Starting a family is as expensive as ever; food costs are bananas, hospital stays can bankrupt you, and now there’s college tuition to save for. On top of everything else, you may need to swap out that sleek sports car for something with the all-important third row for hauling a family. Although minivans are purpose-built for family life, they can lack the feeling you’re used to and can be upwards of $45,000 with all of the bells and whistles. Luckily, you don’t have to succumb to van life, as there are plenty of lightly used options for less!
Requiring a third row decimates your options as a parent trying to avoid a minivan. Every single available option is an SUV—except this one. Mercedes has been one of the last few manufacturers ensuring that the estate wagon hasn’t yet met its end on our side of the pond. The latest edition is available in a few flavors, but the only models within a minivan price range are the E400 and E450. In a space almost solely occupied by SUVs, the Mercedes S213 estate is a refreshing take of car-like handling dynamics and underappreciated style.
Based on the W213 platform, the 2017-2018 E400 and 2019 E450 feature two versions of the M276 bi-turbo V6 backed up by a 9-speed 725.0 9G-Tronic transmission and all-wheel-drive. Although the later model is more powerful and efficient, both make for tuneable, torquey, and DIYable platforms you can haul the family around. Assembled around that drivetrain is a chassis fit for a model costing twice as much with an interior that gives the S-Class a run for its money. And, unlike any other wagon available in the US, it features a third row of seats, albeit a pair of reward-facing ones.
When those aren’t in use, there's a significant amount of storage space—more so than some other models in this article. Being a Mercedes, it’s also full of tech, leather, and distinctive styling. The front seats were optionally heated and vented, while the rears missed out on the latter. Still, everyone could benefit from one of the four kinds of optional leather upholstery. If you want something sportier, there’s hope, too, as either model could’ve been fitted with the no-cost Sport Package featuring a selective damping system, the AIR BODY CONTROL multi-mode air suspension, and an AMG Performance steering wheel.
You shouldn’t need to worry about safety, either, as most models ordered by dealerships come equipped with most of, if not all of the optional safety features, like PRE-SAFE PLUS, Active Emergency Stop Assist, and Active Brake Assist with Cross-Traffic Function. Other options like a Burmester stereo, heated armrests, and Acoustic Comfort Package can make the E400 or E450 a veritable bargain compared to a showroom-fresh Honda Odyssey. That’s not to say there aren’t any negatives when choosing a used European luxury car with lots of high-tech features, but those thoughts and stresses will disappear as you whisk down the interstate to soccer practice. Parked and standing under your umbrella in a windy, misty rain, you’ll look back and see the best-looking 7-seater sold within the last decade: a striking and unique package that serves its purpose like no other.
Or you could buy this: Mercedes’ most mainstream take on the 7-seater. The GL began life as the big SUV in the Mercedes range before a 2017 facelift saw it rebadged into the GLS to fit within the new Mercedes model scheme. Name change aside, the GLS remained the ultimate family truck and saw a host of improvements, including revised suspension components, a new engine, and updated exterior styling. However, the engine makes the biggest impact on anyone looking at a model with some mileage on it.
The earlier GL450 and every GL/GLS500/550 model uses the M278 engine, a bi-turbo V8 that, while supremely powerful, has a penchant for destroying its cylinder walls. Only the GLS450 uses the smaller M276 bi-turbo V6 engine, and because it's free of catastrophic issues, it’s the best choice for significant use. Luckily, its size doesn’t match its output as the 3.0L mill forces out 362 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, good enough for a sub-7-second spring to 60mph and a 7500lb towing capacity. Combine all that with an improved 9G-Tronic automatic transmission and an almost spacious backseat, and it’s easy to see that the X166 GLS450 is the sweet spot of the GL/GLS range.
