Deciding isn’t as easy as you might think.
My wife and I have an 8 month old and are in the market for a family car. We have one daughter and don’t plan on another, but do occasionally travel with our two dogs (but that is rare). We are evaluating the Toyota Highlander and Sienna, Honda Pilot and Odyssey and the Chrysler Pacifica. We have also heard some good things about the Buick Enclave. With one child, it seems silly to get a minivan, but the functionality of them is appealing. Any thoughts on these or others to consider? — Chris Buchholz
This is a great question and one that a lot of families struggle with. In your case, you can’t go wrong with a car with a third row; there may be times you need to carpool, have parents or in-laws along or simply need the extra space for hauling sports equipment, furniture and other large items. So what it comes down to is: SUV or minivan?
Arguments for an SUV: AWD, towing and higher ground clearance
The choice of minivan versus SUV is a personal one. One of the main reasons people choose an SUV is the option for all wheel drive or four wheel drive (only the Toyota Sienna offers AWD and none of the minivans are 4WD). Even when climate and terrain don’t demand AWD capability, if you ever drive on the beach, in the mountains, go skiing or face fierce weather, AWD can offer great capability. Many SUVs offer a choice, too: front wheel drive (and better fuel economy) for most driving conditions and an AWD option when you need it.
SUVs are also popular for families who tow a boat, RV or other equipment; if you think this might be something you’ll consider in a few years, be sure to check towing capability.
Another reason SUVs are popular is the higher stance off the ground; lifting a baby or toddler in and out an SUV is easier because you’re using your core muscles, not your back. Sedans are back killers with small children because of the unnatural bending and lifting. Also, a car that is higher off the ground is easier for installing car seats.
An SUV is also a good choice if you’d like your car for non-family driving, such as a couples weekend or driving your friends to dinner. It doesn’t say “family car” as much as a minivan does.
The biggest drawback to an SUV, though, is that often the third row is small, sacrificing head room and leg room; this is due to the AWD functionality and the higher stance off the ground. Even some of the largest SUVs on the market have small third rows. Families that regularly need a third row for passengers often opt for a minivan.
Arguments for a minivan: Roomy, filled with conveniences and even more cargo space
The biggest benefit to a minivan is the interior space. They are quite roomy in all rows, have nice head room and there’s a deep cargo well behind the third row, so you can fill the van with 7 or 8 passengers and a fair amount of luggage— great for a family trip. They also have a lot of roominess in the front seat and a nice amount of space between the driver and front passenger seats, and the center console often has features such as compartments, drawers or bins where you can store things.
Minivans also have sliding passenger doors and push button controls inside the car and on the key fob to open and close the doors. This is great for getting kids in and out of the car and kids can learn to open and close the door themselves at a pretty early age. Some minivans also have seats that flip forward and store in the floor of the car. This is great if you need extra cargo space.
Features to consider in either an SUV or minivan
Whichever you choose, there are some options we highly recommend considering:
- Center row captains chairs (available in most SUVs and minivans); these makes third row access easy and increase third row leg room; it also creates a natural space between the center row seats for a dog bed, snack bags or activity buckets for family road trips;
- Push button third row access and easy flip forward center row seats (see if you can put the seats forward with one hand); this makes getting in and out of the third row easy for kids or adults;
- On an SUV, running boards make it easy for both small kids and older passengers to get in and out of the car;
- Push button lift gate, with a button on the gate, on the key fob and on the driver control panel (dashboard). You might also consider the ‘kick gate’ which opens the lift gate when the car key is in a pocket or purse. These are great if you’ve got an armload of groceries—you don’t have to put things down to find your key.
- An entertainment system with wireless headphones, an HDMI port and a household plug (your daughter is young but you’ll appreciate this sooner than you think!). We especially love a household plug, which is typically on the rear of the center console and may be available as a part of an entertainment package
- Top safety technology such as adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitors, lane departure mitigation, crash mitigation, cross traffic alerts, hands free voice controls and more. All these safety features will add to your resale value and keep everyone safer in your car
- A built in vacuum, which is only in two models: Chrysler Pacifica and Honda Odyssey; a great feature if you have both kids and dogs.
Going green: is it possible to be fuel efficient?
If fuel economy is a concern, it’s worth noting that generally both SUVs and minivans get similar fuel economy, averaging in the 18-22MPG range.
However, there are a couple of good options if fuel efficiency matters: the Toyota Highlander Hybrid gets about 28MPG in city and highway driving. The Highlander Hybrid is also quieter, has super low emissions and the hybrid performance is as good as the gas engine in terms of power and acceleration; you’re not making any compromises with the hybrid.
Then, the Chrysler Pacifica is being offered with an electric plug-in/gas option this fall; the first 20-30 miles are powered by electricity and then the gas engine kicks in, so the Pacifica gets about the same range as any other car, about 350 miles to a tank of gas (and if you plug it in daily you could go for weeks or months without buying gas). We haven’t driven the hybrid plug-in yet (we will drive it in November) but we are fans of the technology; it’s quite successful in the Chevrolet Volt and many manufacturers offer it in select cars.
Of the other models you mentioned: Chrysler re-imagined the minivan with the Pacifica and did a great job; it feels less “minivan-ish” than its competitors while still having many great minivan features (though the electric plug-in’s center seats don’t stow in the floor; this is where the hybrid battery is housed).
The Honda Pilot was recently redesigned to be less boxy and sleeker but still has one of the largest third rows in the SUV category; if third row space is a consideration, be sure to test drive the Pilot.
A few other models I’d recommend you look at: The Volvo XC90, which has some of the best safety technology on the road and also has dog crate options for the cargo space; the GMC Acadia, also redesigned recently with a lot of our favorite features, and the Mazda CX-9: Mazda is repositioning itself as a premium brand and offering more luxury, with things such as a head up display and premium features and finishes at a very competitive price.When you’ve decided which car is going to be your next one, be sure to check out our negotiating tips and get the most for your money!