Three-Row SUVs Don't Measure Up to Minivans' Family-Friendliness


A little over two years ago, I was pregnant with my second child and shopping for a new family car. Seeing our obviously growing family, the well-meaning salesman brought us over to a minivan. The second those power doors slid open, I quickly corrected him: "No, no. This is only my second baby. I am not driving that."

Fast-forward two years and two babies later, and I'm now driving a minivan; I've jumped the fence from "No way, no how" to "No, really; it's awesome."

So, how does that happen? How do those who were once emphatically against a minivan suddenly give in? The push always seems to come from baby No. 3 and that few vehicles can fit three child-safety seats across the second row. That leaves two viable options: a minivan or a three-row crossover/SUV.

Luckily, I review family cars for a living, and after nine months of test-driving the two options, my husband and I reached our conclusion: minivan, hands down.

This is why:

Power sliding doors

The fact that I don't want to open my own car doors may sound lazy, but hear me out. When you've got a baby on your hip, a diaper bag on your shoulder, a lunch pail and backpack in one hand and a squirmy 2-year-old hand in the other (and in my case, a pokey preschooler trailing behind as well), the last thing you want to do is drop everything to open each door. Also, most car doors are too heavy for my wee ones to open on their own. If, by chance, they can open the door, their little over-enthusiastic arms are going to swing that door wide open and into the Mercedes parked next to me in the parking lot.

The final word: Power sliding doors save me time and energy — two things I could use extra doses of.


Fuel economy

While the gap between three-row crossovers' and minivans' fuel-economy numbers aren't as large as they once were, minivans still eke out better mpgs. The 2013 Honda Odyssey with a 3.5-liter V-6 and front-wheel drive gets 19/28 mpg city/highway; the same engine in the 2013 Honda Pilot with front-wheel drive gets 18/25 mpg. The 2013 Dodge Grand Caravan with a 3.6-liter V-6 and front-wheel drive gets 17/25 mpg; with the same engine, the 2013 Dodge Durango (photo above) gets slightly less mpgs at 16/23.

The final word: The fuel savings may seem like small potatoes, but depending on gas prices and the amount you drive, it can amount to significant savings annually.

Step-in height

While I'm happy to climb up into a trucklike SUV all day long, I'm not keen on doing that for my three kids, as well. Just a simple errand of going to the grocery store and then to the bank would require me to lift my girls a total of 18 times to get them into their child-safety seats and back down again.

The final word: My back and biceps prefer the low step-in height of a minivan, allowing my preschooler and toddler to climb in on their own. Also, minivans require a less strenuous lift of my infant's safety seat.

Seating capacity

Just because a three-row SUV has eight seat belts doesn't mean it can fit eight people comfortably. Third rows in many SUVs and crossovers are a better fit for hobbits rather than adults, especially when they're crammed into what's normally a two-row SUV. There are some larger SUVs designed specifically to carry seven or eight passengers with a third row that's appropriately sized. The Pilot (photo above) and Chevrolet Suburban are perfect examples of large, family-friendly SUVs with adult-friendly third rows.

The final word: One of the major perks of a minivan is it's designed to be a people mover with a third row that's often as comfy as the second and first.

Three kids

I may not advertise it with a Baby on Board sign, but when those doors open (whether they slide or swing), three little ones are going to pour out of the vehicle and take whatever semblance of my pre-mama life I still have with them.

The final word: While I look forward to the day when power sliding doors aren't a godsend, for now I'm quite content to swear that "I love my minivan. No, really; it's awesome!"

Minivan Buying Guide
Three-Row SUV Buying Guide
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I completely agree. Our minivan is the most practical car I or any of my friends ever owned. I know this because we are constantly the ones carpooling with friends or helping move large items.

I have a 2006 Odyssey. It is not 'cool' like an SUV, but if you get over that, it's actually a very comfortable ride, and has some very good pickup with its powerful v6, so it's actually fun to drive.

One other factor that wasn't mentioned, is that minivans usually are cheaper than their SUV counterparts. Compare an Odyssey and a comparably equipped Pilot, and the Odyssey will be thousands less.


3.7L V6 in the Caravan and 3.5L V6 in the Durango??


Hi there, I appreciate your review of family-friendly transportation, however, as a certified instructor in Child Passenger Safety, I need to point out 2 usage errors in the photos. Both are in the photo of the daughter sitting on a booster:

First - the shoulder portion of the adult safety belt she is using should be routed UNDER the arm of the booster seat closest to the buckle. In the photo it's routed OVER the arm of the booster seat.

Second - there is an infant mirror attached to the vehicle seat where I assume the infant safety seat is installed. Mirrors such as these have no required crash test safety standards, and if involved in a crash, the mirror will not stay secured and will become a flying object.

Please ensure that all child safety seats are properly installed according the directions in the owner's manual.

Thank you.


Actually, I just noticed another error with the booster seat - all backless booster seats mandate that the mid-point of the child's head (or the tops of the child's ears) must not be above the top of the vehicle seat back. This child would need to have a vehicle head restraint (head rest) in this position, OR use a high-back booster seat.

Thank you.

the original skinner

I will have to agree with BW - that seatbelt on the booster seat is all wrong.

jared novak

I own a minivan and i love t he space looks the power and the power doors are amazing but i also love!!!! my heated seats i have a 2010 volkswagen routan se with dvd package

Jennifer Newman, editor

Thanks for pointing out the booster-seat misuse, BW. We missed the misuse when editing the photo, which was submitted by one of our Family correspondents. As you know, misuses are all too common when it comes to car seats and aftermarket accessories like the infant mirrors. We have several certified car-seat technicians on staff and should have caught the error. Thanks again.

