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Safest Family Vehicles for 7 or 8 Passengers in 2018

Are safety and seating at least a few kids your most important considerations when selecting a new vehicle?  You aren’t alone!  SafeDad helps shorten the list of dozens of very safe 7+ passenger vehicles to just a handful of the safest for 2018.  Also, see last year’s awards for Safest 5-Passenger SUVs, Safest Family Sedans and Safest Used Cars with updates coming soon for 2018.

For 2018, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety not only requires a “Good” result in the driver-side small overlap crash test to qualify for a “Top Safety Pick+” rating, but now also requires a “Good” headlight rating as well an “Acceptable” rating in the new passenger-side small overlap crash test.  Many vehicles have not had this new test, so they may only earn a “Top Safety Pick” award in 2018.  The IIHS also demands a front crash prevention system.  These systems are not all created equal; some are only basic warnings that no longer qualify for an award, while advanced ones can actually brake in emergency situations and some are more likely to avoid a crash than lesser systems.  To earn IIHS awards, an auto-brake system with an “Advanced” or “Superior” rating is still required.  Note that even models that qualify with these systems may not actually have them available on anything but the highest trim levels with pricey options packages, so we help you sort through trim levels to find the right ones!

The NHTSA ratings remain the same, but they no longer allow consumers to see details of individual crash test results for each vehicle.  Instead, you may now only see the overall rating and a composite frontal (driver and passenger tests) and side rating (driver, passenger and rear pole impact tests).

Subaru and Honda have set a nice trend for inexpensive advanced safety feature packages available on low and mid trim levels.  This year, we again recognize Toyota for making all these features standard on all trim levels of many of their vehicles. That means even the least expensive Highlander and Sienna models now have advanced crash avoidance features in 2018, making these important improvements to safety easy to find on dealer’s lots!

Many publications use only either the NHTSA crash tests OR the IIHS ratings as the basis for their recommendations, leaving an incomplete assessment of overall safety.  Some are subjective and apply different standards based on personal preferences or corporate sponsors.  So how do we filter the list of so many family vehicles that have earned safety awards?  It’s very simple and completely objective:

What 3-row vehicles make the cut to qualify for our awards?  Due to new IIHS Top Safety Pick requirements, only 8 make the cut this year so far, down from 11 last year in this segment.  Models that lack complete NHTSA testing but may be added to this list later include the 2018 Hyundai Santa Fe and Mazda CX-9.  Others may be added or removed as test results from the IIHS and NHTSA are updated, as many have not yet been tested in the new passenger-side small overlap crash test.   As a testament to how safe all these vehicles are for families, we recommend nearly all of the the 2018 qualifiers as well as those Honorable Mentions that fell a little short only in terms of the IIHS headlight ratings. The exception is the Mitsubishi Outlander, due to its relatively small size and various restrictions that make installations of multiple carseats more difficult than the others on the list.  If your vehicle is not on the list, that doesn’t mean it is unsafe!  That said, here are the finalists:

  1. 2014-2018 Acura MDX
  2. 2017-2018 Chrysler Pacifica
  3. 2018 Honda Odyssey
  4. 2016-2018 Honda Pilot
  5. 2018 Kia Sorento
  6. 2018 Lexus RX
  7. 2017-2018 Mitsubishi Outlander
  8. 2017-2018 Toyota Highlander

For our top pick, we give preference to models that have already received a “Good” result in the newer passenger side small overlap crash test, as long as they received at least an “Acceptable” headlight rating and still qualify for the standard IIHS Top Safety Pick award.

And the Safest 2018 3-row Family Vehicle is:

2018 Honda Odyssey: At the time of this publication, the 2018 Odyssey is the only one of our qualifiers to receive a “Good” IIHS Small Overlap frontal crash test result for both driver and passenger sides.  In addition, it has stellar results in all the IIHS and NHTSA crash tests.  Its long overdue “Superior” front crash prevention system avoided crashes in both IIHS tests and is STANDARD on the EX trim level and up.  The Odyssey’s only blemish is headlight coverage that kept it from an IIHS TSP “Plus” award, as it earned an “Acceptable” rating on Touring and Elite trims only.

While the EX and EX-L trims have only a “Marginal” headlight rating, they are still an impressive value for excellent safety with standard front crash prevention and top crash test results for around $34,000.  Also, in our opinion, the Magic Slide feature is very handy, and Odyssey is still the best family hauler on the market in terms of fitting multiple child safety seats.  In that regard, it’s also one of the few 3-row vehicles to earn the IIHS “G+” rating for ease of use with its LATCH car seat anchors.

Runners Up:

2014-2018 Acura MDX.  What’s not to like from our winner for the previous three years?  It not only received an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ for 2017, but it also received a “Good” result in every single IIHS test AND sub-category of each test.  Very impressive.  Its frontal crash mitigation system earned an “Advanced” frontal crash protection rating from the IIHS as well.  For 2018, all trim levels have this feature standard, making it more affordable starting around $44,000 for a full suite of 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.  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.  Like most other qualifiers, its only blemish is an “Acceptable” headlight rating, though unlike most others, it still qualifies for an IIHS Top Safety Pick on all trim levels in 2018.  It has not yet been tested in the IIHS small offset passenger-side crash test.

