Let’s face it. There are a lot of people who buy big, honking vehicles and rarely fill the seats on a daily basis. But there are also consumers out there with big families who actually do need all 3 rows and some cargo space for all their gear.
But who are we kidding? Most shoppers will bypass wagons and head straight for the SUV aisle. So we’ve compiled a list of some of the newer 3-row SUVs for large families worth consideration.
The Koreans have surveilled the landscape well and added clever touches any family can appreciate. Materials are premium, fit and finish is top notch, all the amenities are included, and it’s a tremendous value starting at $32,735 with a $2,000 charge for all-wheel drive. You can get a well-equipped model for $46,000.
The Telluride has the largest passenger space in its class, making it one of the best SUVs for a big family. The second-row seats move quickly and easily out of the way to access the third row, and there’s lots of legroom. Second-row passengers should love the phone pocket in the storage pouch on the front seat backs, the USB ports on the sides of the front seats, diffused air from the roof-mounted air vents, and grab handles molded into the doors to better access the third row. The Telluride is technically an eight-seater, though the third-row middle seat is a tight fit.
Power comes from a 291-hp, 262-lb-ft 3.8-liter V-6 and an eight-speed automatic transmission. There’s a full flight of safety systems that help the vehicle accelerate, brake, stay in its lane, and perform an emergency stop.
Hyundai’s take on the 3-row SUV offers enviable passenger space. It shares a platform with the Kia Telluride, and both have the same 291-hp, 262-lb-ft 3.8-liter V-6 and an eight-speed automatic transmission, but they present differently.
The Palisade is more like a sleek minivan and has a more mature feel with its diamond-patterned quilted leather seats. It also has a 12.3-inch digital cluster, clever storage, and 16 cupholders, so it’s a great SUV for a large family.
The Hyundai has more standard features than the Kia, such as the self-leveling suspension and power-folding third row. The tailgate is height adjustable, has two different speeds, and can be opened by standing within 3 feet for 3 seconds.
The Rear Seat Quiet mode feature is standard on the Palisade and an option on the Telluride. It limits media audio to the front row, keeping the back rows quiet. You can also turn the rear speakers into a PA system to talk to the kids in the heated and cooled seats in the back rows.
The driver will appreciate the 3-row Explorer’s move to a new rear-drive platform, which provides a livelier ride. If traction is a concern, don’t worry: All trim levels have available all-wheel drive.
The base engine of the 2020 Explorer is a 300-hp, 310-lb-ft 2.3-liter turbocharged I-4 with a 10-speed. Ford has added a hybrid, pairing the electric motors to the 318-hp, 322-lb-ft 3.3-liter V-6 and enabling it to tow 5,000 pounds, so this could be one of the best SUVs for large families with a boat or trailer.
There’s also a performance ST for the first time, powered by the 400-hp, 415-lb-ft twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6. But it’s not just about power; there are numerous drive modes that give it full capability on any surface.
For all those kids, the seven-passenger Explorer has comfortable second-row seats that are easy to pull forward to get to the third row and a wider sill to climb into the vehicle. There’s also lots of headroom. It comes in third in cargo capacity after the Chevrolet Traverse and VW Atlas.
The Explorer starts at $37,770.
Seating includes second-row captain’s chairs for a seven-passenger vehicle or a bench seat to carry eight. Second-row passengers get two USB ports, a 120-volt outlet, and climate controls. The new Highlander could be one of the best SUVs for a large family with lot of gear; cargo room behind the third row increases from 13.8 cubic feet to 16.1.
The 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine is gone, but the 295-hp, 263-lb-ft 3.5-liter V-6 carries over with the eight-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is optional; it still tows 5,000 pounds and should still get 21/27/23 city/highway/combined mpg with AWD. Dynamic Torque Vectoring—this is the second application after the RAV4—has been added to the upper trims.
The Highlander hybrid gets Toyota’s 2.5-liter Dynamic Force I-4 paired to an electric motor for a combined 240 hp. It runs on the Atkinson cycle and has an updated CVT. It can still tow 3,500 pounds.
Toyota Safety Sense is standard.
The new Highlander goes on sale in December with the hybrid following in early 2020.
A perennial favorite, Honda has given the seven-passenger Pilot some upgrades to keep it in the hunt with so much fresh new competition. To burnish its reputation for safety, the Honda Sensing suite of advanced safety features, including forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist, and adaptive cruise control, has been made standard on all Pilots.
It has a 280-hp, 262-lb-ft 3.5-liter V-6 with a six-speed automatic (nine-speed on higher trim levels), which has been reprogrammed and upgraded in response to customer complaints about harshness.
With a starting price of $32,645, the 3-row Pilot may not be the newest or the roomiest, but it’s still among the best SUVs for big families.
Lincoln has brought back the Aviator nameplate, but the vehicle is no longer truck-based. It uses Ford’s new rear-wheel-drive architecture and has a more carlike ride, but it includes all-wheel drive and off-road modes.
