After years of boasts over the expanding size of their infotainment screens, automakers seem to have collectively moved on to a new measuring contest with which to extol their own virtues: third-row real estate.
Across the industry, there's now a growing list of growing crossovers and SUVs — vehicles that either had three rows and are now adding inches specifically for their third-row seating, or long-standing two-row vehicles that are growing to seven-seaters from five.
Like most things in the industry, the reason comes down to money: Consumer demand for three-row vehicles is increasing overall, and, according to executives from several automakers, adding more legroom to third-row seats is among the best ways an automaker can make some extra money with little extra investment.
It's "one of the best returns on investment in the industry," one automaker executive, who did not want to be identified, told Automotive News, "because I can add essentially a few inches of sheet metal" with very few other changes to the other components of a vehicle and charge more.
The list of automakers that either have added, are adding or will add space to their three-row SUVs or crossovers is extensive and growing. Some examples:
- This year, Toyota will introduce a new, larger version of its popular Highlander crossover named the Grand Highlander, which doesn't go on sale until 2023. It will be built in the same Indiana assembly plant as the Highlander but differentiate itself in large part by adding inches to the third row. Toyota will also address the third row of its body-on-frame SUV, the Toyota Sequoia, as part of its redesign onto the brand's new F1 platform this year.
- For the 2021 model year, General Motors gave the third rows of its highly profitable Cadillac Escalade, GMC Yukon and Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe SUVs a major upgrade by adding 40 per cent more legroom — about 10 inches — as part of a redesign.
- Stellantis also got in on the trend in 2021 with its addition — after almost three decades — of a third-row variant of its popular Jeep Grand Cherokee, as well as with the return of the Jeep Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer nameplates.
- Though it wouldn't confirm it officially for the U.S., Audi last fall was spotted testing a larger version of its three-row luxury Q7 crossover in Germany, called the Q9, which would directly address a main shortcoming of the Q7 — third-row legroom. Dealers said the Q9 is expected to be in U.S. showrooms by 2026.
"There are always some engineering expenses associated, but compared to a full vehicle program, those costs are pretty incremental compared to what you can charge for it," explained Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst for Guidehouse Insights and a former automotive engineer. "For most vehicles, from the rear axle forward, there are almost no unique parts" needed to add space to third-row seating.