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Minivan vs SUV – Which Is Better For Your Family?

minivan vs SUV

The minivan vs SUV discussion is one every family will likely have in their car-buying journey.

When it comes to hauling large numbers of people and their cargo, no other class of vehicles does it as well as minivans and three-row SUVs. That’s generally because whereas most types of vehicles offer seating for five people or fewer, these family-haulers are designed to seat seven to eight passengers.

But although both minivans and three-row SUVs have the same primary purpose, they have unique advantages and disadvantages that set them apart. As a prospective buyer, you need to carefully examine their capabilities to ensure you end up with the best vehicle for your lifestyle needs.

Our SUV vs minivan buying guide highlights the difference between the two vehicle types, weighs their pros and cons, and compares them using nine decision criteria to help you make an informed decision.

Difference Between SUV And Minivan

Before jumping to the minivan vs SUV comparison section, it helps to familiarize yourself with what exactly each vehicle type is. Let’s go over their defining features.

What Is An SUV?

Types-Of-Cars-SUV
The Chevrolet Tahoe is three-row, body-on-frame SUV.

You can get a deeper understanding of what SUVs are in our detailed SUV buying guide.

The term SUV stands for ‘sport utility vehicle’. There is no set definition of what these vehicles are; however, many models are a blend of road-going passenger cars and off-road vehicles.

Key characteristics of SUVs include a tall, relatively boxy body with two compartments, one containing the engine and the other shared by the passenger cabin and cargo area. They also typically have raised ground clearance and, oftentimes, available all-wheel-drive.

There are two types of SUVs — those based on a truck-like, body-on-frame platform and those that use a car-like unibody architecture. The former are known as traditional SUVs, while the latter vehicles are collectively referred to as crossovers (CUVs).

Often based on a modified platform of a sedan or hatchback, crossovers are softer, lighter, more space-efficient, and deliver better comfort and fuel economy than traditional SUVs. However, they are less rugged and, therefore, less capable of driving off-road and towing heavy loads.

Not only do crossovers constitute the lion’s share of all SUV sales, but they are also the most popular type of vehicle, period, surpassing sedans and hatchbacks in new car sales worldwide. You can learn more about them in our expert researched crossover buying guide.

What Is A Minivan?

Types-Of-Cars-Minivan-MPV
The Chrysler Pacifica is the quintennial minivan.

Minivans are an American and Canadian class of vehicles that are designed and optimized for transporting people. ‘M-segment’ is the equivalent classification in Europe, where such vehicles are commonly called MPVs (multi-purpose vehicles) or people movers.

In North American, minivans typically have three rows of seating and can accommodate seven to eight passengers. Most have a two-box’ body configuration; a tall, upright body; a high roof; a low flat floor; and sliding doors for the rear passengers.

Whereas some early examples such as the Chevrolet Astro and Ford Aerostar utilized a pickup truck’s platform, every model available today is based on the platform of a passenger car.

Smaller MPV sizes of minivans have increased in popularity since the 1990s, particularly in Europe. However, if the term ‘minivan’ is used without any context for size, it’s usually in reference to the largest size class (e.g. three-row models that seat 7-8 passengers).

Minivan vs SUV: Pros And Cons

Minivan vs SUV - Silver Honda Odyssey
A Honda Odyssey minivan with its sliding doors and rear liftgate open.

Highlighting the benefits and drawbacks of owning a minivan or an SUV will give you more perspective when comparing the two vehicle types.

Minivan Pros And Cons

Unlike other classes of vehicles, minivans are built from the ground up to haul people as efficiently and comfortably as possible. Every design element is geared towards maximizing passenger and cargo room and ride comfort. 

