Payne: Three-row SUV battle — Durango SRT, Cadillac XT6, BMW X7

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

What is the best sled to take over the hill and through the woods to grandma’s house this holiday season?

My family and I spent the Thanksgiving holiday putting three top-drawer utes to the test around Metro Detroit to determine what mattered most to five people stuffed into three-row transportation. Our sleds were a similarly equipped lot from three very different brands: a $73,040 Cadillac XT6, a $78,235 Dodge Durango SRT, and $112,245 BMW X750i.

All three have outsized personalities and wave their brand flags — from the sculpted Cadillac to the Hellcat-wannabe Durango to the ridiculously posh Bimmer. But all also satisfied my family’s basic needs: Three rows with second-row captain’s chairs, so everyone had their space. State-of-the-art technology for my 20-something sons and daughter-in-law. All-wheel drive, two-zone climate control and heated seats for my wife who fears a Michigan blizzard might attack at any moment. And finally, V-6/V-8 powerplants to scratch the itchy right feet of the Payne motorheads.

In this Age of Ute, we put these well-dressed hunks to the test across freezing tundra and cratered Michigan roads to determine what matters most in an SUV — personality or utility.

The intimidating front end of the 2020 Dodge Durango SRT includes a head scoop and twin hood stripes.

Dodge Durango SRT

I exploded out of our subdivision in the Durango SRT onto Telegraph Road. Shifts barked like an angry sports car. With the throttle wide open, the engine roared like a T. rex at a Texas Roadhouse buffet.

The SRT badge means Dodge’s glorious 6.4-liter hemi V-8 is under the hood. It's the same engine that motivates the wicked Charger Scat Pack that I flogged around Sonoma Raceway last fall.

Matching its loud voice, our tester also came with an outrageous red and dual-striped-hood wardrobe with big red Brembo brake calipers and a hood scoop in front. All that was missing was a rear wing. With its rear-drive bias and stiff suspension, it was a rocketship to drive around town.

Behind the wheel of the 2020 Dodge Durango SRT you get sporty touches like a lap timer and TRACK mode.

Passengers had a different impression.

“What? I can’t hear a word you’re saying,” my daughter-in-law yelled from the third row. Even after I had settled down to a civilized 55 mph on adaptive cruise-control, the interior of the Durango was loud. At least I could hear my wife’s reasoned advice in the second row: “Slow down!”

The Durango’s interior is beautifully wrapped in leather with cool details like a T-shifter, second-row infotainment screens, digital instrument display and acres of console room. But it hides an aging chassis that rode like a Conestoga wagon over Detroit’s bumpy trials.

The Durango SRT would be a party animal on a guy’s hunting trip. But it’s a tough sell for a daily driver.

The 2020 BMW X7 50i is a $112K rolling Versailles castle of goodies.

BMW X7 50i

The BMW’s face was the most polarizing of our threesome, with signature twin-grille kidneys the size of Ndamukong Suh’s shoulder pads. Otherwise, this three-row Versailles Castle is a collection of the auto kingdom’s best stuff.

The 456-horse twin-turbo V-8 doesn’t have the visceral thrills of the Durango, but it is every bit as potent, hitting 60 mph in 4.6 seconds with buttery shifts from its eight-speed box. Floating on an air suspension, the X7 absorbed Detroit’s bumps with aplomb while its supple rear-wheel drive biased chassis is not averse to a spirited drive.

But cruising luxury is this yacht’s calling card. The interior is whisper-quiet, making for easy three-row conversation and musical enjoyment. Infotainment can be controlled via iDrive rotary controller or touchscreen. The luscious chocolate-leather seats begged to be licked, and the chrome-plated interior is decorated like a Christmas tree with LED lights that can be programmed to glow any color of the rainbow.

The interior of the 2020 BMW X7 50i is state-of-the-art tech, lighting and chocolate leather seats.

Not surprisingly, the X7 was always the family’s first choice to drive because it had it all — speed, comfort, class — plus, we knew that opportunities to cruise town in a six-figure chariot are rare. Who has that kind of money? The X7 spares no expense with third-row heated seats, three-zone climate control, a split rear hatch with a pickup-like drop-down tailgate, the biggest panoramic roof anyone had ever seen and a voice recognition system — “Hey, BMW, go to the Detroit Institute of Arts” — as good as a smartphone.