Jennifer Newman, editor

Thanks for the heads-up, TK. I've corrected the Durango's and Grand Caravan's engine sizes.


I absolutely agree with the vast majority of this. I paid about $33,000 for my wife's Honda Odyssey EX-L; my brother paid almost $10,000 more than that for his Acadia SLT, and the interior in the Odyssey is much nicer. Vanity is expensive and impractical.

CUVs at the $33,000 price point are even worse: the Explorer is an ergonomic nightmare and came with cloth seats; the Dodge Durango feels chintzy, even though it was a vast improvement; and the Mazda CX-9 is downright ugly.

Soon to be mom of three

Thank you so much for this! Because of you - we'll be shopping for minivans instead of an SUV. You made some very valid points - I too was the "no way! No how!" but I am now looking forward to switching to the "no, really. It's awesome" side :)


We experienced the shift to minivan after child 2. Most midsize SUV's leave little room in the middle seat once you've put two child seats in the middle seat.


Strenuously disagree. Crossover and SUV sales outpace minivan sales by about 150% and automakers are investing in these segments instead of in minivans and are allowing the latter to atrophy. There are only five minivan makers left standing (Chrysler, Honda, Toyota, Nissan and Kia) and they’ve converged on vans with two sliding doors, second row captains chairs, flip-and-fold third rows, and identically dismal front-wheel drive platforms with open differentials and useless electronic traction control. Instead of innovating something that actually drives well when not oozing around parking lots or pointed down straight and flat highways (oh, say in bad weather, or emergency maneuvers, or merely an exit ramp) they gussie them up with electronic pacifiers and rely on PT Barnum’s adage about suckers. Miinvans are a bit of a disaster when strapping three young kids into car seats because you need to climb into the third row (unless you spring for an 8-passenger Odyssey with the second row that has three car seat anchors; oddly the 8-passenger Sienna does not). They’re also a disaster in the rain and snow, when you get a flat tire, or need to carry a full cart’s worth of groceries (whoever said a tall, wide and shallow space was a good space to throw bread, eggs and bananas into?). Beyond loading minivans up with electrically powered doors and a morass of entertainment options more expensive than a slate of iPads the kiddos would like better anyhow, automakers are relentlessly cutting costs and snickering under their breath every time they sell one: “I can’t believe they bought that tired old thing … we haven’t done a real update in 15 years.”

Mom of 3 with an Expedition

I think this post has some valid points--but so does "JK"--& that's why I'm keeping my 4x4 SUV, less mpg and all. Having the 4x4 has saved our safety on two what could have been very bad occasions--one due to incliment weather and the other due to another negligent driver--and we all walked away without so much as a hangnail. I'm not a minivan hater--but giving up the safety I've found in my Expedition for merely convienience the minivan can provide--not a chance.


Good summary & here is another reason for the minivan: trunk space! Look at the specs on the Ody, Sienna and others, they all have about 40 cu/ft of trunk space with the 3rd row full of people. Most SUVs only have 20 cu/ft including the Sequoia! Only the Suburban and Expedition can match the cu/ft of cargo space, but they are much larger vehicles.


Mom of 3 with an Expedition

dont forget, sienna has AWD. combined w winter tires, u will get out of almost anything an SUV will in the suburbs


Don't forget, some trim levels of the Toyota Sienna offer AWD ;). It's the only minivan to offer AWD, though. Not to mention, the second row seats recline back and have a foot-rest. There not all same, or as similar as you'd think. Mind you- this is coming from a 14 year old who really wants his mom to get a Sienna (it seems like the best option to me. We have a 2003 Toyota Camry LE that used to be my great grandma's before she passed. It's a great car! No issues with it at all!)


To the comments JK made. He can't be further from the truth and I'm sure he has not spent much time in a new Honda odyssey. We had a Volvo xc 90 and an acura mdx before getting an odyssey. We have two kids but needed more room for family trips etc. The 2 car seats made carrying extra people difficult - access to the 3rd row was a pain and fitting extra people in the 2nd row with the seats was tight. So the odyssey was way ahead based only on this category. Now for the other areas where JK misses the mark and the OP hits it. The odyssey drives way better than an SUV. I was against getting a mini van at first. I guess I never saw myself as a minivan driver but the odyssey made it a now brainer. For everyday driving it blows the Volvo away. Acceleration, cornering, maneuverability, mpg, smooth ride, navigating and parking lots are all better in the odyssey. Going on rough terrain is the only area where an SUV is better because a mini van is really low to the ground. In bad weather with sports tires our SUVs weren't that great in the snow. So that's also overrated on most SUVs. My wife also likes how she can easily get from the 1st row to the 2nd row in the odyssey. We have an elite touring model and all the electronic features are great. The kids love them. You also can't compare 3rd rows. The odyssey 3rd row is a real row for adults. It can easily accommodate adults on road trips. Our MDX and XC 90 3rd rows were a pain for adults to ride back there. You also can't really see out any windows from the 3rd row. It's really no comparison and I'm glad I didn't dig in when buying a new vehicle by insisting on an SUV. This is my wife's main vehicle and what we use for road trips. Another thing that helped me let go of my mini van stigma was the found memories I had as a kid in our family station wagon. Station wagons were a staple in this country for a long time and didn't really have a stigma. So why should the modern version of the station wagon - the mini van have a stigma associated with it? Are we now really that shallow? The answer is obviously yes ;)

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