2014's best people haulers

Carry 7 in comfort with these SUVs, vans and crossovers

To haul a crowd from here to there, you need a big ride with at least three rows of seats. We've sifted through scores of sport-utility vehicles, minivans and crossovers to find the ones most capable of carrying at least seven people in comfort and safety. While that never comes cheap, all of our favorites cost less than $45,000 and get at least 21 mpg in highway driving. They also earned the highest ratings in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) crash tests and an overall score of at least 69 (out of 100) from Consumer Reports. The magazine evaluates vehicles for owner satisfaction, reliability and cost of ownership — all things that are important to us and should be to you. Because all third-row-seats aren't created equal, we've also highlighted rear-seat legroom numbers. (As a point of reference, the compact Honda Civic sedan has about 36 inches of rear-seat legroom.) These are 2014 models, and prices are for the specific version, or trim level, we recommend, including option packages and delivery charges.

Toyota Sienna LE

Price: $31,350
Mileage: 18 mpg city/25 highway/21 combined
CR Score: 80
Third-Row Legroom: 36.3 in.

Let's start with the most affordable of our favorites, the Sienna minivan. It also ranks toward the top in Consumer Report's testing and has the second-best third-row legroom. LE versions can be equipped to seat seven or eight, and the third-row seat folds flat into the cargo floor when not in use. We really like the 40/20/40 split second-row seat with a center section that slides forward, close to the front seats, to more easily attend to smaller children. With the LE trim, you get power sliding side doors and power rear liftgate, triple-zone automatic climate control and a 3.5-inch infotainment display. Every Sienna has a 266-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission.

Hyundai Santa Fe GLS

Price: $34,205
Mileage: 18 mpg city/25 highway/21 combined
CR Score: 83
Third-Row Legroom: 31.5 in.

Hyundai has a reputation for value, and the Santa Fe crossover adds to the mountain of evidence. A highly competitive price, the longest warranty among our picks and an impressive amount of standard content make this Hyundai a real bargain. A 290-horsepower V-6 delivers power to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission. With plenty of legroom for full-size adults, the 40/20/40 split second-row seat folds and reclines. The easy-to-access 50/50 split third-row seat also folds. Standard features include Hyundai's Blue Link telematics system with emergency assistance. We included the Premium Package to add a power rear liftgate, dual-zone automatic climate control and blind-spot warning.

Subaru Tribeca Limited

Price: $34,920
Mileage: 16 mpg city/21 highway/18 combined
CR Score: 70
Third-Row Legroom: 30.9 in.

This crossover has the worst gas mileage and most cramped backseat among our recommendations. It also earns one of the lowest scores from Consumer Reports.  But there are still lots of things to like, starting with standard all-wheel drive. Indeed, this is the only people hauler in this slide show to be priced with AWD. Yet the Tribeca still costs less than most of our other favorites. It's loaded with extras, too, including leather seats and a premium 10-speaker Harman/Kardon audio system. Although the Tribeca provides nearly an inch more ground clearance than a Ford Explorer, it manages a low center of gravity for better handling, thanks to the flat design of its 256-horsepower, 3.5-liter six-cylinder engine and five-speed automatic transmission.

Ford Flex SEL

Price: $35,295
Mileage: 18 mpg city/25 highway/20 combined
CR Score: 69
Third-Row Legroom: 33.3 in.

We really like this crossover's retro styling. But more important, it's tough to beat for versatility and passenger space. Of our picks, only the minivans have more third-row-seat legroom. A comfortable ride and loads of amenities really seal the deal for us. We added the optional 202A Package that adds blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert to the long list of SEL goodies like MyFord Touch electronics interface, eight-inch touch screen and rear parking sensors. To maximize gas mileage, we priced our Flex with the standard 287-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 with six-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive. If you want to spend another $1,950, an optional 365-horsepower, turbocharged EcoBoost V-6 will drop your fuel economy by about 2 mpg but provides all-wheel drive and a little extra fun behind the wheel.

Honda Odyssey EX-L

Price: $36,455
Mileage: 19 mpg city/28 highway/22 combined
CR Score: 86
Third-Row Legroom: 42.4 in.

With the highest score from Consumer Reports, a Top Safety Pick Plus rating from the IIHS and the most rear-seat legroom, this may be the ultimate minivan — and people hauler. Odyssey can seat up to eight with a 60/40 split third-row seat that folds flat into the floor when not needed. We chose the EX-L version because, in addition to the long list of standard features available on every Odyssey, such as an eight-inch display and Pandora interface, the EX-L comes with power sliding doors, tri-zone automatic climate control and power rear liftgate as well as lane-departure and forward-collision warning. It's quiet, comfortable and drives like a car. A 248-horsepower V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission turn the front wheels.

Buick Enclave Convenience Group

Price: $39,340
Mileage: 17 mpg city/24 highway/19 combined
CR Score: 77
Third-Row Legroom: 33.2 in.

Nope, Convenience Group isn't an options package. It's the least expensive version of the Enclave, just below Leather Group and Premium Group. Closely related to the Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia, Enclave's niche in the crossover world is to deliver upscale amenities and passenger experience for less than the luxury brands. We think that, for the most part, it succeeds. We are disappointed that you must spend another $4,000 to step up to the Leather Group to get blind-spot warning and cross-traffic alert. Otherwise, the Convenience Group is loaded with goodies like power liftgate, rear parking sensors and rearview camera, remote starting and tri-zone automatic climate control.  It comes with a 288-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6, six-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive.

Acura MDX

Price: $43,185
Mileage: 20 mpg city/28 highway/23 combined
CR Score: 79
Third-Row Legroom: 31.6 in.

Sharing the best highway fuel economy with the Honda Odyssey, MDX is also the only other vehicle on this list to be an IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus. It's the priciest by far, but it's the only one of our picks from a luxury brand. Acura totally redesigned MDX for 2014, and it's more fuel-thrifty than last year because it's 200 pounds lighter and has a new, more efficient V-6 that delivers 290 horsepower to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission. Acura boasts it's quieter than last year's version, too. This crossover comes in just one trim level, and we don't think you need any of the options packages when leather seats, tri-zone automatic climate control, seven-inch color touch screen and power rear liftgate are all standard equipment.

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Take some of the stress out of getting to work. Our favorite commuting cars are safe and economical, getting 30 mpg or more in combined city and highway driving. They're supremely comfortable and reliable, too.

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Think of these seven conventionally powered cars to be cheap alternatives to hybrids. You'll get great mileage — more than 32 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving — for $20,000 or less. And wait till you see all of the comfort and convenience features included in that price.

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