Comparing new vehicles head-to-head is nothing new around these parts. Office lore says the first line of code for autos.sympatico.ca was written from the passenger seat of a Lamborghini in mid powerslide as it tried to best the latest Ferrari.

Or maybe it was Pinto vs. Omni in the back parking lot. The details are all a bit fuzzy.

Either way, we’ve tried to make a habit of wrangling three-ish competitive vehicles every month and reporting back to you, dear readers, with our findings, photos, feelings, facts and figures.

Admittedly, sometimes it’s a struggle to put yourself in the potential buyer’s headspace. i.e. “err, yes, I would buy a Toyota Avalon. If I were dead.”

This time though, it was easy like a Sunday morning. The Chevrolet Orlando, Mazda5 and Dodge Journey seen here are vehicles I can and may soon purchase. See, I’ve been hinting to my beautiful better half (brownie points, boo ya!) that we need to trade up from our current 2007 Ford Escape. It’s aging, its fuel thirst keeps the oil sands in business and there are heavy hints of another baby in the future and all the accessories that entails.

In short, like a lot of young suburban Canadian parents, we’re going to need a ride that’s efficient, spacious, affordable and well, not a minivan.

In our minds then, this lot represents the best-of-the-best in modern, six or seven-seat, affordable rides for the family: The Dodge is the perpetually best-selling crossover in Canada; the Mazda proves minivan ideas can be cool if concentrated into a small, dynamic package and the Orlando’s the newbie that no one saw coming. So which one might end up in my driveway? Read on…

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This machine was the modern originator of this genus of vehicle in Canada. Before 2005, if you wanted a vehicle with sliding doors, you had to looks to something as nauseatingly vanilla as a Pontiac Montana SV6. Horf. Then, Mazda decided to drop a mini-minivan body on top of the Mazda3’s dynamite chassis – and we Canucks paid attention. Zoom-zoom with room-room for seven, all at a great price? It was a recipe for success.

Much the same holds true for this second generation $21,795 Mazda5. It’s the lightest and shortest of our trio and seems the most likely to be spotted on the piazzas of Milan as on the motorways of Montreal. It’s also the only entry with standard separate second-row, sliding and reclining seats, so there’s no dust-ups over an older brother being, “un my sidza da car, mom!”

At $26,185 fully-loaded, the Japanese-made entry’s also the least expensive to pimp out.

The Mazda’s exclusive sliding doors mean hurling a writhing two-year-old in back while squeezed into a tight parking spot is a cinch. After all, you wouldn’t want to dent the door of that pristine BMW coupe those DINKS (Double Income No KidS) just parked next to you, right? Grumble, grumble…

The Mazda’s third place finish here is for no unforgivable flaw like the lack of a windscreen (old-timey-fighter-pilot-helmets on, kids!), but more that this segment has evolved considerably and the ’5,’ well, hasn’t. It’s largely the same thing Mazda ran with as a solo fighter back in 2005.

It’s engine, a 2.5-litre four-cylinder (157 horsepower/163 lb-ft of torque) – is the weakest in our lot, plus its five-speed automatic transmission is down a gear on the Dodge and Chevy’s six-speeds. Engine and road nose seems highest in the Mazda too, a penalty for that low weight, we guess. Maximum cargo room falls behind both of the American cars and those second row captain’s chairs mean a need to use one of the third row seats with three in back (and it best be a short youngster).

Finally – and there seemed no scientific way to measure this aside from kicking interior panels and spraying about a juice box – the ‘5’ just feels like it won’t wear well under the constant abuse of a busy family. We fear the same fate as a G.I. Joe under a sun-scorched microscope.

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Yes, that’s right, the two American entries bested their Japanese rival here. Those who accuse us of favouring the imports can kiss my Alberta beef (I’m not from the Prairies, but we’re going for drama here, folks). Do note though: the Dodge is built in Mexico and the Chevy in Korea. Oh, the horror!

Dodge’s Journey has impressed us in 2011. Newly aligned with Fiat, the automaker decided to give the crossover a thorough makeover this year, with a much better interior, a new V6 (a horrid little four-cylinder is still standard, though) and a much more refined ride. Being the lowest priced seven-passenger vehicle in Canada at $18,995 – is largely what made it the country’s best-selling crossover, but now it’s a machine we can genuinely fall in love with.