2017-2018 Toyota Highlander (and 2018 Lexus RX).  The 2018 Highlander is not only an IIHS Top Safety Pick, but along with the MDX, it is the only other model on our list to earn this designation with STANDARD features on ALL trim levels!  It also earns a 5-star overall NHTSA safety rating.  Toyota’s Safety Sense P is included on all trim levels, including the LE version starting at around $31,000.  This also makes it the least expensive of our winners and because these crash avoidance features are standard, it is easy to find a model with them on a dealer’s lot.  Plus, unlike most other qualifiers, the Highlander earns an “Acceptable” IIHS headlight rating on all trim levels as well.  BIG Kudos to Toyota for being the first manufacturer to finally make all these critical safety features standard on a 3-row family vehicle.   No more arriving at a dealership with the intent to buy the necessary trim level or options package and being swayed into another version that would not earn top IIHS ratings!  The only marks keeping it from being our top pick are a 4-star NHTSA frontal crash driver-side rating and the lack of a crash test result in the new IIHS small offset passenger side crash test.  With an update of the owner’s manual in 2017, the Highlander is a little more car seat friendly, though still not as flexible as models like Odyssey, Pilot or Sedona.  The Lexus RX adds a 3rd row of seating this year and is essentially similar to the Highlander in terms of overall safety when equipped with the adaptive front lighting system.

Honorable Mentions:

2017-2018 Chrysler Pacifica.  The Pacifica was one of our runners-up last year and is a contender for 2018 if it earns a solid passenger-side small overlap crash test result like our top pick Honda Odyssey.   There is no question that it’s a big improvement over the Town & County minivan in almost every way.  In terms of flexible family seating, the Stow ‘n Go feature is great and may appeal to some buyers who find it to be more useful in their situation than Odyssey’s Magic Slide.  It’s also the only minivan to earn the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award for 2017 and a Top Safety Pick award for 2018, plus it aced every crash test from both the IIHS and NHTSA, including an optional front crash prevention system that avoided a crash in both IIHS tests.  In terms of overall safety, it’s a clear winner.  The only blemishes are the lack of a passenger-side small overlap crash test and, like Odyssey, it has an “Acceptable” headlight rating only if you purchase the Limited trim (other trims are “Marginal” or “Poor”)

In terms of carseats, it’s a mixed bag.  Various issues can make installing carseats and seating children somewhat more difficult than other minivans, especially in the third row.  While it’s still an improvement over the T&C or Grand Caravan overall, it’s still not as quite as passenger/carseat friendly as the 2018 Honda Odyssey or Kia Sedona.  Another big issue is that to equip a front crash prevention system to qualify for an IIHS Top Safety Pick award, you must include the optional Advanced Safety Tec package.  This isn’t available on the Touring or Touring L models, so you have to step up to the Touring L Plus to get it.  Before incentives, this drives the price up to over $40,000 if you can find one on the lot.

2017 Kia Sedona.  The Sedona finally added a Superior-rated front crash prevention system for 2017 and it earned an IIHS Top Safety Pick award that year as well.  It fails to earn an IIHS award for 2018 because of missing IIHS test results for headlights and the new passenger-side small offset test.  To its credit, it is relatively friendly for carseats and children in back, making it a great choice overall for keeping your precious cargo safe.

Perhaps the best part of the new Sedona is that Kia wisely opted to make the Advanced Technology Package with Autonomous Emergency Braking as an option even on the LX and EX trim levels!  So, a 2017-2018 Sedona LX with the Premium and Advanced Tech packages costs around $34,000.  That makes it a very safe choice for more families even though it didn’t quite meet the criteria for our top picks.

2016-2018 Honda Pilot.  For those not willing to spend over $44K on an MDX, the Pilot 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 Acura sibling.  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, though was slightly blemished with a 4-star frontal crash rating, one reason it doesn’t earn one of our top awards.  Its 4-star rollover rating was the same as the MDX.

Thankfully, the Honda Sensing package with collision mitigation braking is optional starting on the mid-range EX trim for $34,000.  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 very 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.  On the downside, like Odyssey and Pacifica, the Pilot only receives an “Acceptable” headlight rating from the IIHS in Elite trim.  All other trims receive a “Poor” rating.

2018 Kia Sorento earns a solid honorable mention this year with improved headlight ratings, qualifying it for top awards at both crash testing agencies.  In addition, the Autonomous Emergency Braking package is available in the Advanced Technology Package even on the LX trim levels.  Because this must be bundled with other packages, that makes it slightly more expensive than Highlander at over $32,000 with front crash prevention.  On the downside, like various other qualifiers, it only earns an “Acceptable” headlight rating on the SX Limited trim level that has everything standard for around $44,000.  Most other trim levels have “Poor” ratings for headlights and the 2018 Sorento also has not yet been tested for the passenger-side small overlap test.  Finally, it is the smallest of our honorable mentions, making it a little more cramped for car seats.  Because of these drawbacks, our preference would be for the Highlander LE and base Acura MDX at these price points.

Other very safe 3-row vehicles, including past runners-up and honorable mentions that missed our qualifications due only to Marginal or missing headlight ratings from the IIHS include the 2017-2018 Nissan Pathfinder2016-2018 Volvo XC90 T6, 2017-2018 GMC Acadia and 2018 Volkswagen Atlas.

This list will be updated if new crash testing results become available from the IIHS and NHTSA.  Models may be moved into our out of our awards based on the listed requirements.

Updated December, 2017

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