Seating seven or even eight passengers used to be as simple as bolting a few rows of bench seats into a cargo van or large SUV, but today’s smaller vehicles require more detailed design and engineering to accommodate the entire entourage.

We recently tested two of the latest takes on 3-row passenger-hauling vehicles in the all-new ’18 Honda Odyssey minivan ($47,610 as tested) and the ’18 Volkswagen Atlas CUV ($49,415 as tested). Both offer surprising levels of comfort, convenience and flexibility in seating arrangements – in noticeably different ways.

The Odyssey, when equipped for seven with second-row captain’s chairs, employs a 2+2+3 layout, while the Atlas uses the more traditional 2+3+2 format. The Honda also offers seating for eight with a center seat in the second row installed.

Three bugaboos of 3-row vehicles are: accessibility to the third row; seat comfort and space once you’re in there; and the general flexibility of seating arrangements and how extra seats are stored.

Let’s start with the latter. In the past, minivan and SUV owners often faced the daunting task of unlatching or unbolting and removing heavy seats, sometimes as individual units but also as extremely cumbersome and hard-to-store benches.

Today’s vehicles typically provide simpler systems for folding and stowing seats, including Honda’s innovative Magic Seat third row, first introduced on the ’95 Odyssey. The 60/40 split seats easily can be stowed as a whole or in sections into the rear load floor, while the second row seats fold or can be removed if cargo space or a large flat load floor is needed. Chrysler provides similar functionality in its minivans with its optional Stow ’n Go system that allows owners to store both the second- and third-row seats in tubs in the floor.

The VW Atlas takes an approach more typical of CUVs, with folding seatbacks creating an elevated flat load surface. Each seating position folds independently providing maximum flexibility to choose between passenger space and cargo room. Optional second-row captain’s chairs eliminate a seat but also fold flat when cargo is the priority.

Second-row flexibility is the key to third-row accessibility, with the Odyssey and Atlas taking different approaches to solving this often body-contorting exercise. In its all-new minivan, Honda adds Magic Slide seating enabling the second-row chairs to not only move fore and aft but also to glide laterally to allow easy access to the third row. The lateral seat tracks have five built-in détente positions at 3.2-in. (82-mm) intervals.

The Atlas uses a more traditional slide-and-fold system, but with a 7.7-in. (196-mm) fore and aft range and an easy folding mechanism that enables the seat to tilt and slide forward even with a child seat in place. The net effect is one of the most accessible CUV third rows we’ve experienced, rivaling the ease of ingress/egress offered in a minivan.

But nothing dampens a drive more than discomfort, either from hard seats or lack of leg, head, shoulder and hip room. Too often, the third row is an afterthought, merely providing tie-down points for small children or child seats while serving as a penalty box for anyone who expresses their age in two digits.

Again, both of these test vehicles proved third-row comfort is possible. While our use of all three third-row seating positions in the Odyssey was limited, when used for a combination of cargo and a single passenger on longer drives the area became a preferred position for comfort and sleep. Meanwhile, second-row riders were free to configure their seats outboard or together depending on their preference.

Similarly, those riding in the Atlas’s third row never complained about lack of space or inadequate comfort, thanks to the vehicle’s flexibility and large 153.7-cu.-ft. (4,352-L) passenger cabin, just short of the minivan’s 160.1-cu.-ft. (4,534-L) cavern.

Top off all that cabin comfort and convenience with a built-in entertainment system (in the Odyssey) and enough USBs, power ports and cupholders to handle the needs of a small army and it’s easy to see why family haulers are becoming better in every way – even in the way, way back.

bgritzinger@wardsauto.com @bobgritzinger