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Minivans vs. SUVs: What vehicle should growing families choose?

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2020 Chrysler Pacifica, base price $34,990. It's worth noting that Chrysler now offers the "Voyager" as its base minivan (same styling as Pacifica but lower trim options) with a base price of $27,730. Pacifica is also the only minivan that offers a plug-in hybrid with a base price of $39,740. (Image courtesy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

I’ve hit the age when my friends are starting to have their second child, and so the standard question I’m often asked isn’t, “What’s your favorite car?’ It’s, “Should we get a minivan or an SUV?”

I know a lot of the men are hoping I’ll recommend something like a Dodge Durango SRT while my girlfriends are typically thinking more along the lines of the Honda Odyssey.

But the actual answer is very personal and likely depends on the stage of life you’re in and whether the vehicle is a sometime-family vehicle or full-time car-seat holder.

As you are muddling your way through the decision-making process, here are some things to consider.



Functional features

One of the women in my building has a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old, and she owns a Honda Odyssey. When we were talking as she loaded her double-seat stroller into the rear, she told me she really wanted a Honda Pilot instead, but it just didn’t have the functionality she needed.

And that can be a huge consideration for families on the go.

For example, most minivans these days come with extra features you won’t find in an SUV – things like an in-vehicle vacuum to scoop up Cheerios a toddler tossed on the floor.

The selling point for my neighbor, however, was the CabinWatch system that easily allows her to see what’s going on in the rear seats. Many minivans will offer a rear mirror that focuses on the seats, but the Honda system uses a camera and displays the visual on the info screen on the center stack.

Other functional features that often serve as plusses for minivans: in-floor storage, reclining captain’s chairs for older kids and adults in the second row, extra legroom in all rows, sliding doors that give easy access to car seats in the second row, fold-flat second- and third-row seats, the ability to open and close all rear doors from the driver’s seat and easy access to the third row.



Creative cargo storage

Because SUVs and minivans have a similar length, you’d think the cargo capacity would also be similar, but it’s not.

Again, this is another advantage of the minivan.

Most of the minivans I’ve driven have a large open space between the driver’s and front passenger seat that will easily fit a purse or small diaper bag. This makes it easy for mom or dad to grab a tissue and pass back to a child in need. This is in addition to the large covered storage in the center console that will fit another bag, tablet or small computer.

Chrysler’s Pacifica offers another creative solution in the form of Stow-N-Go. Not only can you easily fold your second-row seats into the floor for storage flexibility, but when the seats are in the upright position, you can also use those cubbies to store purses, shopping bags, electronics – or anything you leave in the vehicle that you don’t want to be visible to potential thieves.

Additionally, most SUVs have a flat waist-high storage area whereas minivans have a deep well, which allows for stacking or piling if you’re looking to fit luggage in addition to a stroller.

It should be noted that a new trend in some SUVs is ditching the spare tire to create some additional under-floor storage – so that could be a small point in favor of the SUV, especially if you have older children and no longer need strollers.



Safety Ratings

Two entities in the U.S. currently perform crash testing and widely publish their results: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

In fact, if you’re buying a new car, most sticker sheets will share the NHTSA crash test rating.

This is a good place to begin, but I like the IIHS ratings better because they test more aspects of the vehicle as well as different types of crashes.

In addition to crashworthiness, IIHS looks at things such as headlights and front crash prevention systems.

Then, with all of these results, IIHS issues Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ awards, which are much coveted by the industry. In fact, a lot of automakers construct new vehicles with these specific awards as targets. Not all of them are successful.

In the minivan category, it’s worth noting that only the Chrysler Pacifica and Honda Odyssey win Top Safety Pick awards for 2019.

If you’re leaning toward a midsize or large SUV, you’ll have a much bigger pool to choose from, and you can see the entire list of TSP and TSP+ winners on the IIHS website.



Ease of car-seat installation

When buying any new car, I strongly recommend you take it home for a 24-hour test so that you can walk through things like installing car seats or figuring out if your two-seat stroller will fit in the cargo area along with the diaper bag.

But rather than taking a shot in the dark and guessing which ones will work easily, do a little research first.

Go back to the IIHS website. In addition to crash-test ratings, it now rates the ease of use of Latch positions in each vehicle. Ratings go from Good+ all the way down to Poor. Frankly, I’d avoid looking at anything below an Acceptable rating – especially if you’re going to be taking the car seats in and out of the vehicle frequently.

Newer vehicles might not be included on the 2019 IIHS list, so be sure to check each vehicle you’re interested in individually to verify the Latch rating.

The next stop: Head over to Cars.com for its “Car Seat Check” section. The publication has certified child safety seat installation technicians who rate every vehicle and how every type of car seat fits in that vehicle.

The site allows you to search by make, model and year, which means you’ll likely find results even if you’re buying a used vehicle. Each rating has a chart detailing the “grade” each type of car seat gets as well as a text-written description of the grade.



Third-row passengers

The last thing you need to consider in the battle between SUVs and minivans is access to the third row. This is especially important if you’re going to be driving in a carpool.

While the minivan used to be the hands-down winner in this category, this is no longer the case with some of the newer midsize SUVs entering the scene. For example, both the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride offer easy access to the third row, plenty of legroom, USB ports and cup holders. It’s become an easier place for larger children and even adults to be comfortable.

This is where that 24-hour test will come in handy again. If you are putting children in that third row – whether it’s an SUV or minivan – you need to determine whether they can easily open the rear doors, gain access to the third row and lock the second-row seat back in place.

I’ve found most minivans make it easy by allowing passengers to climb between second-row captains chairs. But SUVs are a bit trickier. Palisade and Telluride have a one button operation that makes it easy to gain access to the third row, and the second-row seats are light enough to snap into place from a position in the third row.

But there are other vehicles, like the Volkswagen Atlas, which would not be easy for a child to operate.

So, it’s very important to determine whether everyone who needs access to the third row is able to gain access to the third row easily.

The Bottom Line

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: There are a lot of points in favor of the minivan.

From the flexible cargo space to the functional parent-friendly features, minivans make a lot of sense for parents with younger kids.

As your kids get older and move into booster seats, the three-row SUV becomes more of an option, but your best bet at the beginning is going to be the minivan.

The good news: Minivans are starting to get a makeover with more SUV-like styling. The bad news: It’s still a minivan.

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