Bench Seats Versus Captain's Chairs

I've been test-driving the 2013 Ford Flex this week, which I've been waiting to drive for years. Overall, my impressions are highly favorable (stay tuned for the complete review) with the exception of one major point. My test car came equipped with a second-row bench seat, so the car seats a total of seven. Captain's chairs in the second row are also available, taking the number of seats down to six. While many families may think they want the extra seating capacity that comes with a second-row bench seat, I'm here to save you from making that mistake.

If you have kids in child-safety seats or booster seats, you're most likely to put them in the second row's outboard positions where a parent, grandparent, caregiver or carpool driver has the easiest access to help them climb in and out and get buckled and unbuckled. The problem is in most three-row SUVs like the Flex the only real access to the third row is by sliding, folding and/or flipping one of the outboard seats in the second row. When a car seat is installed in the outboard, there are limited options as to getting to the third row.

Option 1: You could remove a child-safety seat from the second row and fold, slide, flip and/or tumble the seat forward. Then let the kids climb into the third row, fold the second-row seat back into place and then reinstall the child-safety seat and hope your kids don't repeat the foul language you've used while completing this maneuver.

Option 2: You could have third-row passengers step on the bench seat with their grimy, germy shoes and then fold their legs up like an Olympic hurdler and catapult over the bench seat into the third row. Warning: This only works with kids small enough to squeeze between the top of the bench seat and the roofliner.

Option 3: If you only have one third-row passenger, you can keep half of the third row folded flat and then have your child climb in and out of the car through the cargo area and hope nobody calls the authorities to report that you're locking your kids in the "trunk."

Option 4: You can get captain's chairs.

Sure, you might think you're losing a precious extra seat by going with the captain's chairs, but that seat is small. My third daughter, who gets sandwiched in the middle position of my test cars' bench seats regularly, says this position in most cases is too narrow to actually fit a person of any width. Apparently riding for an extended period of time with a butt cheek on each outboard seat belt buckle just isn't comfortable.

Instead, why not do away with this useless center seat and turn it in into a passageway for easy access to the third row by getting captain's chairs? Even when a center console is between the two captain's chairs like in the Infiniti QX56, kids can easily step over the console and into the third row when needed.

Another benefit of captain's chairs is you typically have much more flexibility when positioning them, so you can adjust the each seatback to accommodate child-safety seats or booster seats of different sizes. And better yet, there seems to be an innate calmness that happens in a car where siblings each have their own defined space with a passageway between as delineation.

There are a couple of exceptions to the above problem. Infiniti's new JX35 has a bench seat in the second row, but the passenger-side outboard seat slides forward and tilts slightly with a child-safety seat fully installed. This allows children to pass behind the seat and climb into the third row. The upcoming Nissan Pathfinder will have the same feature. And the Toyota Highlander offers a second-row bench seat that splits into thirds, and the center seat can be removed and stowed away, essentially converting the bench seat into captain's chairs.

Do you and you family have a three-row SUV with either a bench seat or captain's chairs? If so, what are the pros and cons for your family of the option you chose? Tell us in the comment section below.

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