All make fine family haulers, but neither is right for everyone.

While the term “family car” once referred almost exclusively to a large four-door sedan or station wagon, these days it means a car-based crossover SUV (CUV), or to a lesser degree a traditional truck-like sport-utility vehicle (SUV) or a minivan. All offer three rows of seating to accommodate up to seven or eight passengers, depending on the configuration, and offer the latest in family-friendly features, including some important accident-avoidance systems.

CUVs are the sales leaders among the three genres these days, with great appeal far beyond growing families, as compact and subcompact models are being snapped up in earnest by singles, young couples, and empty nesters. While the number of traditional truck-based SUVs has dwindled in recent years, they stand out by virtue of their added off-road and towing abilities. Minivans are even fewer in numbers, but could well be the ideal family rides, though they’re saddled with a stodgy image. Which of these related, yet separate vehicle segments is best for you depends on your needs, and in this case a certain emotional connection (or avoidance) which we’ll discuss later.

Minivan Essentials

2017 Chrysler Pacifica vs. 2018 Honda Odyssey

Once among the industry’s hottest sellers, minivans have become the vehicular equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield in that they tend to “get no respect” from what should be their target market, namely budding families. Minivans supplanted station wagons as the ultimate family rides in the mid-to-late 1990’s, and by the 2000 model year there were no less than 15 models on the market. Having since been displaced in that regard by SUVs for their more-rugged personas, and later CUVs for their car-like driving manners, minivans have subsequently fallen out of favor for their so-called “soccer mom” image. For 2018 there remain only a relative handful of models available, specifically the Chrysler Pacifica, Dodge Grand Caravan, Honda Odyssey, Kia Sorento, and Toyota Sienna.

Minivans continue to be characterized by their sliding rear-side doors, which harken back to the full-size commercial vans upon which the original designs were based. This not only makes entering and exiting easier in tightly packed parking lots, it enables parents to buckle their kids into child safety seats without having to unduly contort themselves in the process. A rear liftgate makes loading cargo easier, and, like the rear side doors, can be power-operated and opened remotely.

All come with three rows of seats that, with a bench as the second row, can accommodate up to eight passengers, or seven with separate center-row seats. The second and third row seats typically fold flat to accommodate large sheets of building materials. In most models, the third-row seat can also fold flat into the floor when not needed to maximize cargo space.

2017 Chrysler Pacifica vs. 2018 Honda Odyssey
2017 Chrysler Pacifica vs. 2018 Honda Odyssey

The Chrysler Pacifica and Dodge Grand Caravan include so-called “Stow and Go” seats in which both the second- and third-row seats can fold completely into the floor for the ultimate in passenger and cargo-carrying flexibility. Reaching out to parents who, in turn, care for their aging parents, the Toyota Sienna offers an exclusive power-operated center-row seat that pivots, extends and lowers itself automatically for easier access. 

Family-minded features are the order of the day here, with all able to be equipped with either single- or dual-screen rear entertainment systems (the Pacifica’s includes built-in game apps), and full smartphone connectivity; the Odyssey and Pacifica can even be fitted with onboard vacuum cleaning systems. 

All five of the remaining minivans come powered by V6 engines and automatic transmissions; the Pacifica is uniquely available in a plug-in hybrid version that can run for the first 33 miles on battery power. Each comes standard with front-wheel drive, but the Sienna is the only entry to offer all-wheel-drive (AWD) for added traction over wet or snowy roads, though it’s only necessary for those who live deep within the Snow Belt.  Minivans start out at around $30,000 and can range all the way up to over $45,000 fully loaded.

CUV/SUV Essentials

2017 Volvo XC90 T8: Review

Both CUVs and SUVs are styled like tall wagons, and to some degree borrow their styling cues from the original sport-utility vehicles, which were little more than enclosed pickup trucks. Though, unlike minivans, both CUVs and SUVs feature conventional swing-out rear doors, they likewise feature liftgates at the rear for easy cargo loading and unloading that can likewise be power-operated. Like minivans, midsize and larger models come with three rows of seats – though usually with less cargo room than minivans – and offer sufficient comfort, convenience, and safety features.

