When you’re planning a road trip, having the right wheels is essential. The vehicle you select can change the outcome of the road trip and how it feels along the way. A lot of people are torn between picking a minivan or SUV, especially if they frequently take a road trip.
If you’re looking specifically at how either vehicle performs during a road trip, the minivan is the clear winner. However, SUVs are a more practical vehicle in the grand scheme of things. Later in this piece, I’ll look at how they specifically compare in categories like price, performance, aesthetics, and interior luxuries.
In this guide, I’ll compare the two vehicle types. By the end, you’ll know exactly which one is better for road trips, and you’ll also know why and how I came to my final conclusion.
What Goes into a Road Trip? Important Vehicle Features
I’ve had my fair share of road trips in the past, and there are a few common themes that I can notice. I would call these the important vehicle features of a road trip.
First and foremost is the available space. You need space for people as well as all the stuff you need to pack. Just because someone can fit in the cramped back seat doesn’t mean it’s a viable option for a road trip. Squeezing into a seat for hours on end is miserable. That’s why it’s also important for there to be a lot of extra headroom, legroom, and elbowroom.
In addition, you need to make sure you physically have enough seats for all of the passengers. If you’re taking your family of 5 to see the Grand Canyon, then your vehicle option better have enough space for 5 people, at least.
For campers and boaters, you’ll also need a decent towing capacity on your vehicle.
From there, the added features are mostly for convenience and comfort. Things like performance, technology, and how nice it looks inside the vehicle won’t necessarily make or break the road trip. Still, I’ll be comparing these factors later as I try to figure out which vehicle is better for road trips.
Comparing the SUV and Minivan
Now it’s time to get to the good stuff. I’m going to look at some important features when it comes to road trips. I’ll compare minivans to SUVs and see how they stack up in each comparison. By the end, I’ll be able to say which vehicle is the better option.
Price is a huge consideration. If you are frequently road tripping, then you might purchase a vehicle with this hobby in mind. Alternatively, you might rent the vehicle for the week. In either case, price is very important.
If you compare the price of a typical three-row SUV to the price of a typical minivan, there’s a clear winner. Minivans are thousands of dollars less expensive.
The gap gets even bigger as you consider luxury-grade options in either class (though there aren’t really “luxury minivans”).
For a specific matchup, I looked at the Toyota Sienna minivan and the Ford Expedition SUV. If you throw in every bell and whistle for both vehicles, there’s a gap that starts at $30,000 and only gets bigger.
In almost every comparison, the equivalent minivan is a lot less expensive. For people who want to make a decision based solely on price, then the matchup is done here since the minivan has such an advantage when it comes to the sticker price.
Available Vehicle Options
Next, I want to talk about the different options you have when you’re shopping for one of these vehicles. It’s not a highly important feature, but it will put every other comparison into context.
Minivans simply don’t have many options on the market. I counted 5 American-sold minivans that you can buy today, and that number goes down to 4 with 2022’s models.
Comparatively, you can shop between dozens of different SUVs.
Why does this matter? Well, every comparison is going to be dictated by the available makes and models of the vehicle. Since there are so few minivans, there is a smaller sample size to pull statistics from.
It also matters for a shopper who is looking for something specific. When you have tens of options, you can sort through them to pick the right one for your needs. When you only have 5 options, there will probably be a lot of compromises.
Safety is a key consideration regardless of what you’re looking to do with the vehicle. When it comes to safety, there are a few metrics to look at:
- Ride height
- Number and location of airbags
- Safety features like ABS, blind-spot monitoring, and traction control
- Crash-test ratings
When it comes to safety, both vehicles are great options. SUVs have a slight advantage since they’re higher off the ground and come with better visibility.
When it comes to comparing the safety of different vehicles, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) often comes up. This is a government-backed company that awards vehicles for having exemplary safety.
In this matchup, both SUVs and minivans have Top Safety Pick awards as well as Top Safety Pick+ awards. However, SUVs have more awards (in 2020, 7 SUVs and 2 minivans received the Top Safety Pick award).
This goes back to the extra options that you’ll find with SUVs. Since they have more vehicles on the market, it makes sense that they’ll have more IIHS awards.
Regardless, it’s a win for SUVs, but that doesn’t mean that minivans are unsafe.
A lot of people also care about the interior luxuries that a car has to offer. During a road trip, any added creature comfort is going to make the whole trip better.
When you look inside a minivan, it looks like some sort of wonderland. You might find TV screens, individual vents for rear passengers, and a ton of added bells and whistles.
I know that I said no minivans are specifically called “luxury options”, but the interior could fool you. A lot of options even have nice leather seats with noise-canceling cabins so you don’t hear the road noise around you.
Plus, minivans have sliding doors to allow passengers to easily get in and out. It’s a pretty luxurious way to enter a vehicle.
There are plenty of luxury SUVs that can offer the same level of interior refinement. The only problem is that you’ll be paying even more money for these SUVs, making the comparison unfair.
Minivans are all about comfort. Their seats feel nice to sit on, and there’s a lot of space around you. They have more room for each passenger than SUVs. I’m talking about headroom, legroom, and some space to sprawl out.
A few minivans even have captain’s chairs for the middle-most passengers. I’ve even been in a minivan where the captain’s chairs recline and have a TV screen affixed to the back of the driver’s seat.
With a blindfold on, you might think you’re in the comfort of your home, not a minivan that’s flying down the highway.
SUVs also have plenty of comfort in their seats when you compare them to trucks or compact cars, but they can’t compare to a minivan’s comfort.
Overall Cargo Space
When you think about road trips, you better think about all the stuff you’re going to take. The wrong vehicle choice means paring down your luggage and making sacrifices.
