SUV vs Minivan: Which of the Best Minivans and 3 Row SUVs are Right for You?

Minivan Vs Suv Featured Image

Here’s how to decide.

My friend Mary needed a new car and had a conundrum: Minivan or 3 row SUV? She liked the idea of lots of flexible space for long drives with family, an entertainment system for her son and lots of room for soccer players and gear. But she also has to drive through snowy winters ands park on crowded city streets. Which was the right choice for her?

The truth is, either could work for her. Many people drive a 3-row SUV for the same  reasons others choose a minivan. When trying to decide, consider the similarities and differences between the two and then decide which is the best fit for you. 

Minivans are great when you regularly have a lot of people or stuff to carry. The third row is easily accessible and when you don’t need it, the seats fold down for extra cargo space. They also have sliding center doors that typically can be operated by a button on the key fob or from the driver’s seat, so once everyone is in you can close the doors for them. Last, minivans have deep cargo wells in the back, so there’s an extra 10 or so cubic feet of storage. Great for leaving beach chairs or snow gear in your car all season.

SUVs can accommodate as many passengers but typically have less headroom and leg room. They are sportier, generally with more capability in poor weather, off road and hard to reach places like beaches, mountains and unpaved trails. Recently, SUVs have rolled out many minivan like features including more USB ports, smart entertainment systems and more flexible seating, including center row captains chairs.

Chrysler Pacifica

The new front end of the Chrsyler Pacifica has diamond cut grille, slimmer headlights and fog lights. ? Scotty Reiss

Four of the Best Minivans (but, there are really only 4 to choose from)

Last year each of the minivan lineups was updated, and a new minivan, the Kia Carnival, was introduced to replace the Sedona.

Chrysler Pacifica is the most style-focused, with a premium trim featuring elegant quilted leather and many premium features. It also is available in a plug-in electric hybrid version and will travel about 35 miles on electric before the gas engine kicks in.

The Honda Odyssey received a minor makeover for 2021; it keeps popular features like a removable middle seat in the center row, which slides back and forth to allow you to position the seats where you like.

The Toyota Sienna added a hybrid engine to all models, so now it delivers an incredible 35 or so MPG (versus about 20 MPG in the prior model) and it has available with all-wheel drive, a feature that only the Pacifica also offers.

And the Kia Carnival is presented as the un-minivan, with a sportier look and drive experience, though it’s larger than the Sedona it replaces. The Carnival is designed for Millennials: packed with technology and comforts to the car a natural habitat. 

Related: In defense of the minivan

Kia Telluride Photo Teia Collier

Kia Telluride 3 Row SUV. Photo: Teia Collier

Why 3 Row SUVs May Make More Sense

If you’re going to be driving in wintry conditions, on country roads, to the mountains or on sandy beaches, AWD should be a requirement. You don’t want to slide off the road or get stuck in an icy driveway.

You might want to think about a full-sized SUV with a third row:

Ford Explorer remains a family favorite, and despite its great features and capability, it has some tough competition. Buyers also consider the  Honda Pilot (this sets the standard for space and reliability), VW Atlas (one of the most popular new SUVs), GMC Yukon (pricey but awesome), Toyota Highlander (which comes in a hybrid version and gets 28MPG!).

Jeep Grand Cherokee L (now with a third row– FINALLY!), the Dodge Durango (the most powerful of them all, with a 710 horsepower Hellcat option) or Nissan Pathfinder (all-around fun). All have a third row, good leg and head room, adjustable center row seats and decent storage. 

If you only need the third row occasionally, perhaps consider a crossover or SUV with a smaller third row. Midsize or compact SUVs—Kia Sorento, Hyundai Santa FeVW Tiguan, and Mitsubishi Outlander– will be easier to park in the city and offer that extra seating when you need it.

Related: 9 of the best 3-row family SUVs

Keeping the Troops Entertained on the Road

If a built in entertainment system is important, a minivan can be a theater on wheels: center row seats tend to recline and some top of the line models have extending foot rests. Most minivan entertainment systems have apps that allow passengers to play games, follow along the car’s navigation system to see the trip’s progress, and most entertainment systems have wireless headphones so front seat occupants don’t have to listen to “Frozen” for the millionth time.

Many SUVs offer an entertainment system option, but some, like the VW Atlas, have only tablet holders (this keeps the overall cost down). Both minivans and SUVs offer WiFi and Bluetooth that everyone can connect to, USB ports that every passenger can access and plenty of cupholders.

Related: How to keep your car clean and kid-ick free

Where Are You in Your Family Journey?

This may be the most important factor in deciding which is right for you: What will the next 5-10 years hold for your family?

You may find a minivan to be a better option if:

  • You’re on kid #2 but planning for more
  • Your kids are pre-school or grade-school age and will be participating in a variety of after school activities and you’ll need to join carpools to get them to and fro’
  • Extended family are often passengers, too
  • Multi-generational families with both young and elderly members; these families often find minivans make short and longer trips easy to manage
  • Your family travel consists of a lot of road trips

You may find an SUV to be a better option if:

  • Some or all of your kids in child passenger car seats are able to buckle their own seatbelts– especially those who regularly use the third row
  • All wheel or 4 wheel drive is important – especially for families who experience wintry conditions or hilly roads
  • Your family’s road trips are adventure-oriented: skiing, hiking, camping or other activities that require all wheel or 4 wheel drive
  • Excursions with extended family or other passengers are short; even the largest 3 row SUVs are not as roomy as a minivan

Last, consider which car will make you happy. Does a living room on wheels with lots of flexible cargo space make you smile? Or does a muscular mountain-conquering SUV light your fire? Because whichever it is, there’s a 3-row car that will do the job.

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Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss