The demand for 3-row SUVs has skyrocketed. They largely replaced minivans as the preferred family hauler, and those that offer second-row captain’s chairs in lieu of a second-row bench seat – or even those that offer both – have a one-up on the rest of the field for their superior flexibility.
Captain’s chairs are second-row seats that mimic the front seats. They are two independent passenger seats that allow easier access to the third-row seats or even a center console between the two for rear-seat passengers. A second-row bench seat can accommodate one more passenger than two captain’s chairs like a passenger sedan, but this configuration can lead to crowding.
Even though bench seats offer one more passenger seat than a second-row captain’s chair configuration, it allows better second-row seat belt placement on either side of the rear seat passengers, more flexibility for cargo room, and better overall ergonomics for rear-seat passengers in general.
The midsize, 3-row Honda Pilot has built its reputation on superior practicality, and with the option of either a second-row bench seat or second-row captain’s chairs, buyers can experience it first-hand. The 2021 Pilot has retained its venerable 3.5-liter V6 engine from years past but features a new nine-speed automatic transmission.
With MPG ratings of 20 and 27 miles per gallon in the city and highway respectively, ample cargo room, good passenger room for a midsize crossover SUV, and heated second-row captain’s chairs as standard on the Elite trim level, there is not too much to dislike.
Chevrolet Suburban/Cadillac Escalade
Both the Chevrolet Suburban and Cadillac Escalade have been SUV icons for years, and even though the Suburban is supposed to be the more basic of the two, it has grown into a near large luxury SUV with all its available features and price tag. Still, the Escalade is the true luxury SUV of the two, featuring a better all-around luxury experience, despite their similarities.
Both SUVs have been redesigned for 2021, both have cavernous interiors, and both have either a bench seat or captain’s chair layout available. Second-row bench seats are standard in the Suburban while the Cadillac features standard second-row captain’s chairs with the option to switch to a bench. The Suburban can even be equipped to seat nine passengers if desired.
The Ascent is a newer player in the field of midsize three-row SUVs, but it does well for itself. It has many similarities to the Pilot, including good passenger space for its size and practical interior ergonomics and features. Subaru fans will appreciate its familiar styling and favor its upscale interior to the Pilot, but MPG is down a little from its competitor.
Second-row bucket seats are available on all trims but the base model comes with a second-row bench seat as standard. A turbocharged four-cylinder engine produces 260 horsepower, a rather low figure compared to some other midsize crossover SUVs, and the starting MSRP comes in a little higher than average for the class.
BMW markets its full-size X7 luxury SUV as a sports activity vehicle rather than a traditional sports utility vehicle. This may be true as reviewers note that the X7 lacks some cargo space and passenger room compared to its primary competitors.
Despite its comparative lack of space, the X7 offers a huge array of standard safety features, a solid infotainment system, several different engine options with huge performance potential, and a standard second-row bench seat. Second-row captain’s chairs are optional, though third-row seating also utilizes two captain’s chairs as standard, dropping passenger capacity to six.
Like the Suburban, the Expedition has been around for years and has built a reputation for being quite the minivan alternative. For 2021, Ford even added a five-passenger option for a more traditional SUV experience. The Expedition is also offered with a long wheelbase for added passenger and cargo space, the Platinum trim version of which touches a $76,000 MSRP.
Third-row seating is reportedly fairly comfortable for even adults, and second-row bench seats are standard with second-row captain’s chairs as options. A twin-turbo V6 engine that reportedly outperforms many other full-size 3-row SUVs powers the Expedition and four-wheel drive, rather than all-wheel drive, is offered in place of the standard rear-wheel-drive setup.
Hyundai Palisade/Kia Telluride
The Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride are close cousins. Though the Palisade is marketed as the more refined and upscale of the two, they both feature the same 3.8-liter V6 engine with available all-wheel drive, they both feature niceties such as Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system, and they both feature a spacious third row.
Seating for eight comes with the standard second-row bench seat, but captain’s chairs are optional for both models. Both are fairly new, only having been introduced in the past couple of years, and both are said by reviewers to have comfortable front seats, ample room for adults, even in the third row, plenty of performance, and refreshing addition to the current crop of midsize crossover SUVs.
