Are Full-Size SUVs Getting Larger? Yes — Here’s Why

Full-size SUVs are big — and getting bigger. Young families, expanded car seat rules, better MPG and the popularity of SUVs makes them profitable and competitive.

Jeep Grand Wagoneer
The Jeep Grand Wagoneer is a 3-row SUV you'll never want to get out of. Photo: Kim-Marie Evans

Size Matters When it Comes to 3-Row SUVs

No, it’s not just your imagination. Full-size SUVs are getting even bigger. These days, you could almost call them mobile homes — because you could almost literally fit your entire home inside of them. (Okay, not really. But almost.)

And their numbers keep growing – both in upsized SUVs we know to new, larger SUVs hitting dealerships in the coming year. They include the now-larger GMC Acadia which has a full-size 3rd row and the completely redesigned Hyundai Santa Fe, to the new Toyota Grand Highlander, the Mazda CX-90, the Lexus TX and the Kia EV9 electric 3-row SUV. Bigger SUVs are going to fill the streets everywhere.

But why are carmakers bulking up these big sellers? And is bigger always better? 

Related: Some of Our Favorite 3-Row Family SUVs and One Minivan, And Why We Love Them

The Rear Cabin Is Roomy And Visibility Is Good, Even With Kids Car Seats Installed. Photo: Erica Mueller

Rear facing car seats take up an enormous amount of space. Photo: Erica Mueller

Reason #1: You Have Children, and Safety is Paramount

This is probably the biggest driver making the case for a larger 3rd row: Rear facing child passenger car seats. In case you missed the news, the CDC recently updated rear-facing car seat guidelines and suggested keeping your little ones facing the back up to age 4, depending on height and weight. Watch a crash test of a toddler in a forward facing car seat – and the expansion of the dummy’s neck – and you’ll see why: Children’s necks and spines are more pliable and less able to withstand an impact. 

While rear facing car seats aren’t going in the third row, that extra space helps to accommodate them safely; sliding second row seats can mean up to 42″ of space between the front seat and the center seat.

And with the expanded age recommendations, many families have to accommodate two rear facing seats at a time. 3-row SUVs also mean additional seating for older siblings or other passengers, making these SUVs a must more than a luxury. 

A Girls Guide To Cars | Are Full-Size Suvs Getting Larger? Yes — Here’s Why - The 2023 Cadillac Escalade V. Photo Scotty Reiss

The 2023 Cadillac Escalade V is a large luxury SUV. Photo: Scotty Reiss

SUVs are Profitable for Automakers

The demand has shifted from sedans to SUVs — and automakers responded. Not long ago, Volkswagen sold only a couple of SUVs in the US, while sedans and hatchbacks made up more than 90% of the company’s sales. Today, the company sells mostly SUVs, which account for more than 80% of the company’s sales.

Large SUVs are so popular that General Motors recently announced plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to build the next generation of the Cadillac Escalade and other full-size SUVs. According to CNBC, these accounted for 12% of GM’s sales last year, which is a pretty decent chunk of the profits. 

Basically, as long as the demand for big SUVs continues to rise, you can count on automakers to go where the money is. 

A Girls Guide To Cars | Are Full-Size Suvs Getting Larger? Yes — Here’s Why - The Center Row Of The New Toyota Highlander Hybrid Has A Lot Of Leg And Head Room. Photo Scotty Reiss

The center row of the new Toyota Highlander hybrid is a large SUV with a lot of leg and headroom. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Full-Size SUVs are More Fuel-Efficient than Ever

Large SUVs have always had a reputation for being gas guzzlers, but they’ve come a long way recently in terms of fuel economy. Federal fuel economy regulations  – the average MPG manufacturers must hit with their product lines – were punishing to car makers that found sedans to sell slowly and SUVs to sell quickly. So, they’ve worked on the the efficiency of SUVS, adding more efficient engines and transmissions, lighter-weight materials, adjusted suspensions and more safety features, all in the name of better MPG: 

