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The Best Family Hauler: SUV, Wagon, Minivan, or Crossover?

(updated June 15th, 2009)

OK, folks. The 2005 models are out and about, packed with an ever-expanding array of safety and convenience features. Now it's time to face the music: Will you choose a wagon, an SUV or a minivan? (For the basics about vehicle types, check out our Buying Guides.)

That choice is getting tougher every day. It's enough to make your head spin: Minivans and wagons are trying to adopt the SUV's cool look and taller stance, while SUVs are trying to drive more like wagons and minivans. (Click to see our Crossover graphic.) And everyone is trying to add more configurable seats that fold down, flip up or hide in the floor. Perhaps your decision will rest on the "carpool factor" — how many people are you trying to carry? Only one thing is certain: The "type" of car you drive is no longer defined by the number of cupholders.

SUVs: The Big Granddaddy

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Many of the early SUVs, like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Nissan Pathfinder weren't great people haulers. Backseats were typically cramped and there often wasn't much seat-track travel up front. Built on pickup truck platforms (body-on-frame construction), traditional SUVs such as the Chevy Suburban and Toyota 4Runner gained a reputation as macho off-roaders that were good at hauling stuff.

These early SUVs had pretty horrific gas mileage, and driving them on pavement was neither easy nor fun. What's more, manufacturers discovered that only 5 percent of SUVs were taken off-road: their low-range gearing was largely going to waste as people used SUVs as cooler alternatives to the minivan.

So why would you buy traditional SUVs like these? If you need off-road performance, the SUV's raised suspension, all-wheel or four-wheel drive and strong underpinnings are better for the task than any other type of car except a pickup. Towing performance is another area where traditional SUVs excel. Their larger engines and stout frames are better suited to cope with the additional strains of pulling a trailer. There are plenty of folks who love their Expeditions and Suburbans simply because they can swallow up all the kids and their gear while towing a ski boat in back. But as gas prices continue at record levels, the large SUV option has become more of a luxury.

SUV/Wagon Crossovers: A Softer Touch

Spotting a need in the market, manufacturers began putting SUV bodies on wagon/sedan platforms, the result is the so-called "crossover" SUV. By using sedan underpinnings and SUV bodies, crossovers are able to offer carlike handling while maintaining the size and practicality of SUVs. While they don't tow (or often carry) as much as their traditional SUV brethren, they ride, handle and park more like cars. (In fact, it's only in the last few years, with the popularity of car-based SUVs, that traditional SUVs like the Jeep were softened to become legitimate family haulers.)

Not all SUV/wagon crossovers are created equal — some are more "SUV-like," and some are more "carlike." For example, the Honda Pilot, Mitsubishi Endeavor and Volvo XC90 are closer to their traditional SUV cousins, as they are tough enough for light off-road adventures. Vehicles like the BMW X3 and X5, Nissan Murano and Toyota Highlander can tackle a gravel road but really are happiest when driven on pavement. Even further in the wagon direction — but still in the crossover category — are the Audi allroad, Subaru Outback and Volvo XC70. These cars already look and drive like wagons (and basically that's what they are), but due to their heavy-duty raised suspensions, they have as much ground clearance as their car-based SUV competitors. In fact, the Outback is better at off-roading than most of its peers.

Wagons: Reinventing the Wheel(s)

It's just a hop, skip and a jump from this last group of crossovers to the true wagons. But even in this category, manufacturers are trying for the SUV utility and look. (Don't call them "station wagons" — that image is too stodgy. The phrase of the day is "sport wagon.") For example, the Pontiac Vibe has seats that fold down flat and a wipe-clean plastic load floor in the cargo area with adjustable tie-down points. Others, such as the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, Dodge Magnum, Mazda 6, Subaru Legacy, and Volkswagen Passat, are closer to what we think of as "traditional" wagons. But even they are starting to offer options like all-wheel drive and, in the case of the Magnum, a reversible load floor. Additionally, the Malibu Maxx has rear seats with adjustable seat tracks.

So why buy a traditional wagon when crossovers are available? Wagons boast better fuel economy than the SUV/wagon crossovers and in many ways are the more practical solution. Though they lack the "lifestyle" look that so many SUV drivers crave, these are not your moms' station wagons. Today's wagons offer strong performance (many with AWD), safety and handling far superior to their predecessors.

Minivan/Wagon Crossovers: Best of Both Worlds

This leads us to the next crossover category, the minivan/wagon. While everyone knows a minivan when they see it, the Chrysler Pacifica tries to bring the most important minivan features to a more attractive wagon frame. The Pacifica can be configured with second-row fold-and-flip or captain's chairs and a third row that folds flat into the floor — just like a minivan. The Ford Freestyle, which has more cargo room than the Pacifica and has two-tone sheet metal, actually is more of a category-busting SUV/minivan/wagon blend. (All it lacks, unfortunately, is sufficient power.) The Pacifica and the Freestyle give you a lot of the minivan goodies without the wishful thinking that often accompanies the soccer mom stereotype.

Minivans: Desperately Seeking Style

The traditional minivans — Dodge Grand Caravan, Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna and so on still lead the pack when it comes to total cargo and passenger volume (some models hold eight people) and overall practicality. The redesigned Chrysler Town & Country/Dodge Grand Caravan improves on the basic minivan design with an industry first: Stow 'n Go seats that allow the first two rows of seats to fold flush into the floor and provide convenient storage space when the seats are upright. The ultramodern Nissan Quest has innovative options like Skyview windows, which allows all three rows of passengers to see through the roof, fold-down second-row seats (although not as flat as the Dodge's) and a space-age-looking center console. Other minivan makers are working hard to incorporate more SUV features, like GM's new "crossover sport vans" (read: a slightly cooler-looking minivan), which have more trucklike front ends and higher-sitting cabins. Still, a minivan is a minivan is a minivan.

So why buy a traditional minivan if there are so many cool choices available? Think about how they're used. If you're driving carpool, kids and their backpacks can load and unload more quickly and easily than in SUVs. Sliding doors make it easy to get in and out of, especially in tight parking situations. Minivans generally have the best safety ratings, have flexible interiors and great fuel economy. So what are the drawbacks? To be honest, it's mostly a style issue. Nothing screams "soccer mom" more than a minivan.

SUV/Minivan: Trying to Have It All

We've come to the final crossover category, the SUV/minivan. How do you do that? By building an SUV with minivan features. Like the Quest, the Buick Rendezvous and the Pontiac Aztek are built on a minivan platform and carry tons of cargo. Unlike the Quest, though, these crossover vehicles have hinged rear doors. This will be either a pro or a con depending whether you're looking for style or practicality. The Honda Element moves even further toward the SUV with its water-resistant seats and wipe-clean interior panels. Unlike the others, it only seats four and has reverse-hinged rear doors, which makes it a bit impractical. All these vehicles have optional AWD, though none of them can tackle off-road trails like true SUVs. Unfortunately, none of them quite lives up to their attempts at being the perfect family car. It will be interesting to see if and how import brands rise to this challenge.

The Crossover Continuum

As families become more demanding, manufacturers race to create the perfect blend of fun, utility, practicality and safety, causing a historic blurring of categories. (Click to see our Crossover graphic.) They haven't quite hit their mark yet, but they're getting closer. Cupholders are yesterday's news. Today's families only want one thing: They want it all. The good news is, manufacturers are starting to listen.