Having kids is undoubtedly a life-changing event. Everything is different, from sleeping to eating lunch, and many of the changes happen in our vehicles. Car seats take up plenty of space on their own, and that’s before all of the other kid accoutrements are accounted for. Many people take this as a sign that it’s time to retire from the world of cool cars and buy a minivan. Others aren’t so sure and want to hang onto their utility vehicles for as long as possible. That raises the question: SUVs vs minivans – which is better?
We’ve experienced both. At this point, my two daughters have ridden in more than 300 vehicles, many of which were designed to accommodate them and some that weren’t. I’ve long been a proponent of the “just enough” car buying process and have told many people that buying a giant SUV or minivan just isn’t necessary.
That said, some families require the extra space that a minivan or SUV affords. There are just too many people and too much gear to haul. For them, it’s a question of which vehicle fits their lifestyles best. Your Test Driver hopes to clarify some of those questions with this comparison.
SUVs vs minivans: Which is best?
Doors and Seats
Most SUVs have four doors and a rear hatch, creating some drawbacks for families. Starting with the car seat installation process, SUVs’ limited door openings can make it difficult for parents. Interior seating options are generally limited compared to minivans, as many models offer a bench or captain’s chairs and not much opportunity for movement. If the third-row seat is in use, second-row passengers may have to move or get out of the vehicle to accommodate entry and exit.
Minivans tend to fare better in this area, as their larger sliding door openings are much easier to live with when kids are in tow. Some models offer adjustable or removable second-row seats that allow different floorplans and configurations when changing the interior setup. The larger door opening makes it easier to access third-row seats and makes installing car seats far simpler.
Because of their desire to be perceived as rugged, go-anywhere vehicles, SUVs tend to have a taller ride height than their minivan counterparts. In theory, this gives them more off-road capability and helps them clear challenging obstacles, but for. For most people, it just means better road visibility and a tougher time loading kids. Have you ever tried to lift a moving child into a seat at eye level? If you have, then you understand the basic difficulty with tall SUVs.
Some automakers have decided to offer harder-core vans with beefy tires and the like, but most minivans provide a much friendlier ride height than most SUVs. That makes it easier to do almost anything related to getting into and out of the vehicle, especially with a kid in tow. Minivans are designed to make it easy to load car seats, and their low load floor is the reason.
This category goes to SUVs, and it isn’t even close. The number of high-power utility vehicles with sports car-like handling and outrageous tech is growing, especially with the rise of electrification. Buyers can opt for supercar acceleration numbers from brands like Porsche and Mercedes-AMG, or they can choose the off-road route with models from Ford, General Motors, and Toyota.
Electric minivans will become a thing, without a doubt, but for now, there are none on sale. Volkswagen will likely be the first to market with its ID. Buzz, but speedy electric minivans aren’t top of mind for automakers right now. In the meantime, automakers are focused on delivering the minivan experience with better fuel consumption. Toyota made the Sienna line hybrid-only, and Chrysler offers a plug-in Pacifica.
Price and Value
Finding an excellent three-row SUV for a reasonable price is possible, but you’ll give up many of the most desirable features to get there. Minivans tend to offer better interior features and more agreeable tech in lower trim levels, such as the Toyota Sienna, which starts at a little over $36,000 but brings tons of standard features and safety tech.
Many automakers offer three-row SUVs, but some charge extra for the privilege. Additionally, SUVs often get off-road features and tech that most buyers will never use. That can make them more expensive, especially in higher trims with luxury and tech features.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it appears that more beholders prefer SUVs. Their muscular styling and go-anywhere stance make them more appealing than vans, sometimes viewed as the “giving up” vehicle. That said, some automakers are making their minivans beefier to attract skeptical buyers. The Kia Carnival is an excellent example of how minivans can be cool. It borrows styling elements from the wildly popular Kia Telluride SUV and applies them to what would otherwise be a frumpy family hauler.
SUVs also tend to feature more aggressive styling, especially when discussing a sporty model with immense power and acceleration numbers. Many people, especially men, prefer that look to the friendlier minivan shape.
Best minivans in 2023
The Odyssey was the first to offer useful interior features like a built-in vacuum cleaner. It remains a compelling choice today with excellent cargo space, eight-person seating, and fantastic family-ready tech. It’s also got a standard V6 engine, which provides good power and a muscular sound under heavy throttle.
Toyota recently updated the Sienna with a hybrid-only drivetrain and more attractive styling. It’s also one of two minivans available with all-wheel drive, making it perfect for families living where the air hurts their faces part of the year.
The Kia Carnival is one of the most attractive minivans and offers genuinely luxurious accommodations in higher trim levels. Its standard V6 engine delivers good power and acceleration and enables a 3,500-pound tow rating.
Best three-row SUVs
There’s a reason why it’s nearly impossible to find a new Telluride on your local dealer’s lot: It’s an insanely good value, has excellent safety equipment, and looks fantastic. The Telluride is also spacious and comfortable inside, offering seating for up to eight people.
The Honda Pilot got a refresh for 2023 with (surprise!) more muscular styling and a new beefy off-road trim. It offers seating for the whole family, available all-wheel drive, and a comfortable interior. Honda also updated the Pilot’s infotainment tech for 2023 with a much-improved and more intuitive system.
Jeep revived the Wagoneer name for use on a luxurious family-hauling SUV. It’s more expensive than almost everything else Jeep sells, but it’s also fancier. Inside, the cabin is packed with high-end materials and Stellantis’ latest Uconnect 5 infotainment system.
Frequently asked questions
Will minivans become electrified?
You can bet on it. Automakers are slower to invest in vans because of lower demand, but Volkswagen already has one on the way, and there are already electric cargo vans in the wild.
What are the most reliable family vehicles?
Toyota and Lexus are generally a safe bet when it comes to reliability. Korean brands, including Kia, have improved in recent years and offer long warranties.
Which SUV loses value the fastest?
The Infiniti QX80 is the worst offender for depreciation, according to iSeeCars’ recent study. It’s expected to lose almost 53 percent of its value over five years. On the flip side, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited and Jeep Wrangler hold their value best. They may not be the best at holding a family, however.
Which used SUVs and minivans are good choices?
On the SUV side, the Toyota Highlander and 4Runner are great choices. It’s also hard to go wrong with the Chevrolet Suburban, Tahoe, or any of their GM-branded siblings. On the minivan side, look for a good-condition Toyota Sienna or Honda Odyssey.