As soon as we started talking about getting a second shepherd, I knew we needed another car. We'd been using my wife's 99 Frontier, which was great b/c one dog can lay down on the bench b/h the front seats, but no way are two shepherds fitting back there.
After looking into this a lot, I realized that it would probably help other people if I shared some of the information I found.
First, it's worthwhile to consider where you are taking the dog. Many people seem to limit trips to the park or vet (short trips) and so feel comfortable with a "cargo area" in their car where the dog can at least lay down. It seems that some people who do this also get the cargo bars that prevent the dog from getting into the front seats. A few have tried the seat belts for dogs, and though I'm not sure these are proven effective for crashes, I'm sure they keep the dog out of the front seat.
Other folks (myself included) are looking at taking the dogs on a longer trip and doing some kind of activity with them that requires resting the dog in the car from time to time. For example, I do search and rescue with our current dog, and in that setting she stays crated in/near the car for hours at a time when she's not working. In that kind of situation, the dog needs an actual crate because of i) air ventilation/cooling ii) controlling ingress/egress. For two dogs, these needs are multiplied: each dog needs ventilation, and each dog may be working at different times (so you need the capability of getting one dog out at a time).
There are many different kinds of crates available. Custom crates are very attractive and expensive. I'm not sold on these for my activities because the ventilation isn't as good as wire, and some of our SAR locations are atrocious (think 100 degrees in a swamp). That ventilation concern also limits the use of plastic crates.
Of the wire crates that are available, two types struck me as being particularly useful. The first is an "SUV" crate from Midwest, 42"L x 21"W x 30"H. The other is the standard double door iCrate, which has a door on the short side and a door on the long side, 42"L x 28"W x 30"H. Why are these useful? It turns out that many SUVs max out around 42 inches between the wheel wells. So a 42in crate (either two SUV crates side by side, or a single 42 long crate) will just fit. Note that I recommend buying the crate first and measuring it before buying the car, since all crates have some variation in measurements.
So to recap, the mission for me became to fit 2, 42in crates in one car. In the end I decided that the SUV crates, while probably OK for regular travel, didn't give my dog enough space when she was really panting. You can play around with this if you have a larger crate: just pad the inside with cardboard layers until the inner dimensions match the SUV crate size. So the mission became this: 2, 42"L x 28"W x 30"H crates in 1 car, and the car had to be reasonably off-road worthy. As kind of a rough guide, I'd say that anything worse than 8 inches of ground clearance and a 20 degree approach/departure angle, would probably not be off road enough.
I'm going to summarize my main conclusions and then follow all this with a spreadsheet that lists the specifics for a number of cars.
I looked at several categories of vehicles.
Work vans are a reasonable option. I particularly liked the Ford Transit Connect, the MB Sprinter, and to a lesser degree the Chevy Express/GMC Savana. Vans usually have great cargo, sliding doors (great if your crate doors swing open into that space), and decentish off-road potential.
Minivans turned out to be a disappointment, but only because of the off road weaknesses I found. In my mind I was thinking of minivans being Astros, which would be decent off road, but modern minivans are super luxury, low to the road, terrible angle vehicles. That being said, if someone didn't care about going off road, a minivan is an awesome dogmobile. Depending on the brand, the space for the dog to jump to get in can be high or low. If memory serves, the Odyssey's seats completely came out, and the Sienna had some seats that came out and others that folded. So these two were the lowest and easiest for dogs to get into. The Nissan Quest had seats that folded, which is great if you are going to be converting the space often from 4 legged passengers to 2 legged passengers, but not so great if you are worried about your dog being able to jump up there.
The only wagon I looked at was a Subaru Outback. I really wanted to like that car, but it was so curvy in the roof that there was no way to fit the crates in there. Otherwise it had decent off road, fuel economy, etc. Might be a good one for someone with smaller dogs or who didn't have the same crate requirements.
SUVs are a surprisingly tricky category. What I didn't realize until I started this adventure is that many/most SUVs have "crossed over," meaning that they are no longer SUVs. The Explorer has crossed over and is now unfortunately completely unsuitable for my application. Crossovers are based on car frames whereas SUVs are based on truck frames. Thus crossovers seem to be less suitable for off-road applications and in my experience also tend to lack the wide at the wheelbase and flat storage area found in SUVs. For example, the Honda Pilot is based on the Odyssey frame (a minivan designed to look like an SUV), and although it is a great car in many respects, it's storage area slopes up radically towards the middle of the vehicle. So it won't hold 2 crates of my size. Likewise the Toyota Highlander is built on a Toyota Sienna minivan frame. It also has an upward slope at the middle. I ended up not seriously looking at this category because of the off road issue, so there may be some crossovers that would work OK if just the crates were a consideration, like the Traverse, Acadia, or Durango.
So when you think about SUVs in 2012, it seems that the only true SUVs that are in the size range that I'm talking about are: 4Runner, Pathfinder (mid sizes) and Sequoia, Armada, Expedition, and a number of cars even bigger with worse gas mileage. I found after a lot of looking that I could pretty much rule out a car if it didn't have 100 cubic feet of storage behind the front seats.
I ended up with a 4runner. You have to modify one of the crates so that the dog can get in at the middle set of doors, and you need a ramp because there's not a landing spot where the dog can jump up before getting into the crate. I also liked the fuel economy relative to some of my other choices, the impact safety, and the off road capabilities.
I've made a Google Doc that shares some of my specific research with you. If a cell is blank, it either means that I didn't bother to find that piece of information or the information wasn't available. If there is some information with a question mark, that means I wasn't sure or there was some modification/after market option required to make things work. Please use this for informational purposes only. I strongly recommend you measure the car yourself before you buy. You'd be surprised how even different options packages on the same car can affect what fits in it.
For all the cars below, the model year is 2012 (except the Element, which was no longer sold). The columns have the following meanings:
- Vehicle: name
- Type: suv/truck/etc
- Price: base price as listed on the manufacturer's website; sometimes I configured and got a quoted prices
- City: city mpg
- Hwy: hwy mpg
- Combined: average of the two above; this is not the standard calculation but more correct for my driving patterns
- Crate: F means that the 2 full sized 43 crates should fit with minor modifications; S means only SUV crates would fit
- Gap: means there is a gap b/w the back of the front seats and the nearest crate; useful if you want to use that for storage or have a crate door swing out that direction.
- CoO: Cost of Ownership from MotorTrend, e.g. New 2012 Toyota 4Runner Cost Of Ownership - Motor Trend Magazine
- Safety: the combined score from safercar.gov
- Clearance: ground clearance
- Approach: approach angle; where not listed I measured from pictures
- Departure: departure angle; where not listed I measured from pictures
- Break: break over angle (as above)
This is the link to the google doc spreadsheet: