Just because something says on its package that it can do something doesn't always mean that it should. That's just the case with many three-row crossover and SUV vehicles. They're advertised as seven-seat vehicles, which sounds like enough room for your entire family—plus maybe the dog and a few suitcases.
Unfortunately, that's just not feasible with many crossovers and SUVs. Is it really worth opting for a three-row crossover, especially when you'll pay extra for a convenience that may not be all that convenient after all?
Some crossovers with a third row—vehicles like the Nissan Rogue, the 2018 Volkswagen Tiguan, the Land Rover Discovery Sport, and even the larger Mazda CX-9 and the luxurious BMW X5—are the automotive equivalent of tiny houses. For some buyers, they may make a lot of sense. But it's worth evaluating the compromises ahead of actually signing on the dotted line.
2016 Land Rover Discovery Sport
We consider these vehicles to effectively be five-seat vehicles with compromised cargo areas.
Some questions to consider:
Who's going to sit back there?
If you plan to haul around more than four adults with any regularity, a three-row crossover may not be your best choice. In our eyes, the Honda Pilot, which boasts about 32 inches of third row legroom, is the bare minimum benchmark for adults. It's comfortable enough for short distances for adults, while children should have enough space back there for an entire day. Honda thoughtfully includes climate control vents for the third row and visibility is decent. By contrast, the smaller Nissan Rogue is available with a third row for a little under $1,000. It's advertised as having 31.4 inches of legroom—thanks in part to a second row that can slide forward and backward. In reality, the Rogue is much tighter. It delivers 8 inches less shoulder room than the Pilot, meaning two average size adults will be hard-pressed to sit next to one another. And taller passengers, if they can even squeeze back there, will need to bow their heads as there's not much headroom.
2017 Mitsubishi Outlander
Even worse is the Mitsubishi Outlander, with a mere 28.2 inches of legroom. That's almost two inches behind the back seats in a Chevrolet Camaro, a two-door coupe certainly not known for its commodious interior.
How are you going to use the third row?
If you're fine with making the final row a kids-only zone, one serious consideration should be how much additional cargo you plan to haul. If you intend to use all three rows while taking a vacation, you'll either want to pack very light or you'll want to consider investing in a roof-top luggage carrier. That's because most crossovers and SUVs have very little space for luggage behind the third row. Some of the more egregious models, like the Rogue, feature less than 10 cubic feet of cargo space. That's on par with a Corvette convertible—with the important caveat that much of the Rogue's quoted cargo space is actually above its window line. In reality, you'll be hard pressed to put more than a grocery bag or two back there. A diaper bag, a folding stroller, or a suitcase, for instance, won't fit.
2017 Mercedes-Benz E400 Wagon first drive
A generation ago, several automakers offered station wagons with rear-facing third row seats. Today, only Mercedes-Benz carries on that tradition with its E400 4Matic Wagon. While we love it for its throwback feel (the "way back" bench is the only thing that feels retro in this otherwise futuristic Mercedes), you'll want to remember that there is no cargo space when the third row is in use unless you plan to stack suitcases on your passengers.
Larger crossovers and minivans are clearly advantageous here; their bigger footprints on the road yield more space for people and items inside.
Neither the federal government nor the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety evaluates vehicles based on their rear-impact crashworthiness (admittedly, the IIHS does look at front seat head restraints for their ability to reduce whiplash). That's something we'd like to see from one or the other in the future. However, few smaller crossovers offer much space between the rearmost head restraints and the glass rear window.
2017 Nissan Pathfinder
Is it worth the added cost and complexity?
Third rows cost money. If it's something you only anticipate using once or twice during your ownership of the vehicle, is it worth ticking that box? Conversely, if it seems like the kind of feature you'll use often, perhaps it's worth moving up a vehicle size.
Land Rover charges $1,750 for the third row in its Discovery Sport, which it wisely brands as a 5+2 arrangement. That's a hefty chunk of change for something that reduces cargo volume by about four cubic feet. On the Tiguan, a third row is mandatory with front-wheel drive; opt for all-wheel drive and it's optional. In essence, you're paying for the third row with the front-wheel drive Tiguan whether you want it or not.
On the Rogue, which has become Nissan's best-selling model, the third row runs a hair under $1,000. When you've added that option to a 2017 Rogue SV, you're within $4,000 of an equivalent Pathfinder. That's not chump change, but if you're looking to make regular use of that extra seating capacity, it might be worth the extra coin.
2017 Toyota Land Cruiser
In some more traditional SUVs, like the Toyota Land Cruiser and Lexus LX 570, the third row of seats may need to be removed in order to maximize the vehicle's cargo-carrying potential. The seats are bulky and heavy to remove and they'll take up some room in your garage when they're out. They do fold up and out of the way when not needed, but they block some rear visibility.
In the Toyota 4Runner, the available third row does fold flat into the cargo area, but it does slightly reduce cargo space compared to the five-seat version.
Our advice: If it's seven-seat capacity you're after, stick with a larger vehicle. Models like the Volkswagen Atlas, the Nissan Pathfinder, the Honda Pilot, and the Land Rover Discovery all provide decent room without necessarily driving like the much bigger vehicles that they are.