Family Hauler Shoot-Out

If you're shopping for a used car and are comparing SUVs to crossovers, this story from 2009 might be useful to you. Also, check our story on steps to used-car buying success.

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)

If you're shopping for a used car and are comparing SUVs to crossovers, this story from 2009 might be useful to you. Also, check our story on steps to used-car buying success.

Part I focused on the cargo- and people-carrying capabilities of minivans, full-size SUVs and large crossover vehicles (CUVs.) Not surprisingly, the not-so-minivan excels in these areas. We think everyone should stop using the prefix "mini."

But more things must be considered to determine if something like a Buick Enclave or Mazda CX-9 is a suitable successor to an SUV or van.

Factor #4: Towing

Towing performance isn't important to everyone, but for those families who enjoy a boat or camper, it's an absolutely critical overriding factor when choosing what to buy.

Here, the rear-wheel-drive layout, full-size truck frame and V8 engine of the traditional SUV are a clear advantage. In fact, many trailers weigh so much that nothing else will do. Towing capacities for full-size SUVs range from 6,000 to just over 9,000 pounds.

Conversely, the front-drive roots, transverse V6 engine and unibody construction typical of minivans and most crossovers limit their towing capability. Most top-selling minivans can tow 3,500 pounds — an amount sufficient for a small boat or a pair of personal watercraft. Crossovers do better; some models can be configured to tow 4,500-5,000 pounds.

As always, towing capability varies greatly by model and specific towing options, so check carefully when purchasing. Be aware that some of the high-capacity towing options for SUVs include gearing changes that harm fuel economy in everyday driving, too.

1st place:

Full-size, truck-based SUVs (6,000-9,200 pounds)

2nd place:

Crossovers (1,000-5,000 pounds)

3rd place:

Minivans (1,000-3,500 pounds)

Factor # 5: All-Weather Capability

This isn't a family issue, per se — it's more of a regional one. But snow traction is seen as safety, so it's a big selling point in certain geographic areas. Front-wheel drive may be good, but all-wheel drive (AWD) and part-time four-wheel drive (4WD) systems (particularly those with an auto setting) are much better.

All crossovers offer optional AWD, and full-size SUVs have always offered 4WD or AWD options. But of all the minivans sold in America today, only one, the 2008 Toyota Sienna, offers all-wheel drive.

Some observers remind us that while AWD vastly improves acceleration traction, it doesn't improve braking. While it's easier to get going, it's also easier to get going too fast. FWD drivers are usually more aware of poor road conditions.

1st place:

Full-size, truck-based SUVs (four-wheel traction, extra ground clearance)

2nd place:

Crossovers (four-wheel traction, always-on, center diff)

3rd place:

Minivans (only the Toyota Sienna offers an AWD option)

Factor #6: Off-Road Capability

This differs from all-weather capability and it has more to do with having fun or exploring off-road trails than dealing with bad weather.

The gap between SUVs and CUVs is greater, because SUVs usually have a locking (or absent) center differential, a low-range transfer case and higher ground clearance. These allow a skilled driver to creep over rocks and get through deep sand and mud. Properly equipped, an SUV is the only type of vehicle suitable for off-road exploring.

CUVs don't have low range and their frameless undercarriages are more vulnerable. Their AWD systems are light duty and should stay clear of dirt roads that aren't reasonably maintained. Minivans, even those with AWD, have even less clearance and should stick to pavement whenever possible.

1st place:

Full-size, truck-based SUVs (lockable drive, low range, high clearance)

2nd place:

Crossovers (no low range, usually no locked mode, moderate clearance)

3rd place:

Minivans (limited AWD availability, low clearance)

Factor #7: Safety

Safety is usually discussed in terms of crash survivability. But in fact, safety is comprised of two subparts: passive safety and active safety.

Passive safety assumes a serious accident will happen, and so relates to discussions of passenger-protecting features such as airbags, seatbelts and crumple zones. Crash tests carried out by the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) result in the familiar "star" (NHTSA) and "Poor" to "Good" ratings (IIHS).

