The minivan used to be the people-mover of choice, but now, those who need to haul a household primarily look at three-row SUVs. Every model on our shortlist of finalists can carry seven or eight occupants, and their seats can be folded or flipped down when maximum cargo space is required.
As with all categories, we’ve narrowed this down to our top five choices. Not all three-row sport-utes are “created equal,” and by that we mean that one has body-on-frame construction, similar to that used for pickup trucks. That can make a difference in driving feel, especially for consumers who are used to unibody vehicles. We take that into account, judging all our competitors on their individual merits including value, innovation, quality, and how well it does the job it’s meant to do.
Our jury of more than 20 automotive experts from all over the country assessed every single three-row SUV on the market and voted on their top five to advance to the final round. Only one will take the crown, and we will announce our winners beginning in February 2021.
Kia’s largest sport-utility was a completely new model for 2020, and moves into 2021 with only minor changes, including an upgraded trailer tow harness and the new Nightsky Edition appearance package. Prices range from $46,195 to $55,695.
A sibling to the Hyundai Palisade, the Telluride uses a 3.8L V6, making 291 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, and with all-wheel drive. Combined city/highway fuel economy is 11.2 L/100 km. Seating is eight-passenger in the two lower trims, and seven in the two upper levels.
A little more power wouldn’t hurt on this big beast, but it offers comfortable seats, a decent amount of legroom in the third row, and a lot of features. The base model includes a heated steering wheel, LED headlights, advanced safety technologies, sunroof, tri-zone automatic climate control and navigation, while upper levels add such items as a head-up display, 360-degree camera, and first- and second-row heated and ventilated seats.
Like its Kia Telluride equivalent, the Palisade was an all-new model for 2020. For 2021, it receives a new top-line Ultimate Calligraphy trim level, including 20-inch wheels and luxury interior trim. On all trim levels, the Palisade now has standard LED headlamps and noise-reducing laminated front side windows.
The Palisade carries a 3.8L V6 engine, making 291 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, mated to an eight-speed automatic. Unlike the Telluride, which is AWD-only, the Palisade’s base trim level comes in front- or all-wheel drive. The two lower trims are eight-passenger, while the Ultimate seats seven, but the Luxury trim one step below it can be ordered either way. Pricing is $39,199 for the front-wheel-drive model, while AWD models range from $41,199 to $54,699.
As with the Telluride, we wouldn’t complain if we got a little more power, but the Palisade offers a smooth ride, roomy interior, and a similar long list of features – although Kia’s higher prices reflect more goodies in all models, while Hyundai reserves some for the top trim levels. Combined fuel economy is 10.5 L/100 km for front-wheel, and 11.1 L/100 km for all-wheel drive.
The Highlander is unique on our list of finalists, because it’s the only one that’s available as a hybrid. For 2021, there’s a new sportier XSE trim level in the gasoline lineup, and all models receive extra advanced safety technologies.
The conventional versions use a 3.5L V6 engine, making 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque, mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, and with front- or all-wheel drive. The Highlander Hybrid uses a 2.5L four-cylinder with two electric motors and self-charging hybrid battery, with an automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) and all-wheel drive. The AWD system uses the electric motors to power the rear wheels as needed without gasoline, which eliminates a mechanical connection between the axles. The V6-powered Highlander has a combined fuel consumption of 10.3 L/100 km, while the Hybrid is rated at 6.7 L/100 km.
Seating is for seven or eight, depending on the trim level. The Highlander FWD is $40,150; AWD models are $43,650 to $54,150, while the Hybrid is $53,850 to $56,150. Standard features on all include smart key, power driver’s seat, heated seats, LED headlamps and advanced safety technologies, while walking up the trim levels can add sunroof, hands-free liftgate, premium stereo, heated steering wheel, wireless charging, and head-up display. Among other things, we like its handsome cabin, simple controls, and the Hybrid’s smooth, efficient operation.
The mechanical twins of Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon are redesigned for 2021, and it’s a very good makeover. Most notably, these full-size sport-utes are up to 152 mm longer, with 40 per cent more third-row space, and 722 litres of cargo volume, up from 433 litres. Seating is for seven or eight, depending on trim. These are the same vehicles as the Chevrolet Suburban and Yukon XL, but those two are longer-bodied for even more cargo capacity.
Unique on our shortlist, the Tahoe and Yukon are body-on-frame, and exclusively V8-powered (a 3.0L turbodiesel is coming). Most trims use a 5.3L V8 making 355 horsepower and 383 lb-ft of torque, with combined consumption of 11.8 L/100 km. There’s also a 6.2L V8 making 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque. Both use a 10-speed automatic transmission. Both also use Dynamic Fuel Management, which shuts off cylinders in patterns when full power isn’t needed, for better fuel efficiency.
Depending on the trim level, both offer rear-wheel drive, or driver-selectable four-wheel drive. When properly equipped, both can tow up to 8,400 lb. Pricing ranges from $56,498 to $80,898.
Both offer a number of luxury features in the upper levels, including Magnetic Ride Control, four-corner air suspension, heated and cooled seats, and a power-sliding front console. These sport-utes are the most rugged on our list, including their off-road and towing capability, but they’re also smooth-riding and comfortable, and very luxurious in the top trims.
Introduced as an all-new model for 2019, the Ascent adds extra safety features for 2021. Steering-responsive LED headlights and high-beam assist are now standard, as is a dash warning light that indicates if anyone in the second or third row isn’t wearing a seatbelt.
The Ascent comes in four trim levels: The base Convenience is eight-passenger; the mid-range Touring and Limited can be ordered with seven or eight seats; and the top Premier holds seven. Prices range from $36,995 to $51,495. All models use a turbocharged 2.4L horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, making 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque, and mated to an automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT). All-wheel drive is standard, with continuous power to all four wheels in a 60/40 split. The selectable X-Mode program improves rougher-terrain traction and includes hill descent control. Combined fuel consumption is 10.4 L/100 km.
EyeSight is standard on all models; it’s Subaru’s suite of camera-based advanced safety assist systems, and for 2021, it adds lane-centring to the adaptive cruise control feature. The Ascent’s third row can be a bit tight, but it’s easy to access, and the cabin is handsome and well-finished. Depending on trim, features include panoramic sunroof, auto-dimming mirror, leather upholstery, heated steering wheel, and front-view camera.