SUV or Minivan: Which Should You Buy?

Range Rover Td6

Range Rover Td6 | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Regardless of whether you are lugging kids down to soccer practice, moving your prized petunia collection, or hauling race gear 2,800 miles cross country, a lot can be said for having a large amount of enclosed cargo space. What was once the stomping ground of the mighty station wagon has transformed into the golden age of the sport utility vehicle (and in the 1990s, the minivan), and while some of us may lament the shift, there’s no denying the practicality of the wagon’s successors.

But for as good as they may have become, both in practicality and appearance, America’s large car market is a sacrificial melting pot filled with compromises and tough considerations. On one end there’s the modern minivan, sleek and unassuming and a cultural turnoff for millions, but the uncontested king of cabin space once all rear rows are removed or folded. Then there’s the SUV, broad and bold, a blend of rugged truck engineering and amazing interior amenities, with loads of ground clearance on call for when inclement weather rolls in.

Powdercoated wheels

Toyota Sienna with powdercoated wheels | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

There is no such thing as a perfect car; in the tri-rowed wagon arena, this is highlighted like never before. Even though they may both have three rows and a family-oriented approach to mobility, very rarely will you see all of the exact same amenities in both an SUV and a minivan, which explains why parental units typically opt for one over the other.

Buyers have to compromise, regardless of which direction they may choose, and even though a metric mess-load of boxes may get checked off, you still end up with some unaddressed topics in a few key departments. Here are a few of the chief pros and cons associated with opting for an SUV or a minivan, because even though there’s something out there for everyone, you may still have to weigh your options and make some sacrifices.

The modern minivan

Kia Sedona minivan

Kia Sedona | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Commonplace and practical, this sliding door-bearing, third-row rocking, slightly low-slung interpretation of family transportation has become far more than just a boxy alternative to station wagons in recent years. Everything from split-TV screens with wireless headphones and on-board vacuums to sporty performance suspension setups and fold-flat third row seats that disappear into the floor help the modern minivan maintain its status as one of the most versatile vehicles on the market. Naturally, it does have some major off-road limitations when compared to the average SUV, but if overall cabin space volume is a top priority, the minivan is pretty tough to beat.

Toyota Sienna storage space

Toyota Sienna storage space | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Pros:

  • Fold-flat third rows that drop into the floor, removable captain chairs, and a cabin that’s designed to optimize cubic footage means that the modern minivan remains the undisputed king of enclosed stow space.
  • Things like built-in vacuums, split entertainment screens, space-saving sliding doors, floor ensconced stow boxes, and amplified driver voice projection for third row speakers are all family-focused features that warrant the minivan mad amounts of praise.
  • Aerodynamic and relatively low-slung, modern vans look, drive, and return fuel efficiency that are better than one might expect, with vans like the Toyota Sienna SE even coming with sport-lowering springs and performance-inspired aero components.

A 2010 Chrysler Town and Country van.

A 2010 Chrysler Town and Country | eBay

Cons:

  • Outside of certain versions of the Toyota Sienna, finding all-wheel drive in a brand-new minivan is out of the question, and unfortunately none of these versions have the SE’s sporty suspension or sharp aero upgrades.
  • While they may be more sedan-ish up front than ever before, and rock things like tubed LED lighting and 20-inch alloy wheels, for most Americans, the minivan is about as sexy as a slice of white bread.
  • Making the most of the available cabin space often means removing the captain’s chairs, which can be a cumbersome, heavy, and problematic storage burden if garage space is limited.

The standard SUV

Lexus RX 450h

Lexus RX 450h | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The typical SUV of today is about as multifaceted as a Swiss army knife on six kinds of steroids, and the sheer amount of options available to buyers is astonishing. As opposed to the minivan, which is still almost exclusively a V6/FWD design, powertrains and performance options in the SUV segment range anywhere from peppy turbo four-bangers all the way up to V8 monsters, with a wide array of front- and all-wheel drive variants sprinkled throughout. It’s the evolutionary transcendence of family focused transportation and rugged common sense, with towing capacities and adjustable traction settings sitting somewhere in the middle.

Mazda CX-9

2017 Mazda CX-9 | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Pros:

  • Drivetrain options on a modern SUV are pretty all encompassing, so no matter where you live or what purpose it’s being used for, chances are there’s an engine, transmission, and driveline out there that’s tailor-made to meet those needs.
  • An increased ride height gives SUVs the upper hand when camping trips require taking detours down rutted roads, or when snow storms turn lower-slung cars into snow plows.
  • Just because it’s classified as an SUV doesn’t mean it has to be a lumbering land barge anymore, and if you think that they can’t be sexy, just take a close look at the Mazda CX-9 pictured here and rethink that notion one more time.

A teaser for a VW SUV concept.

SUVs have their faults. | Volkswagen

Cons:

  • Unless you’re opting for the redesigned Honda Pilot, finding captain chairs in a SUV is damn near impossible, and for some families this can be a real deal breaker.
  • Fold-flat seats are nice, but they don’t completely disappear into the floorboard like most minivans, so cabin space will remain more limited in the rear cargo department.
  • Having an increased ride height and fat all-season tires helps a lot in the traction and ground clearance departments, but completely crushes fuel efficiency due to drag coefficients and powertrain-to-pavement inefficiencies.

Check out Autos Cheat Sheet on Facebook.