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SUVs are the cargo pants of the car world. They need to be comfortable, tough and above all else practical. Some, however, are more practical than others. Sport Utility Vehicles must have utility – especially if it’s being used as a family car – which most of them are. Yes, an SUV without the U is just an SV and probably not a great SV at that.
Based on our experience, we've shortlisted what we consider to be the top five most practical SUVs in Australia.
But first, what does practical mean when it comes to SUVs? We define practicality as how accommodating an SUV is, based on storage spaces, boot size, legroom and headroom to how tricky it is to climb into the third row, or if it has USB ports or rear air vents - functional things which make life a little bit easier.
Hyundai’s Santa Fe is one sexy seven-seat SUV and it manages to be pretty practical, too.
Legroom in the second row is great, it’s not CX-9 great though, but even at 191cm tall I still have about 4cm of space between my knees and the seat back. Can’t say the same about the third row, those seats really are only for kids - but not ones in child seats because the only only the second row has top tether anchor points (three of them) and ISOFIX mounts (two on the outboard seats).
The Santa Fe ticks the storage space boxes with a decent sized bin under the centre console armrest, a deep well in front of the shifter and a small tub in the third row. There’s four cup holders all up – two in the front, two in the second row – and bottle holders in all the doors.
With the third row folded the boot has less cargo capacity than the CX-9 and Kluger but 516 litres (VDA) will still be fine for most small families planning a trip away, plus there’s some clever touches like a the storage under the floor for wet towels and muddy shoes.
Only the base-spec Santa Fe Active misses out on dual-zone climate control but all grades have air vents and temperature adjustment right back to the third row.
Grades from the Elite upwards have proximity unlocking, while all have a USB port in the centre console bin.
The Santa Fe is the shortest of our Top 5 here at 4700mm end to end and the narrowest at 1880, it also has a smaller turning circle at 10.9m.
The biggest Mazda SUV is by far the best looking of the bunch, but do those sexy lines affect its practicality?
The answer is: yes, slightly. That coupe roofline does mean you need to duck a bit when getting into the second and third rows or putting children into their car seats, but the CX-9 is still incredibly practical while feeling a bit more premium than the others.
Leg and headroom in the second row is excellent and even at 191cm tall I can sit back there with about 10cm between my knees and the seat back. The third row is one of the most accommodating of all seven-seat SUVs and one of the few I can sit in without my legs touching the seat back or my head hitting the roof. That tiny back window does make life a bit claustrophobic.
Access to the back is good too – thanks to the second row which slides so far forward.
There’s a top tether child seat anchor point for child seats in the third row, and three more across the second plus two ISOFIX mounts.
Cabin storage is great with a large centre console bin, a deep hidey hole in front of the shifter, a tray in the fold down centre armrest in the back and little buckets in the third.
There’s six cup holders all up – two in the front, another two in the middle and yes, two in the back.
With the third row folded flat the boot is enormous at 810 litres (VDA).
There’s dual-zone climate control with no vents in the third row, but Mazda explains the second row vents have been designed to feed the third row as well.
Proximity unlocking is only offered on the top two grades. From the Touring grade up you’ll find four USB ports in the cabin.
At 5075mm end-to-end and 1969mm across, the CX-9 is longer and wider than the Kluger and Pathfinder but has the same 11.8m turning circle.
Going by the Pathfinder's low sales it’s almost as if nobody knows it exists. Well now you do, and you also know it's one of the most practical SUVs.
Leg and headroom in the second row is excellent and as with just about every seven-seat SUV, the third row is fairly cramped. Climbing into that back row is easier than most SUVs because of the way the second row slides forward and the seat base folds up. Nissan says the Pathfinder’s “EZ Flex” system offers the largest entry point in the segment, especially when combined with that tall roofline and large, wide-opening rear doors.
The second row splits 60-40, nothing strange there, but be aware that entry into the back row is by moving the larger of the second-row section on the left side, and while there is a top tether anchor point for child seats in the third row (which is rare) it's for the right rear seat.
Fear not, the second row has three top tethers and two ISOFIX points.
The Pathfinder matches Kluger’s cup holder count with four in the third row, two in the second row’s fold-down armrest and two more up front. There’s also bottle holders in all the doors.
Storage elsewhere is excellent with a large centre console bin, large door pockets and smaller ones either side of the transmission tunnel.
There’s three-zone climate control, two USB ports hiding under the dash and proximity unlocking on all Pathfinder variants.
The Pathfinder’s boot is big but because Nissan uses a different volume measuring system so the 1354 litre cargo capacity (with the third row folded) can’t be directly compared to the Kluger’s 529 litres which is calculated in VDA litres, for example. But trust us – it’s large. Also be aware that that 1354 litres has been measured to the roof - the cargo capacities for all other SUVs
The Pathfinder is big on the outside too, being 5008mm long and 1960mm wide, but can still match the Kluger’s 11.8m turning circle.
Hadn’t considered the Kia? You should, because not only is it one of the most affordable seven seaters on the market it’s up there with the most practical, too.
Leg and headroom in the second row is excellent and the third row is actually even adult friendly if you happen to be under six foot tall.
There’s three top tether child seat anchor points and two ISOFIX mounts in the second row. The giant rear doors make putting kids into their car seats easier, too.
Big buttons for the stereo and air-con, well-placed controls and hard-wearing materials make for an SUV which might not be the prettiest but is one of the most useful.
Cabin storage is excellent with a deep centre console bin, and another covered well in front of the shifter and an open area behind it, a tray for the back seats, six cup holders (two in the front, middle and back rows) and large bottle holders in all the doors.
Two USB ports, and an automatic tailgate on all but the base-spec Sorrento top off a practical paradise.
It’s not the biggest seven-seater SUV and not the smallest, it’s 4780mm long and 1890mm wide, and same goes for the turning circle at 11.1m.
The Kluger wears the crown of practicality not just because it’s big, but also for the thoughtful way its interior space is designed.
Take the dashboard, it’s split into two levels – the bottom one being a shelf. Then there’s the giant 24-litre centre console bin with sliding tray.
Leg and headroom in the second row is excellent and while it’s not as comfortable back in the third row, it’s no worse than the others in this class.
Big, wide opening doors make entry and exit easy, while the flat and tall roofline means you don’t have to duck when placing children into their seats as you do with SUVs with coupe-like profiles.
You’ll find three top-tether child seat anchor points and two ISOFIX points all in the second row, too. The Kluger’s interior isn’t as posh as the CX-9’s but it looks tough and hard wearing.
The Kluger is a cup holder champion with four alone in the third row, two in the second and another two up front. There's bottle holders in all the doors, too.
The Kluger’s boot isn’t the biggest at 529 litres VDA with the third row folded, but the low load lip means you don’t have to hoist your gear up too high.
Those in the back row have their own air-conditioning controls, as do the second-row passengers.
You only have to step up to the mid-spec GXL to get proximity unlocking which is as anybody with their hands full running to a parked car in the rain knows is more than just handy. A USB port i slocated in the cubby under the dash.
The Kluger is 4890mm long and 1960mm wide, but has an impressively nimble turning circle of 11.8m.
Our list hasn’t included the ‘hardcore off roaders’ which still seat seven, but tend to be less comfortable but there are a couple of exceptions to the rule.
The Ford Everest is a capable off-roader with a ladder frame chassis. The Everest seats seven comfortably (yes even in the rear row) and comes with impressive advanced safety equipment from the Trend grade up.
Previous generations have always been a favourite of ours for their comfortable ride, cavernous, plush interiors and off-road talent. The new Discovery looks to be just as practical and posh as previous versions and the price may surprise you.