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Minivan or SUV? How to Decide Which Vehicle is Right for You

Busy families know that what they drive matters, but not for the usual reasons. Once the kids arrive, it’s time for the function to trump form; in other words, you need to find a used family car for sale with a third row of seats. We know it’s a sobering thought, especially if you’re clinging to those carefree pre-kid days when road trips didn’t involve sippy cups, singalongs, and baggies of Cheerios. But it’s time.

Maybe you haven’t quite bought in. You’re hanging on to the undersized German luxury sedan and making it work because the alternative isn’t quite as cool. Here’s the thing: the concept of ‘cool’ gets kicked to the curb pretty quickly when you’re busy carting your kids, their friends, and the dog all over town. Every day and yes, twice on Sunday.

Parenting is a tough job that gets exponentially harder when what you drive doesn’t fit everyone and everything. Don’t believe us? All it takes is a test drive, and you’ll see that easier and bigger is almost always better. Luckily, auto manufacturers are laser-focused on the family demographic, so there are plenty of stylish – yes, stylish – alternatives that still provide the utility families desperately need.

Your choices boil down to two distinctly different body styles: a minivan or an SUV. If you skew to the ‘cool’ side of the spectrum, you’ll probably immediately select the latter, but we suggest keeping an open mind. Minivans are still around because they support busy families better and more efficiently than SUVs ever will. It’s all they’re built for. We get that they’re also the butt of style jokes, but we’re betting the ones poking fun have never wrestled an infant out of her car seat in the back of an SUV.

We propose taking a closer look at both body styles and really picturing yourself on a typical day. We’re talking carpool, errands, and after-school activities. Also, think about long road trips. What do you need your vehicle to provide? Is fuel economy important? How about easy access and adaptability for large cargo? Read on for our thoughts on the age-old question: should I buy a minivan or an SUV for my family?

The Minivan: Pros and Cons

Two children are shown playing in the front seat of a minivan.

We’ll address the giant elephant in the room first: minivans look less cool than SUVs. There. We said it. With that out of the way, let’s focus on what you’ll get when you barter your style points for utility. The good news is, it’s a pretty fair trade.

Minivans sit lower than SUVs, so access is easier for passengers and cargo. Actions like putting the baby in a car seat and loading cargo require fewer contortions, so you can say goodbye to lifting, reaching, or otherwise struggling to load people and gear. And you can’t beat their sliding side doors, which create trouble-free ingress and egress.

Minivans offer extensive passenger and cargo space because they’re designed for hauling people and stuff. As an example, the Toyota Sienna minivan has 162.5 cubic feet of passenger space and an additional 34 cubic feet of cargo space when all three rows of seats are in place. To match that amount of space, SUV buyers will have to go for a pricey full-size SUV, like Toyota’s massive – and doubly expensive – Sequoia.

Minivans are also designed to provide comfortable seating for seven or eight passengers. No cramped third row here, which means less griping from the little ones and fewer rumbles over who gets stuck in the ‘way back.’ Once again, buyers looking for similar features on an SUV will have to shell out more for a bigger, full-size body style.

One disadvantage of buying a minivan is they usually can’t achieve the same towing capacity as an SUV. If you own a boat or tow an RV, you’ll want to carefully check towing specifications before pulling the trigger on a minivan. Also, most minivans are powered by V6 engines. If you want a little more power under the hood, you won’t find it with a minivan.

The SUV: Pros and Cons

A red 2017 GMC Yukon XL Denali is shown from the side as it drives past a city.

We deserve the Captain Obvious nickname for conceding that SUVs look more stylish and favor current buyers’ tastes more than minivans. This is especially true because manufacturers are cashing in on America’s SUV obsession by devoting tons of Research & Development resources to their design and engineering. The result is a dizzying array of options.

Buying an SUV for your family means selecting a body style and model that offers enough seating and cargo space for your needs. That pretty much rules out smaller crossovers, so you’re left with a selection of mid-size or full-size vehicles to choose from. Since we’re comparing your options with the features a minivan offers, we’ll stick to discussing SUVs with three rows of seats.

As we mentioned, towing capacity is probably the number one benefit of an SUV. Also, there are more robust and all-weather friendly powertrains (a.k.a. all-wheel/four-wheel drive) to choose from. Most full-size SUVs are available with bigger V8 motors and trailering packages, features that active families may desire. On the flip side, choosing a robust SUV with heavy-duty towing capabilities means sacrificing fuel economy, so prepare to experience a higher cost of ownership. Is it worth the higher price tag at the time of purchase and the more expensive carrying costs that come after? We’re not so sure unless you really need the extra capability.

How to Decide Once and for All

Perhaps a more personal story will help you decide. Our family made the switch to a minivan after daughter number two was born (a scant 17 months after her older sister). We’d been enjoying a mid-size SUV up to that point and had only a few minor gripes, namely the less-than-convenient car seat location – up high and awkwardly past the wheel well – that required Olympic-level gymnastics moves to access.

When the second car seat-dependent bundle arrived, we did the math and realized that car trips were about to become even more unpleasant and decidedly back-unfriendly. That, combined with the fact that our SUV had minimal cargo space and no third row (which meant Grandma couldn’t come along when our family of four hit the road), made the decision pretty easy.

I’ll admit, when it came time to do the trade, we left the dealership feeling every bit as dowdy as we thought we would. We abandoned the last scraps of our pre-kid coolness behind with our old SUV that day. I remember it vividly. A funny thing happened the next morning, though, as we loaded the girls in the back for a morning of errands. About an hour in, as our toddler was happily transfixed by a Disney movie on the rear entertainment screen and the baby was snoozing in her car seat, we realized that everything was, well, easier.

If you’re in the throes of parenting young kids, you know that our currency is simplicity. We kept that minivan until our kids were in middle school. They’re grown now, but I can still remember how the switch flipped during that first full day of minivan ownership. Life got a little easier. For that reason, I’m proudly Team Minivan. It’s no contest. Bottom line: easy is cool.