We live in a complicated world. Important decisions are rarely easy. Information is widely available (thank you, International University of Google), but it’s also widely misused. Few people live their lives without compromise, and few products — cars included — make it from blueprint to reality without a bit of sacrificed vision or capability.
Don’t agree? Try finding a car or truck that both seats a large family and tops 20 mpg in city driving. It’s not easy, and for good reason: People-movers — vans, SUVs, and large wagons — exist solely to move large quantities of humans and cargo across the map, and that purpose seldom jibes with the needs of Greenpeace or the polar ice caps. A high curb weight, trucklike durability, and bags of torque may warm the corners of a bus driver’s heart, but they’re not exactly the stuff of Al Gore’s dreams.
Thankfully, we’ve got your back. Need three rows but don’t want to fall on your sword at the pump? Look no further. In the name of brevity, we’ve limited this list to vehicles that hold six people or more; we also considered practicality and the fun-to-drive factor, eliminating such things as one-off cargo vans and third-row-seat cheaters (i.e., anything with six seats but little room for full-size adults). Here are the five most efficient people-movers on the market. Happy green parenting!
Engine: 6.0-liter, 332-hp hybrid V-8
MPG: 21/22 city/hwy
If the Chevrolet Tahoe and its badge-engineered ilk were a drink, they’d be Coca-Cola: likeable, universally recognized, and around since the dawn of time. Much like Coke, however, the Tahoe’s ubiquitity tends to make you forget its substantial goodness. Recognizable or not, GM’s largest SUV can haul, bus, and flat-out truck with the best of them.
Happily, the hybrid Tahoe loses little of its older siblings’ appeal. The model pairs a healthy amount of cargo and people space with a 6.0-liter V-8 and two electric motors; fuel economy improves by 25 percent, but that isn’t the main attraction. The draw lies in the fact that the Tahoe and its siblings are all full-size, body-on-frame beasts — passengers are always comfortable, towing capacity is abundant, and cargo space is rarely an issue. Want to explore new lands, claim new territory, and get home without stopping to refuel? This is probably your best bet.
2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
Engine: 3.3-liter, 208-hp hybrid V-6
MPG: 25/27 city/hwy
The Toyota Highlander is essentially the Toyota Camry of the midsize SUV world: it’s a perfectly good vehicle that is often maligned due a percieved lack of specialness. Yes, the Highlander is as dependable and ordinary as a ham sandwich, and no, it doesn’t cater to Moab fantasies or scream your EPA cred from the rooftops. But there’s something be said for subtlety. What we have here is the everyman green SUV writ large, a refined and polished machine dressed up in a subtle, lowercase font.
Like most Toyota products, the Highlander Hybrid goes about its duties with a minimum of fuss. A hefty curb weight and a slightly cramped third row are the only real downsides; the Hybrid’s 3.3-liter V-6 and standard all-wheel-drive system won’t win any awards for involvement, but they’re more than up to the task at hand. Predictably, build quality is impressive.
Engine: 2.6-liter, 154-hp I-5 (diesel, turbocharged)
MPG: 26/30 city/hwy (est.)
Let’s be blunt: If you haven’t driven a Dodge/Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, then you’re missing out. The Dodge Sprinter was essentially a rebadged version of Mercedes-Benz’s Sprinter commercial van, which is nothing less than the single best cargo van currently sold in Europe, and is currently transitioning from Dodge dealers to Benz dealers as part of the divorce. If that doesn’t sound that sexy, then think about it like this: When was the last time you drove something that was stylish, well-built, and big enough to serve as a mobile apartment?
The Sprinter is nothing less than a modern miracle: It cruises down the highway like a loaded E-class, it comes in a variety of wheelbase lengths, and if you remove the seats, you can cram half your house in it. (Yours truly once used a Sprinter to transport three full-size couches simultaneously. I could have fit a fourth.) That it achieves astounding fuel economy — thank you, modern diesel technology — while doing all this is just icing on the cake. If you ever needed proof that the old-school American cargo van is on its way out, then this is it.
Engine: 4.0-liter, 251-hp V-6
MPG: 17/25 city/hwy
The minivan has long been the heart and soul of the Chrysler lineup, the one thing that the company knows better than anyone else. True to form, the latest version of the Mopar mover offers more gadgets, more clever space tricks, and more features per buck than almost anything else on the market. What it lacks in relative durability and refinement — Honda’s Odyssey has it beat on both fronts — it makes up for in chutzpah, value, and practicality.
Chrysler, Dodge, and . . . er . . . Volkswagen? Thankfully, it doesn’t matter which marque you pick. All three vans share the same platform — yes, even the Vee-dub — and with the exception of the Routan’s slightly more appealing looks, all of them are cut from the same Detroit cloth.
Engine: 3.5-liter, 244-hp V-6
MPG: 17/25 city/hwy
Honda’s Odyssey is a perennial standout in the three-row wars; it combines the road manners and interior quality of Honda’s excellent Accord with the seating capacity and space efficiency of the best American minivans. Sure, the Big H updates its van’s spec sheet once every third blue moon — the Odyssey’s last major revamp took place when Barack Obama was still driving his own car — but in this case, an oldie is a goodie.
Name something that most minivans struggle with, and chances are, the Odyssey knocks it out of the park. Road-trip-worthy rear seats. Steering feel. A powertrain that won’t put you to sleep, and a transmission that actually does what you want when you want it. All of these things are thin on the ground in the mom-car ranks, and all of them are alive and well beneath the Odyssey’s subdued sheet metal. It might not be the sexiest minivan on the planet, but it’s definitely the most well-rounded.