Some have criticized the Acura MDX for being a Honda Pilot dressed up as a luxury SUV, and to a certain extent, this is accurate. The two are built on the same platform, share the same engine, and are roughly the same size. But, the MDX fills a special void within the 3-row luxury SUV segment.
It does not have the level of pure luxury that BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi SUVs have, but it is markedly more upscale than the Pilot without touching the MSRP of comparably sized luxury 3-row SUVs from those automakers. It has also been completely redesigned for 2022 with additional space and standard features from the previous generation, including a removable middle second-row seat that can also double as a center console between the other two.
Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon
The Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon are similar to the Suburban and Escalade, but they are a little smaller. The Yukon also does not quite meet the luxury standards set by the Cadillac but treads a middle ground between the Chevy and Cadillac brands. Both still offer plenty of room, both are still considered full-size 3-row SUVs, and both were also redesigned for 2021.
Both feature additional third-row legroom and an upgraded infotainment system as part of their redesign, but the standard, powerful V8 engines remain. Second-row captain’s chairs are optional in both models with a bench seat as standard. Other notable standard features include tri-zone automatic climate control, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and GM’s Teen Driver system.
The Armada is only one of two Japanese-manufactured full-size 3-row SUVs. Its primary competitor, the Toyota Sequoia, usually earns better overall marks for reliability and ride comfort, but the Armada has the Sequoia beat in interior styling, infotainment, horsepower, and overall road presence.
Standard second-row seating features a bench seat that allows for up to eight passengers, but captain’s seats are optional on all trims except for the highest Platinum trim on which they come standard. The standard technology features list was updated for 2021 to include more and make the Armada a more enticing choice within the class in addition to a slight restyle and a boost in power.
If you favor the enthusiastic side of driving and prefer driving feel over best-in-class space, but you still also need a midsize crossover SUV with a third row, the Mazda CX-9 will probably be your best choice. Even though it is smaller than many comparable 3-row SUVs and is down a bit on power, its turbocharged engine and size combine to help it feel more controllable and livelier than its size would suggest.
Even when equipped with the standard second-row bench seat, the CX-9 can carry a maximum of seven passengers as there are only two third-row seats available. Second-row captain’s chairs are available and are preferred by most reviewers to allow better access to the back seats. Relatively small size aside, the CX-9 has a great interior, gets great fuel economy, and rates high among reviewers.
As Dodge has done with several of their models, they have amped the Durango up to make it the choice of both soccer moms and automotive purists by giving it a host of engine options and drivetrains. Most notably, you can get this otherwise tame three-row SUV with the engine from the Hellcat models, producing over 700 horsepower.
Performance aside, the Durango is a good choice for those who like its edgy styling, who need some impressive towing capability, and who need a great amount of passenger space. Base models do not come with third-row seating, but all other trim levels get two as standard. Like many other midsize SUVs, the middle bench seat can be replaced with two captain’s chairs.
The GLS-Class is another luxury SUV for those who want the experience of pure German engineering. This full-size SUV competes directly with the BMW X7 and offers a large range of engine options like the aforementioned Dodge Durango, including a 603 horsepower, twin-turbocharged V8 engine, courtesy of AMG.
In addition to its comparably large amount of cargo space, it comes with ample room and access for six or seven passengers. The second-row bench seat or captain’s chairs determine this number. While in the front seats or the rear seats, passengers will experience the GLS-Class’ upscale interior and built quality, something to be expected with its near $75,000 starting MSRP.
Midsize crossover SUV shoppers often fall back on the Traverse because of its average starting MSRP, its comfortable ride, and its large amount of cargo space. The Traverse has never been flashy or exceedingly upscale, but this is perfectly fine for most shoppers who need a flexible people hauler.
Of course, a second-row bench seat can be replaced with two optional captain’s chairs to allow for either seven or eight passengers. The Traverse’s sibling, the GMC Acadia, can do the same thing but allows one fewer passenger in each configuration and gets lower marks than the less expensive Traverse. An ample 310 horsepower V6 gives it average fuel economy and power for the class.