You can pick one of these up with under 50,000 miles for less than the MSRP of the most basic Odyssey. As long as you don’t mind paying a bit more for parts and repair service, there’s a lot of value if you find the right model. The GLS was available with all sorts of goodies, just like the S213 E-Class, but the big SUV took things just a bit further for its occupants. If optioned right, a driver could zip along, getting a massage from their multicontour seats, as the kids in the back enjoyed the sun from a panoramic sunroof and watched a movie on the rear seat entertainment. But, even without frivolous extras like those, there’s still plenty of standard equipment safety equipment to love.
As a relatively popular choice among Mercedes buyers, the GLS450 is widely available with lower mileage at competitive pricing—and you can use that to your benefit. Don’t be afraid to be choosy with the options and service history. A car is only as good as the maintenance it’s been given, and your hard-earned dollars are at stake.
While not as spacious or new as anything else here, the F15 X5 is the perfect SUV for those few times when you’ll need the third row but otherwise don’t. It was supremely successful for BMW throughout its relatively short production, with various variants to fit your exact needs. Thanks to a strong predecessor, BMW focused mainly on lightening the chassis and improving aerodynamics, leading to the best fuel economy up until that point.
BMW produced the F15 generation between the 2014 and 2019 model years, offering several engine choices through various trims. Almost every model is available within the optimal range for avoiding a new minivan, whether the xDrive40e hybrid, xDrive50i, xDrive35i, or even the xDrive35d diesel. Each offers slightly different performance and maintenance costs, but no matter what’s under the hood, the X5 will make for an easily serviced and DIY’able daily driver. Shared components like the suspension architecture, ZF 8HP gearbox, and all-wheel-drive system also mean costs are kept down. With that said, you’ll need to find one with the optional third row, which can shrink the model pool.
However, the extra seats also mean that the X5 is fitted with the self-leveling rear air suspension, as was required. At the very least, all of your beach equipment won't sag the rear end on your week-long trip to the shore. Beyond that, X5 trim packages and options can get dense quickly. To quote our BMW X5 Generations Explained piece:
“Each F15 was built around one of three trim lines—Luxury, xLine, or M Sport—with each featuring unique wheel choices, accenting trim, and interior upholstery. After establishing the trim, buyers or dealers could specify individual options or complete packages. Standard equipment included Xenon headlights with LED accents, LED taillights and fog lights, Servotronic variable steering, front and rear parking sensors, dual-zone automatic climate control, and the Driver Experience Control. The latter feature allows each F15 X5 to choose between various driving modes, such as COMFORT, ECO PRO, and SPORT. Each mode used its own calibrations for the suspension, engine, throttle response, and steering feel to adjust how the X5 reacted and drove. Optional equipment included:
- Adaptive cruise control.
- Lane change warning.
- A Harman Kardon surround system.
- Rear-seat entertainment.
- Soft-closing doors.
- Adaptive LED headlights.”
Because of that, there’s a good chance you’ll find an example that fits your style. You’d be surprised at the odd option and package combinations, so be a little picky at first and really go after your wants once your needs are met.
Once you have your model, you’re in for thousands of relatively trouble-free miles. Engine choice and established mileage play a significant role in your future service requirements, so be sure to factor that into your choice. Generally speaking, the N55-powered 35i models will likely have the most manageable upkeep, but the extra power and torque provided by the twin-tubo V8 50i models can make towing and general cruising a much nicer experience. Check out our wealth of F15 X5 resources to understand which model will be best for you!
Often forgotten in the big SUV space, the Audi Q7 is a fine choice for anyone looking away from BMW and Mercedes. With a slightly more reserved design, the pre-facelift, second-generation Audi is an excellent choice for those on a tighter budget, as most used examples with around 50,000 miles come in at a much tighter price range of about $35,000. Within that , any buyer is getting themselves a five-year-old car ready for another 20 without hesitation.
