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Desperately seeking a station wagon substitute

2013 Mazda CX-9


Gentlemen: I'd appreciate your thoughts on a "kid hauler." We have owned a Mazda6 Sport since 2004 and it has been the perfect car for five of us. But the brood is now seven, five and three years old; the time has come to give everyone a little more room. We don't drive a lot and it is split pretty evenly between city chores and longer highway trips to visit grandparents. My wife would be the primary daily driver as I take the subway to work. Because the station wagon has gone the way of the dodo bird, my thoughts include the Mazda CX-9, 2013 Nissan Pathfinder, Ford Flex and the Toyota Highlander. We ski in the winter, so four-wheel drive is interesting. – Robert in Mississauga, Ont.

Vaughan: Cato, isn't it reassuring that when Americans are screaming at each other about assault weapons, here in "peace, order and good government" Canada, newspaper space is still devoted to which wagon is best for the happy family with the stay-at-home mom?

Cato: This fall, all my American friends asked me, what's difference between Canadian and U.S. elections? I told them we don't argue much about the meaty parts of social issues – gay rights, health care, gun laws, school prayer, a woman's right to choose, and so on. A Canadian politician opposed to health care is toast. An MP in favour of fire sales on assault rifles would never get re-elected.

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Vaughan: Let me remind you, Cato, of what Tip O'Neill, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives said: all politics is local. You have listed the local issues that resonate in various parts of a very regionalized United States. Mitt Romney, to make my point, won the Confederate States of America – and 47 per cent of the vote.

Cato: Okay, let me try this: we Canadians focus on the kitchen table issues. What could be more "kitchen table" than the family car? Robbie's family won't buy anything more expensive this year, save a new house in your exclusive neighbourhood, Vaughan.

Vaughan: Well, Bob has chosen four reliable, middle-of-the-road alternatives; even Obama and Boehner would be able to agree on something here.

First, I assume it's the "refreshed" 2013 Mazda CX-9 ($33,995 base) that Bob's considering. The Mazda has received its first major update since 2007. I think we agree it's the most stylish vehicle on the list – inside and out. The engine stays the same as the outgoing version: a 3.7-litre V-6 coupled with a six-speed automatic transmission.

Cato: The seven-passenger CX-9 is actually a cousin of the Ford Flex – a familial tie dating back to Ford's days as Mazda's controlling shareholder. So I'm not at all surprised to see the Flex on Robbie's short list.

But before I Flex, I just want to say that I like what Mazda has done to update the CX-9's styling. For instance, the fog lights look like they belong in the Mazda family with its Kodo design language – the "soul of motion" and all that jazz. Very slick to drive and Mazda, if you believe the latest Consumer Reports research, has the fourth-best reliability in the car business, too.

Vaughan: That same research does not have high praise for Ford, which is right down there near the bottom in 27th place out of 28 brands.

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Cato: Yeah, but a lot of what ails Ford is all tied up in issues around the MyFord/MyLincoln Touch infotainment system. It's not user-friendly, at least according to CR, and it has had some niggling problems, too.

But look: fenders aren't falling off Fords and transmissions aren't blowing up, either. Which brings me to the Flex, a hugely underappreciated kid hauler. It may look like a hearse, but that boxy shape is perfect for hauling around families. And even a sub-$40,000 Flex with all-wheel drive is moving off dealer lots with more than $4,500 in factory discounts in play.

Vaughan: I like the non-conformist appearance of the Flex, especially with a black or white roof and contrasting body colour. Sells well in trendy California. But, believe it or not, you can load these things up with so many options you can end up paying nearly 60 grand.

2013 Nissan Pathfinder Nissan Nissan  

Cato: Or he can spend in the mid-$30,000s if drives a hard bargain.

So to the car-like 2013 Pathfinder. Nissan has nailed it. I mean, the base AWD model starts at $31,998. Great price, great package, solid powertrain, lots of features.

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Vaughan: The fourth-generation Pathfinder is a total change. Better fuel economy, better handling and generally better for urban families. It's not better for off-roading, but that doesn't matter to Bob.

2012 Toyota Highlander Toyota Toyota  

Cato: Finally, the Highlander. A safe and wonderfully reliable choice. But the base model at $35,925 is thousands more than the starter version of the Pathfinder. Perhaps that's why Toyota has a couple of grand in factory incentives on the table for leftover 2012 models.

Vaughan: Bob's been happy with his Mazda6, so he should opt for the CX-9. Next would be the Nissan Pathfinder, then the Toyota Highlander. I can't imagine Bob in the non-conformist Flex.

Cato: Pathfinder. Nissan is a company of hits and misses. This one's a hit.




2013 Mazda CX-9 GT AWD2013 Nissan Pathfinder S 4x42012 Toyota Highlander V6 AWD

Wheelbase (mm)


Length (mm)


Width (mm)


Track, front (mm)



3.7-litre V-73.5-litre V-63.5-litre V-6

Output (horsepower/torque)

273/270 lb-ft260/240 lb-ft270/248 lb-ft

Drive system

All-wheel driveCVTAll-wheel drive


Six-speed automaticFull-time four-wheel driveFive-speed automatic

Curb weight (kg)


Fuel economy (litres/100 km)

12.8 city/9.0 highway10.8 city/7.9 highway12.6 city/8.7 highway

Base price (MSRP)


Source: car manufacturers

Jeremy Cato and Michael Vaughan are co-hosts of Car/Business, which airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on Business News Network and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. on CTV.


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About the Author
Senior writer, Globe Drive

In 25 years of covering the auto industry, Jeremy Cato has won more than two-dozen awards, including three times being named automotive journalist of the year. Jeremy was born in Montreal and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. More


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