What is the Best Family-Friendly Green SUV?
As a family with two older teen boys and a dog that really does not like being left at home alone, we’re big fans of three-row family haulers. Sure, we technically don’t need more than four seats very often, but that third row just makes everything a little more comfortable for all involved, especially when grandma joins the circus, er, comes out with us.
This makes our current hunt for our next family-friendly green vehicle favor a seven-seater, even if we won’t fill it very often. We’re also leaning towards a plug-in vehicle of some sort, since we’re long-time EV owners – having had both BEV and PHEV – and already have a charging station in the garage. Because, even “fuel-efficient” hybrid vehicles that don’t plug into anything would still mean more noise and more fuel costs.
So, it was interesting both personally and professionally when I had the chance to drive seven plug-in SUVs back-to-back over the course of two days at the 2024 Canadian Car and Utility of the Year event put on by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. The four overall awards (given for electric and non-plug-in categories above) involve scoring almost every vehicle you drive throughout the year, but this “TestFest” event every fall is where most auto manufacturers bring out their latest vehicles with the latest tech and safety features. Therefore. they tend to be the front-runners for these awards.
I had driven most of the contenders more extensively earlier in the year, so the event was less an introduction, and more of a re-calibration, to how these vehicles all stacked up, while slotting in the newbies. These varied vehicles are not all direct market rivals, but back-to-back testing provided much more clarity on how the 2024 Kia EV9, Lexus NX and RX 450h+ PHEVs, Mazda CX-90 PHEV, Nissan Ariya EV, Toyota Grand Highlander Max Hybrid, and Volvo C40 Recharge BEV compare to each other.
Then I had to include into this mix the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, the grand-daddy of plug-in three-row plug-in hybrids, which I happened to test drive for a week soon after sampling this smorgasbord of green SUVs. Here is where we landed.
2024 Kia EV9
There’s no doubt that the all-new Kia EV9 will be one of the most sought-after EVs in 2024, and Kia has already warned that it will have limited availability. There simply aren’t that many true three-row all-electric SUVs on the market, and with its $56,395 starting MSRRP (including freight), it offers space comparable to Tesla’s three-row Model X or the VinFast VF9, but starts at much lower prices than both. It’s actually closer to the prices for the Tesla Model Y, especially if you add in the Y’s optional (but teeny-tiny) third row.
Adding the heat pump and heated steering wheel, would all be must-haves for us, which would increase the MSRP of an EV9 with all-wheel drive and the longer-range battery to $65,395 for the Wind AWD model. That spec is estimated by the EPA for 280 miles of range, compared to 230 miles for the smaller battery; the EV9 can reach 304 EPA-estimated miles for the rear-drive version with the aforementioned 99.8 kWh battery.
For those prices, it’s tough to match the EV9’s combination of stretch-out space, quick-charging capability (10-80 percent in under 25 minutes with a 210 kW maximum charging speed on a Level 3 charger) and cargo flexibility. Early units will come from Korea, but production is set to start at Kia’s West Point, Georgia plant in spring 2024, which should make it eligible for full federal EV rebates.
2024 Mazda CX-90 Plug-In Hybrid
Mazda’s new three-row family hauler brings a brand-new plug-in hybrid (PHEV) option with a small battery that offers an EPA-estimated 26 miles of range. This is better than no all-electric range, but the 2024 CX-90 PHEV offers roughly the same amount of EV range as our Ford C-Max Energi did when it debuted in 2013.
This particular CX-90 I tested drove more confidently than the similarly-sized EV9, with braking and handling a little less prone to dive and body lean, which is appreciated in such a large SUV. But it was also louder – and not just when its minimal battery charge was used up. With four miles of that EV range left, I was surprised to hear the 2.5-litre inline-four come to life, and noticeably, even without major throttle prodding. Climbing into the third-row was also a bit tougher than in the EV9 or the Honda Pilot, due to the Mazda’s lower roof.
With a starting MSRP of just under $50,000, and the top Premium Plus trim starting at $57,450, the minimal electric range, and the 25 mpg overall after that – using premium fuel to boot – makes the CX-90 PHEV seem like a half-hearted green effort.
2024 Nissan Ariya
Nissan’s all-electric Ariya may only have two rows, but it’s a sleekly futuristic-looking EV that’s good enough to make us wonder if we need three rows after all. Its interior is spacious and comfortable, and it offers lots of cargo room, although it has no “frunk.” There are also sleek integrated buttons in the center console similar to the EV9, and the Ariya scored high marks overall for its interior design, infotainment and ergonomics. That said, the lack of any floor-mounted console at all between driver and passenger means items placed there can flop or roll over into the driver’s footwell.
The all-wheel drive (e-4orce in Nissan-speak) Ariya matches the EV9 AWD’s quiet overall demeanor, combined with notable acceleration – 0-60 mph is around five seconds flat – but it’s not exciting to Tesla Performance or Plaid levels. The Ariya’s EPA-estimated range of up to 289 miles, or 272 for e-4orce models with the larger battery, is more competitive than its 130 kW maximum charge speed, but neither are class-leading.
As for budget, the Ariya has an admirably low starting MSRP, but adding the larger battery and AWD make it pricey very quickly – you’ll be looking at an MSRP of $52,555, including freight, for the Engage+ e-4orce.