The major difference between them is that the relatively few conventional SUVs remaining ride on truck-like rear-wheel-drive body-on-frame architecture for added ruggedness and durability, while CUVs are based on car-like front-wheel-drive unibody car frames for more-nimble handling and a smoother ride. Rear-drive is better suited for serious towing and hauling, however, with the strongest full-size SUVs able to pull as much as 10,000 pounds or more when properly equipped.

2017 Volvo XC90 T8: Review
2017 Volvo XC90 T8: Review

SUVs can be fitted with durable four-wheel-drive (4WD) systems for added traction, which is a necessity for those living in wet or snowy climates, given the tendency for large rear-drive vehicles to slip and slide on slick roads; most 4WD systems include low-range gearing to facilitate off-road adventures and/or for plowing out of deep mud or snow. CUVs, on the other hand, offer AWD, which aids traction over wet or loose surfaces, but doesn’t enable off-road trail-blazing or other activities that require extreme traction (though a few AWD systems are designed to traverse more rugged terrain than would otherwise be possible, thanks to advanced electronically controlled AWD arrays). Click here for more information on both 4WD and AWD systems.

Depending on the model, midsize CUVs and SUVs come powered by either four-cylinder or V6 engines, with automatic transmissions being the norm either way; a few full-size SUVs still offer big and burly V8 engines, and some family-sized CUVs, most notably the Toyota Highlander and Volvo XC90, are available in fuel-saving gas/electric hybrid versions. Click here for more info on the merits and drawbacks inherent in both SUVs and CUVs.

Why Buy A Minivan?

A minivan is arguably the ideal family car, with easygoing road manners, large wide doors and a low load floor make entry and exiting easier than with any sedan and most SUVs/CUVs. It’s usually easier for kids to reach the third row, and the sliding rear doors make buckling the little ones into the car seats a less-back-breaking chore, especially in a crowded shopping mall parking lot. Flexible seating can accommodate as many as seven or eight passengers, or full-size sheets of building materials with the rear seats/seatbacks folded flat.

Minivans generally come sufficiently powered by V6 engines that drive the front wheels via automatic transmissions; the Pacifica is alternately sold in a plug-in hybrid version that’s costly, but affords impressive fuel economy, while the Toyota Sienna is the only minivan to and offer all-wheel-drive. All can be fitted with a full array of convenience, safety, and connectivity features, including a few items (like built-in vacuum cleaners or a factory-equipped access seat for the infirm) that aren’t offered in either SUVs or CUVs.

Minivans start out in the $25,000-$30,000 range, though that figure can swell quickly to $40,000 and beyond in higher trim levels and with a full slate of optional features. 

For family-minded money-savers:

Why Buy An SUV/CUV?

Even though, at least on paper, a minivan can be the better choice for growing families, most eschew the genre for its perceived “soccer mom” persona in favor of the brawnier-looking “two box” design SUVs and CUVs.

Choose a truck-based conventional SUV, particularly a full-size model, if you intend to tow or haul a large boat or trailer or haul heavy tools and/or materials. Specify 4WD with low-range gearing if you require the ability to go off-road and/or live where the weather is particularly inhospitable and you’ll need to plow though deep snow and mud ruts and/or unpaved graded roads. On the down side, truck-based SUVs tend to be heavier and feel less nimble through the turns than comparably sized minivans or CUVs, and full-size models can be a handful to maneuver and park in tight urban areas.

Three-row CUVs can likewise accommodate seven or eight riders, though third-row seat room can be lacking, depending on the model. CUVs generally come standard in a front-drive configuration, which should suffice for most motorists, with AWD optional or standard, depending on the model, to help maximize traction under extreme climactic conditions or for scaling steep unpaved roads or driveways.

Prices for three-row CUVs and SUVs start at just over $30,000 and can run well into six figures for the poshest and costliest luxury-branded models.