Si grade, the Pathfinder AWD ST for $45,490 and the Kluger GX for $47,550.
So none of these on test are for families on the tightest of budgets, though naturally all come loaded with equipment to justify their positioning as range-toppers.
Features common to all include a sunroof, roof rails, proximity key, electric tailgate, heated/ventilated leather seats, a touch screen (7.0-inch on the Kia, 8.0-inch on the other two), satellite navigation, and climate control.
You also get safety equipment such as parking sensors (all-round on the Kia), a rear-view camera (with above-view on the Toyota and Nissan), blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert for backing out of parking spots, adaptive cruise control that follows the car ahead, and autonomous emergency braking.
The Pathfinder has an electric steering column, a 13-speaker BOSE audio system, 20-inch wheels (the others feature 19s), full LED projector headlights and two screens for middle-row occupants with wireless headphones, and HDMI/USB inputs.
The Kluger offers a single roof-mounted 9.0-inch rear screen with SD and Blu-ray inputs and DAB+, while the Kia has slick red leather seats and a heated steering wheel.
Despite a recent update, the Pathfinder's cabin still feels like a bit of a proverbial grab-bag. On the plus side, that new 8.0-inch touchscreen is crisper and has simpler menus than before, there's better Bluetooth software, great build quality, and some genuinely tactile leather and plastic surfaces.
The heated and ventilated leather seats are basically sofas, and there's also a great 13-speaker BOSE audio system with 'Acoustic Waveguide' tech, and an electric-adjustable steering column. Other highlights include middle-row climate control adjustment, panoramic glass roof, 360-degree camera, LED headlights, remote engine start, and auto tilt-down side mirrors to stop you kerb-rashing those nice alloys.
Yet the fascia is still button-heavy, the interface remains less intuitive than its rivals, it lacks the Kluger's multitude of clever storage nooks, and that foot-operated parking brake remains.
The other area where the Pathfinder is truly distinguished is cabin space. Like the Kluger, it's a proper three-row, seven-seater rather than a '5+2'.
The middle row seats slide and recline, there are ISOFIX anchors – the large portion of the 60:40 split is on the left-hand side for those affixing permanent child seats, though you can tilt and slide the right-side with an ISOFIX-compatible child seat in place to maintain third-row access – big side windows, LED reading lights, and a flat floor.
There's also a screen embedded in each front-seat headrest that plays DVDs, USBs, HMDI and Aux-in. Nissan's other party trick is the EZ flex seating system in which the middle seats 'shrug' – pull a lever and the base rises, the chair slides on rails, and the back-rest tilts downwards in one simple movement.
Access to the third row is therefore well ahead of anything this side of a Kia Carnival or Honda Odyssey, and the third-row seating also includes recline adjustment and comes with a rear tether point for a child restraint. Headroom and legroom is decent, though toe-room is limited.
An electric tailgate with motion sensor liberates a large storage area that offers as much as 2260 litres of space with the middle and back row of seats folded flat. There are a total of 10 cupholders, six bottle-holders, four 12V outlets and an under-floor storage compartment below seats six and seven.
Kia's higher-end cars look a lot like European premium offerings, with copious nods to Audi and the like... Aside from the small 7.0-inch touchscreen, the cheap red-lit buttons and the lack of CarPlay/Android, it’s hard to find any glaring weakness – and the MY18 update will address even these things, as you can explore here.
The material quality is very hard to find issue with, and the design is still pretty contemporary: the way the dash plastic swoops into the doors is Jaguar-like, the heated steering wheel is properly cool, and the doors thunk shut with Germanic surety.
Middle-row occupants get heated outboard seats, vents, LED reading lights, sun-blinds, a USB point and 12V input, big cupholders and impressively supportive seats that tilt and slide.
The sunroof is satisfying from the rear, as are the all-round one-touch up and down windows. The 10-speaker Infinity sound system is excellent too.
Access to the third row is via a sliding/tilting middle seat, with a decent entry aperture. Knee-room and headroom were fine for our 180cm tester for short trips, though realistically you're still using that row for kids more often than not. This is the smallest car here after all.
The cargo space is good with the third row folded flush into the floor and the middle row ditto via flipping levers (about 200 litres less than the longer Nissan, which is epic). There’s also that signature place to store the cargo blind under the floor, and a full-size spare, plus an electric tailgate.
