Okay, so your family is expanding and you need to accommodate them all, plus their gear, and you - and probably their friends.
It’s crucial when shopping for a seven-seat vehicle that you thoroughly and diligently understand what you need it to do. Solve the primary problems you’re going to have by assessing the 90 per cent of driving you’re going to do. Look at where you live and how you drive, and try to accurately and honestly understand where and how you’re going to drive in the next few years.
There’s no such thing as the perfect vehicle, so you need to check off the most important aspects and live with, and accept, what your vehicle cannot do.
Unashamedly practical in every possible way, the Kia Carnival is, hands-down, the most functional seven-seater on sale today.
Let’s start with the basics. You get 5 ISOFIX points: two in row three, three in row two. No seven-seat SUV or people mover offers that. If you have a kid already, and suddenly have triplets, or two families converge for whatever reason, you need ISOFIX points. Top tethers are okay, but they’re no longer the benchmark for fitting child restraints. Carnival recognises this.
The boot is so vast you can transport tall plants, long furniture and whitegoods, you can bring home school friends and their sports bags. Nanna and grandpa can walk into the back row thanks to a detachable centre row-two seat, and they’re protected in a crash by full-length side curtain airbags. Again, no other seven-seater can do that - SUV owners have to resort to dangerously tying their tailgate down when hauling bulky items. Get the diesel Carnival if you’re regionally based or roadtrip a lot, or stick with the petrol if you’re on a strict budget. Even the base model ‘S’ has heaps of features while offering all the multi-tool versatility you need.
Before buying, consider your Kia car finance options and shop around for the best deal you can find.
Carnival relies on a space saver spare which is fitted under the floor of row two, but on the driver’s side, so you need to pull properly off the road if you get a flat near busy roads to avoid being in harm’s way.
You have to get over the people mover thing. I know it’s not a ‘sexy’ SUV, but for goodness sake, they’ve made it look like a bloody Range Rover. How much sexier do you want? And besides, function should inform your decision more than form. SUVs are compromised: they suck in all the areas Carnival excess in. You also need to get past what some think is its large size. It’s not too big. It’s the same size as a Mazda CX-9, Toyota LandCruiser Prado and Nissan Patrol - and they don’t have sliding rear doors.
And the row-two centre fold-down armrest has cupholders designed into the rear section of the seatback, which means kids in child restraints can’t actually reach their drinks.
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For anybody with a LandCruiser, Prado, Patrol, or Pajero Sport on their list, but are unlikely to ever use four-wheel drive, the Hyundai Palisade is your answer to high-riding full-size wagon space and seating.
The fundamental advantage for Palisade over those bigger, more heavy-duty off-roaders is the Hyundai doesn’t move around with 300kg of hardcore low-range transmission and differentials. That’s a huge 600kg weight benefit for the 2.1t Palisade over a 2.7t LC200 Series, so it’s better on fuel economy and payload limits, and drives much nicer than any serious 4WD. But you get the added benefit of an AWD system with terrain modes for getting in and out of slippery or low-traction areas (diesel versions only). Just don’t mistake this for a proper 4WD; it’s for getting out of trouble, not to go looking for it.
The boot is much bigger than Sante Fe/Sorento, and a full-size spare is mounted externally (which is ideal for keeping mud where it belongs). You’ll appreciate a 2200kg braked towing capacity, too, for moderate campers and light trailers.
You get 3 ISOFIX points in the eight-seat version (2 in R2, 1 in R3), and two ISOFIX points in row two (in seven-seat versions), and there’s 5 top tether points in eight-seat Palisade; so decide which configuration you’ll need.
There’s no overhead grab handles for the driver or front passenger, which could be a little annoying for shorter people trying to climb in.
You have to choose between seven or eight seats in order to have the row-two centre seat removed and allow walk-through access to row three.
The push-button transmission selector takes getting used to in rare situations reversing out and driving forward quickly.
