Reader Question: SUV Recommendation?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Tom asks: After almost  seven years, we are in the car market again because of our new commute situation. We are sending our five-year-old son to a charter school 45 minutes away. Thankfully, we’ve found a decent carpool situation; however, my 2008 Mazda 3 won’t cut it anymore and we’re in need of a second SUV. What would you recommend (either used or new) that would fit these criteria: Three rows of seats; captains chairs in the second row; can fit 3-4 children’s car seats; decent gas mileage – and won’t break the bank financially?

My reply: Based on your criteria, I’d steer you toward a full-size crossover SUV (as opposed to a truck-based full-size SUV). Specifically, the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot, both of which are blue chip – established reputations for reliability – and have/offer the captain’s chair second row and a usable third row and get not-terrible mileage (mid-high 20s). They offer FWD standard with the option to go AWD, but – unlike the truck-based SUV, which is rear-drive, with 4WD available – the FWD will provide good traction in inclement weather (if you need to deal with it) and make it unnecessary to spend the extra money on AWD. A RWD-truck-based SUV (e.g., a Tahoe or Expedition) pushes rather than pulls itself forward and that usually means poor traction on wet/slick roads – necessitating 4WD, if you have to deal with inclement weather. This adds expense and also reduces fuel economy considerably. A truck-based full-size SUV will generally average 17-20 MPG. Plus, they are less roomy inside due to the configuration as well as more awkward to maneuver. This is not a slam of them; just a reality check. For hauling kids around, a crossover is in my opinion preferable.

Even more preferable – here it comes – would be a minivan. Such a vehicle meets all your criteria and then some. These things are incredibly spacious and the spaciousness is easily accessed. You may really like having those sliding double doors to get all those kids in – and out. I know that minivans aren’t sexy – but they are smart. And some find smart very sexy. The upside here – with used vans – is that they can be had cheap, precisely because they are not regarded as sexy by many.

There is also a new minivan that is both. It’s the Kia Carnival, which I recently test drove and wrote about, here. I think you may like this one, a lot!

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  1. Not sure about the newer ones but my on death’s door 03 Expedition has a 2WD setting, an “adaptive” AWD setting and 4WD High/low settings. The AWD setting was designed for the inclement but not quite 4WD requiring weather. Heavy rain, basically. It automatically toggles between 2 and 4WD depending on traction needs.


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