Automakers have concentrated their efforts on making family-friendly crossovers and SUVs designed to fulfill the needs of today's most demanding users, whether they're venturing across the country or simply heading over to soccer practice with half the team aboard.
What's the difference between an SUV and a crossover?
In the late 1990s, as SUVs became increasingly car-like, automakers seemed to come to a rare consensus on a new term for a less off road-capable vehicle: Crossover.
Although some of these, like the very first one on our list, walk the line between crossover and SUV, it's generally safe to say that a crossover is primarily front or all-wheel-drive (as opposed to rear) with a transverse-mounted engine and that it lacks a separate frame. The benefits of a crossover for road users are immediately noticeable just minutes into a drive. They typically ride better and handle better than SUVs and their unit body designs give them more interior room - especially in the third row.
But don't count an SUV out if your driving needs include off road use or towing. Most crossovers are capable of hauling a small boat or jet skis and they'll tackle an unpaved road with relative ease. But if towing a bigger boat or a car trailer is on your to-do list, or if you need extra ground clearance and the option of special gearing designed to help you ease your vehicle over an off road obstacle, an SUV is definitely the way to go.
Picking the top 10
The Leftlane editorial team put our heads together to come up with a list of the vehicles we think best fit the needs of today's users. We've driven and experienced all of these vehicles by putting hundreds of miles on each to really test them out in varied conditions.
We limited our research to models currently available in showrooms; if you can wait a few months, the Infiniti JX looked promising when we first saw it at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
But since not every family is the same, we definitely recommend that those in the market should sample as many of these as possible. Your needs aren't the same as your next door neighbor's!
The 10 best three-row crossovers and SUVs
1. Dodge Durango. Dodge came out of nowhere late last year with its first three-row full-size vehicle in years. Based on the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which itself shares a platform with the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, the Durango is a classy and stylish three-rower with a downright sporty demeanor thanks to its rear-drive design. All-wheel-drive is available for those who need a little more wet weather traction, as is a spectacularly powerful (and thirsty) 5.7-liter HEMI V8 engine. The standard V6 should be fine for most buyers, however.
2. Mazda CX-9. The CX-9 proves that crossovers don't have to be dull to drive. Its taut suspension and firm steering make it a delight to drive on curvy roads, where its agility belies its bulk. Moreover, CX-9 has an easy-to-configure interior with a roomy cargo area. Moreover, at about $33,500 for an all-wheel-drive model with leather seats, the CX-9 is a downright bargain.
3. Chevrolet Suburban/GMC Yukon XL. Chevrolet and GMC's big twins are definitely old-school SUVs, with their body-on-frame construction and rugged solid rear axles. But for those who need their capability, these GM siblings are tough to beat. They offer tons of cargo room and stretch-out comfort in just about every seating position - even in their available nine-passenger configuration. To top it all off, they're rated at a perfectly reasonable 21 mpg on the highway, a figure that puts them on par with far smaller vehicles.
4. Ford Explorer. Ford redesigned its family favorite for 2011 by moving it into the 21st century as a crossover rather than an SUV. It rides on a car chassis that gives it an exceptionally good ride, and although it can't tow as much as its predecessor, it delivers much more comfort for all three rows of passengers. We're not sold on Ford's complex MyFordTouch infotainment system and its touch-sensitive buttons, which offer huge functionality that's unfortunately tough to sort through.
5. Honda Pilot. Despite Honda's well-publicized sales woes over the last few months, Pilot demand is as strong as ever. And it's easy to see why: This boxy three-row crossover is as family-friendly as they get, thanks to an innovative interior filled with conveniences. The only problem most parents will have is remembering just which storage bin has their juice box in it. On the downside, the Pilot is a bit ponderous to drive; we'd like to see Honda tackle its suspension and steering to make it a bit more precise like some of this class' leaders.
6. Ford Flex. Although its style isn't for everyone, the Flex might be the smartest crossover on our list. Ostensibly, it's more of a wagon than anything else, but its seating position is high enough that we think it's fair to group it here. Like its Ford Explorer kissing cousin, Flex features a highly flexible interior with good long distance comfort for all aboard. Slow sales mean that discounts are readily available for the Flex, too.
7. Buick Enclave. General Motors was first on the scene among Detroit automakers with its three-row crossover lineup. Introduced for the 2008 model year, the Enclave is starting to feel a little dated, but its basic positive attributes are still in place: A commodious interior, a refined and quiet ride and a generally upscale feel that a transformed GM has applied since to the rest of its lineup.
8. Audi Q7 TDI quattro. Aimed squarely at American families seeking premium style and luxury in a vehicle capable of hauling the whole family, the Q7 has been a certifiable hit for Audi. It's full of high-tech features and, when optioned up with its available TDI diesel engine, it nets a stellar 25 mpg on the highway. That puts it at the top of this list, at least among all-wheel-drive vehicles. Unfortunately, it's really only let down among luxury crossovers for its tight third row.
9. GMC Acadia. Think of the Acadia as the Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave's more value-laden sibling and it's easy to see why we've chosen to add it to our list. Acadia offers a nicer interior than the similarly-priced Traverse (this is a big family tree!), and it undercuts the fancier Buick. The optional Denali appearance package is a questionable upgrade, but a modestly-optioned Acadia is definitely a good option.
10. Acura MDX. If you're only seeking a third row of seats for occasional, the MDX is a very pleasant and almost sporty choice. Its edgy design is perhaps the best-balanced in Acura's controversial portfolio, while its classy interior will make almost anyone feel like a hedonist. Audiophiles will be especially impressed with the MDX's premium DVD audio system designed by ELS.