As the weather begins to morph into spring, many Americans find themselves tossing the kids and dog in the car to head out for a fun-filled weekend on the lake. But with Grandma wanting to tag along, and the kids begging to bring their friends, it might be time to start shopping for a vehicle that has a folding third row so that another set of vacation-goers can be safely strapped in.
Fortunately for us, there are plenty of cars out there with a third row of available seating. But consumers and critics complain that many of these larger vehicles have the handling and curb weight of a lumbering hippopotamus. Fortunately, auto manufacturers took note, and in recent years there has been a huge roll-out of mid-sized SUVs, minivans, and crossovers to meet the growing demand for a more compact interpretation of the classic family station wagon. We recently took the time and combed over the lot of them to see if there are any strong third-row contenders worth considering.
Naturally there were a few dead-ends, where cars with excellent reviews looked promising all the way up to the point where we discovered the car’s third-row seating was designed for kindergartners, and that to even get back there, a full grown adult would need to be a contortionist. This would not do at all. Grandma may be small in stature, but she is definitely larger than a six-year-old.
The only question remaining now is what to buy, because heavens knows that the majority of the vehicles we sifted through had some seriously cramped third row seats. So after quite a bit of perusing, and some real life road trips in the “far back-backseat” of a few of these models, we can safely say that it is possible to have the best of both worlds, and that a roomy car doesn’t always have to be a massive land yacht.
1. Ford Flex
We begin with a mid-size SUV that has a base price of only $29,100. It has impressed us time and time again, and it delivers once more as we review the Ford Flex’s third-row capabilities. When looking at the Flex from the outside, probably the first thing that comes to mind is “it isn’t very tall, but man is it long!”
Yes, it is a pretty long little grocery-getter, with a wheelbase of 117.9 inches and a relatively squat stature, the Flex looks more like a “Stretch” than anything else, giving support to Consumer Reports’ claim that the Flex’s interior is “vast and versatile, with room for up to seven passengers in three rows.” So hop inside and witness why this added length is there in the first place and why a report by U.S. News says that “Test drivers say the Flex has a spacious interior, and that adults can fit comfortably in all three rows.”
2. Honda Odyssey
Rolling up next is a family vehicle that continues to kick butt every step of the way and is a guaranteed solid bet when needing a three-row vehicle. With its sharper external angles, solid fuel-efficiency, $28,975 starting price, and infamous Honda reliability, Consumer Reports says “The Odyssey can seat eight with ease, with varying configurations for cargo and passenger needs. Easy access, excellent child-seat accommodations, and abundant cabin storage add to the family-friendly quotient.”
This claim later saw support when Edmunds said that “Even with a full load of passengers, there’s still a generous 38.4 cubic feet of space behind the third row. Folding the 60/40-split third-row seat into the floor is simple and creates a 93.1-cubic-foot cargo hold behind the second row.” A friend of mine he tells me that he was surprised by how much the Odyssey rides like a European wagon instead of a big family car, and how the second-row seat can be transformed in order to create either a middle aisle or a side aisle for third-row access. Plus, the Touring version has its own built-in vacuum for those messy third-graders in the third-row.
3. Buick Enclave
Say what they will about Buick’s blatant attempt at a brand refresh or misguided styling points, there’s no denying the amount of interior space found in the Enclave. It also comes nicely equipped right out of the gate with tri-zone automatic climate controls, an infotainment system, Bluetooth, a USB port, rear-view camera, and rear parking sensors. And just look at that interior — talk about a nice place to be for elongated summer road-trips.
Outside of the occasional gripe regarding external aesthetics and steeper $39,050 starting price, critics have become quite enamored with the 7-8 passenger Enclave, and U.S. News says, “The Enclave is built to carry as many as eight people, and most critics say adults can sit comfortably in its spacious third row. Cargo space is generous, with a maximum 115.2 cubic feet of available space when the second- and third-row seats are folded.”
4. Nissan Quest
While the Quest certainly won’t win any awards for fuel efficiency, it does rack up the points in the posh department, and Edmunds highlights the fact that, “Three adults will fit comfortably in the third row, which also reclines.” This is a particularly nice touch, but if the cargo space is packed with inflatable rafts and beach towels, this luxury might prove to be a tad bit unattainable.
