If you need to fit more than five into your vehicle—even just sometimes—and the thought of getting less than 25 miles per gallon in daily driving repulses you, the pickings for U.S. vehicle shoppers are still surprisingly slim.
Why are there no hybrid minivans at all, no three-row crossovers you can plug in for electric-only city driving, and so few vehicles in general that will fit six or seven and achieve nearly 30 mpg or more?
The answers aren’t entirely straightforward, as we have to point to a combination of factors. Over the past decade or so, safety concerns largely eliminated many of the remaining third-row options—yes, station-wagon jump seats—that weren’t offered in super-sized vehicles.
Meanwhile, some automakers subsisting on the high profit margins baked into big SUVs balked at bringing in smaller three-row wagons, insisting that general-market demand wasn’t there for smaller, more economical three-row vehicles.
Rear-facing jump seats in 2013 Tesla Model S
In part, they were likely right. But times have changed, and based on what a number of executives have told us recently, automakers are starting to understand that there’s growing interest in fuel-efficient vehicles that can hold more than five.
Somehow, by the way, Tesla can offer those jump seats; it’s what pushed the 2015 Tesla Model S 70D electric car, with its 101-miles-per-gallon-equivalent EPA rating and '5+2' passenger capacity, to the top of our list.
There are plug-ins on the way, at a much higher price
And there are plenty more plug-in hybrid options with three rows of seating on the way soon, from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, and Volvo. The latter, the 2016 Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine, is slated to arrive this fall and looks like it will be the first of that cohort. But beware that all of those models are anticipated to sell at a much higher price than comparable gasoline-only models (the XC90 plug-in, for instance, starts at around $70k).
One other point to consider is that diesel models tend not to get great mileage around town, which keeps them off this list, based on combined city/highway mileage. If you do almost entirely highway mileage you might be well off considering a diesel.
Click on to see the most fuel-efficient picks with third-row seating, all of which get an EPA Combined 25 mpg or more. Specs and pricing are listed for the 2015 model year per our companion site The Car Connection and we’ve linked to TCC’s full reviews on each.
2015 Tesla Model S 70D in new Ocean Blue color
Tesla Model S
Price: $76,170 (70D)
Seating for up to: Seven
Fuel economy: 101/102 MPGe (101 MPGe Combined)
The Model S is by far the most fuel-efficient vehicle with third-row seating. It can officially seat seven, through a clever 5+2 arrangement that includes two small temporary-duty rear-facing third-row seats. As with the back seat of a 2+2 sports car you won’t want to ask adults to sit back there, yet it might work for kids, for short jaunts out to dinner or back from the game. And keep in mind that using this seat will cut into nearly all your cargo space—except for what’s offered up in front, in the ‘frunk.’
2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Platinum
Toyota Highlander Hybrid
Price: $48,685 (Limited)
Seating for up to: 7
Fuel economy: 28/28 mpg (28 Combined)
The Highlander Hybrid is offered only with 4WD, as part of a powertrain that employs a special version of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, here with the rear wheels having no mechanical connection to the engine (they’re powered only by electric motors). Throughout the lineup the Highlander Hybrid (like the Highlander itself) has loads of passenger space and a third row that even many adults will find adequate.
2015 Nissan Rogue
Price: $25,115 (optioned with Family Package)
Seating for up to: 6
Fuel economy: 26/33 mpg (28 Combined)
The Rogue is just 182 inches long—that’s the length of a compact car—and it’s very maneuverable. Yet Nissan has managed to package a third row into this latest version of the Rogue, which made its debut last year. A continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) helps its four-cylinder engine return some pretty good mileage without hybrid hardware. All-wheel-drive versions of the Rogue lose 1 mpg both in city and highway ratings.
2014 Infiniti QX60 Hybrid - Driven, August 2014
Infiniti QX60 Hybrid
Seating for up to: 7
Fuel economy: 26/28 mpg (26 Combined)
The QX60 Hybrid is a big, comfortable crossover with relatively easy access to the third row and truly comfortable second-row accommodations. The third row might even be doable for many adults. Just beware that we’ve had trouble getting anywhere close to the QX60 Hybrid’s EPA numbers in city driving, and if you plan to use those three rows you may not end up seeing much better mileage than with the non-hybrid version. Oh, and if you choose all-wheel drive, you’ll lose another 1 mpg in the city, officially.
2016 Mitsubishi Outlander
Seating for up to: 7
Fuel economy: 25/31 mpg (27 Combined)
The Outlander is one of very few relatively compact utility vehicles to offer a third row of seating. Some are going to find its appearance a little bland (an upcoming 2016 model improves on that), and Mitsubishi has suffered in the U.S. for brand reputation; yet we really like the way the Outlander is packaged, how it drives, and how you’ll be able to get surprisingly good mileage from this combination most of the time. Just keep in mind that stepping up to four-wheel drive on this model earns some real trail ability but cuts into city-driving efficiency by 1 mpg and on the highway 2 mpg.
2015 Ford Transit Connect Wagon
Ford Transit Connect Wagon
Price: $24,325 (XL)
Seating for up to: 7
Fuel economy: 22/30 mpg (25 Combined)
The Transit Connect is indeed a commercial vehicle, aimed at small-business owners, in many of its guises. But you shouldn’t let that keep you from considering the Transit Connect Wagon, which is one of the most economical and enjoyable-driving ways to get a third row. The Transit Connect Wagon borrows its underpinnings—and much of its dash layout and interior trims up front—from the Ford Escape crossover, so what you get feels a step above that of other cargo machines. In short, it’s what American minivans, which have become so big and bloated, should today be.