2024 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid
Of all of these vehicles, the Pacifica Hybrid minivan is the roomiest and most practical vehicle by far: the most passenger volume, the largest third row, the most cargo room overall, and the only one with sliding side doors that are just as parking lot-friendly as ever – and can also slide open with a swipe of the foot, just like its tailgate.
Sure, it doesn’t offer the ground clearance or all-wheel drive of most SUVs, or even the gas-only Pacifica, but this plug-in hybrid also offers a worthy 32 miles of range, and 30 mpg on regular fuel after that, which is astounding considering its size, weight and the fact that it was introduced in mid-2016 as a 2017 model.
Unsurprisingly, it is the least agile of this group to drive, and also the most dated inside, with gauges instead of the all-digital screens we’ve become used to in the past few years, especially in pricier vehicles. Starting MSRPs for plug-in 2024 Pacificas range between $53,425 to just over $62,000 for Pinnacle models, but that’s before the $7,500 federal EV incentive (which become easier to obtain in January once tax credits become a dealer-applied rebate) – along with any other state, utility or Chrysler discount.
It’s simply a touch too large for us and our urban-heavy life right now, but an impressive overall package of efficiency and utility.
2024 Lexus RX 450h+ Plug-In Hybrid
I really liked the looks of this all-new Lexus RX 450h+, where the “plus” designation indicates the new plug-in hybrid version of the popular mid-size luxury SUV. But the venerable Lexus quickly became disappointing from there, with no third-row option, and the same 304 combined horsepower from the 2.5-litre plug-in hybrid powertrain from the Lexus NX and Toyota RAV4 Prime.
The RX PHEV’s 37 miles of estimated range provides a healthy dose of all-electric commuting, but its $70,080 starting MSRP and not-very-exciting 6.2-second 0-60 mph time doesn’t feel fast compared to the much more energetic electric EV9 and Ariya.
2024 Lexus NX 450h+ Plug-In Hybrid
With the same powertrain as its larger RX 450h+ sibling, the ore compact 2024 NX 450h+ plug-in hybrid can accelerate a touch quicker from rest to 60 mph (6.0 seconds flat), but can go no further on all-electric power, as it’s rated at an identical 37 miles of range on a full charge. Its lines didn’t quite speak to me as much as the larger RX, but it hides its RAV4 Prime lineage very well, and on the inside as well. Which it should for its starting MSRP of $59,905 – a fair bit lower than the RX, but somehow still too expensive compared to the longer-range and equally-powerful RAV4 Prime to be very tempting.
Toyota Grand Highlander Hybrid Max
Not only is the new-for-2024 Toyota Grand Highlander Hybrid a three-row SUV, but the Grand in the name denotes it’s the extended length version of the regular three-row Highlander, with both versions available in Hybrid or non-hybrid versions. The Max version, which I drove, increases power to 362 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque, and brings towing capacity back to 5,000 pounds to match the gas versions, versus 3,500 lb otherwise.
After climbing in, the Grand Highlander was roomy inside, with plenty of people and cargo room. The manually-sliding second-row seats actually made it easier to access the minivan-worthy third row, compared to the powered rear seats of the EV9 and some others.
But even this top-spec Grand Highlander Hybrid Max had a hard plastic lip on the cupholder in the driver’s door that my left elbow kept resting on or falling into. It reinforced to me why everyone should take at least a quick test drive before signing away, as that in itself was a deal-breaker for me.
Volvo C40 Recharge
In this setting, the Volvo C40 Recharge was the sport coupe of the group, with its steeply-sloped rear roof and smaller compact proportions all around. This is the sleeker version of the XC40 Recharge, but outside the extra style, there’s no extra power or enhanced handling to reinforce any notion of increased performance, outside perhaps aerodynamic performance.
But the very limited view out the rear window, restricted rear headroom and less cargo space for more money is a tough formula when comparing family-friendly vehicles, even to fashion-conscious folks.
Both the C40 and the boxier but better XC40 Recharge EV offer longer ranges for 2024 from new rear-drive versions, rated at 297 miles and 293 miles respectively. It was also interesting to see that the base C40 Core model’s $54,695 starting MSRP made this small luxury crossover nearly the same price of one of the largest vehicles in the group, the Grand Highlander Hybrid Max.
Exciting Green SUVs Coming in 2025
Looking over this list and its order, it’s clear to me that I’m leaning towards a three-row BEV, of which there are relatively few right now, and even fewer in the non-luxury space. So I’ll be looking forward to the planned arrival in 2024 of the VW ID. Buzz and the Hyundai Ioniq 7, the EV9’s corporate cousin.
The VinFast VF9 three-row EV was supposed to have gone on sale in 2023, but depending where you are in North America, that one may not arrive until 2024 as well.
But there will also be at least a few intriguing luxury brand options too, with Volvo’s three-row EX90 BEV set to arrive in the first half of the year, while the all-new Lucid Gravity is slated for closer to the end of 2024.
I also recently had a chance to sit in, poke around, photograph and film the Gravity, which features a minivan-style cargo well in the rear with the third-row seats in place, or you can fold them down for a flat floor. The rear doors that fold out almost perpendicular to the Gravity’s body are great for getting in and out easily, but not so much for avoiding parking lot dings.
The Gravity also offers a fun accessory that mounts in the frunk, and provides a bench seat and a cushy back rest instead of just a carpeted wall. Then who can forget about a fold-out leather ‘bib’ that unfurls over the front bumper to ensure you and your sitting partner’s clothes won’t get dirty.