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posted on September 5th, 2017

Wheels up for carpool season

With the school year upon us once again, it’s time to take a look at America’s two favorite kinds of people-movers and see what’s what. Minivans and SUVs are the preferred vehicles of carpooling and family road trips, but which is right for transporting your clan?

Minivans dominated the 2000s, when seemingly every suburban driveway sported a Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna. In recent years, the SUV has come to rule. Improved efficiency and the emergence of crossovers have let SUVs shed the gas-guzzler label, and now every manufacturer and their cousin makes an SUV. And though the station wagon maintains some cachet among enthusiasts and in Europe, the wagon has sadly fallen out of favor with American families. The days of rear-facing seats are all but behind us. Those were cool, though, right?

It comes down to what fits your specific needs. As family vehicles, both minivans and SUVs have their merits. Consider your kids’ activities and your lifestyle, and see if they jive with one segment more than the other.

Paul’s Toyota Sienna (Phoenix, AZ)

Minivans

It’s understandable that you don’t want seem like you’ve succumbed to the doldrums of adulthood and family life. Here’s some advice: Get over the stigma. Minivans are just plain practical and are the ideal choice for many families.

In terms of seating, the minivan can’t be beaten. Three-row SUVs just don’t stack up to the flexibility and ease of access minivans offer for the back rows. Comfortable second-row captain’s chairs easily seat adults or provide buffer space between the argumentative twins. Many new vans have a sliding and removable second row, so configure the seating arrangement how you like.

Thurmond’s Honda Odyssey (Salt Lake City, UT)

For cargo space, there’s no contest. With the middle seats removed and the rears folded down, the 2017 Honda Odyssey has 148.5 cubic feet of cargo space. The massive 2017 Chevy Suburban SUV has a maximum of 121.7 cubic feet available. With most minivans, the third row folds nicely into the floor, giving you a low, flat surface that extends from the liftgate to the driver’s seat. In the Chrysler Pacifica, the middle row folds into the ground as well, saving the effort of removing any seats.

Yang’s Nissan Quest (Tigard, OR)
Bush’s Chrysler Pacifica (Richardson, TX)

Though crash ratings can be about equal between minivans and SUVs, the vans get the nod for safety. The sliding doors are there for a reason. Kids can jump in and out of a van without swapping door paint with the car in the next space over. And when you’ve got your arms full with groceries, power sliding doors will do all the work for you. Safely dropping a carload of kids off at school is as easy as pressing a button. Plus, the lower entry height is good for both small kids and the grandparents.

Okay, minivans aren’t Porsches. But face it, you’re not going to lap the Nurburgring in your Nissan Quest. Because of the car-based platform, fuel economy tends to be a bit better for minivans than comparably sized SUVs — the top-selling Toyota Sienna gets up to 27 highway mpg. Minivans will get the job done on a ski trip, but the low ride height might not inspire confidence. Just one minivan offers optional all-wheel drive — the viral video star Swagger Wagon. For over a decade, the Sienna has battled the Honda Odyssey for the minivan throne, but should be crowned king as the Toyota is the last remaining van offering all-wheel drive.

Kevin’s Toyota Sienna (Monterey Park, CA)
Mateen’s Honda Odyssey (Katy, TX)

Interior quality runs the full range. Keep it simple if you’re worried about kids beating up and dirtying the upholstery, or opt for leather and fully-loaded infotainment systems with DVD players and screens galore. Nowadays, you can have anything you really want in a minivan, so get comfortable and lean in to the family lifestyle.

SUVs

The best thing about the modern Sport Utility Vehicle is the huge variety. From compact crossovers to full-size trucks, SUVs come in all shapes and sizes. And because today everyone from Mazda to Bentley makes SUVs, there’s one out there to suit every need and budget. For comparison’s sake, we’ll mostly be sticking with the larger three-row SUVs.

Michael’s Ford Expedition (Surprise, AZ)
Tai’s Land Rover Range Rover Sport (Portland, OR)

Most three-row SUVs seat seven with relative ease. To get comfortable seating for eight, you’ll have to look at the big boys like the Ford Expedition or Chevrolet Suburban. These SUVs can nearly fit your son’s whole basketball team, but climbing into back rows can sometimes require acrobatics.

Today’s SUVs are generously proportioned, but lose to the minivan in the cargo department. They generally lack the seating flexibility that allows minivans their flat beds of open space. You can throw skis, boxes, or mattresses up on the roof rack, but you can do that with wagons and vans too.

Points here for the inherent safety built into the larger, truck-based SUV. Though crash ratings vary by make and model, bigger vehicles tend to absorb crashes better. Higher seating positions lead to great visibility, which is huge for peace of mind on the highway. Luxury brands especially load up their SUVs with all the latest safety gadgetry like active lane assist, blind spot warnings, and birds-eye view camera systems for parking bulky beasts. Jumping in and out of tall SUVs might be tougher for the youngins, but you can feel at ease on the road with a baby on board.

Solomon’s Honda Pilot (Spring, TX)
Brady’s Volvo XC90 (Salt Lake City, UT)
Elen’s Chevrolet Tahoe (Los Angeles, CA)

There’s no question what’s best for inclement weather and dirt road adventuring. It’s in the name. Ride height, four-wheel drive, and unparalleled visibility help make the SUV the obvious winner for driving on anything but smooth, dry asphalt. The rugged Toyota 4Runner is just one of many famously capable SUVs, and it comes with an optional third row of seats. Most large SUVs can also tow much heavier loads than minivans.

Summit’s Toyota 4Runner (Denver, CO)

For driving performance, high-end SUVs can achieve exceptional power and handling. Models like the Range Rover Sport, Audi Q7, and BMW X5 can offer genuinely exciting driving experiences in luxurious packages. The Tesla Model X P90D can accelerate to 60 in just 3.2 seconds — a mark that few supercars can even match. It’s true that SUVs are some of the least fuel-efficient cars out there (with the Tesla excepted), but the newest models get very decent mileage and many come in hybrid form.

Mohamad’s Toyota Sequoia (Pasadena, CA)
Rachel’s Tesla Model X (Burlington, ON)

The variety of SUVs can be dizzying. Ford alone offers six (!) different SUV models to cater to every possible demand. Luxury brands make performance SUVs that put many sports cars to shame. Sturdy full-size giants can tow heavy loads and tackle treacherous road conditions, but these SUVs come with heftier price tags. So rest assured you can find an SUV to fulfill your heart’s deepest desires, or at least to shuttle your kids to soccer practice.

Steven is an avid car guy and editorial assistant at Turo. Between Golden State Warriors games he can be found getting lost somewhere in California.