You like SUVs. Your family likes SUVs. But these days, your wallet does not like SUVs, if only on account of the waiflike profile it assumes once you gas up. If only you didn't need three rows of seats.
Darn it all, because there are those for whom there is no getting around the need for seven or eight seatbelts. Moreover, there's usually an inverse correlation between the size of one's family and the number of disposable dollars that can painlessly be tossed to the oil companies as prices climb ever higher. So what is such a multitasking, multiresponsible head-of-household to drive? If you can't stomach a minivan, consider a three-row crossover.
Crossovers represent the best blend of versatility and frugality among three-row vehicles, far more efficient, easier to drive, and in some cases more spacious inside than truck-based, full-size, three-row SUVs. Think a minivan would be more frugal than a crossover? Think again. Most minivans would place near the bottom of this list had we broadened our search to include them, although minivans do offer more cargo volume, easier access to the cabin, and in most cases, vastly more spacious and comfortable third rows. But there's that pesky image problem.
A couple of disclaimers. Honda's 2009 Pilot will likely offer fuel economy competitive with that of the vehicles on this list, but the Pilot is not yet on sale. And although this is technically a crossover roundup, we would be remiss not to mention the recently introduced Chevrolet Tahoe hybrid and GMC Yukon hybrid, both of which achieve EPA ratings of 21 mpg city and 22 mpg highway for rear-wheel-drive models and 20/20 for four-wheel-drive models and top the fuel economy of several trucks in the lower half of this group while offering the towing hardiness of a body-on-frame truck. But they're the clear exceptions to the rule here (and at more than $50,000 apiece, expensive exceptions, too). So we suggest sticking to triple-tier crossovers if fuel efficiency is your hottest of hot buttons, and none is more efficient than these.
2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
27 City/25 Highway
It should come as no surprise that the top fuel-economy spot in this group belongs to the only hybrid in the mix: the Toyota Highlander hybrid. For 2008, the Highlander lineup was completely overhauled, adding length and width largely in order to offer a more capacious third-row seat (optional on the base model and standard on the upmarket Limited). Now, when we say more capacious, that is not to say truly capacious, but it will do for small adults for short trips, and little kids should be happy back there for a while longer.
The Highlander hybrid features the same 3.3-liter V-6 combined with electric-motor assist as in previous years, endowing it with 270 combined horsepower and propulsion to all four wheels. As such, it is laudably powerful and quiet (especially when creeping around in its new electric-only mode, which keeps the 3.3-liter V-6 quiet until 25 or so mph). But it's also about as exciting to turn and stop as it is to look at. Which is to say not very.
Nor is it much of a bargain. When equipped with the optional third-row seat -- standard on nonhybrid Highlanders -- the hybrid runs just under six grand more than an equally equipped regular Highlander. Base price for the gasoline-only Highlander is $12,000 less than the starting price for a hybrid. Click down a few pages. The nonhybrid Highlander is also on this list, achieving nine fewer mpg in the city than the hybrid and only one fewer on the highway with the same amount of horsepower but no heavy battery packs or complex propulsion network.
To be fair, the hybrid offers the advantages of standard four-wheel drive, a few additional features, and the occasional tax incentive, depending on where it's registered. Still, even if gas prices hit $4 per gallon, it's gonna take awhile to recoup the initial expense, especially if one adds interest from financing the deal. Our advice: Save the money up front and get the standard Highlander -- unless you take saving the earth seriously enough to spend extra money for hybrid bragging rights.
2008 Toyota RAV4
21 City/27 Highway
Toyota takes another spot on the podium in this roundup with its surprisingly likable RAV4. Indeed, no matter how you slice it -- front- or four-wheel drive, four-cylinder or V-6 -- this compact SUV has the best fuel economy of any nonhybrid crossover with room for seven butts.
Even better, the RAV4 is reasonably fun to drive, which helped a four-cylinder example take the big prize in our "Mud Puppies" comparison test. Opt up to the thirstier 3.5-liter V-6, and you'll uncork a 269-hp thriller. But the fact that the RAV4 offers such sparkling acceleration while retaining a combined fuel-economy figure in the low 20s is something to celebrate.
The RAV4 isn't faultless, though. Its interior has some ergonomic curiosities -- including the minuscule third row -- and, strangely, on RAV4 models with the 166-hp four-cylinder, Toyota couples the third-row option with downhill assist control and hill start assist control. Could the kids one shoves in that tiny third row really be so heavy as to cause terminal rollback when starting up a hill, or perhaps cause the vehicle to careen out of control when going down the other side?
But those issues are small considering what a stellar trucklet and competent fuel sipper it is, and for that, we give Toyota tremendous credit. And we recommend that fuel-conscious buyers give it tremendous consideration.
2008 Mercedes-Benz GL320 BlueTec & R320 BlueTec
18 City/24 Highway
Proof that fuel sippers come in all sizes and price brackets comes in the form of a pair of capable and oh-so-comfortable three-row crossovers from Mercedes-Benz. One is the big, butch, trucky-lookin' GL320 CDI and the other is the matronly but splendidly versatile R320 CDI.
The biggest difference between the two, of course, is packaging. The high-riding GL320 CDI is all kinds of manly, with broad-shouldered looks, a high step-in, and a higher load floor. The R320 CDI, on the other hand, may look a bit fem but offers one of the most comfortable third rows in all of crossover-dom, a space made even better when the full-length panoramic roof is ordered, giving a view of the stars from all three rows. The R-class also rides lower, is easier to get into for all occupants, and drives more like a tall E-class.
At the heart of both is the same terrific diesel V-6 that produces 215 horsepower (inexplicably, the R-class gets an extra horse for 216) and 398 pound-feet of torque, endowing each with the combination of solid acceleration, trailer-towing might, and favorable fuel economy inherent to diesels. Moreover, both have huge fuel tanks, allowing the R320 to travel more than 500 highway miles between fill-ups and the GL320 to log more than 600 before the clock strikes empty.
With 18 mpg city and 24 highway, these are the most-fuel-efficient nonhybrid luxury crossovers on earth. The fact that they can spoil seven passengers at a time makes them even better.