Pros

  • Interior space: With a minivan, you have plenty of space for 7-8 people of all sizes to sit comfortably over long trips, along with flexible seating arrangements. Their space-efficient design results in ample head, hip, and legroom.
  • Cargo space: Minivans offer unprecedented cargo capacity because they have deep cargo wells and typically don’t have sloping roofs that cut into cargo space. 
  • Storage space: Minivans are usually equipped with all sorts of compartments for storing items of various sizes. Some models even have large storage areas under the floor. 
  • Ground clearance. Minivans have a low ground clearance that makes loading and unloading people and cargo easier.
  • Sliding doors: Their rear doors open considerably wider than those of other vehicle types, allowing for easier ingress and egress and cargo loading.
  • Fuel-economy: Being as they are based on a lightweight car platform and often powered by fuel-efficient engines, minivans deliver respectable fuel economy for vehicles of their size.
  • Price: Minivans are affordable and attainable vehicles for the average person.
  • Cost of ownership: Not only are minivans generally fuel-efficient and affordable vehicles, but they are also inexpensive to repair, maintain, and insure.

Cons

  • Not stylish: Despite valiant efforts in the past 20 years to make minivans look visually appealing, they are considered uncool vehicles that people buy out of necessity rather than desire.
  • All-wheel drive: Minivans are not ideal vehicles for driving on rough roads and in inclement weather as they have a low ground clearance and only a few models offer all-wheel-drive. 
  • Limited towing: If you do a lot of towing, a minivan may not have the towing capacity to lug around large items such as a boat or travel trailers. Despite their size, they are fundamentally passenger cars underneath.

Why Buy A Minivan

There are many great reasons to own a minivan. Not only are these vehicles some of the most practical and comfortable on the planet, but they are also among the safest on the road.

You get plenty of seating for 7-8 people and ample storage and cargo room for everyday errands and the occasional road trip. However, if you do a lot of towing or live in an area with bad roads and weather, you may want to look at a more rugged class of vehicles.

SUV Pros And Cons

SUVs come in various size classes, but with this minivan vs SUV comparison, we only consider three-row SUVs and crossovers since they are the most like minivans.

These large vehicles have, in fact, replaced minivans as the go-to choice for large families, but not necessarily because they are fundamentally better.

Pros

  • Stylish: The SUV and crossover body style is considered cool by the general public, which is a large part of their appeal.
  • Space: Most large SUVs offer capacious interiors for passengers, with a large cargo area to boot. Carrying 7-8 people and their cargo is often not an issue.
  • Visibility: The raised ground clearance of SUVs gives drivers a better view of the road ahead and their surroundings, which can increase confidence behind the wheel.
  • Powertrain options:  SUVs are available with a wide range of powertrain options, from small, fuel-efficient engines to powerful V8s. Many models are also offered with hybrid powertrains, and there is a growing selection of electric SUVs.
  • Off-roading: Traditional SUVs and, to a lesser extent, crossovers are often available with four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive systems, which combined with their higher ground clearance, make them very capable of driving on rough roads and in inclement weather.
  • Towing: Large SUVs, especially those based on truck platforms, have the ruggedness and powerful engines to tow heavy items reliably.
  • Safety: Due to their large size, heavy mass, and higher ride height, SUVs fare well in collisions with smaller vehicles. Their increased visibility also reduces the risk of accidents.

Cons

  • Safety: The high ground clearance of SUVs increases their center of gravity, making them more prone to rollover accidents.
  • Price: Due to their popularity, SUVs typically have a higher average price than other similarly-specced types of vehicles.
  • Cost of ownership: In addition to the higher average price, the four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive systems that SUVs usually come with typically require more upkeep than front-wheel-drive systems. SUVs also have some of the highest insurance premiums.

Why Buy A Large SUV

In addition to being able to carry seven to eight people in comfort and offering enough cargo room to haul many things, SUVs have a high coolness factor, a wide range of powertrain options, the ability to drive off-road and in bad weather conditions, and great towing capabilities.

They offer a unique set of capabilities that no other type of vehicle can match.

Minivan vs SUV Comparison

So far, we have discussed what minivans and three-row SUVs are and the advantages and disadvantages of owning either one. In this section, we compare them against eight decision criteria to see which one is the superior family-hauler.

Interior Space

Winner: Minivan

Minivans have an advantage over three-row SUVs in this category, as they generally have more efficiently-packaged cabins with lower floors, higher ceilings, and non-sloping roofs.

In fact, compared to similarly-sized SUVs and crossovers, minivans typically offer third-row passengers around 5-7 more inches (13-18 cms) of legroom and an extra 15 inches in overall interior room. They also have easier access to the second and third-rows thanks to their automatic sliding doors, which open wider than the conventional doors on three-row SUVs.

