There might not be a more versatile transportation tool than the three-row, seven-seater SUV. SUVs like the Acura MDX, Audi Q7, BMW X5, Cadillac XT6, and Ford Explorer are members of the mid-size class, but there are size classes below and above it.
The compact class consists of the smallest vehicles that can be equipped with three rows of seats. Cars in this class include the new Tesla Model Y, Volkswagen Tiguan, and Mercedes GLB. The large, full-size class is at the top of the pile and populated by the likes of the BMW X7, Cadillac Escalade, Ford Expedition, Lexus LX, GMC Yukon, and Lincoln Navigator. And in between, there are mid-sized options that have a foot in each door - small enough to be manoeuvrable, but large enough to seat five or seven.
But a minivan can also transport seven people - often more - and is car-like to use and gives better gas mileage, doesn’t it? Yes, but they have two disadvantages. First, they have a dowdy image, which is why buyers have been avoiding them in recent years. Second, they don’t have the ground clearance and ruggedness to travel on rough roads and rarely comes in AWD. So the three-row SUV can be more things to more people: it can do the job of a minivan and an off-roader all in one, albeit with a few compromises along the way. But which type is best for you?
There are three categories in the sports utility segment, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Here is a handy breakdown to consider before choosing which to test drive:
The compact crossover is the smallest practical three-row SUV available in the USA. It can take seven people at a pinch if the two in the last row are children, or very slight in stature. With all the seats in use, though, the trunk is tiny - good for a few shopping bags only. In all honesty, it’s only an occasional seven-seater; a full complement of passengers cannot go on a road trip with it in comfort. They would have to tow a trailer for their luggage and stop frequently to ease aching joints.
Still, they’re extremely popular because the short-haul seven-seater ability means they’re great for the school run or carpooling, and when used as a five-seater, the trunk is spacious enough. Their handling is tight, their MPG ratings are good, and the MSRP is still attainable for the average buyer. AWD is even available on some models.
1. Cheaper to buy
2. Easy to handle
3. Gives good gas mileage
4. Good trunk size as a five-seater
1. Tiny third-row back seat for small children only
2. Not really suitable for rough off-roading
3. Limited towing ability
4. Very little cargo space with all seats in use
Many members of this class can accommodate seven adults and a fair bit more luggage, although the trunk is still not that big with all seats in use. The models in this class are usually roomy, high off the ground, and can be had with a powerful engine, plenty of performance, and AWD. They can haul heavier trailers and are larger and more comfortable - although you would still need a trailer for luggage if you are using all seven seats.
These are much more practical for family holidays, with children in the rearmost row still adequately catered for, even for long stretches. This is an extremely popular class because these vehicles offer so much more comfort and size than the compact seven-seaters but are easier to handle than the huge, full-size models. And their height means you can see farther in traffic and tackle some rougher terrain.
1. Much more useable space all round
2. The third row can accommodate small adults
3. High-hp models available
4. Lots of techs available
5. Can haul heavy loads
6. Multiple seating configurations possible
7. AWD is available on most
1. Fuel economy isn’t very good
2. Can be cumbersome to park
3. Trunk quite small with all seats in use
These full-size heavy hitters are big, expensive, and popular in the US where the roads and parking spaces can accommodate them. Imagine trying to thread a Lincoln Navigator through the alleyways of a small Italian town! They are large, require lots of cameras and assistance features to park them, and can drive anything from seven to nine people up the side of a mountain. Genuine 4WD is offered, they can haul heavy trailers and swallow tons of luggage. Most can usually accommodate full-size adults in all seats, and while they offer lots of horsepowers, they generally guzzle gas and offer rather dismal miles per gallon fuel economy ratings.
1. Space for all passengers to be comfortable
2. Spacious trunk in all configurations
3. Can go off-road if adequately equipped
4. Can haul heavy loads
5. Multiple seating configurations possible
1. Park with caution, if you can fit it in
2. Handling can be cumbersome
3. Guzzles lots of gas
If you really want one vehicle that can do it all, the three-row SUV seems to tick all the boxes. As occasional seven-seaters, the compact-class models are the closest to normal cars in terms of handling and economy, at the cost of space. In the classes above, there are vehicles for every taste and need, up to the massive models that can crush off-road trails. With so much variety, there is truly something for everyone, and it's clear that the SUV is here to stay.