An SUV doesn’t have a ton of extra space in the seating area, but there’s a nice trunk to utilize. If you’re not traveling with a full cabin, then you can fold down some seats and use that room for luggage as well.
With a minivan, it’s a different story. Most options have the ability to open the floor under the middle-most passengers and utilize these cubbies for cargo. There’s also a lot more space in the seating area so you can tuck things under seats and they’ll be out of the way.
In addition, a minivan’s trunk is typically larger than an SUV’s. What does this mean? More cargo space all around for minivan drivers.
The difference becomes even bigger when seats start to fold down. Since minivans have larger overall interior dimensions, you get even more cargo space.
If you’re on the road for long enough, you’ll come across some times where extra oomph and maneuverability are important.
When you look at the performance of an SUV, you’ll see a pretty wide range. Entry-level options can be underwhelming and have some pretty shoddy performance specs. On the higher-end models like the Tesla Model X, you’ll find performance stats that are closer to racecars.
When you average the whole selection of SUVs, you’re left with a middle-of-the-road performance.
With minivans, the range is a lot tighter. There are no especially fast models. All of them are pretty basic and have a moderate level of performance.
Personally, it feels easier to maneuver a minivan compared to an SUV. I’d bet that the overall maneuverability of both is pretty close when you look at more comparisons.
Performance in Poor Weather
Another key consideration is how good the vehicle is when the roads get slippery. With enough driving, you’re guaranteed to encounter some crappy weather and roads.
SUVs win this match-up by a landslide. So many of them come standard with AWD or even 4WD. This gives you a better grip as you drive on slippery roads.
Most minivans come with FWD. This is much better than RWD since you can utilize the weight of the vehicle to keep traction, but it can’t be compared to 4WD at all.
Regardless of your vehicle selection, make sure you understand how to safely drive on snowy roads.
The better a car’s estimated fuel efficiency is, the fewer times you’ll have to stop to fuel up along the way.
The story is about the same as the “Performance” section earlier. The fuel economy of minivans is pretty consistently around the mid-20s. With SUVs, it ranges from the low teens to the high 20s. When you average it out, they all result in nearly the same estimated miles per gallon.
The fuel economy is surprisingly good for vehicles that are so heavy and large, which is pretty impressive.
Although the difference of a few mpg can really add up over a road trip, I’m going to call this one a tie. It’s too close to comfortably say one’s better than the other.
For road trippers who happen to be campers, boaters, or need some extra outdoor equipment, towing capacity is a huge deal. Picking a vehicle with a towing capacity that isn’t high enough will stop your road trip before it even starts.
The towing capacity difference between these two vehicles is pretty surprising. A typical minivan can haul less than 3,500 pounds behind it. The typical SUV can easily drag more than 5,000 pounds behind it, with some models going as high as 10,000 pounds.
Sure, 3,500 pounds is still a lot of weight, but it’s not even close to the towing capacity of an SUV.
The more equipment you want to haul behind you, the more obvious it becomes that you need an SUV.
Personally, I feel a little uncomfortable driving a vehicle that I’m not proud of. Extend this feeling over thousands of miles and I can see how it might impact the driver. I want to talk about exterior design.
I’d argue that you’d feel better on a long road trip if you’re driving a car that you think looks cool. Otherwise, you might feel embarrassed every time a car drives by you and looks in.
Right off the bat, I’ll admit that there’s something nostalgic about the exterior design of a minivan. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to flashbacks of getting driven to sports practice with your friends in the back of your mom’s minivan.
However, nostalgia doesn’t equate to a good-looking exterior. Simply put, minivans look pretty bad from the outside (sorry, mom).
SUVs, on the other hand, can look pretty incredible. You’ll find sporty, luxurious, and rock star-like options for SUVs on the market. You can’t tell me that a 2021 Chevy Tahoe High Country is a bad-looking vehicle. It looks great.
Every minivan basically looks the same. The sliding doors are definitely a cool touch when it comes to the exterior design, but it’s not enough to compare with a typical SUV.
For that reason, there’s a clear winner in this match-up, and that’s the SUV.
Finally, let’s talk about seating. I mentioned that minivans are a lot more comfortable, but I never mentioned exactly how many seats you’ll find in each option.
For SUVs, there’s a range. You can find SUVs with anywhere between 4 and 8 seats (from the Ford Bronco to the Chevy Traverse).
With minivans, you’ll only see options with either 7 or 8 seats. The only difference is whether you find captain’s chairs or a row immediately behind the driver and passenger.
Before writing a check, make sure you know how many seats the vehicle has to offer.
Which Is Better for Road Trips?
Time for my final answer. Which vehicle is better for road trips between SUVs and minivans? I’d say it depends on what you’re looking for.
In general, I’d say that minivans are better for true road trips. As long as you don’t have to tow something heavy, they do a great job. The big selling features for me are the much lower price and better seating.
There’s a lot of overlap between the two vehicles when it comes to size, seating, fuel economy, and performance. Beyond that, differences between the two will help make your decision.
Minivans are cheaper, offer more cargo space, have more comfortable seats, and are more luxurious inside.
SUVs, on the other hand, have better exterior design, higher towing capacities, perform better on slick roads, are generally safer, and have more available models to choose from.
It means that you can get your road trip started for less, and everyone in the back will be way more comfortable.
In the actual matchups I just did, the results were pretty close. If you look at the weight of the different categories though, I think I can call a winner. The minivan. I’m not sure why there’s still such a stigma surrounding minivans, but it’s my go-to for a road trip.
Overall winner: Minivan
As you can see, minivans and SUVs are both great options for road trips. I’d still choose a minivan, but I’m curious to hear your opinion. Drop a comment below and let me know what you think. Be sure to check out the rest of my site to read more comparisons. As always, I have a list of products that every car owner should consider, so check that out too.