Which is Better For Families: Minivans or SUVs?
Speaking strictly from an automotive standpoint, it’s the second child that really changes everything. For the most part, as long as you’ve got a back seat, any car can adapt to the necessities required to carry two adults and an infant. Some cars will be better at it than others, of course, but assuming the daily driver’s not a 2016 Mazda Miata or a motorcycle, whatever one happens to be driving when that first child comes along will do just fine.
No, the second kid is the game-changer. Whether you’re planning to stop at two or have more, now it’s time to seriously consider a “family” vehicle. For many young families that means a long-term investment. Raising a family doesn’t get any cheaper, so many folks look ahead and choose a vehicle that they can grow into.
For the past 30 years or so, that’s meant a minivan. After dethroning the traditional American station wagon in the early 1990s, minivans and SUVs have evolved to serve the needs of just about any family. But how to choose? Modern crossover vehicles and minivans both target families in different ways, and navigating the dizzying array of options can be overwhelming. Everyone has different priorities, depending on everything from snowy winters to insurance costs, but we’ve laid out some facts here that will help guide you.
Vehicles a family might consider as a long-term investment separate into four groups: minivans, a new generation of what we’ll call micro-minivans, mid-size crossovers and full-size crossovers. All of the vehicles in question feature three-row seating with room for six passengers or more. These days, minvans and crossovers are a very blended category, with vehicles falling all along the range between truck-based tow vehicles and car-like suburban crawlers. The distinction between minivans and crossovers is easier to determine; a van is usually defined by the presence of sliding doors.
The distinction between minivans and crossovers is easier to determine; a van is usually defined by the presence of sliding doors.
For purposes of this comparison, the micro-minvans are represented by the 2014 Ford Transit Connect and the 2013 Mazda5, while the minivan class includes the Dodge Caravan, Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey. The Toyota Highlander, 2016 Kia Sorento and the 2015 Dodge Durango R/T are mid-size crossovers with a family bent, and the Chevrolet Traverse, 2016 Honda Pilot and Ford Flex are good examples of full-size crossovers. That’s far from all of what’s out there, of course.
Serving the needs of a growing family is about more than just seating capacity, of course. Cost of ownership, safety, convenience and other features are where the real value lies. So how do you decide what’s best for your family? Let’s break it down.
Note: 2014 Chevy Traverse shown here.
This will be one of the most important considerations, of course. Three-row crossovers range from about $23,000 up to over $43,000 as the list begins to include premium manufacturers like Lincoln and Acura. Expect prices for the average crossover to start around $30,000. A well-equipped Chevy Traverse or Toyota Highlander will nudge $40,000.
The buy-in price is lower with minivans, with 2015 MSRPs ranging from $22,000 to $29,000. However, there’s a gotcha. While they’ve got college-fund-friendly starting prices, minivans also feature a lot of awesome upgrades that can drive the price up. A fully-loaded Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna will also top $40,000.
What to look for: Pricing in minivans and crossovers is driven by size and amenities. Consider both when looking at the bottom line.
Cost of Ownership
Note: 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander shown here.
There’s more to cost of ownership than the initial outlay, however. There’s good news here as well, because as crossover SUVs have migrated onto car-based platforms, fuel economy ratings and insurance costs have changed to reflect this. Back in the day, SUVs were more expensive to insure than minivans, and much thirstier at the pump. These days they are close to equal. Crossovers and minivans consistently rank as the least expensive to insure vehicles, thanks to family hauler status and high safety ratings. Fuel economy ratings are consistently in the low to high 20s throughout the class. Individual standouts are the smaller Ford Transit Connect Wagon on the minivan side, and the 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander in the crossover camp.
Note: The 2014 Honda Odyssey is shown here.
The smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles offer less room to grow, however. These vehicles have been designed with an eye toward capacity, a big concern when considering strollers, diaper bags, sports equipment, backpacks and family road-trip vacation luggage. If the biggest concern is the ability to bring a lot of stuff aboard, minivans offer the most flexible interior options. Lower floors and high roofs mean a lot of space inside, and the Odyssey, Grand Caravan and Sienna all feature rear seats that tumble into a well in the floor when not needed. This provides a flat load floor, as well as additional cargo space when the seat is in use. Access to second- and third-row seats is also easier in minivans, thanks to large sliding doors. The Chevrolet Traverse features a clever collapsing second-row seat that slides out of the way to make access to the rear easier, making it one of the more family friendly crossovers. The crossover family counters the minivan’s edge in interior capacity with a greater towing capacity in the larger vehicles. Top towers like the Dodge Durango and the 2016 Ford Explorer take advantage of truck DNA to pull up to 6,000 pounds, while the Sienna and Odyssey only manage 3,500. Crossovers and SUVs are also early adopters of trailer sway control technology, which improves safety and handling while towing; the technology is only now starting to find its way into minivans. For active families who plan to tow a camper trailer or small boat, a crossover may be a better bet.
Crossovers generally feature a higher floor than minivans. This isn’t just to enhance the high-rolling style, but offers various degrees of bad-road ability. The Sienna and Odyssey are both available with all-wheel drive, a feature that’s available across the board on crossovers, but drivers in serious snow country should also consider the higher ground clearance that crossovers offer. All-wheel drive offers additional safety on wet and slippery pavement as well.
What to look for: In general, minivans are friendlier for infants and young children, thanks to the low floor and features like power-sliding doors. Active families may be happier with the more versatile crossovers, which are better for towing trailers.
Note: 2016 Honda Pilot shown here.
Speaking of slippery pavement, both crossovers and minivans offer plenty of safety. They’re large vehicles, which generally translates to good IIHS scores anyway. Safercar.gov provides a handy interactive chart that allows consumers to directly compare a wide range of vehicles side-by-side, listing one- to five-star crash ratings and the availability of recommended safety technologies. Most crossovers and minivans get four- or five-star ratings in front, rear, side and rollover crashes. Rear-view cameras and lane departure warning systems are commonly available as well. The Highlander, Traverse and Odyssey all offer lane-departure warning systems.
What to look for: Anti-lock brakes, traction control and stability control are standard equipment in every vehicle in this class. The cutting-edge safety features are front collision warning and crash mitigation systems, which are beginning to trickle down from luxury vehicles, and rear cross-traffic warnings that can detect unseen cars approaching while backing out of parking spaces. Adaptive cruise control is also available as an option on some crossovers and minivans.
Note: 2015 Toyota Sienna shown here.
It seems like style would be a secondary concern for families, but there has been a slow-motion revolution in automotive styling in the past decade, and family vehicles have been touched by it as well. Minivans have long suffered under the “giant box” stigma. The Odyssey and Sienna have found ways around this, utilizing LED lighting, new sheet metal techniques and greenhouse treatments to bring some variety and distinction to their styling. The crossovers go even further, thanks to more freedom in terms of silhouette. The Highlander’s high waist and dramatic front- and rear-end treatments give it a sport station-wagon look, while the Traverse has a more conventional long-hood style. The Honda Pilot is an upright SUV, and Ford’s Flex is one of the most distinctive crossovers, with a classic, long-bodied station wagon style that still incorporates a cavernous interior and raised seating position.
What to look for: Don’t forget the little stuff. Automotive interior designers do some of their best work in family vehicles, sprinkling “surprise and delight” features like special child-watching mirrors, drink coolers, USB charging plugs, spare cupholders, rear-seat climate control and many other amenities all over — don’t forget the Odyssey’s vacuum cleaner. Every minivan and crossover is different in this respect.