Best 7 passenger vehicles

Our favorite people haulers for 2013

If you're hauling around a crowd, you need a ride with three rows of seats. So we evaluated dozens of models to find our favorite 7-passenger crossovers, minivans and SUVs.

To land on our list, they had to cost less than $45,000 and get at least 21 mpg on the highway based on EPA estimates.

We also believe safety should be a top priority for a vehicle whose main purpose is people-hauling. That's why we insisted that they be Top Safety Picks from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and receive the institute's highest ratings in front, side-impact and roof-strength crash tests.

Consumer Reports road-tests vehicles and collects data on such critical factors as driver satisfaction, reliability and cost of ownership. We only considered vehicles that it "Recommended" and have included the overall score (out of a possible 100) the magazine awarded each.

Our favorites are all 2013 models, and the prices you see include automatic transmissions, delivery charges and lots of convenience and safety features, including backup cameras.

Dodge Durango SXT

Price: $31,985
Mileage: 16 mpg city/23 highway/19 combined
Seats: 7
CR Score: 65

Not only is it the most affordable of our people haulers, Durango also is on this list for drivers who want a healthy helping of rugged along with practicality. Durango is arguably the most macho looking of our picks. It falls in the middle of the pack when it comes to third-row legroom and cargo space with all seats in place. A 290-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 delivers power to the rear wheels by way of a five-speed automatic transmission. The SXT is fairly well-equipped, with a tilting-telescoping steering wheel and remote keyless entry. But to make the Durango really livable, we recommend the $1,495 Popular Equipment Group option that adds sought-after accessories like a 6.5-inch touch-screen display, 40 GB hard-drive music storage and Chrysler's Uconnect system, which provides Bluetooth connectivity, iPod interface and voice recognition, as well as enhanced safety features such as rear-park sensors.

Honda Odyssey EX

Price: $32,655
Mileage: 18 mpg city/27 highway/21 combined
Seats: 8
CR Score: 83

In our book, minivans are still the best way to haul people or stuff. Our only nit to pick with the Odyssey is that, unlike some competitors with fold-flat second- and third-row seats, the Honda's second-row seat must be removed to get a flat cargo floor. But we are talking people haulers here, and the versatility of the Odyssey EX's second row seat — particularly for families — made it a shoe-in for this list. It can accommodate three side-by-side car seats, and the middle section slides forward more than five inches to place a child within easy reach of front-seat occupants. You may not feel cool driving it around, but it has the most third-row legroom and cargo-carrying space behind the third row among our favorites. Its 3.5-liter V-6 delivers 248 horsepower to the front wheels via a five-speed automatic transmission. We chose the EX trim because it features automatic headlights, power-sliding side doors and tri-zone automatic climate control.

Ford Flex SEL

Price: $35,195
Mileage: 18 mpg city/25 highway/20 combined
Seats: 7
CR Score: 69

We've always liked the Flex's retro styling, which gives a nod to the Woody wagons of the 1940s. Moreover, its box-like shape translates into plenty of headroom for even backseat passengers. Among our favorites, only the Honda Odyssey has more third-row legroom than the Ford. The interior is made with high-quality materials, and the one-touch tumble second-row seat makes for easy access to the third row. The front-wheel-drive Flex is often praised for its handling and the refined performance of its 285-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission. Standard SEL features include dual-zone automatic climate control, MyFord Touch electronics interface with touch screen and iPod integration. We've priced it here with the optional $1,000 Equipment Group 201A. That adds a backup camera, 110-volt power outlets and Ford's revolutionary hands-free power liftgate that automatically opens and closes by swiping a foot under the rear bumper.

Buick Enclave Convenience Group

Price: $39,340
Mileage: 17 mpg city/24 highway/19 combined
Seats: 7
CR Score: 77

The interior of this midsize crossover was upgraded for 2013, adding to its upscale, near-luxury appeal. At the top of the list of enhancements is the addition of Buick's IntelliLink interface with 6.5-inch touch-screen display, voice recognition and smartphone apps. We're actually recommending the base Enclave here despite what "base" suggests. Opting for either of the two more expensive trim levels provides more goodies, but the base Enclave provides all the usual amenities and also has unexpected features, such as rear-parking sensors, power liftgate, tri-zone automatic climate control and IntelliLink. We especially like the Enclave's huge cabin. Sure, it only provides average third-row-seat legroom among this group, but only the Honda Odyssey has more cargo space with all seats in place. Under the hood is a 288-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6. A six-speed automatic turns the front wheels.

Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Price: $41,015
Mileage: 28 mpg city/28 highway/28 combined
Seats: 7
CR Score: 89

Consumer Reports loves the Highlander Hybrid. The magazine scored it the highest among our picks. Although they aren't a one-to-one comparison in terms of features, the base Highlander Hybrid is fairly close to the gasoline-powered Highlander Plus but costs about $10,000 more. We wouldn't pay that premium for hybrid technology, but we know there are consumers out there who would, and that's why it's on our list. A 3.5-liter V-6 and three electric motors conspire to deliver 8 mpg better fuel economy in city driving and 3 mpg more on the highway than the regular Highlander. They also produce 280 peak horsepower that flows through a continuously variable automatic transmission to the front wheels. Its biggest drawback: the least amount of third-row legroom and behind-the-third-seat cargo room among our picks. Included in the standard features are remote keyless entry, a navigation system and Toyota's Entune interface and a six-inch touch-screen display.

Acura MDX

Price: $44,175
Mileage: 16 mpg city/21 highway/18 combined
Seats: 7
CR Score: 85

The only true luxury vehicle among our selections, the Acura MDX is also the most expensive and powerful. There are two more expensive versions with even more technology and amenities, but the base MDX has a ton of popular features. It places in the bottom half of our favorites for third-row legroom and behind-the-seats cargo room. But it's comfortable and fun to drive, with top-notch craftsmanship and leather seats. With the next-generation MDX in the pipeline, Acura didn't make any changes for 2013, but it also means dealers will probably offer really good deals on it about the time the redesigned 2014 goes on sale this summer. MDX comes with a 300-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. We also included it as one of our picks because of its standard all-wheel drive and long list of standard equipment, including a power liftgate and sunroof.