  • Toyota replaced the V8 engine in the Sequoia with a V6 and fuel economy improved from 13 city/17 highway to 21 city/24 highway
  • Chevy Tahoe improved MPG from 14 city/20 highway in 2020 to 21 city/28 highway in the 2023 model
  • VW Atlas increased fuel economy for 17 city/24 highway to 21 city/25 highway for the 2023 model year
  • Toyota Grand Highlander Hybrid, a full-size SUV with a full size 3rd row, is estimated to get an average 34 MPG
  • Kia Sorento went from 19/26 in 2019 to 24/29; upgrade to the hybrid motor and MPG increases to about 35 MPG combined. Add the plug-in hybrid electric option and  this 3-row SUV can extend a tank of gas for weeks before needing a fill-up. While this SUV is smaller than other SUVs mentioned here, the power train options are probably something we’ll see more of in large SUVs soon

It’s great to know that if you need the space and capability of an SUV, you also have better fuel economy options than you did a few years ago. 

Related: Yes, You Can Get Cheap Gas: The Best Gas Apps and Discounts

A Girls Guide To Cars | Are Full-Size Suvs Getting Larger? Yes — Here’s Why - Millennials And Gen Z Drivers Alike Are Looking For More Family Friendly Suvs. Photo By Allison Bell

Millennials and Gen Z drivers alike are looking for more family-friendly SUVs. Photo: Allison Bell

Millennials and Gen Z are Looking for Family SUVs 

Drivers with young (or not-so-young) families tend to want/need more space in their cars. Just a few years ago, NPR reported that millennials were starting to buy large SUVs as they crossed “the threshold into family life.” Well, now it’s Gen Z’s turn. Now that older Gen Z’s are having one, two, or more kids of their own, bigger cars are becoming just as in style as mom jeans and middle parts. 

I Had Plenty Of Legroom In The Lexus Lx 600

There is plenty of legroom in this large SUV, the Lexus LX 600. Photo: Scotty Reiss

More Head and Legroom is a No-Brainer

“Gee, I wish our family car felt more cramped and uncomfortable,” said no one ever. Obviously, drivers with a lot of people and things to haul around are generally going to want more space, and they seem to be getting it. On the list of cars that have grown in terms of head and legroom in the last couple of years, you’ve got the Chevrolet Tahoe, Chevrolet Suburban, Toyota Highlander, Ford Expedition, and many more.

For example, the 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe bumped up to 225.7 inches in length compared to 204 inches for the 2020 model. Cargo volume increased from 94.7 cubic feet to 122.9. But the biggest change was the third-row legroom, which went from 24.8 inches to 36.7 inches. According to Automotive News, General Motors has been on a mission to make legroom in the third row of its most popular SUVs bigger by about 10 inches across the board. 

Related: Child Passenger Safety Week: It’s Not Just About Kids Car Seats

The Tahoe Rst'S Tail Lights

The Chevy Tahoe RST is a large SUV with plenty of space. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Driving Dynamics Have Been Improved in Large SUVs

Other than fuel efficiency, think about some of the biggest complaints people have had in the past about driving large SUVs: they’re hard to drive, hard to park, hard to handle, because they’re just so big. Well, thanks to some fine-tuning and added tech and safety features, full-size SUVs are easier to maneuver these days. They’ve got better handling and control — and those backup/parking cameras sure take the pressure off in tight situations. 

Mazda 5 Minivan

Large SUVs can handle lots of passengers and have lots of built-in safety features. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Got to Have Space for All Those Safety Features

Another reason why SUVs are getting bigger? All those extra safety features have to go somewhere. When you’re loading up a big, heavy car with airbags, big crunch zones, and other safety tech, it tends to take up space. But that might feel like a small price to pay for added peace of mind.

The Silver Sage Metallic Color On The 2023 Chevrolet Suburban High Country Was A Head-Turner In The Best Way.

The Silver Sage Metallic color on the Chevrolet Suburban High Country was a head-turner. Photo: Allison Bell

So… Is Bigger Better?

At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself what your priorities are on the road. Want fuel efficiency? A sedan might be the best choice. Want to keep your kids safe in the back seat in case the worst should happen on the road? A bigger car provides the best protection. Need to carry it all? An SUV with a large cargo space and flexible seating may be just the ticket.

Now, we just need bigger parking spaces.

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Allison is a freelance writer, a mother of two, and the wife of a car-obsessed husband who got her... More about Allison Bell