Both minivans and SUVs offer similar seating configurations and come with a long list of standard and optional tech and convenience features that allow both driver and passengers to ride in comfort.

Cargo Space

Winner: Minivan

Minivans easily win this category, due once again to their efficient-packaging. Not only does nearly every model offer a cavernous cargo area, but a low load floor provides for easier access than you find in your average SUV.

For example, while all minivans currently on sale have 30 cubic feet or more of cargo room behind the third-row seats, most three-row SUVs and crossover have less than 20 cubic feet.

The difference is even more drastic when you start folding the rear seats. The Honda Odyssey minivan, in particular, delivers a maximum of 158 cubic feet (4,474 liters) with the second and third rows folded, while the massive Chevrolet Suburban SUV comes in at just over 144 (4,077 L).

Minivans also tend to have more flexible cargo arrangements. Some models such as the Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Pacifica allow you to stow the rear seats into the floor, while others allow them to be removed altogether.

Handling, Power

Winner: Tie

SUVs far outclass minivans when it comes to power, as the segment offers a wider range of powertrain options, including powerful V8 engines that provide superior acceleration and pulling power. There are also more hybrid and electric models to choose from.

The Dodge Durango SRT is a performance-tuned large SUV that packs incredible power, while the Tesla Model X is a seven-seat electric SUV that can accelerate from zero-to-60 mph (96 km) in under 3 seconds, which is quicker than most sports cars.

Minivans, on the other hand, have traditionally offered modest performance figures with little deviation. They also tend to be easier to handle and steer than SUVs due to their lower center of gravity and car-like construction, though many car-based SUVs (crossovers) have comparable driving characteristics despite having a higher ground clearance.

Off-road, AWD

Winner: SUV

This is an easy win for SUVs. Nearly every three-row SUV and crossover is offered with an all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive option, which combined with their higher ground clearance, allows them to drive on rough roads and manage inclement weather with relative ease.

Minivans, in contrast, have a low ground clearance and most models only come with front-wheel drive.

If you’re looking for genuine off-road capabilities, only traditional, body-on-frame SUVs will suffice. Minivans and crossovers SUVs are simply too car-like and usually not robust enough for serious off-roading.

Towing

Winner: SUV

There’s no contest when it comes to towing large trailers like RVs or boats. Whereas minivans have a maximum towing capacity of 3,600 pounds (1,633 kg), traditional SUVs such as the Chevrolet Suburban and Ford Expedition have the muscle to tow well over 8,000 pounds (3, 629 kg).

Some SUVs even feature advanced towing technologies that make it easier for people of all levels of towing experience to tow like a professional.

Needless to say, if you need a vehicle to carry the family and tow a camper or boat cross-country, an SUV might be your best bet.

Fuel Economy

Winner: Tie

You might be surprised to know that this category is a tie. Minivans don’t have particularly impressive fuel economy ratings, but they have traditionally been more fuel-efficient than SUVs and crossovers with similar passenger- and cargo-hauling capabilities.

While many three-row crossovers deliver respectable gas mileage, most traditional, truck-based SUVs are bona fide gas-guzzlers despite what their manufacturers might want you to believe

The fact that there is a larger and growing number of hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and full-electric SUVs levels the playing field, however, as they tend to be more efficient than vehicles powered purely by gasoline or diesel engines. 

The Toyota Highlander Hybrid and all-electric Tesla Model X, for example, are more efficient than any minivan, including the Toyota Sienna hybrid and Chrysler Pacifica PHEV, the only two minivans to offer an electrified powertrain.

Safety

Winner: SUV (Slightly)

While there is no real winner or loser between the two vehicle types when it comes to safety, SUVs may have a slight edge.

The high ground clearance and robustness of SUVs give them stellar visibility and make them perform better in collisions, especially with smaller vehicles. However, the higher ground clearance can also make them more prone to rolling over.

Minivans, by contrast, tend to be more maneuverable and stable overall because of their lower center of gravity and more car-like driving characteristics.