The workhorse 3.0t supercharged V6 that we’ve seen for the last decade is powering almost every US example. In the Q7, it’s at its best in its final CREC form. A combination of direct and port fuel injection reduces the V6’s maintenance requirements while supporting less expensive, higher ethanol-content fuels. A revised supercharger with a bolt-on pulley and a handful of other tweaks make this last series of 3.0t engines the best of all. Stock power figures are plenty good, and combined with the ZF eight-speed, towing up to 7700lbs shouldn’t pose a problem. A 2.0t-equipped model is available, but the 3.0t offers far more upside for little extra cost.
There are three rows of seats inside the cabin, no matter the engine choice. The rear-most row features two that fold away flat into the trunk floor individually, while the middle row features three individually folding seats. Optional extras, like with every option in this piece, are abundant, with the Cold Weather, Towing, Driver Assistance, and Vision Packages all being common additions in various groupings. Those’ll add in bits like heated rear seats, adaptive cruise control, and full LED headlights. However, unlike most other options, the adaptive air suspension was only available on the highest (Prestige) trim level. A feature like that makes towing significantly easier but will introduce a higher maintenance cost.
However, without it, the Q7 remains an exceptionally comfortable place to be, wrapped in quality materials all around. Standard infotainment is plenty modern, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard if Audi’s proprietary software isn’t working for you. If you do use it, Audi’s MMI is at its best here, with quick response to touch and many features to tailor the driving experience to the driver.
Since it first reached America in 2003, the Volvo XC90 has been a consistently good buy for anyone looking to haul around a family. The big Swede has utilized the SPA platform architecture since 2016 and remains highly competitive in the current marketplace against the others on this list. As you might expect, it's safety forward, with Volvo’s unmatched track record supporting the family-focused model. With many to choose from on the second-hand market, lightly used examples make for smart family transportation.
Although imperfect, the XC90 matches only the Mercedes models' uniqueness in design. Both internal and external, the XC90 is unmistakably Volvo in the best possible way. Smart but reserved, the “Thor’s hammer” headlights and distinctive vertical taillights bookend an elegant external shape that gives off a much more expensive feeling. Inside, it’s much of the same story, as the passenger compartment is wrapped in vegan upholstery and fitted with higher-quality materials. At the very least, you and your children will have a far nicer time commuting in one of these than a minivan.
But the rest of the car is plenty lovely, too.
Powering the American-spec XC90s are one of two powertrains. The T6 model uses the twin-charged Drive-E 2.0L inline-4 engine to power all four Volvo wheels. Its 316 or so hp is enough for the nearly 5000lb SUV, but it doesn’t do much in the way of actual performance. Stepping up from that is the T8 Recharge; featuring the same VEA Drive-E engine, there’s also a battery pack for plug-in hybrid capabilities. Power does jump to around 400 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque, but the complexities added by the electric motors, battery pack, and supporting systems can make the car needlessly complicated for a DIYer. We recommend sticking with the simpler powertrain unless you find a T8 with a warranty or similar coverage.
Usability and driving dynamics also score pretty high marks against the competition. Volvo engineers did a fine job setting up the chassis, and the big Volvo handles its weight with relative grace, even with a full load. Speaking of, the Volvo offers one of the largest storage areas, even with all three rows in use. Towing capacity is in line with other offerings, so it’s just as functional there, too. It’s a unique take on a segment long dominated by the Germans, and the Swedes do a fantastic job making their offering just that much different.
All things considered, these five models are just a glimpse of the models that can shuttle your family around safely. A smaller budget or time to build up a family hauler opens up older models like the C6 A6 Avants, the W212 E-Class, and the older V8-powered Volvo XC90 as legitimate choices. Luckily, no matter which model you choose, you'll always have FCP Euro to rely on for information and parts! Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for videos nearly every day, and stay tuned to the DIY Blog, where new articles are posted twice weekly!
Car and motorsports-obsessed writer/editor for FCP Euro's DIY Blog. Constantly dreaming of competing behind the wheel or searching for another project. Owner of a turbo Subaru Forester and a ratty Porsche 914, neither of which are running.