It’s also powerful. The base engine is a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 that produces 400 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque; the Grand Touring plug-in hybrid is powered by the same 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 mated to a 13.6-kW-hr battery and an electric motor to deliver an eye-opening 494 hp and 630 lb-ft of torque. Both engines work with a refined 10-speed automatic that makes smooth shifts with either powertrain.
Design-wise, it’s one of the best in the segment, both inside and out, with beautiful materials, an incredible Revel stereo, and an overall sense of pampering for passengers in all rows with 30-way adjustable seats with heat, ventilation, and massage.
The Aviator starts at $52,195.
Mercedes redid the GLS with the goal of making it the S-Class of 3-row SUVs. The interior is beautifully furnished and finished, and it offers tons of tech. The row of vents across the dash is functional and aesthetic.
Moving the second row bench for access to the third row is painfully slow; consider captain’s chairs if you don’t need the extra seat.
This SUV has a beast of an engine and handles nicely, aided by its air suspension. The base engine is a smooth 362-hp, 369-lb-ft 3.0-liter turbocharged I-6 and comes paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission. If you want more power and some deep growl, go for the 483-hp, 516-lb-ft 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 in the GLS 580. With either engine, the GLS ranks among the best family SUVs.
The GLS is athletic on-road and is as capable as a mountain goat off-road. The seven-passenger GLS starts at $76,195.
This is a big seven-seater with 96.8 cubic feet of cargo room with the second- and third-row seats stowed. That’s 2.1 cubic feet more than in a Chevrolet Tahoe, which is 5.6 inches longer. It has massive rear doors and a roomy second row with seats that fold and slide easily.
We had a long-termer with the 276-hp, 266-lb-ft 3.6-liter V-6 and eight-speed automatic. The base engine is a 235-hp, 258-lb-ft 2.0-liter turbo-four with front-wheel drive only; you have to upgrade to the V-6 for AWD. The four-cylinder can feel underpowered when the 3-row Atlas is full.
The 2020 Atlas is expected to start about $32,000.
It rides on Subaru’s new global platform, which gives it good ride and handling, and it’s the first vehicle to get Subaru’s new 260-hp, 277-lb-ft 2.4-liter direct-injected turbocharged flat-four engine with a CVT. All-wheel drive is standard, as is the EyeSight suite of active safety features.
All seats recline, and everyone gets a sun shade, a reading light, and ventilation in the ceiling. Grab handles are thoughtfully placed on the inside shoulders of the second-row seats to ease entry to the very back. Convenience features like these add the Ascent to the ranks of the best family SUVs.
The eight-passenger Ascent starts at $33,005.
This seven-passenger SUV is longer and wider than most in the segment and has the most cargo room in the class with the third-row seats up or down. It has about a trunk’s worth more space than a Honda Pilot. The 3-row Traverse has a 120.9-inch wheelbase and is 204.3 inches long.
The base engine is a 300-hp four-cylinder with an optional 310-hp, 266-lb-ft 3.6-liter V-6. They are mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is optional. The Traverse offers a nice, planted ride with little body roll. It’s easy to get at the LATCH points for child seats.
The Traverse made it to the quarter finals of MotorTrend’s family car shootout. It’s a bargain starting at $30,995.
Most 3-row SUVs, especially in this price range (expected to start about $35,000), will never return a memorable drive like this. The CX-9 isn’t most SUVs, though. It drives better, looks prettier, and keeps more focus on the person behind the wheel.
The seven-passenger CX-9 offers a sportier ride but less interior room—the CX-9’s 71.2 cubic feet of cargo capacity trails key competitors by 10 to 15 cubic feet. Second- and third-row comfort is decent for this family SUV.
We have concentrated on car-based SUVs. Those with extra-large families and needs can go to the big, body-on frame SUVs that can pull a house. We’re talking Cadillac Escalade—a good deal these days as we await the next generation. Or the GMC Yukon Denali XL with its 420-hp 6.2-liter V-8 or the nine-passenger Chevy Suburban, all of which need an update.
Ford has the massive Expedition and Expedition Max with a twin-turbo V-6 and 10-speed automatic transmission and rear- or all-wheel drive.
The newest, most attractive offering in this space right now is the Lincoln Navigator, with a wheelbase 3.4 inches longer than the Aviator; the stretched Navigator L has a massive 131.6-inch wheelbase.
Best SUVs for Big Families
Kia Telluride – $32,735
Hyundai Palisade – $32,595
Ford Explorer – $37,770
Toyota Highlander – *$31,830
Honda Pilot – $32,645
Lincoln Aviator – $52,195
Mercedes-Benz GLS – $76,195
Volkswagen Atlas – *$32,000
Subaru Ascent – $33,005
Chevrolet Traverse – $30,995
Mazda CX-9 – *$35,000