Interestingly, in the United States and Canada, a higher percentage of SUVs have earned the highest crash test ratings from reputable auto safety organizations such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Regardless, both SUVs and minivans offer a range of advanced safety features that significantly reduce the risk of accidents. They are as safe as any other class of vehicle, if not safer.

Price, Value

Winner: Minivan

Minivans win this comparison because they generally have a lower average purchase price, especially once you start adding options.

In markets like the United States, most new minivans start at around $30,000 and max out in the  $40,000 price range when fully-loaded. 

Comparable non-luxury SUVs with three rows of seating have a similar starting price but typically cost an extra $500 – $2,000 to get the same features, with fully-loaded models topping out closer to $50,000.

Adding luxury three-row SUVs into the mix only widens the price gap. Some models such as the Cadillac Escalade, Mercedes-Benz GLS, and Tesla Model X have starting prices over $70,000. 

If you’re on a tight budget or want to get the most for your money, minivans are a compelling value proposition.

Cost Of Ownership

Winner: Minivan

Not only do minivans have a lower purchase price than SUVs, but they are also less expensive to repair and maintain. 

The AWD and 4WD systems of SUVs, especially rugged, truck-based models, often require more upkeep than front-wheel-drive systems, and SUV tires can be more expensive than minivan tires due to being larger.

As far as insurance goes, they are two of the least expensive types of vehicles to insure.

Minivan vs SUV FAQs

minivan vs SUV - man thinking about which one to get
Man thinking about which car to get.

In this section, we answer the questions that the SUV vs minivan debate often brings up.

Minivan or SUV – Which Is Better for Big Families?

While both minivans and three-row SUVs provide a comfortable ride, seating for seven to eight people, an abundance of cargo space, and loads of safety features, minivans are the better family-haulers because they typically offer more space and versatility. 

SUVs, however, have the advantage when it comes to towing and off-roading due to their higher ground clearance, greater availability of all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive systems, and availability of more powerful engines. 

What SUV Is Most Like A Minivan?

Minivans are built on a passenger car’s platform and, therefore, have performance characteristics similar to sedans, hatchbacks, and wagons. So of the two types of SUVs — those built on a truck platform and those based on a car platform  — car-based models (crossover SUVs) are the most similar to minivans.

Examples of three-row crossovers include the Chevrolet Traverse, Kia Telluride, Mercedes-Benz GLS, and BMW 7 Series.

Are SUVs More Expensive Than Minivans?

Yes. SUVs are generally more expensive than minivans, and the price difference widens as you add options.

In the U.S and Canada, minivans are on average $1,000 to $7,000 less expensive than similarly-specced non-luxury three-row SUVs. 

Are There Any SUVs With Sliding Doors?

Sliding doors are more practical than conventional car doors. Even though three-row SUVs and crossovers are becoming more like minivans with every passing generation, there are currently no models with sliding doors. 

Sliding doors are the defining features of minivans (vehicles most people consider uncool), so automakers likely don’t want to tarnish the perceived coolness of their SUVs by giving them sliding doors.

Are Minivans More Fuel-Efficient Than SUVs?

It depends on the powertrain. While gas- and diesel-powered minivans deliver the same, if not better, gas mileage than conventionally-powered large SUVs, there are hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and all-electric SUVs that deliver better mileage than any minivan currently available.

Final Thoughts

As you can see from our SUV vs minivan analysis, there is a lot to consider when deciding whether to buy a minivan or three-row SUV. Even though both types of vehicles are designed to haul seven to eight passengers and their cargo effortlessly, they go about it in slightly different ways.

Minivans have a function-over-form design that allows them to carry people and cargo more comfortably and efficiently than SUVs, offering more spacious and configurable interior and cargo areas and car-like drivability, comfort, and value.

SUVs, particularly crossover SUVs, on the other hand, offer many of the benefits of minivans but in a more aesthetically-pleasing package. Although less space-efficient and configurable than minivans, they nevertheless offer abundant interior and cargo space, a wider range of powertrain options, and better towing and off-road capabilities.

If, after reading our minivan vs SUV comparison guide, you still can’t decide on which vehicle type to get, your best bet is to give each one a test-drive to determine the one that best meets your lifestyle needs and preferences.

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