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Heels on Wheels : Recommended 2009 3-Row SUVs and SUVs

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2009 Mazda5 Family Car

SEE ALSO:Big Family or Lots of Friends? 6-8 Passenger Cars and Pickups Ranked

Katrina Ramser

By Katrina Ramser
San Francisco Bureau
The Auto Channel

Three-row seating offers an added benefit to families needing SUV or CUV (crossover utility vehicles) space: More room.

But not all three-row vehicles are created alike. First, the exterior shape is of the vehicles that offer three rows are changing, muddling the design lines from minivans to micro cars. Consumers see this with the all-new Ford Flex and the Mazda5. In fact, it would be very hard to tell based on just looks which vehicles are offering three rows.

Secondly, the interior design or the actual seating: Most third rows offer minimal comfort in terms of head and legroom. Also, getting in and out of this last row can be a maneuvering challenge, since seating configurations aren't always push around.

Finally, there are safety issues to consider. Yes, SUVs and many CUVs have a better chance to hold up in collisions, but with that third row being so close in a rear-end situation, it's a concern. You want a vehicle with merited safety standards.

Taking into consideration our above criteria, here Heels on Wheel's 2009 recommended three-row vehicles:

2009 Dodge Journey: Straddling the shape of minivan and SUV. This 7-passenger vehicle hits a major parental nerve with built-in second row booster seats. A 2009 Dodge Journey with the 3.5-liter V6 engine has a base price of $23,125 – optional equipment like the Premium Convenience Group (rear AC, 3-zone climate control, hands-free communication ride); Flexible Seating Group; and the Safe and Sound Group (rear-view camera); and Rear Video Group (DVD player) bumps it up to a still-affordable $30,505. Keep in mind a few quirks do exist, such as the rear backup screen positioned awkwardly way too low or the second-row climate controls placed too high for a child to reach.

2009 Ford Flex: Unique shape revitalizing and wooing the wagon market. The 6-passenger Flex fits two kid seats in the third row comfortably. A price of $42,390 price reflects the Limited edition, spare-no-expenses price. Equipped with anti-lock brakes and front and rear airbags, the Flex also has Ford's AdvanceTrac with RSC, a stability control system, which helps apply brake pressure and reduces engine power if the vehicle senses the drive is out of control. The IIHS named the Flex a top safety pick for front and side crash tests, along with rear impact (which is what you want for a third-row vehicle). Smooth, steady and predictable describe the driving (and parking) in a Flex.

2009 Honda Pilot: Somewhat traditional or boxy SUV-shape. An 8-passenger Pilot with a 3.5-liter V6 engine and leather seating, XM satellite radio, driver's 8-way adjustable power seating, and tri-zone climate control (for all rows) runs you $33,595. New exterior bonuses include a tailgate with a lift-up glass hatch and length expanded to 2.9 inches and the width at 1.0 inch. I had a larger third-row passenger take on hours of sitting without complaint, making the Pilot one of my most comfortable third-row vehicles. Hondas are extremely reliable cars, and the driving is very smooth and silent with agile and secure handling. It has SUV gas needs, but at an average of 19-mpg (17-pg city and 23-mpg highway driving), the Pilot is a little less thirsty than most V6 competitors.

Mazda CX-9: Mistaken an upper-class competitor. Looking a lot like an Acura MDX or Lexus GX470, a fully loaded CX-9 – DVD, leather, 8-way power and heated driver's seat, moonroof, Bose stereo – will run you $38,260. A standout on the CX-9 that sets is apart from such a saturated crossover market is the Blind Spot Monitoring System. Radar sensors are located in each corner of the rear bumper, so if a car is creeping up into your blind spot, all you have to do is cast a glance into your side mirrors to view an electronic lighted image. The second and third rows fold flat easily. The CX-9 is a Consumer Reports recommended vehicle, noted for it's sporty handling and quietness. I get happier and happier with each Mazda I drive.

2009 Mazda5 Grand Touring: The economy crossover.This little guy had three rows, mini-van style sliding rear doors, leather seating, a navigation system, a moonroof and rear spoiler – all included for a total price of $25,695. You'll forget you measure just 181.5-inches from bumper to bumper. A peppy, capable 4-cylinder that will teach you to be brave in traffic (now I understand where the "zoom-zoom-zoom" jingle comes from). With an average of 24-25-mpg, you're doing better than V6 engines, but not as good as a hybrid.

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SEE ALSO:Big Family or Lots of Friends? 6-8 Passenger Cars and Pickups Ranked