SUV vs. Minivan:Which One is Better?

Christian Wardlaw | Jul 16, 2021

For a recent weeklong vacation, my family of six rented a minivan to carry five adults and a child. Each member of our party brought a roll-aboard suitcase and a backpack, and we had one large duffel bag with beach gear inside it. Upon landing at our destination, the rental agency put us in a 2020 Dodge Grand Caravan. As we knew it would, it easily accommodated all of us and our luggage—the latter held securely in a deep well behind the third-row seat.

2020 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT Silver Front Quarter View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Returning home, we picked up a 2021 Ford Expedition at the airport. This full-size SUV had the standard-length instead of the Expedition MAX extended-length body style. It held only three of the roll-aboards behind the third-row seat, and they threatened to roll right out of the SUV before we could get the liftgate closed. The rest of the luggage went into the cabin, stacked between passengers on the third-row seat, slotted between the second-row captain’s chairs, and held on laps.

The sharp contrast between the practicality of the Expedition and Grand Caravan, combined with the waning popularity of minivans in favor of crossovers and SUVs, sparked the idea for this article. However, just because the minivan proved superior to the SUV in this example doesn’t mean they are the right choice for every family.

How to Decide Between a Minivan, Crossover, or SUV - Find the best car deals!

Deciding between a minivan, a crossover, and an SUV is dependent on your lifestyle requirements. For example, if you need to tow heavy loads, a full-size SUV like the Chevrolet Tahoe or Ford Expedition is the best choice. Similarly, a traditional SUV such as the Ford BroncoJeep Wrangler, or Toyota 4Runner makes sense if you like to explore the world far from pavement and civilization.

Most people, however, do not require these specialized talents. Crossovers and SUVs have gained popularity for their rugged image, practicality, and available all-wheel-drive (AWD) systems for when snowy or muddy conditions limit traction. However, compared to a minivan, these traits require compromise in terms of outright people and cargo-hauling capacity, driving dynamics, fuel economy, and, frequently, purchase price.

Minivan Pros and Cons - Find the best car deals!

2022 Kia Carnival Blue Front Quarter View

Nothing beats a minivan when hauling people and cargo is the priority. They seat up to six adults and two children simultaneously, and maximum cargo volume measurements rival or exceed the largest full-size SUVs. The cargo well behind the third-row seat is especially helpful, preventing groceries, sports equipment, and luggage from tumbling out when you open the liftgate.

Furthermore, if you’re new to parenting and you’re loading babies and toddlers into and out of child safety seats, a minivan’s sliding side doors are a genuine gift to your back. And when your little ones get older, those sliders won’t ding the vehicles parked next to yours.

Minivans are often more efficient than crossovers and SUVs, especially the latest version of the Toyota Sienna, which comes only with a hybrid powertrain. The Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid features a plug-in hybrid drive system offering more than 30 miles of electric-only driving before switching to gas-electric hybrid operation. The Sienna and Pacifica also offer AWD for extra traction in the snow.

Prices for minivans are reasonable, too. They barely crest the $50,000 mark with every option, and it’s easy to negotiate prices.

Where minivans fall short is concerning style and image. Moms and dads might be in committed relationships, but they still want to look young, vibrant, and attractive. Minivans don’t inspire that feeling or convey that image. But the new 2022 Kia Carnival is trying to change that.

Crossover Pros and Cons - Find the best car deals!

2022 Kia Telluride Nightfall Edition Black Front Quarter View

Crossover SUVs equipped with three rows of seats might look more rugged or sporty than a minivan, and they may offer extra ground clearance and AWD for better performance off-road or in a snowstorm, but these traits come at a cost. They are less accommodating of both people and cargo, frequently return worse fuel economy, and usually don’t handle as well as a minivan does. Park in a tight space with other vehicles on either side, and accessing the back seats is nearly impossible.

Despite their shortcomings, crossover SUVs are the most popular vehicles in America. My own household has one—a midsize three-row model with a hybrid powertrain. Because our two oldest offspring are adults living independently, this vehicle works well for us. That is until we need seating for more than five people and some cargo space at the same time, or we want to haul something truly bulky home from a warehouse store or to the donation center. Then, not so much.

SUV Pros and Cons - Find the best car deals!

2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392 Red Front Quarter View

Traditional SUVs fall into two camps. The first one contains rugged off-roaders, including the Ford Bronco, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Wrangler, and Toyota 4Runner. These vehicles can go places others cannot, and there is no substitute for them. If you need this type of vehicle, those are the choices. And if you need a third-row seat, the new-for-2021 Grand Cherokee L and the 4Runner are the only options.

The second camp includes full-size SUVs such as the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban, Ford Expedition, GMC YukonNissan Armada, and Toyota Sequoia. Built using sturdy body-on-frame construction and equipped with large, powerful engines, these models can tow more than twice the weight of any minivan and double the amount of most crossover SUVs.

Additionally, the ChevysFordGMC, and Toyota all offer roomy interior accommodations with plenty of space for adult passengers in all three rows of seats. However, as my family’s airport return experience demonstrated, if you need room for more than five people and cargo space simultaneously, you need a full-sizer with an extended-length body style. That means you want the Chevrolet Suburban, Ford Expedition EL, or GMC Yukon XL.

Downsides to traditional SUVs typically include reduced fuel economy, less secure ride and handling qualities, and higher prices. For example, most full-size SUVs have base prices that start in the same neighborhood, where you’ll find fully loaded minivans and crossover SUVs. Additionally, full-sizers are harder to park. Also, they can be challenging to enter and exit without running boards, especially for rear-seat passengers trying to get in or out without dinging adjacent vehicles.

Summary - Find the best car deals!

2021 Ford Expedition STX Blue Front Quarter View

J.D. Power data has shown that, after reliability, styling is a top factor when people decide which vehicle to buy. Until the new Kia Carnival arrived, minivans simply did not appeal to people who otherwise would benefit from everything this type of vehicle has to offer.

However, a minivan cannot provide the off-roading capability or the towing capacity supplied by traditional SUVs. If you need either of those qualities in a new vehicle, the SUV is your best choice.

Ironically, crossovers can’t match minivans for practicality, can’t match traditional SUVs for towing or exploring parts unknown, and can’t match traditional station wagons for driving dynamism. Yet, they are the most popular vehicles in America, which underscores just how vital styling and image are when it comes to the choices made by consumers.

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