In order to put 180kg of download weight on the towball when towing, you’ll need the Hyundai Towing Assist Kit.
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The new Sorento is very hard to go past, objectively. Particularly impressive is the Sport+ which, for about $8000 less than GT-Line, you get basically everything you need, minus some ultra-bright projector LED headlights, the 360-degree camera, parking collision avoidance, electronic child locks, the kickass Bose sound system and intercom, plus the sunroof. All these things you can do without, as nice as they are.
You get four ISOFIX points and five top tether points for child restraints, and unlike the Carnival, the cupholders in the centre row-two fold-down armrest are in the right position for kids to grab from said restraints.
Sorento GT-Line gets a very slick rotary transmission dial, which is fantastic for maneuvering quickly from R to D, or vice versa. But to save $8K I think the regular shifter is fine.
The main event for Sorento, at least to some, is the row three seating, made easily accessible thanks to independently folding row two outboard seats which fold forward with the touch of a button. Row three also collapses completely flat and easily, giving you a vast boot to store your stuff. You also get a full-size spare wheel.
Don’t overlooked the petrol V6 either, because it’s a pretty powerful unit and will get-up-n-go, if that’s what you want; it’s just a smoother ride in the diesel.
It sounds poxy, but there’s not a lot to dislike about Sorento, so I resort to nitpicking.
The one-touch row 2 seat-fold buttons on GT-Line are easily reached by kids, likewise the front seatback adjustment buttons.
There’s more piano black plastic between the infotainment screen and centre console than some might prefer, so it’ll get greasy, dusty and scratched.
Like most 7-seaters, row 3 does not get full-length curtain airbags, instead the row 2 side curtain covers the ‘C-pillar’ which is the main hard point you wanna avoid hitting in a crash.
Obviously, legroom in row 3 is limited to big kids and average-size adults for moderate use.
Learn to tolerate the imperfections of lane-keeping, blind-spot monitoring and the beeping at you, particularly when cars pull in front on the freeway, and when two lanes turn left or right while using your indicator. This is typical of these systems, generally, not just Kia.
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It’s hard to understand why people bother with a German SUV at twice the price. Perhaps there’s a badge factor that doesn’t work on me, because looking at a Santa Fe Highlander compared with a poverty pack Merc or VW seven-seater, you’d think the Hyundai cost six figures.
You’ll appreciate the smooth surge of power from the 2.2 turbo-diesel I’ve raved about in Sorento, and the dual-clutch transmission is great for those who enjoy driving (but have to live with an SUV… You know who you are). The punchy V6 petrol (same as Sorento) will save a few grand, if your budget isn’t very flexible.
Santa Fe is an excellent family touring SUV with a big boot, heaps of legroom, ridiculously comfy seats, and a solid towing capacity which allows for moderately heavy towing of, say, a medium-size caravan, camper, boat or jetski, without pushing the limits of safety. If the later part of this sentence sounds like you, you’ll want to get the Towing Assist Kit which is uprated rear suspension that allows for more towball download. Or, if towing’s not your thing, consider getting roof racks and a luggage pod, especially if you’ll be using row three for your longer journeys.
If you have no use for proper 4WD, but some lightly muddy or dirt roads might come your way, don’t bother with an overpriced Prado and consider a diesel SF Highlander which gets terrain modes (snow, mud, sand) as part of a highly responsive AWD system which I failed to trick on slippery, wet streets when I tested it. You’ll get more luxuries too, than a base Prado at the same coin.
Adjusting the air vents can close them because the toggle does both, annoyingly. Just as the shiny silver buttons on the centre dash get a bit reflective on sunny days and can be hard to read if you have them backlit by the headlights.
No colours - all monotone paint tones - including the ‘Lagoon Blue’, which sounds far more exotic and sexy than it really is.
You need to remember, this is not a hardcore 4WD with low-range transfer case and clever differentials. It’s for soft-roading only and you need to be gentle, lest you break something and have to pay a big bill.