The Kluger doesn't have the class of the Kia, but it does offer more cabin space. And its layout is more resolved than the Nissan's, though the Pathie may take the edge very narrowly when it comes to overall space.
First, it's so practical: there's the massive console that goes down forever, and the lipped bin running below the fascia. There's much less clutter than inside the Nissan, while the build quality and tactility of contact surfaces are excellent.
The 360-degree camera with a rotating display is a little bit of showbiz, and the heated/ventilated seats are almost as cushy as the Nissan's – which feel like cinema chairs.
Back row passengers get rear window blinds, overhead vents with temperature adjust and a broad array of seat adjustment and storage cubbies. Unlike the Nissan, the larger portion of the 60:40 folding middle row seats is on the right-hand side.
Unlike the headrest-mounted screens in the Nissan, the Toyota has a single screen that flips down from the roof, with wireless headphones and a controller hidden away. This is all well and good until the driver tries to look behind and has their vision obscured by a bloody great big screen.
The space in the middle row is – just like the others – more than sufficient for three adults. The one-touch tilt/slide mechanism to access the third row isn't as clever as the Nissan's through, because the seats don't fix in place when you pull on them for leverage to clamber in. We love the Toyota's ridged plastic step area, though.
Like the Kia there's a nook in the cargo area to hide the retractable covering blind, giving you a long and flat storage area with the third-row folded flat.
The Nissan's cabin has a lot to love: it's brimming with gear and offers genuine seven-seater space. It's seat folding is also brilliant. But most people will get more from the Kia, because while it's a touch smaller, for average daily duties this factor surely matters less than the markedly more resolved cabin layout.
The Kluger impresses because it offers a sense of robustness and acres of room, while bringing a high degree of tech and connectivity to boot.
There's a fundamental difference between the Kia, and the other two. The former has a diesel engine, while the America-centric Toyota and Nissan use petrol. Unsurprisingly.
The Sorento uses a proven 2.2-litre turbo-diesel unit making 147kW of power and 441Nm of torque, from 1750rpm through to 2750rpm.
In vehicles of such mass – the Kia is the lightest car here at 1985kg tare – a diesel drivetrain makes a lot of sense, because its low-down pulling power can do the job more efficiently.
The Kia's claimed combined-cycle fuel use is 7.8L/100km, which is about 25 per cent superior to the other pair, which both run on 91 RON petrol.
It's a refined unit that sends few vibrations into the cabin, offers excellent rolling response thanks to its reservoirs of mid-range torque and will tow the 2000kg maximum easily – if you can get around the poxy 100kg towball download maximum.
It's matched to a six-speed automatic gearbox that rarely sets a foot wrong. Keep in mind that an upgrade due in October will bring a new eight-speed gearbox with closer ratios.
Both the Nissan and Toyota use 3.5-litre V6 engines, producing 202kW/340Nm in the Pathfinder and 218kW/350Nm in the Kluger – the latter of which is also 40kg lighter.
The Toyota's engine gets the edge. It's smooth, free-revving and frankly hammers along under heavy throttle. Moreover, the 10.8L/100km fuel economy we returned – when driving with more care – is surprising.
Toyota fitted a new eight-speed auto to the Kluger as part of a recent update, which is more refined than the old six-speeder, and helps conserve fuel at freeway speeds.
The Pathfinder's engine uses 50 per cent new parts over the MY16 car. It's a free-revving and characterful unit in Nissan's fine tradition, and has a pleasing burble when idling.
We managed fuel consumption of 11.5L/100km, which is actually okay for a car this big, though if you hoof it, you'll see that climb to 14L/100km or more, which won't help household fuel bills much. Ditto, the Toyota.
On a side note, you can get a 188kW/330Nm petrol-electric hybrid version for $3000 more, which matches a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine with a 15kW electric motor and 144V lithium-ion battery, to cut fuel use to a claimed 8.8L/100km.
The Nissan's CVT gearbox is better than the troubled old unit because, while it remains an infinite-ratio number, Nissan has added in-vogue simulated step ratios, so it feels like a regular auto under heavy throttle. This helps noise suppression.
Nevertheless, we think the Kia's diesel engine is the most fit-for-purpose here, given its relaxed driving characteristics and fuel economy.
From a ride and handling perspective, none of this trio need to be sporty. But all should be quiet and plush, while imparting a sense of solidity and confidence – beyond their high driving positions.