Without question, this is the biggest vehicle (read: Yank Tanking… kidding) in our group, but that translates into interior and cargo space that’s best-in-test. In an interesting, polar opposite to the Mazda, the Dodge’s hinged rear doors open almost 90-degrees to ease kid-loading, though you’ll surely dent that BMW now (take that, DINKS!).

The Journey’s the only car in our group to offer optional all-wheel drive and high ground clearance (which may be an automatic win for some Canadians, but do remember it means the cargo deck’s high off the pavement).

The Dodge takes a bunch of clever ideas from the Grand Caravan minivan and applying them in a much more fashionable automobile. There are lots of cubbies to stash things, storage in second row floor and under the front passenger seat, easy fold/slide second row seats for third row access and even a convex mirror to keep and eye on the kids in back. Bonus: you can order integrated child boaster seats for the second row.

Our largest issue with the Dodge is that it feels, well, like a big ol’ dumb truck compared to the smaller sophisticates from Mazda and Chevy. Its best engine is a decidedly large 3.6-litre V6 (only available on the $23,995 SXT and up, by the way!) It does pump out the power (283 hp/260 lb-ft), but seems a sledgehammer solution when a modern turbo four-cylinder (from Fiat’s Euro cars?) could do the job just as well and use far less fuel (the heaviest-in-test 1,843 kg (4,054 lb.) Journey AWD’s fuel economy was worst-in-test at 13.0 L/100 km city, 8.4 hwy). Finally, despite Dodge’s admirable efforts for 2011, the Journey does still feel like its lack some of the fit and finish of its rivals. An, old chestnut, we know, but one that lingers, if only slightly.

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Good thing we didn’t pick a winner here based solely on names, because this Chevy would’ve come dead last. “Orlando,” makes us think of that Disney vacation where we hurled after waiting in line for the Teacup ride for two hours and of sharing a hotel bed with our sisters. Gross! A fun fact though: the Orlando’s sold in almost 20 countries – but not the US of A.

Actually, the fact that the Chevrolet’s a global product (designed in Korea) is part of the reason for its victory here. The dimensions are just right for a family, thought not too big for some nation’s narrow roads, the ride and handling are decidedly more dialed in and, well, European, than its rivals and, because the Orlando was on sale in other countries before Canada, GM’s worked out the quality bugs to deliver a very solidly built family car out of the gate.

We’re ticked the diesel engines offered in Orlando overseas (and coming to the Chevy Cruze sedan which shares its platform here) are not coming to Canada. Still, what the direct injection 2.4L Ecotec four-cylinder lacks in all-out muscle (174 hp/171 lb-ft of torque) it makes up for in smooth, quiet power delivery through our tester’s six-speed automatic transmission.

Aside from saying that the Orlando is priced mid-pack amongst our testers at $19,995 to start, we can’t really back up the Orlando’s win with pure numbers. It’s more of a seat-of-our-pants result that this was the best family ride on-hand during our rainy day test drive.

The Chevy just goes about its business with simple, honest design. The driver faces a dashboard that’s easy to sort (plus there’s hidden storage behind the radio), the second row is spacious enough (even though they don’t do the fancy folding of the Dodge or sliding of the Mazda) and even our mid-pack LT tester got gear like a leather-wrapped wheel and heated fabric seats.

With the third row up in the Orlando there’s very little cargo storage, but tumble those seats (and even better, the second row, too) and there’s a big empty box on offer to swallow gear (kudos to GM engineers for making Orlando essentially a cargo crate on wheels).

After our test drive concluded (at the pub naturally… mmm… chicken fingers to keep with the kid-friendly theme), I had the pick of which testers to take for the weekend. The Orlando won out and was soon loaded with a baby-seat and a weekend’s worth of luggage for a trip to the in-laws (the fact that I could sleep in it did cross my mind as well…) Monday, I has to turn it back into the good folks at GM, but they may be hearing from me soon about a more, err, permanent test drive.