And the 360-degree camera view at night isn’t perfect, but none of them are.
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Driving the CX-9 is the best part about it. It feels like witchcraft that such a long, two-tonne vehicle can feel so light and agile. I mean, it’s not a Mazda 3, but the way it carries itself through corners is quite impressive, and it’s partly down to the 2.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine which offers 170kW of power. That’s a lot for a family-sized seven-seater, although the 3.6 petrol V6 in Santa Fe and Sorento offers 200kW, and is lighter, but CX-9’s power is accessible much sooner in the revs. All this means is if you’re quite and engaged driver, CX-9 can offer you enough boot space for the whole family to join you, while you tune out and pretend you’re in a sport’s car. We’ve all been there.
This vehicle is a great blend of proper German-level luxury SUV, but with fewer digits in the price. Any CX-9 from ‘GT’ to top-spec ‘Azami LE’ is pretty seductive to sit in - there’s a reason it’s such a top-selling vehicle, because it makes spending over $100,000 on a vehicle seem insane.
Depending on what you have to spend, I would consider the Touring if you’re watching the finances carefully, because it’ll give you a huge array of features, creature comforts and functionality, without blowing cash on walnut brown leather captain’s chairs and complimentary silk robes (the latter being a joke, of course). The Touring CX-9 also offers optimal payload (621kg) and towing capacity (braked: 2000kg / towball: 150kg), before adding more frivolous stuff like a sunroof, the big fancy stereo and 20-inch wheels, all of which slash the legal payload.
Consider carefully if you really need AWD. If you do boat ramps, steep driveways, bushy tracks and visit the snow every year, definitely. But if you need to watch the bank balance, you’ll save $4K sticking with front-drive (and an additional 42kg of kerb weight - it all adds up).
Something I’m quite fond of is CX-9’s rear doors which open almost to a 90-degree angle, which is quite rare and means it just gets out of the bloody way when you’re trying to load kids and bags.
Despite being such an awesome drive, CX-9 gets a space-saver spare wheel, which only sucks if you ever have to use it on a 110km/h freeway, stuck at 80km/h, I guess.
The price. Since when does a Mazda cost eighty grand? Thing is, it’s not as daft in reality as it sounds, because people will happily spend $100K+ on a Toyota LandCruiser or $90K on a Nissan Patrol. But that $10,000 jump from Touring to GT is hard to swallow; it’s flat-out ridiculous in my view, which is why I suggest people opt for the Touring, unless they’ve got cash to burn.
The low towball download limit is not really ideal for towing a moderately heavy trailer long distances. Essentially, it means a slightly less even distribution of weight, which should be 10 per cent of the trailer’s weight.
CX-9 is 5m long, so be wary if you reverse into underground carparks, because the tailgate extends at least a metre behind and opens quite high, so watch it on overhead gantries etc.
Also, watch those lovely rear passenger doors don’t smack into things when they open wide.
Again, while parking, the 360-degree camera stitches together images from four cameras and the join, at each corner, can lose objects. Try it yourself.
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Having nearly bought a Pajero Sport a few years back, I can tell you there are some key things to love about this machine, and a few simple faults that could drive you crazy.
Overall, if you need a 4WD with a big towing capacity, a grunty diesel engine, a superior transmission and at a formidable price - this is literally the best 4WD on the market right now. But that’s the tricky part. You need to be quick, while you can, because this generation Pajero Sport, which has been proven quite reliable and practical in-service, isn’t long for this world. There’s a new one coming in the next two years, which sounds like an eternity, but in terms of manufacturing, it’s right around the corner.
Pajero Sport has a brilliant transmission called Super Select II, which essentially allows you to drive it like an all-wheel drive Subaru on normal roads where you simply cannot with regular 4X4 utes and wagons - but only when conditions are bad, like heavy rain, or dirt roads, muddy or damp sealed driveways, on gravel etc.
