By David Thomas on July 6, 2015

2016 Mitsubishi Outlander; photo by Evan Sears

Whether you need a car to take your kids and their teammates to Little League practice or you're someone who just likes to travel with friends, three-row crossovers are top of mind when shopping for a new car. Sales of three-row crossovers were up 8.5 percent in June versus an industry average increase of 3.4 percent over the same period. The tried-and-true yet not-so-alluring minivan saw sales drop 5.9 percent in comparison.

With the average starting price hovering around $30,000, it's not a cheap segment to enter, either. So, how do you get that extra space for the least amount of money?

That's what we uncovered with our ranking of the three-row crossover segment by affordability. We took into account not just purchase prices but also five years of fuel costs and residual values of the cars after five years provided by ALG to determine which crossover will cost the least in the long run.

We looked at all non-luxury crossovers with a standard third row. This excluded the Dodge Journey, Kia Sorento and Nissan Rogue, which all offer optional third rows, from our list.

We priced the cars to include features we deem essential to car shoppers today such as:

• Automatic transmission • Power driver's seat

• Rearview camera

• USB port

• Bluetooth connectivity

The Mitsubishi Outlander took the top spot as the most affordable three-row crossover, which might surprise some. Many shoppers may not be thinking of a vehicle this small when searching for a three-row crossover, or they might unfamiliar with the automaker.

2016 Mitsubishi Outlander; photo by Evan Sears

The Outlander is nearly 8 inches shorter than the Toyota Highlander and more than 20 inches shorter than the Chevrolet Traverse. The Outlander's third row is smaller than those competitors, but both its legroom and headroom are close to the Highlander while shoulder and hip room come up short. It's not comfortable for adults during long hauls, but many third rows in this class share that complaint.

The 2016 model is just reaching dealerships, and it gets some updates versus the previous generation, including how much standard equipment is included in various trim levels. These changes mean the 2016 Outlander costs less than the 2015 model to get all our required features for this affordability list.

In our most recent expert review of the outgoing Outlander, it's called "middle of the road" in terms of its overall dynamics and the features set in the class. We haven't had an opportunity to test the Outlander's base four- cylinder engine that's standard in the No. 1 crossover on our list. All the other crossovers on our list feature a standard V-6 engine. In our $40,000 3-Row SUV Challenge from 2014, the Hyundai Santa Fe, Dodge Durango and Highlander took the top three spots, respectively. The Outlander wasn't included in that competition.

But if you're just crunching numbers, the Outlander clearly shines. Here's the full list:

Other interesting findings:

• The average price after the destination fee of our 12 cars listed is $34,393. The least expensive is the 2016 Outlander at $25,845, and the Toyota Highlander Hybrid at $48,735 is the most expensive.

• The Highlander Hybrid was the most fuel efficient, though, costing $7,250 to fuel over five years. That's $500 less than the Outlander and $2,250 less than the non- hybrid Highlander.

• As we discovered with our most affordable midsize sedan list in June, automakers are making it easier to get the equipment we were looking for. Only the Dodge Durango and the Ford Flex required an additional option package for the features we deemed important to car shoppers.

• If vehicles with optional third rows had been included and priced accordingly, the compact Nissan Rogue would have taken the top spot at a total cost of $23,828. That shouldn't come as a surprise since it is a different class than the rest of the field. Coming in third just behind the Outlander would have been Kia's Sorento. It costs $752 more than the Outlander over five years.

• The Dodge Journey has a relatively low starting price, but it would have ended up midpack because you need to move up to a higher trim level to get a rearview camera.

• The 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander is still on sale with many more in's national inventory than the 2016 model. To get the same equipment as the 2016 would require a lower trim level, SE, with a pricey $2,600 SE Premium Package. Over five years, the 2015 would cost $1,224 more than the 2016.

• Toyota's Highlander Hybrid had the highest sticker price of the bunch by far — $11,255 more than the next highest-priced GMC Acadia. Taking into consideration the Highlander Hybrid's fuel savings and higher residual value, it only costs $742 more over five years versus the Acadia. If gas prices rise higher than the $2.75 a gallon average we used for this test, owners could see more of a return.

• Our list doesn't take into account current incentives. While brand-new vehicles like the Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot might be near the top of the list, there were significant cash-back deals on the Nissan Pathfinder through June 30 and Mazda CX-9 through July 6, which would affect their affordability. In the Mazda CX-9's case, its incentives may be a large enough to move it to the second or third spot on the list. There are likely significant incentives on the 2015 Outlander as well.

• The Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia are built on the same platform at the same assembly plant in Lansing, Mich., yet the destination charge is $50 higher for the Acadia. We're guessing they're rolled onto the same car transports too.

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