From this standpoint, manufacturers have by and large learned how to build safe vehicles. Looking at our three groups — minivans, CUVs and SUVs — there are no overriding advantages related to configuration; all three categories have numerous five-star vehicles to choose from.

Active safety pertains to accident avoidance. Here the configuration of a vehicle has a big influence on two related factors: emergency maneuverability and rollover potential.

The ability to maneuver around an obstacle instead of hitting it doesn't show up in accident statistics, because the accident was avoided. But certain patterns have emerged, such as the greater susceptibility of traditional SUVs to roll over in an attempt to dodge something. SUVs have historically carried a warning label on their sun visors for this reason.

On the ratings front, NHTSA introduced a new star-based rating to describe a vehicle's rollover resistance. The test has two parts. A measurement called the Static Stability Factor (SSF) describes how tippy a vehicle is by comparing its track width to its center-of-gravity height. The other is a driving test to see how easily the vehicle tips over.

To understand SSF, consider a piece of wood: the common 2-by-4. If you lay it down flat, it is very resistant to tipping over — a high SSF. But if you put it on edge, it's easy to knock over — a low SSF. NHTSA's rollover resistance ratings are based on SSF measurements.

In strict SSF terms, a Corvette or Miata can get five stars. SUVs, as we currently know them, usually score three stars. Minivans and CUVs typically score four stars, with minivans at the upper end of the bracket.

The dynamic driving test, known as a fishhook maneuver, uses a robot to follow a prescribed maneuver to measure rollover. But there is another factor: Automakers that fit electronic stability control (ESC) to the majority of a particular model get to use ESC during this test. Because ESC inhibits the broadside spin this test creates, the conditions that produce rollover are averted. A vehicle on the bubble between three and four stars in SSF terms gets promoted to four stars as a reward for passing the fishhook test, something that the fitment of ESC ensures on SUVs that might otherwise have trouble with this maneuver.

While ESC is a great feature that will save many lives, we're going to concentrate on SSF for this analysis. Why? ESC is available on all SUVs, CUVs and minivans in our consideration set, so it's not a distinguishing characteristic. But it isn't always standard. In cases where you end up with an example that doesn't have the ESC option, raw SSF is particularly important to know.

Since these vehicle types also share good crash test ratings, we're going to make our call based on SSF. Maneuverability and rollover resistance both favor the lower, wider vehicle.

1st place:

Minivans (SSF range: 1.24—1.36*)

2nd place:

CUVs (SSF range: 1.18—1.27)

3rd place:

SUVs (SSF range: 1.14—1.20) * SSF = ½t ÷ h, where "t" is the track width and "h" is the center-of-gravity height.

Factor #8: Fuel Economy

This one is fairly straightforward. SUVs are larger, heavier and designed to pull heavy trailers, so they consume more fuel. Crossovers and vans are lighter and employ smaller engines, so they do better in fuel economy tests. Opting for the AWD version of any of these vehicle types hurts fuel economy slightly in most cases.

1st place (tie):

Minivans (16-17 mpg city/21-25 mpg highway)

1st place (tie):

CUVs (15-17 mpg city/22-24 mpg highway)

3rd place: SUVs

(12-14 mpg city/17-20 mpg highway)


As expected, large SUVs score best when it comes to towing and off-road performance, and worst when it comes to fuel economy and rollover resistance. They hold quite a bit of cargo, but lift-over is high and minivans hold more. Still, if your lifestyle includes towing a camper or large boat somewhere, an SUV is the best choice.

Crossover advantages over large SUVs include fuel economy, ease of loading cargo and safety. Available all-wheel drive gives them the snow traction coveted in certain parts of the country. But styling to make them look cooler than minivans and sleeker than SUVs ultimately limits interior seating space and cargo capacity. Crossovers are a very good choice, but they are held back by compromises that some might not want to make.

If there is any surprise here, it has to be the fact that more families aren't buying minivans. They haul more people and cargo, are easier to load and for kids to get in and out of (sliding doors rule), use the least amount of fuel and have the best combination of safety factors. With the exception of the Toyota Sienna, their biggest drawback is the lack of AWD for those who want it in snow country. Other than that single regional exception, minivans are still the best family haulers, period.