The obvious remit for each of these cars – despite being all-wheel drive – is urban and freeway driving. Most will spend their lives running around town during the week, and embarking on long, loping family getaways on weekends and holidays.
The MY16 Pathfinder was a bit of a barge, but the revised one tested here is better. Nissan firmed-up the suspension a little, which in-turn slightly improves the body control and handling.
Despite the massive 20-inch wheels and firmer damping, the Nissan still irons out sharp hits pretty well, ensuring decent road comfort, albeit still a tiny bit behind the Kluger.
The steering is also a little quicker from centre but it remains heavy and cumbersome, with about three turns lock-to-lock. The big Nissan feels every millimetre of its 5.1m length.
Happy in shopping centre car parks and modern estates sure, less so in the inner-city with its tight parks and narrow gaps.
Our tester had an on-demand all-wheel drive system that shuffles torque rearwards when slip is detected up front, and bundles in a hill-descent control and a low-speed lock mode. Don't mistake this for a proper 4x4, but it'll navigate small trails or snowy roads.
The Kluger has lighter and 'easier' steering than the Nissan – though it's still lifeless – is a tiny bit quieter and offers slightly better body control through corners despite being as supple and soft in suspension terms as it ought to be – meaning good initial bump absorption, and body control on the rebound.
Both vehicles exhibited disappointing levels of kickback through the steering wheel.
We tackled a few urban obstacles with four adults aboard and found the Toyota was better at dealing with the sharper bumps on the road surface than the Nissan, yet both ferried a crew about very happily.
Yet the Kia once again impressed across various disciplines. Around town it was easy to drive, with light steering, cushy ride and outstanding NVH levels. In corners, it displayed surefooted body control, though its steering was a little wooly and there was occasional “fidgetiness” at highway speeds.
On our gravel loop it excelled too, with the most compliant ride and the best noise insulation here by a fair margin. It uses the familiar on-demand AWD setup as found on the other pair.
Sorento 1, Kluger 2, Pathfinder 3.
Kia has the best factory warranty in Australia, at seven years/unlimited kilometres, compared to three-year/100,000km warranties for both the Nissan and Toyota. Each brand also backs their vehicles with various roadside assist packages.
Kia's advertised service prices cover seven years of travel, with intervals of 12 months or 15,000km (whichever comes first). The cost of the first five visits at current rates are $403, $471, $465, $664 and $454.
Both the Nissan and Toyota have inferior six-month/10,000km service intervals. The Kluger should prove cheaper, with the first six services each capped at $180 a pop compared to $289, $302, $399, $343 and $289 for the Nissan.
So, if you want a massive family crossover to do the school run, and reckon you're good at haggling, the Pathfinder Ti is a great bet.
The Sorento is easily the pick for those who tow or go on road trips – that diesel engine being the reason – and if you usually carry five occupants or just put kids in the back, it's probably the class leader. And that MY18 update will only widen the gap. Brilliant car that could easily be counted as the winner.
Yet the Kluger is critically underrated. It lacks the CX-9's sport appeal and brand cache, as well as the Kia's stonking diesel and Euro cabin cues, but it's bulletproof, loaded with gear and massive. For an all-up seven-person people-hauling SUV, it's a deserved default choice for many, too.
NEXT STEP: To help you make your next move, the links below will take you directly to each brand's website.
- Kluger: Build and price, book a test drive, find a dealer, or see current offers.
- Pathfinder: Build and price, book a test drive, request a brochure, find a dealer, or see current offers.
- Sorento: Build and price, book a test drive, request a brochure, find a dealer, or see current offers.
|Model||Kia Sorento||Nissan Pathfinder||Toyota Kluger|
|Engine||2.2 turbo diesel 4||3.5 petrol V6||3.5 petrol V6|
|Power||147kW @ 3800rpm||202kW @ 6400rpm||218kW @ 6000rpm|
|Torque||441Nm @ 1750rpm||340Nm @ 4800rpm||350Nm @ 4700rpm|
|Trans.||Six-speed auto||CVT||Eight-speed auto|
|Rear susp.||Multi-link||Multi-link||Trailing arm|
|Tyres||235/55 R19||235/55 R20||245/55 R19|
|Spare||Full-size alloy||Space-saver||Full-size alloy|
|Model||Kia Sorento||Nissan Pathfinder||Toyota Kluger|
|Rear traffic alert||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Rear seat screen/s||-||2 x seat-mounted||1 x roof-mounted|
Click the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser