Our ‘Family Car Challenge’ winners
2016 Nissan Pathfinder SL

Our ‘Family Car Challenge’ winners

Several weeks ago, Joni, the kids and I participated in the 2016 GAAMA Family Car Challenge up at Lanier Islands, where the all-new 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited won top honors out of 24 contenders.

We only had time to drive six of those vehicles, including the Pacifica, and while we agreed with the Pacifica being the best of what we drove, we also wanted to tell you about it and the other five just in case you’re interested.

Our lineup included the 2016 Nissan Pathfinder SL 4WD; the 2016 Ford Explorer Platinum 4WD, which won “Best Three Row Family Car”; the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Touring, which won “Best Value Vehicle”; the Lexus RX 350; the Toyota RAV4 XLE Hybrid; and the 2016 Nisan Titan XD, which I think should have won “Best Family Pickup Truck”, though, admittedly, I didn’t test drive the winning 2016 Ram 1500.

2016 Ford Explorer Platinum Edition
2016 Ford Explorer Platinum Edition

2016 Ford Explorer Platinum 4WD
3.5-L V6, 6-speed auto, 360 HP
MSRP: From $52,970
As tested: $54,760

First up for us was the 2016 Ford Explorer Platinum 4WD. In the interest of fairness, I should never have looked at the Monroney (window sticker) before driving this vehicle, or at least I should have avoided looking at the price, which is $54,760 for the one we drove. That’s a lot of money, and it is more than I thought you’d pay for an Explorer. It’s no good worrying about how much these cars cost when comparing capabilities, though, because people will ultimately pay what they believe those extras are worth.

Swallowing my sticker shock, Joni and I herded our four kids into the Explorer. (Yes, we actually brought our kids along for the event and took on board their opinions of each of the six vehicles we drove.) All of our children are under eight, but only the youngest is still in the five-point harness seat, so we put her in the middle row of this six-seater, and we tossed the three booster seats in the other middle row seat and in the rear seats. All of us were completely comfortable.

Our children loved the Explorer Platinum Edition, and they particularly enjoyed the panorama moon roof.
Our children loved the Explorer Platinum Edition, and they particularly enjoyed the panorama moon roof.

Important note for Southerners: It was a hot day, and the A/C kicked in quickly, so that was a big plus. Even the kids in the back row were cool in a hurry. Mommy and Daddy had the extra benefit of ventilated seats, which is becoming one of my favorite features in the new cars I review.

We did not test the heated seats for obvious reasons, but apparently this copy had that feature for the front and middle seats, which is one of several premium features that make me think this Platinum-edition Explorer is really more of a luxury SUV than not, and that would then make it a good deal compared to other luxury SUVs.

Another luxury feature on this Platinum Explorer is the massage feature on the front seats. No kidding. You dial it up, and your seat massages your back in a weird but relaxing up-and-down, side-to-side motion, even while you’re driving.

I don’t recommend massage mode while you’re driving. You don’t want to get too comfortable. Treat yourself in the parking lot while you wait for a family member to come back out with the bread, eggs and milk.

A vivid first impression of this Platinum Edition Explorer is that it felt like sitting in a baseball glove. The seats, even with all the features going on underneath, are comfortable but firm. They are supportive, and quite frankly I think we have another luxury feature going on here.

And then there’s the enormous glass top. C’mon, Ford: Admit it. This is a Lincoln SUV with a Ford label. It’s okay to be a luxury vehicle, folks.

Our GAAMA (Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association) friends running the Family Car Challenge mapped out a route for us, which included some island driving and some mainland driving, and we particularly enjoyed pushing our six vehicles through the turns and up the hills. This Explorer didn’t lag at all, and it felt like a lower profile vehicle, especially around the turns, yet still offered great visibility.

And speaking of visuals, the dash and gauges are driver friendly, meaning you can keep your eyes on the road more and still be in control of the vehicle. In other words, when you bounce your eyes down to check your speed, fuel level and those sorts of things, it only takes a split-second to gather that info and clap your eyes back on the road. It’s a subtle thing, but as this is the sort of feature that means a lot when you’re driving on a long trip at night with a car full of family.

The Explorer is on my short list of vehicles to review more extensively.

2016 Nissan Pathfinder SL
2016 Nissan Pathfinder SL 4WD

2016 Nissan Pathfinder SL 4WD
3.5-L V6, CVT, 260 HP
MSRP: From $38,100
As tested: $42,475

We didn’t spend as much time in the Pathfinder, but we did like it.

This SUV strikes me as a great dad’s car. It’s roomy, it’s powerful enough and the driver’s seat can raise and lower with fantastic range. When you need to put the whole family in this seven-seater with you, everyone will be comfortable.

2017 Chrysler Pacifica Touring Edition
2017 Chrysler Pacifica Touring Edition

2017 Chrysler Pacifica Touring
3.6-L V6, 9-speed auto, 287 HP
MSRP: From $30,495
As tested: $33,475

Folks, I’ve got to get real with you and say hands-down the all-new 2017 Chrysler Pacifica is the best minivan in the world. When I saw it at the Auto Show in Atlanta earlier this year, I hoped it would be as good on the road as it looked on its turning pedestal.