The 2.4L diesel engine doesn’t make the same big numbers as others, but that’s irrelevant because it’s significantly lighter than virtually everything else. And Mitsubishi caps the rated braked towing capacity at 3100kgs, which is plenty for any vehicle weighing about two tonnes. It’s actually a bit too much, strictly speaking, but it’s still respectable.
You get a very safe 4WD with heaps of modern safety features, you just have to tolerate its idiosyncrasies. And if you live rurally, it’s great for throwing things in, caring little for dirt or sand etc.
Being a ute-based 4WD, the cabin’s a bit narrow, but that’s only an issue to the widest of families - and I mean no disrespect, it’s just a fact. There’s plenty of legroom, although exceptionally tall people might find headroom a bit tight.
Row 3 seats are really clunky to use because the base has to separate independently of the seatback, and a strap needs pulling simultaneously. Try it yourself. And when you do fold all seats down, row 2 doesn’t sit flat.
The infotainment and driver’s dashboard screens are pretty crude graphics, like an early version of Windows, but at least it’s simple and easy to read. There’s something to be said for ergonomics.
Like all 4WDs, it’s a bit tank-like to drive around town, but that’s precisely what makes it good off-road.
You’ll have to be patient with production delays, but get a timeline estimate - in writing - from your dealer. Absolutely take one for a test drive to make sure you’re fully committed before signing or paying a deposit.
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This is a pretty straight-forward option - you need seven seats in a big family SUV, but you specifically need a diesel because you tow, frequently visit or live in regional Australia, and you want the optimal powertrain for these requirements.
Mazda’s CX-8 is essentially a seven-seat, slightly-shorter CX-9 with a 2.2L twin-turbo diesel engine which isn’t a bad unit, and it’s paired with reactive AWD.
CX-8 is 40mm longer than a CX-5, but 175mm shorter than CX-9, so don’t go thinking it’s a cushy trip back there in the third row. CX-8 is compromised in seats six and seven for legroom, but they’re supposed to be for occasional use, unless your kids have been exceptionally naughty, I guess. And CX-8 fits in more carpark spaces than CX-9.
You want a CX-8 if you essentially need a big five-seater with a +2 option. You can still have the 2.5 turbo-petrol as discussed in CX-5 and CX-9, but you can save about $4000 going for a top-spec Asaki LE, compared with the CX-9’s ridiculous $81,000 Azami LE, but with all the same luxury trimmings.
In some ways, CX-8 puts the 9 to shame. Until a big person has to use row three.
That space-saver spare wheel thing at Mazda pertains to CX-8 as well, sadly.
So too does the 150kg towball download limit with the 2000kg braked towing capacity, which isn’t ideal for optimum weight distribution and safety.
For a few grand less than the CX-8 GT, with the premium Bose stereo system, you could have a top-spec Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander, which has a better power-to-weight ratio and towing capacity, and equally squashy row 3 seating.
No side-curtain airbags in row 3, despite being available on the CX-9 which is the same platform vehicle. There’s no ISOFIX points in row 3, so you’ll have bigger kids up the back who don’t get curtain airbags, despite being more likely to hit their heads in a side impact. No ISOFIX points in row 3, obviously, only in outboard row 2.
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If you’re shopping for a full-size four-wheel drive which seats seven and is dripping with attitude, don't bother with the Toyota LandCruiser, especially if you want to keep $30,000
It’s impossible to talk about this thing without acknowledging the hydrogen bomb under the bonnet. A 5.6-litre V8 is excessive, yes, but it’s awesome in so many ways. It makes overtaking so easy you could (but shouldn’t) do it one handed.
A 100K LandCruiser 200 only gave you manually adjustable cloth seats, but the base Patrol Ti has big powered leather seats suitable for every backside.
Having 298kW is pure gluttony.
Despite being an old platform, Patrol has heaps of tech gear, like a 360-degree camera, reverse emergency braking, adaptive cruise, tyre pressure monitoring and LED headlights.
