Minivans vs. Crossover SUVs: Which Is Better for Families?

Minivans have long been the vehicle of choice for active families with children. Three rows of useable seats, room for seven or eight passengers, and multiple entertainment options make the kids happy, while parents enjoy decent gas mileage, a smooth ride and the utility of a low, flat cargo floor.

These days, though, minivans aren't the only cars that can perform those duties. Three-row crossover SUVs ride on car-based platforms and were designed in part to offer car-like appeal in SUV-styled packages. Crossovers have more in common with minivans than with truck-based SUVs; they avoid those vehicles' gas-guzzling engines, rough ride and limited interior configurations.

Over on, we often hear from readers who want the utility of an SUV without the poor fuel economy that's common to truck-based models — and they want that in a vehicle that isn't a minivan, with its associated "soccer mom" image and less-than-daring styling. Crossovers are an answer to this question.

We wanted to see if crossovers could topple minivans as the ideal family transportation, so we took three of the best-selling models from each segment: minivans and crossover SUVs with three rows standard. We compared important factors — price, gas mileage, seating dimensions, cargo capacity — as well as really important features — number of cupholders, available entertainment options — to see which type of vehicle is better suited for family duty.

Review the tables below, followed by our conclusions:

By the Numbers
Below, three of the best-selling crossovers and minivans are compared. Category winners are in bold where applicable.
2009 Honda Odyssey LX2009 Honda Pilot LX
Price (base MSRP)$26,255$27,595
Fuel economy16/2317/23
Exterior length202.1 "190.9 "
Maximum towing capacity 3500 lbs4500 lbs
Front legroom40.8 "41.4 "
Rear legroom40.0 "38.5 "
Third-row legroom41.1 "32.1 "
Passenger volume171 cu. ft.154 cu. ft.
Luggage volume38.4 cu. ft.18.0 cu. ft.
Luggage volume (max.)147.4 cu. ft.87.0 cu. ft.
Maximum seating capacity78
Cupholders 1312
2009 Toyota Sienna CE2008 Mazda CX-9 Sport
Price (base MSRP)$24,540$29,400
Exterior length201.0 "199.8 "
Maximum towing capacity3,500 lbs.3,500 lbs.
Front legroom42.9 "40.9 "
Rear legroom39.6 "39.8 "
Third-row legroom39.5 "32.4 "
Passenger volume177 cu. ft.139 cu. ft.
Luggage volume43.6 cu. ft.17.2 cu. ft.
Luggage volume (max.)148.9 cu. ft.100.7 cu. ft.
Maximum seating capacity8 7

Source: Automakers

Seating and Cargo

Carrying seven or eight passengers isn't a problem for either type of vehicle, but third-row legroom is cut short in the crossovers compared to the minivans. The Acadia, with 33.2 inches of legroom in the third row, is the only crossover in which an average-sized adult might feel comfortable in the backseat for more than a run around the block. This isn't a problem in the minivans.

All the minivans we examined had more overall passenger volume than the crossovers. (Passenger volume is the total space available to the occupants.) The minivans were also all longer than the crossovers, which contributes to the extra interior space.

Minivans also have a noticeable advantage when it comes to luggage room behind the third row. That space is especially useful on road trips, but it also comes in handy when you're carrying groceries and a full load of passengers.

With all the seats folded down, the nod again goes to minivans for the most available cargo space.

Entertainment and Options

Many minivans and crossovers have available rear entertainment systems with flip-down DVD screens. Wireless headphones are also a common option, as are audio/video jacks for video-game systems, plus 115-volt household-style power outlets; the Sienna and Grand Caravan have two 115-volt outlets available in the rear, compared to one in the crossovers that had the option.

The innovator of entertainment systems in this bunch is the Grand Caravan. Two screens for second- and third-row passengers can display different things via independent inputs (meaning one screen could display a video game while another shows a DVD). Satellite TV can also broadcast on those screens, offering three popular, kid-friendly networks: Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney.

Three-row crossovers have the advantage when it comes to all-wheel drive; all of the crossovers we compared have it as an option. Among the minivans, Toyota's Sienna is the only one on the market with AWD.


Minivans still get the advantage as the quintessential family-hauler. They have more interior room, as well as features targeted specifically to entertain second- and third-row passengers — also known as kids. Plus, minivans' sliding doors make for easy, hasty entry and exit for piles of kids during carpooling duty. Most minivans even have power sliding door options that are controllable through the key fob.

Tangible merits aside, if you're in the market for a family-hauler, odds are you also have a budget to stay within. The minivans we compared are less expensive than the crossovers — by an average of about $4,600. That means you can not only pay a little extra for those available entertainment systems, you can also stock up on DVDs.

However, for those who want a stylish alternative to the conventional minivan, $4,600 may be worth giving up a few cubic feet of interior room and some cupholders to avoid the minivan image.

Posted on 10/15/08