Permit me an aside: This curious urge toward seven seats is an example of what might be called contingency anxiety, which I believe is a huge psychic motivator in the high-end SUV segment generally. It's the fear that one day, someday, you might be called upon do something extraordinary in your vehicle — drive your wife to the hospital in a snowstorm, ford a swollen stream, rescue a Cub Scout den from angry bees — and you have to buy the utmost vehicle as a hedge against such a day. Contingency anxiety is the reason so many people drive around in five times more vehicle than they really need. Aside ended.
Let me help you out, here, Dan. It is not one because of the suburban emergencies that you mock in your usual witheringly snide manner that seven passenger vehicles have become popular. It is not a "contingency" that has led people to buy these large cars. It is law. Specifically, seatbelt laws. Long gone are the days when a parent (we'll keep ourselves in the present and not assume "mom") could pick up Junior and four of his buddies from school and pile them into the front and back bench seats. Better yet, and more relevant to today's SUV dilemma, who among us didn't spend some portion of our youth rattling around unfettered in the back of a station wagon (or, in my case, in the back of the original SUV, the International Scout)? In those days, the size and configuration of the car was unimportant when it came to flexible seat arrangments. Need to take Grandma and Grandpa to dinner? Fine; just cram everyone in tight enough to get the doors closed. Need to bring the soccer team to the pizza party? Everybody in the back.
Now? If you can't match a seatbelt up with a person, you need another car. As California Vehicle Code section 27315(d)(1) states, "a person may not operate a motor vehicle on a highway unless that person and all passengers 16 years of age or over are properly restrained by a safety belt." Vehicle Code section 27360 covers infants and small children: "(b)(1) A driver may not transport on a highway a child in a motor vehicle, as defined in Section 27315, without properly securing the child in a rear seat in a child passenger restraint system meeting applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards, unless the child is one of the following: (A) Six years of age or older [or] (B) Sixty pounds or more." Vehicle Code section 27360.5 covers older children: "No driver may transport on a highway any child who is six years of age or older, but less than 16 years of age, or who is less than six years of age and weighs 60 pounds or more in a motor vehicle, as defined in Section 27315, without properly securing the child in a child passenger restraint system or safety belt meeting applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards." There is no question about it -- cars are far more limited in their carrying capacity now because of seatbelt regulations. Don't misunderstand: I believe the seatbelt is the single greatest safety innovation in automotive history, by a wide margin. I even think mandatory seatbelt laws are, on the whole, a positive development. But lets not blame flighty suburbia for the all of the ills of the world. There are reasons why cars are bigger and heavier, and it has nothing to do with a desire to wantonly squander oil. Cars are bigger and heavier because they are required to carry almost literally a ton of equipment in the name of legally imposed safety devices.
Since very few cars have front bench seats anymore, it is nearly impossible for a family of four to take the grandparents out to dinner or anything else in a standard sedan. With further restrictions governing the seating of children in front seats with exposure to air bags, car drivers are reduced to only one extra seat (in the middle back) to transport children. Hence the inexorable rise of minivans and high-occupancy SUVs. It's not frivolity, Dan. It's not "contingency anxiety." It's the law.