Safest 2016 Family Vehicles with Three Rows of Seating

Are safety and seating more than a couple kids your top considerations in selecting a new vehicle?  You aren’t alone!  Last year’s winner, the 2014-2015 Acura MDX, is still a contender to retain its title for 2016.

For 2016, the IIHS now requires a “Good” result in the newer small overlap crash test to qualify for a Top Safety Pick rating.  An “Acceptable” rating no longer qualifies.  The IIHS also requires a front crash prevention system.  These systems are not all created equal, some are only basic warnings that qualify for the basic TSP award, while advanced ones can actually brake in emergency situations and possibly avoid a crash better than lesser systems.  To earn the “TSP+” award, an auto-brake system with an “Advanced” or “Superior” rating is now required.

There are plenty of very safe vehicles.  Most midsize crossover SUVs and minivans provide excellent protection for occupants, likely better than anything on the road 15 years ago.  Side curtain airbags and stability control are now standard features.  In addition to frontal crash protection systems, advanced safety features like emergency crash notification, lane departure warning, cross traffic warning and blind spot warning systems are becoming more common on non-luxury models.


So how do we filter the list of so many family vehicles that have earned safety awards?  It’s pretty easy:

  • Must be an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ for 2015 or 2016
  • Must have an NHTSA 5-star overall rating
  • No individual NHTSA crash test results of 3-stars or less
  • Must have at least 6 passenger seats

What vehicles make the cut?  At the time of this writing, it’s a pretty exclusive list.   Two minivans from last year, the Honda Odyssey and Kia Sedona, no longer qualify as they did not achieve a Top Safety Pick+ rating for 2015 or 2016.  Shame on these manufacturers for choosing not to provide even an optional advanced front crash prevention system on these popular family vehicles.  The 2016 qualifiers:

  1. 2014-2016 Acura MDX
  2. 2014-2016 Mitsubishi Outlander
  3. 2016 Honda Pilot
  4. 2016 Infiniti QX60
  5. 2014-2015 and 2016 Toyota Highlander*
  6. 2015 Toyota Sienna*

*The 2016 Highlander was retested with a “Good” small offset crash test result by the IIHS to also qualify in 2016.

And the Safest 2016 3-row Family Vehicle is:

EP-150px2014-2016 Acura MDX.  What’s not to like, again?  It not only received an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ with the optional Advance Package, but it also received a “Good” result in every single IIHS test AND sub-category of each test.  Extremely impressive, and remains the only 3-row vehicle to do so.  Its frontal crash mitigation system earned an “Advanced” frontal crash protection rating from the IIHS as well, but you must opt for the pricey MDX Advance Package to get a full set of advanced safety features.   In every trim are four full LATCH seating positions for carseats, plus a 5th top tether anchor, an area where many SUVs and minivans skimp.

In the NHTSA testing, it not only received a 5-star overall rating, but also received 5-stars in each of the five individual crash tests at Safercar.gov.  Also very impressive!  At 4,300 lbs., the MDX is going to have an advantage over many vehicles in a frontal crash.  Despite the weight, it is among the better handling midsize SUVs on the market and has received high praise from many automobile and consumer publications.  Perhaps the main drawback is the price tag near $55,000 with the Advance Package.  Premium fuel is required, but thankfully fuel economy increased considerably, from 16 city, 21 highway in 2013 up to 18 city, 27 highway for AWD trim in 2014-2016.

Runner Up:

Recommended-150px2016 Honda Pilot.  For those not willing to spend over $50K on a vehicle, there’s actually one that is almost as outstanding in terms of safety, can technically fit one more occupant and has slightly better fuel economy on regular gas.  Not surprisingly, this one shares some design elements of its sibling, the Acura MDX.  Starting at just over $30,000, it offers a Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS.    Models with the optional Honda Sensing system earn a “Superior” front crash prevention rating and Top Safety Pick+ award.  It also received a 5-star overall rating from the NHTSA and earned 5-stars in all but one of the five government crash tests.  Its 4-star rollover rating was the same as the MDX.

pilotThankfully, the Honda Sensing package with collision mitigation braking is optional starting on the mid-range EX trim for under $33,000, a bit more with AWD.  The EX trim is nicely equipped with handy safety features like LaneWatch and HondaLink Assist for automatic crash notification to emergency services. Honda Sensing is a reasonably priced $1000 option that also gives you Lane Keeping Assist, Lane Departure Warning and Adaptive Cruise Control.  Bluetooth hands-free and a backup camera are standard on all trims. Fuel economy is quite good for an 8-passenger vehicle at 19 city, 27 highway in 2WD trim.  The Pilot does have a full array of lower anchors and top tethers, unmatched by any other SUV.

Honorable Mentions:

2016 Toyota Highlander.  Like the Pilot, the 2016 Highlander received a 5-star overall rating from the NHTSA, with 5-stars in all but one of the five government crash tests.  While the 2014-2015 model only rated “Acceptable” in the IIHS small offset crash test, the 2016 model is improved to receive a “Good” result and also an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award again for 2016.  Overall, a very nice family SUV.  Downsides include some minor restrictions with carseats in the 2nd row and a high price tag for the auto-brake system that qualifies for the Top Safety Pick+ award.   A full set of advanced safety features is only available on Limited trim models with the Technology packing costing nearly $43,000, almost $10,000 more than the Pilot to earn a Top Safety Pick+ award.

2016 Volvo XC90 T6 and 2016 Infiniti QX60,  Full crash testing on these models was published too late to be considered for our awards, but either one is clearly as safe as our top choices.  The XC90 T6 7-Passenger SUV earned the highest results in every test and qualifies as an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ with STANDARD equipment, unusual even for luxury vehicles.  At just over $50,000 with AWD, that makes it  much less expensive than MDX or QX60 to earn an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award.  The lack of top tether anchors for carseats in the third row is a notable omission.  The base Infiniti QX60 requires the $7,000 Deluxe Technology Package with Forward Emergency Braking to qualify for the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rating.  This package also requires the Premium and Premium Plus package, driving the price to over $55,000 with 2WD.

Recommended-150pxThe 2015-2016 Kia Sedona and 2014-2016 Honda Odyssey both aced all the crash tests from the IIHS and NHTSA.  Both received a 5-star overall rating from the NHTSA and a Top Safety Pick award from the IIHS.  The only thing preventing them from qualifying for the Safest 3-row Family Vehicle award is the lack of an auto-brake front crash prevention system.  Despite this omission by Honda and Kia, there is no debate that these vehicles offer considerably more space than the SUVs above, both for passengers and cargo.  There simply is no substitute for a minivan in terms of being friendly to carseats and kids in back, so these models continue to be Recommended for families.  The Odyssey maintains an advantage for child seating flexibility and remains our top overall pick for being kid and carseat friendly.  If only it had been offered with Honda Sensing, the Odyssey would likely be our Editors’ Pick in this category and overall.

Maybe you already have a minivan or larger SUV, or just want something smaller and easier to fit into a parking spot or garage?  Or with one or two kids, you simply don’t need the extra row of seating.  There are also some excellent 5-passenger SUVs and some top-performing sedans awarded in our next segments.

Updated June, 2016

SafeDad writes about automobiles, carseats and traffic safety issues at CarseatBlog