Picking the right three-row vehicle for you and your family can be a challenge. For the 2013 model year, you can choose from more than two dozen SUVs and crossovers with a third row as either standard equipment or as an option. There’s not just third-row size and legroom to consider, but also ease of access to the third seat, headroom while sitting in it and how having that extra row may compromise cargo space and comfort in the rest of the cabin.
“Third-row usability depends on a few different things, not all of them intuitive. There’s exterior size, styling, space distribution and second-row design,” said Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor at Cars.com.
So while compact three-row crossovers are generally best for drivers who only plan to use the extra row occasionally or just for smaller children, and large three-row SUVs are best-suited to those who regularly have more than four adult passengers and/or need significant cargo capacity, such is not always the case.
In the most recent Cars.com test of three-row SUVs, the smallest model examined, the Kia Sorento, was found to have the least-usable third row. But some of the mid-size crossovers tested, like the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, because of their boxy bodies, offered surprisingly decent third-row headroom. Meanwhile, the full-size Mazda CX-9 and Lincoln MKT were, due to their sleeker shapes, found to be not as suitable for tall third-row passengers as their stature might suggest. (Cars.com’s test vehicles were 2012 year models, plus a pair of 2011s that were unchanged for 2012, but none appear to be sufficiently changed for 2013 to alter their back seat impressions.)
“It seems unlikely, but the big MKT’s third-row headroom makes it best for children … and in-laws,” quipped Wiesenfelder.
Similarly, Ford’s relatively low-slung Flex crossover not only offers nearly an inch more third-row headroom than its taller Explorer SUV sister, but does so without compromising what Wiesenfelder described as “throne-like” second-row comfort.
Toyota’s trim RAV4 crossover offers an optional third row, but this is really only comfortable for younger children. If you’re hauling multiple high-schoolers, a full-size crossover SUV like the Chevrolet Traverse (and its platform-sharing GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave sister models), which features available seven- or eight-passenger seating, should reduce “scoot over!” squealing.
Third-row legroom is dictated not only by a vehicle’s size, but also by how it apportions interior space. So even in some of the huge and powerful truck-based SUVs, like Chevrolet’s Tahoe, third-row legroom can be comparable to that in an average sedan’s back seat.
“The longer version [of the Tahoe], the Chevrolet Suburban, improves matters, but both are schooled in third-row legroom by the Ford Expedition, both the regular and extended EL versions,” Wiesenfelder explained. “I find the Ford’s back seat the roomiest among the big trucks.”
The Tahoe’s upscale Cadillac cousin, the Escalade, offers an industry-exclusive power fold-and-tumble second-row seat that eases access to the third-row seat (except in its two-row EXT version), but both models (and the Suburban) require the removal of their back seat in order to utilize their maximum cargo capacity. On the other hand, the Expedition’s PowerFold third-row seat, which is standard in Limited and King Ranch models and optional on the XLT, folds down into the floor to create a clean, level cargo bed.
The famously durable Toyota Land Cruiser takes yet another design approach, with third-row seats that fold up to the sides rather than forward. These “jump seats” might seem a little military, but the Land Cruiser’s third-row has impressed reviewers with its adult-sized comfort.
A novel feature in Nissan’s three-row Armada is the ability of all three rows on the passenger side to simultaneously fold flat (in cloth-upholstered models), enabling the transport of extremely long items while leaving space for a seated passenger.
Some three-rowers, like the CX-9 and Pilot, let users have a say in third-row legroom by providing a second-row seat that adjusts forward and back, and many models have second rows that slide and tilt to allow easier rear-seat access. Chevrolet’s Traverse crossover boasts a child-friendly second-row SmartSlide feature that enables unobstructed access to the third-row bench seat with one hand (and is easy for kids to operate).
“The problem with most three-row vehicles is that the seats can’t be tilted or tumbled forward if a child-safety seat is installed,” Wiesenfelder said. “It’s especially a problem if you have a child seat on either side, blocking both of them. In this case, two captain’s chairs are better than a bench, because then at least there’s an aisle between them leading to the third row.”
Automakers are responding to this inconvenience. Infiniti’s JX35 has an innovative second-row seat that launches up and forward without the usual folding of cushions, meaning that a forward-facing child seat can stay put (as long as there isn’t a child in it at the time!). The Highlander offers an optional removable and stowable center second-row seat, which allows its second-row bench to become two chairs with a passage between them.
Ultimately, choosing a three-row SUV is about looking beyond external appearances and carefully assessing your day-to-day needs. Do you really carry more than four adult passengers on a regular basis, or would additional everyday cargo space in fact be more useful? And is the “wow factor” of a sporty crossover really worth having a truckload of testy teens elbow-wrestling all the way to the mall and back every Saturday?
—Paul Rogers, Custom Publishing Writer