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Minivans have lost the people-mover war

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Minivans have lost the people-mover war. Despite having evolved to a nearly perfect design — easy to enter and exit, comfortable for up to eight passengers and rife with cup holders — GM, Ford and Mazda are abandoning their models entirely. Minivan sales last year slipped 11 percent, to less than 1 million. The victors? Crossover SUVs, whose sales rose 5 percent, to 2.4 million.

Crossovers mate practicality with cool — and cool is something that minivans always lacked. They resemble traditional SUVs and provide the same tall-in-the-saddle view Americans love. But crossovers don't have the atrocious gas mileage and stiff, truck-like handling. That's because instead of body-on-frame construction, crossovers have a body and chassis built as a single unit.

In addition to car-like handling, they're also lower to the ground for less wind resistance (which improves fuel economy), easier to access and more resistant to rollover. Most aren't rugged enough to drive off-road, but they offer all-wheel drive to help negotiate snowy roads.

If 2006 was the year of the crossover, 2007 promises to be the year of the big crossover. These models rob minivans of their last advantage — third-row seats — although unlike minivans, which are generally spacious, results are mixed for crossovers' back benches. But as with minivans, crossovers' third- and second-row seats fold flat to let you haul stuff instead of people.

We put seven large crossovers — the Acura MDX, Audi Q7 4.2 Quattro, BMW X5, GMC Acadia, Mazda CX-9, Mercedes-Benz GL450 and Suzuki XL7 — to the test. Among the luxury models, we declare the MDX the winner for overall value. It offers sport-sedan handling and a valet-impressing design for thousands less than its peers. Among non-luxury models, the Acadia gets the nod for its mix of amenities plus the most passenger and cargo room. Also earning high marks is the CX-9, which combines sportiness and good handling with a thoughtfully designed, utilitarian interior.

Third-row seats do not come standard on all the models we tested. For example, Audi sells a V6-engine Q7 that starts at $40,000; but to get a third-row seat, you have to buy the $50,000 V8 model. Likewise, a third row is a $1,700 option on the BMW X5.

All of the models we tested do have all-wheel drive, and all are fully equipped with standard safety features, including head-protection side-curtain air bags and stability control, which helps prevent skids. Most also have anti-rollover technology, which senses an impending tip-over and adjusts power to each wheel to prevent it. Side and rear visibility for most of the models is passable, but a rearview camera is a smart option.