Why SUVs aren't as ideal for hauling things as you think

·6 min read

The Honda Accord has a massive 16.7-cubic-foot trunk. (James Riswick / Autoblog)

Every couple of weeks, the ritual is repeated: Grab a laundry basket, head to the car, and start sorting the contents that have accumulated. A recent haul included:

Six or seven sweatshirts and jackets brought in by different family members. Two or three pairs of shoes. A couple of purses, because for some reason purses get swapped on the fly. Various items of paperwork picked up along the way. Masks and hand sanitizer. Old grocery lists. Boxes of mail-order returns needing to be dropped off at the UPS store. Coffee to-go cups and water bottles. Two canes. A folding music stand. A folding cart for the farmers’ market. A folding camp chair. Assorted dog supplies: leashes, a Chuck-it launcher with tennis balls, dog blanket, dog towel. Gym bag. Roll of paper towels. Cloth grocery sacks. And all too often, the wrappers and remnants of meals eaten by the kid in the back seat. Sushi, are you kidding me?

A few items stay in the vehicle, some are returned to the house, some are trash. And then it begins all over again. At the peak of the accumulation cycle, it feels as if crap is sloshing around the cabin like the contents of a half-capsized rowboat. As we rush through life, the passenger compartments of busy Americans' vehicles can easily become a rolling rummage sale.

But it didn’t used to be this bad. Why? Because we used to have car trunks.

The exact same bags loaded into a Honda Accord and a Honda CR-V.

Car trunks were a thing back when we had cars. Before we all started preferring pickups and SUVs. As vehicles have moved into and out of my family’s fleet, we’ve somehow wound up with an un-diverse combo of a station wagon and an SUV. (Two of the same thing, really. SUVs are just glorified station wagons.) Both vehicles are great at hauling large items and vast volumes of cargo. Neither is ideal for stowing the mix of small items we use in everyday life.

But sedans? They can swallow a lot of stuff, in the best way possible — locked up, out of sight, out of the way.

Check out the Accord/CR-V photo pairing above. The CR-V has pretty much the best space in its segment, but just look at that Accord. The same is true of Toyota Camry/RAV4 and Hyundai Sonata/Tucson.

Sure, you can put every item in your vehicle into an SUV’s wayback to keep the passenger seats, footwells and cubbies clear. And that’s great, up to the moment you need to haul something big or to employ third-row seating. (Neither of which, admittedly, is a sedan capable of.) And you can put a locking toolbox in the bed of a pickup, but today’s truck beds are already ridiculously short to begin with.

We live in the Pacific Northwest, where residents have been advised to carry emergency kits in our cars because of earthquakes. In particular, there’s a chance the Really Big One will hit — a massive quake on the Cascadia subduction zone from 8.0 to 9.2 in magnitude. Such a disaster could destroy roads and bridges and leave motorists stranded, so we’re told to carry enough food, water and supplies to bivouac for days. I have a big plastic go-box of that stuff. When we owned a sedan, it rode in the trunk and never came out. The items cataloged at the top of this piece went in the trunk, too, leaving the passenger compartment free and clear.

Now, the earthquake tub rides in the SUV's open wayback. Which is fine, until we need to transport something big, like a bike. Then it’s in the way. So, the tub comes out, sits in the garage, and gets forgotten about for a while. Without it on board at all times, it’s almost like we’re inviting the earthquake to happen.

Imagine what flying would be like if there were no separate cargo hold on airliners, and we climbed into a big tube with all our belongings piled around us. That's life with an SUV.

Some SUVs have tinted windows, some do not. Either way, it feels dicey to have items of value out in the open instead of locked away. Golf clubs can ride in a trunk, in case you get a few minutes to hit a bucket of balls. Leaving a gun case or a musical instrument in an SUV, even briefly, even with tinted windows, feels risky. No one knows there’s anything in a locked trunk.

As for cargo covers, a Honda product planner recently told Autoblog that Civic hatchbacks make up about a quarter of Civic sales. People buy the sedan because they prefer to lock their stuff away. And they think the hatch's cargo cover signals to a car prowler that something good is hidden under there.

Though SUVs only first overtook sedan sales in 2015, the change in the marketplace has been rapid. By 2019, sedans had dwindled to just 22% of overall sales. "Practicality" is among the reasons consumers give for switching to an SUV. But along with the not-insignificant fact that sedans drive and handle better, they also offer an aspect of practicality that got overlooked — this ability to isolate cargo from passengers, cut clutter, keep belongings safe and secure.

Imagine what flying would be like if there were no separate cargo hold on airliners, and we climbed into a big tube with all our belongings piled around us. That's life with an SUV.

Automakers have come to realize this is a problem. They are increasingly offering underfloor storage spaces in SUVS — though this usually comes at the expense of choosing not to have a spare tire (as in the Hyundai Tucson Hybrid below left), so that’s a lousy tradeoff. And the best cabins have gained lots of cubbies and hidey-holes.

If I were in the market for a pickup, I’d buy the Honda Ridgeline for all kinds of reasons, but a big one is its locking trunk under the bed pictured above right. The new Hyundai Santa Cruz has one, too, plus a lockable rolling tonneau cover. Detroit pickups have been getting some storage bins under back seats. Even so, the Ridgeline's trunk is 7.3 cubic feet. The Accord's trunk is 16.7 cubic feet. No contest.

Meanwhile, we may see a swing back toward sedans. Studies have shown that young people like sedans, mainly because they wouldn’t be caught dead driving the same kinds of vehicles their parents drive.

And the future is a little brighter for clutter control because the future is EVs. We’re getting a lot more vehicles with frunks — the Ford F-150 Lightning, the Rivian pickup and SUV, the Mustang Mach-E to name a few, with more on the way. Tesla sedans have both trunks and frunks.

“Where do I put all my possessions?” is a first-world problem for sure, a small complaint in the scheme of things. But don't you miss the brilliant simplicity of a car trunk?

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