Like Versailles, the X7 also doesn’t know when enough is enough. Example: Automatic-folding second row-thrones that were so slow you wished for good ol' manual-fold seats. And a tailored second-row console that no one used made it harder to get out of the third row.

The front of the 2020 Cadillac XT6 is simple and clean with the headlights pushed to the edges.

Cadillac XT6

Not too fancy. Not too macho. Just right.

The Caddy was the only player in the group to feature a sub-400 horsepower, non-V-8 powerplant (310-horse V-6) and front-wheel drive bias. No one seemed to miss them. With a family of five, the consensus was that launch-control out of Woodward Avenue stoplights (my favorite Durango V-8 trick) in a three-row ute is low on the list of priorities.

The interior of the 2020 Cadillac XT6 doesn't have a premium wow factor -but features easy-to-use touchscreen and nice materials.

What was appreciated was the Cadillac's best-in-test exterior (the XT6 was introduced to the news media this year in an art museum) and quiet, easy-to-use interior. While not dressed to the nines inside like the BMW, the Cadillac nevertheless featured amenities like panoramic sunroof (let there be light for third-row passengers!) and head-up display — while offering extras like a rear-seat warning (if you left a baby seat back there) and easy third-row access.

The XT6 proved that utility is the priority in three-row utes. If you want personality, buy a sports car.

But that begs the question ...

Why pay $73,000 for Cadillac when a stylish $51,000 Chevy Traverse or $48,000 Kia Telluride offer the same amenities for a whopping $20,000 less?

Technology has become the great equalizer between luxury and mainstream, and the roomy Traverse and Motor Trend SUV of the Year Telluride come with the same blind-spot assist, adaptive cruise and emergency braking as its pricier peers. Their voice-recognition is no BMW — but like the Cadillac and Dodge, simply connecting Apple CarPlay levels the playing field. Then the mainstream utes add panoramic sunroof, knock-out styling, head-up display (Telluride), one-button third-row access, 20-inch sport wheels and USB ports everywhere.

Yes, yes, brand matters and that’s the Chevy/Kia challenge. But with the tens of thousands you save on a big ute, you can buy an apex-carving, drop-top sports car with loads of personality for when the holidays are over and your better half wants a weekend escape to your favorite restaurant.

I’m thinking Mazda Miata.

2020 Cadillac XT6

Vehicle type: All-wheel drive, 6-passenger SUV

Price: $58,090, including $995 destination charge ($73,040 as tested)

Powerplant: 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 310 horsepower, 271 pound-feet torque 

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds (Car and Driver); towing capacity 4,000 pounds

Weight: 4,644 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA est. 17 city/24 highway/20 combined

Report card

Highs: Handsome looks; roomy, quiet interior

Lows: Lacks Cadillac "wow" factor; milquetoast drivetrain

Overall: 3 stars

2020 Dodge Durango SRT

Vehicle type: All-wheel drive, 6-passenger SUV

Price: $64,490, including $1,495 destination charge ($78,235 as tested)

Powerplant: 6.4-liter V-8

Power: 475 horsepower, 470 pound-feet torque 

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.7 seconds (Car and Driver); towing capacity 8,700 pounds

Weight: 5,510 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA est. 13 city/19 highway/15 combined

Report card

Highs: Challenger V-8 under the hood; wicked exterior

Lows: Aging chassis; loud interior

Overall: 3 stars

2020 BMW X7 50i

Vehicle type: All-wheel drive, 6-passenger SUV

Price: $93,595, including $995 destination charge ($112,245 as tested)

Powerplant: 4.4-liter twin-turbocharged V-8

Power: 456 horsepower, 479 pound-feet torque 

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.5 seconds (Car and Driver); towing capacity 7,500.

Weight: 5,617 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA est. 15 city/21 highway/17 combined

Report card

Highs: Decadent interior; smartphone-like voice recognition

Lows: Sticker shock; oh, those kidneys!

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.