Car Buying Articles
Family Hauler Shoot-Out
Part I: The Roomiest of Them All?
As fuel prices soar, many consumers are reevaluating their choice of family hauler. Sure, we hear stories about people trading a Chevy Suburban for a Toyota Prius, but if they can manage that, they didn't really need the large SUV in the first place. What about those of us with growing families who really need three rows of seating? What are we to do?
Minivans became an instant hit with families when they were invented by Chrysler in the '80s. At some point they began a slow decline as cheap gas, the promise of go-anywhere adventure and perceived safety gave rise to the large, truck-based sport-utility vehicle (SUV.)
But a steady rise in gas prices and swirling doubts about the rollover stability of SUVs has given birth to a likely successor: the "crossover"-utility vehicle or CUV. Built on a carlike unibody chassis and usually employing front-drive mechanicals, a CUV is lower, lighter and more economical than an SUV.
Until recently, CUVs have been too small for full-fledged family hauler status, but new larger entries from General Motors and Mazda make us wonder: Are crossovers worthy of being the Next Big Thing in family hauling?
We aim to find out by analyzing the most important family-oriented characteristics of the above three vehicle types.
Three Rows and Garage Compatibility Assumed
Two criteria must be met to be part of our analysis: There must be three rows of seats capable of handling adults and the overall length must be less than 210 inches to be compatible with most suburban garages.
You might wonder about the three-row stipulation. Many families have two kids, right? We're assuming you still need the space for several reasons: mandatory car seats, carpooling with other families and visiting relatives. Small children spend a few years in car seats, which become a near-permanent fixture in the middle row. When grandparents or other "big people" ride along, they need third-row room and access — without having to remove those car seats.
This eliminates small and medium CUVs and midsize SUVs from our exercise because, with very few exceptions, their third rows can't handle full-size adults. On the other end of the scale, full-size extended-length SUVs like the Chevrolet Suburban and Ford Expedition EL don't make the cut because they are simply too long for most garages. The Chevrolet Tahoe became wildly successful precisely because it wasn't seen as "too big" at the time.
The entire population of the vehicles we considered in all three groups fell in a tight bunch between 199 and 207.7 inches long.
Factor #1: Passenger Room
The capacity of most three-row vehicles is seven or eight persons, depending on whether the middle row is a bench or separate "captain's chairs." Shoulder and headroom aren't usually a concern in any of them, so we've focused on legroom by looking at the sum total of all three rows.
Large SUVs might seem to have the advantage, but minivans come out best, particularly the 2008 Toyota Sienna (122 inches) and 2008 Honda Odyssey (119.2 inches). The 2008 Ford Expedition/Lincoln Navigator (117.9 inches) is the only large SUV to make the top three.
Crossovers have slightly less total legroom because longish hoods and rounded styling compromise their interior space. But the 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon trails behind them all because it's the only holdout not using independent rear suspension — a live-axle rear suspension impinges on third-seat space.
1st Place: Minivans (114.6-122 inches)
2nd Place: Full-size SUVs (105.9-117.9 inches)
3rd place: Crossovers (111.4-113.1 inches)
Factor #2: Passenger Access
Of course, floor and seat heights affect the ease of getting all passengers in or out. We measured the floor height near the rear seat of a 2008 Toyota Sequoia SUV at 23.5 inches above ground; a 2008 GMC Acadia CUV measured 19.5 inches and the 2008 Honda Odyssey minivan was just 16.5 inches.
Large SUVs offer running boards, and they help kids who can climb in. But you'll still have to lift younger children much higher to get them into an SUV-mounted car seat. For example, rear seat heights are 38 inches for the Sequoia, 33 inches for the Acadia and 31 inches for the Odyssey.
And then there are the rear doors themselves; minivans have sliding doors. There is no getting around the fact that these are superior. Kids don't door-ding the car in the next parking space, and you can open sliding doors using a remote — an available option on all minivans.
Standard-hinged rear doors are OK if kids can reach them, but some have grown very long to improve third-row access. The longer doors work fine for that, but tight parking spaces restrict the opening angle much more, and hence door dings are a greater concern.
1st Place: Minivans (low seat, door handle and step-up height, sliding doors)
2nd Place: Crossovers (moderate step-up, seat and door-handle heights)
3rd place: SUVs (high step-up, seat and door-handle heights)
Factor #3: Cargo Capability
Whether it's grocery shopping or a trip to the ubiquitous home-improvement or warehouse superstore, family vehicles must also haul.
Minivans lead the way in cargo loading because they have low floors and a low lift-over height. You need to lift something only 24.5 inches to get it into a Honda Odyssey. It takes a 30-inch lift to load a GMC Acadia CUV and 33.5 inches to get something into the back of a large SUV like the Toyota Sequoia.
Minivans and CUVs share the lowest roof lines, but minivans' floors are so low that they have the tallest cargo area height. A 38-inch-high opening allowed us to slide a clothes dryer-sized box into the Odyssey, but shorter openings prevented it from fitting in the Acadia (32 inches) or Sequoia (33 inches).
This combination of a low floor, tall compartment and boxy proportions means that minivans also score the best at maximum cargo capacity. Maximum capacities in the segment range from 142-149 cubic feet. This even eclipses the too-long-for-this-test Suburban (137 cubic feet), the largest in the extended-length SUV segment.
Only 121 cubic feet are available in the class-leading garage-length 2008 Sequoia. Crossovers sacrifice some space for sleek styling, but the biggest ones, at 117 cubic feet, still compete with garage-length SUVs.
Another key difference comes with all three rows of seats occupied. Volumewise, the Toyota Sienna provides 43.6 cubic feet of cargo capacity when the third-row seat is in use. The best crossover and SUV capacities are 25.5 and 28.4, respectively. The difference grows larger when, for the sake of visibility, we limit our focus to the volume below the headrests. We stacked eight 15-gallon storage boxes below the headrests in a Honda Odyssey, but the Acadia and Sequoia managed just two apiece. Using a minivan, then, an entire family can meet the grandparents at the airport and still have room inside for a sizable amount of luggage.
The absence of a permanent center console in most minivans allows 10-foot lumber to be laid flat on the floor — with the hatch closed and most seats unaffected. SUVs and CUVs have fixed consoles, so 8-foot lumber must be laid diagonally atop folded middle and third-row seats to be carried safely.
Got 4-by-8 sheets of plywood to haul? If you fold the third-row seats and remove the middle seats, they'll fit with the hatch closed in most minivans. Our Sequoia and GMC Acadia couldn't duplicate that feat.
1st Place: Minivans (excellent capacity, low lift-over, can haul long and tall items)
2nd place: Crossovers (good capacity, moderate lift-over, no long or tall items)
3rd Place: Full-size SUVs (good capacity, high lift-over, no long or tall items)
OK, so far this seems like a van love-in. But there are other considerations. Follow the link to Part II.