Toyota Highlander/Toyota Sequoia
The Highlander and Sequoia are two very different SUVs. Whereas the Highlander is a smaller, midsize crossover SUV with all-wheel-drive, focused more on comfort and refinement, the Sequoia is a full-size, body-on-frame SUV with four-wheel drive and a brutish V8 engine. Critically though, both have the traditional Toyota DNA that makes them so beloved and reliable.
Both also have seating for seven or eight passengers, depending on whether or not you opt for the second-row captain’s chairs or keep the bench seat – standard on the base SR5 Sequoia and all Highlander trim levels. The Sequoia, being larger, can reasonably fit adult passengers in the third row, while reviewers say that the Highlander’s third row is cramped for average adults.
Kia redesigned its flagship midsize crossover Sorento for 2021, giving it a more upscale interior, some updated powertrain options, better MPG ratings, and infotainment system upgrades. Through all its updates, the Sorento still carries Kia’s excellent 10-year warranty and focus on quality at an affordable price.
The old V6 engine is replaced by a turbocharged four-cylinder, making 281 horsepower, but this decreases towing capacity quite a bit for those who might need it. Still, the Sorento is attractive, comfortable, and roomy with the rear seats folded. A six-passenger capacity with optional second-row captain’s chairs helps third-row access, which, when accessed, is reportedly cramped.
Volvo is known for its safe vehicles, and the XC90 is no exception. It looks great, has a high-quality interior, gets good fuel economy, has plenty of space for midsize luxury SUV, and of course, keeps its passengers safe with a host of standard safety tech including blind-spot monitoring, forward collision warning, and a driver drowsiness system.
Where the XC90 excels in cargo space and interior comfort, it falls down a little for its lack of pep compared to other BMW and Mercedes-Benz competitors. It also only carries six passengers when equipped with the optional second-row captain’s chairs as the third row can only transport two.
The Atlas is Volkswagen’s effort to compete better with the likes of the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Subaru Ascent, and Chevrolet Traverse, and it does quite well overall. One area in which it lacks is the maximum seating capacity of seven passengers. Second-row captain’s chairs bring passenger occupancy to six unless you stick with the standard bench seat.
For more readily available cargo space within its already spacious cabin, the Atlas is available without a third row. Regardless of the configuration you choose, Volkswagen has ensured that the Atlas has standard Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, a reportedly good infotainment system, a four-cylinder or V6 engine from which to choose, and a serviceable MPG rating.
When it comes to SUVs, the Ford Explorer is the grandaddy. It has evolved from a boxy, old-school, rough-riding truck to a sleek, powerful, crossover SUV. Even though the larger Expedition is the more appropriate family hauler, the Explorer can carry up to seven passengers with the standard second-row bench seat. Captain’s chairs are optional, and they lower capacity to six.
Even though the Explorer is popular for its turbocharged four-cylinder or one of two powerful twin-turbo V6 engines, its plentiful standard features, its host of trim levels, and its good towing capacity, its second-row and third-row seats are said to be cramped and uncomfortable, bringing its overall ratings down among reviewers.
Lincoln Navigator/Lincoln Aviator
The Lincoln Navigator and Aviator are like the American versions of the Toyota Sequoia and Highlander. The Navigator, like the Sequoia, is a large, body-on-frame SUV closely related to the Ford Expedition that is also sold with a long-wheelbase option. The Aviator is a smaller midsize crossover focused on being more refined as a good entry-level luxury SUV.
For not being BMW, Audi, or Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln has done a fantastic job the past few years to ensure that both the Aviator and Navigator have become serious luxury SUV contenders for less than the big German automakers. Featuring great interiors, hefty powertrain options, large cargo and passenger areas, and of course, optional captain’s chairs, both thoroughly excel within their respective segments.
Tesla Model X
Throughout the past several years, fewer and fewer vehicle lists have been truly complete without the mention of a Tesla model. The Model X seats five people in its standard setup, but if you opt for third-row seating, you can also choose second-row captain’s chairs for six-passenger capacity or a bench seat for seven.
Beyond that, Tesla is becoming known for its cutting edge technology, huge touchscreen that controls most aspects of the vehicle, the jaw-dropping acceleration that comes from the vehicle’s batteries, and in the Model X’s case, its iconic falcon-wing doors.