I’m a bit partial to Chrysler, because our main family ride is a 2007 Town & Country Touring edition, and it’s the most practical and comfortable vehicle I’ve ever owned. Ours has well over 145,000 miles on it, and we not long ago put a fresh set of tires on it. We plan to keep it rolling as long as possible.

In fact, we have discussed the possibility of buying my wife a newer Chrysler minivan, parking the ’07 on my side of the driveway and getting rid of my 1996 Honda Accord EX daily driver, but the Accord is also too good to discard. Plus, we love not having car payments. But if something does happen to my Accord, we may well become a two-minivan family, or a two-Chrysler-minivan family to be more precise.

My impressions driving it for a short while were that the new Pacifica handles like a car but strides like a longer wheel base vehicle. The engine is plenty powerful, so there is no lagging up hills.

Two interior features I really liked about the Pacifica are the dial gear shifter, which takes us only a small space on the dashboard, and the eighth seat. Our T&C is a seven-seater, and I love that the new Pacifica gives you the option of popping an eighth seat in the center of the middle row. Don’t need it? Pop it back out.

This is the vehicle of the six we would most love to check out for a full week’s review. Of those six, we as a family gave it our top marks.

2016 Lexus RX 350

2016 Lexus RX 350
3.5-L V6, 8-speed auto, 295 HP
MSRP: From $41,900
As tested: $54,300

Last year, I reviewed the 2015 Lexus ES 350 for a week, and the 2016 RX 350 we drove at Lanier reminds me a lot of that ES, except the RX is an SUV and the ES, of course, is a sedan. But they both have a powerful V6 that make them fun to drive.

I love the power tilt and telescopic steering column on the RX, which you’ll find on other Lexus models as well. I don’t know why more vehicles don’t have this, but I enjoyed that the RX did. As important as steering is to the driving experience, having the wheel exactly where you want it is superb.

The copy we tested also had the optional panorama moonroof, which my son really enjoyed from the back seat. Why just my son? Because the RX is a five-seater, so my wife and three daughters stayed back on the curb for this test drive.

As much as I enjoyed the RX, I’d rather have the ES, especially as you can snag one for several thousand less.

2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
2.5-L 4 cal., CVT, 194 HP
MSRP: From $28,370
As tested: $31,330

My first-ever car review was with a week-long Toyota RAV4 loaner in early 2015, so stepping into this 2016 hybrid version was like visiting an old friend who had improved himself a lot since you last saw him.

In this case, the RAV4 not only added a hybrid electric/gasoline option, but it also added an app in the in-dash infotainment system that allows the driver to see when the vehicle is switching back and forth between electric and gasoline and both.

But still, it’s your old friend you know and love, and that’s what it felt like sitting in this 2016 version of what I tested last year. The RAV4 is not a big vehicle, but it drives like it thinks it is. And it gives you loads of space. But then, when you’re in Midtown Atlanta trying to get a good parking space, nothing is off limits, because this compact SUV is going to fit with plenty of room for you to open your door all the way.

If I had to drive downtown on a daily basis, I’d almost surely buy a RAV4.

2016 Nissan Titan XD
2016 Nissan Titan XD SL w/ Cummins Turbo Diesel

2016 Nissan Titan XD SL w/ Cummins Turbo Diesel
5-L V8, 6-speed auto, 310 HP
MSRP: From $52,030
As tested: $57,490

Until the Family Car Challenge, I had never before driven a full-size Nissan truck, so stepping up behind the wheel of this 2016 Titan XD SL was a great first experience.

Again, it was a quick visit with this big ol’ truck, but we enjoyed it. What struck me was the possibilities afforded by a truck like this. Considering the price point and the fact that you can tow upwards of 11,000 pounds, this is an affordable, capable truck.

The Titan XD doesn’t drive like you’d think a truck would drive, and yet I can’t say it drives like any kind of car or SUV, either. It’s a very agile ship, I suppose. I don’t know. It was fun and comfortable to drive. Let’s just say that.

What got me really excited about this new offering from Nissan was learning they may offer it in the future as a six-seater. If there’s one thing I’d love to see in the truck world it’s more six-seaters.

I’ll say it again: Center consoles are over-rated. That lazy right arm can find somewhere else to rest. What we need are more trucks that can tote Daddy, Mommy and about four critters.

And then that family of six can hitch up a fifth-wheel RV trailer to this Titan and head to the North Georgia Mountains for some XD SL R&R.

Danny Harrison

Danny Harrison, a 1992 Fayette High School graduate, began his journalism career with Fayette County News in 1995. After taking several leaves of absence to pursue journalism and Christian ministry opportunities, including a few out of state and overseas, he returned full-time to Fayette County News in August 2014. Harrison earned a bachelor's degree in pastoral ministry in 2009 while serving as a missionary journalist in England and Western Europe.