Edmunds goes on to say, “The Quest is the most luxurious minivan on the market, but only seats seven, not eight due to the second row captain’s chairs.” This may not be a deal breaker for everyone, but it certainly is worth noting along with the fact that the Quest’s third-row seat folds forward rather than backward and that the second-row seats also fold forward like most crossovers, instead of requiring the manual removal of both second-row seats like many of the Quest’s competitors. The Quest starts off with a $26,220 price, and can be built up from there.
5. Honda Pilot
The Honda Pilot is a pretty obvious choice for anyone wanting something that actually looks and handles like a classic SUV. During a recent head-to-head crossover shootout, Motor Trend called it “the only truck of the group.” With its simplistic styling, $29,870 MSRP, surprising array of hidden pockets for storing stuff, and Honda reliability, the Pilot is a solid bet for many reasons. One of those being what Car and Driver calls, “A smuggler’s box under the trunk that will almost hold a Wookie.”
A professional review of the eight-seat Pilot by Edmunds says, “There’s plenty of room on the inside, and even the third-row seats can accommodate adults, making this large crossover a true eight-passenger vehicle.” While the Pilot’s boxy shape may not be for everyone, it does serve a purpose, allowing a sharply designed cargo bay for cumbersome items. Consumer Reports says, “Among SUVs, the Honda Pilot has the best shoulder room of the bunch, rivaling some minivans,” and those 58 inches are exactly why we put this contender on the list in the first place.
6. Toyota Sienna
Our final modern day minivan option comes to us courtesy of Toyota’s Sienna, which starts at $28,600, and like the Odyssey, seats eight people. While critics say the Sienna is not as fun to drive as the Odyssey, Car and Driver was quite fond of the Sienna, saying “There’s plenty of room back there, including adult-size third-row legroom.” And while the Sienna is the only minivan on our list that comes available with all-wheel drive, we were happy to find that the front-drive Limited edition features a power-folding third-row seat, and that the eighth seat folds away when it isn’t in use.
7. Mercedes GL-Class
For those consumers out there who don’t mind dropping $63,600 for an entry-level family car, look no further than the rock solid seven-seater known as the Mercedes Benz GL Class. Edmunds says the GL has “roomy adult-size accommodations in all three rows” and when “compared to a truck-based full-size SUV like the Cadillac Escalade, the 2015 Mercedes-Benz GL-Class definitely feels like a cut above, thanks in large part to the smooth ride quality produced by the adaptive air suspension.” The car also has the nicest interior of the bunch and the third-row does not get skimped in any way, receiving all of the refinements found in the forward parts of the cockpit.
8. Dodge Durango
Our next contender, like the Pilot, borderlines on being a ruggedly full-blown SUV at $30,495. Originally named after a sleepy little Colorado mountain town, the Durango has grown to be a truly qualified kid carrier, and came in first place when Motor Trend tested a handful of third-row equipped crossovers the other year. We like the fact that this particular seven-seat SUV can be outfitted with a V8 for increased towing capacity, low-range gearing, and that it now has several new trim packages that include a Darth Vader-suitable “black edition.”
In its closing review of the Durango, Motor Trend rejoiced in the crossover’s cabin space saying, “The Durango’s third row is better than most of these [other crossovers] second rows, and its second-row captain’s chairs are even better,” and that it is extremely “Comfortable and spacious, [and] the road-trip king nearly won our judges over with just the giant third row.”
9. Lincoln Navigator
The extremely large Lincoln Navigator is a $61,920 SUV that has one very obvious advantage over competition like the Cadillac Escalade: It has more third-row legroom. According to findings from a head-to-head test conducted by Motor Trend, the Navigator bested the Cadillac in the third-row department claiming, “The advantage is that the lower floor allows more third-row legroom.” A review by Autoblog also gives high points to the eight-seat Navigator, saying, “The third row is more accommodating than most rivals, thanks to the vehicle’s independent rear suspension.” They also praise the third-row for its ability to transform so that “interior volume is fairly easy to access, too, thanks to the standard power-folding third row and the totally flat load floor.”
10. Chevrolet Suburban
Our final third-row winner is the Chevrolet Suburban and it is a whole lot of car for $49,000. With its third-row fold-flat bench, and optional power system that lowers the second and third rows with the push of a button, the latest generation of this car finally offers enough room for a full-grown adult in the far-back. The large scale SUV has plenty of room for eight, and in their testing of the 2015 model, Road & Track says that “GM managed to add a fold-flat third row and improve the seat’s comfort without any major changes to the rear suspension,” proudly proclaiming, “the third row no longer sucks!”