Obviously, there’s a full-size spare
All that fake woodgrain and ill-placed chrome trim on the inside makes reflections both of the sun and of old fashion trends. But you can fix both with vinyl wrap, thankfully. The reversing camera is slightly off-centre, which makes backing up to a towbar a cautious affair.
Filling that 140L fuel tank from empty, if you do the maths, is not cheap ($210 @ 1.50p/L). But at least petrol is cheaper than diesel.
Parking in tight spaces isn’t fun, but you can avoid this by parking right up the back, with all the other Nissan Patrols.
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If you’re thinking of getting something a little special, something different, because maybe you like European stuff, you’re not looking at the Japanese or Korean brands, then a 5008 is a good choice.
The styling is pretty awesome, both inside and out, and there are seven-seats, obviously - it’s on this list after all. And you get all the toys, from a premium sound system (in the diesel) and LED lighting everywhere, to modern safety tech like auto-braking, lane-keeping and radar cruise, as well as a 360-degree camera system.
If you’re on the taller end of the spectrum, you’ll want to make sure you can find a comfy position before buying because this is a kinda compact Euro vehicle, despite its boxy profile. Fortunately, the 5006 wheelbase is longer than a Santa Fe, so it might be a non-problem, but it’s a smidge narrower and a whisker shorter in height and length.
There’s only two ISOFIX child restraint points, in row 2 (outboard), so if you have three kids in quick succession, you might need to think about something more accommodating. But if not, it’s going to be a very comfy, fashionable device for moving you and your kids around. When your life turns to nappies and crusty food stains, it might be nice to treat yourself.
Very few dealers in Australia means if you have a problem, you could be a long way from technical help.
Full grain Nappa leather is $2,590 extra on a $67K Euro SUV; c’mon, throw it in. The petrol gets a space-saver spare wheel, but even worse, the diesel gets a tyre repair kit which you’ll need to learn how to use. Don’t worry, it’s not that hard.
You don’t get an AWD system on either model, so you’re primarily going to be using this thing in the suburbs.
All paint colours cost extra, except the sunburnt orange.
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If you’re this far down the list and still haven’t found the right seven-seater, then there must be a specific reason you’re interested in a Toyota Prado. It’s the oldest, most agricultural of the entire list here, and even makes the Pajero Sport’s compromised refinement look amature. And this isn’t a criticism.
Prado is a very capable off-roader with a huge performance envelope when it comes to dirt, mud, snow, water crossings, rocks and heavy towing. But in order to be good at this, you can’t have SUV-like refinement. Prado gets coil springs, sure, but it’s designed to go off-road, and in engineering terms, you can’t have both. A balance: sure. But there’s a compromise.
If you’re looking at a Prado, you accept (and can afford) to pay more for a vehicle that is more spacious, internally, than the Mitsubishi, with a particular interest in how it functions.
You need to have fully grown teenage kids and be a particularly tall family, one which does roadtrips a lot, and often to quite remote places, usually with something towing behind.
The price - a base Prado starts about $6000 higher than where a Pajero Sport ends, so you have to ask yourself exactly what you think the Toyota will do (for you), which the Mitsubishi won’t. You don’t get heated seats until spending $84K on the VX.
You don’t get 7 seats in the base GX by default, you have to option them (+$2660) - only in the GXL do you get them standard, and they fold up sideways, not flat.
It’s heavy - that’s the compromise. Prado GX (7-seat) kerb weight is 2285kg - that’s with nobody in it, nor any of your stuff. Pajero Sport Exceed is 2110kg; so higher-spec Prados won’t stop, turn or accelerate as well.
Toyota also had to fit manual DPF regeneration buttons to their 2.8L diesel engines, so make sure you understand how it works and try not to buy such a vehicle if lots of short trips in stop-start traffic are going to be your norm. Try to get out on the highway fortnightly.
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