Walk into a dealership and ask to see the new-generation family car, and you might receive a puzzled look. That's because today's family cars are no longer one-size-fits-all.
"The key is versatility," says Jennifer Stockburger, a senior automotive engineer at Consumer Reports. "The family car is the multi-use vehicle for many families. Consumers are very demanding in what they want, and they aren't willing to compromise."
A family car needs to be adaptable, to accommodate an adult or teen driver; equipped with safety features to protect passengers of all ages and sizes; offer a range of flexibility to add cargo space when needed; and provide easy access to rear seats (for car seats or adults who may sit in back).
"Families come in all shapes and sizes," says Kristin Varela, chief mother and senior editor at motherproof.com, which evaluates vehicles with children in mind. "And this is the up-and-coming sandwiched generation that is caring for aging parents and young children."
Behind the numbers
We looked for the best family cars in 10 market segments to find affordable vehicles designed to suit a variety of needs. All cars considered had a base MSRP of $18,000 to $30,000, and had to have standard or available electronic stability control; side curtain airbags for additional protection in a collision; seats that fold down to add cargo space when needed; and tilt-adjustable and telescopic steering to accommodate drivers of all sizes.
We used Consumer Reports' Rear Access rating to measure ease of entry and exit, as well as the Driver Position rating to measure comfort and visibility for all drivers. The ratings range from "excellent" to "poor"; all of our vehicles had to at least earn "good" in both categories.
So which car is the best for a family? It all depends on the family.
A single parent with two children will probably fit nicely in the compact Volkswagen Rabbit sedan, with enough trunk space to accommodate soccer gear and groceries. But a family of six that includes an elderly relative may need a more spacious interior, like the Saturn Outlook crossover vehicle, which can accommodate up to seven passengers with its additional third-row seat, yet is easier to step into than a high-sitting SUV.
When it comes to fuel economy, it should be a concern for anyone buying a family car since gas prices have topped $4 a gallon. However, safety features are at the top of consumers' considerations, according to a study by Ford Motor Company. Ford found that nearly 70 percent of car buyers are interested in side air bags, and 65 percent are interested in electronic stability control.
But since fuel prices can't be ignored entirely, Consumer Reports says a combined mpg of 17 to 20 or higher is a good target for a family ride. Keep in mind, however, the larger the family — and, hence, the family car — the lower the fuel economy is likely to be. That's not to say, however, that automakers don't do their best to build larger cars that don't guzzle gas.
A larger vehicle like the Saab Sport Combi wagon, for example, has a maximum of 72 cubic feet of cargo space — about half the maximum space when all rear seats are folded flat in a minivan — when the second-row seat is folded down. The main cargo-area floor also lifts to divide the space into two separate sections for tailgate parties, and has additional storage in the recessed sub floor. That's a fairly good amount of space and storage, and the car still manages to get an EPA estimated 20 mpg.
The need for family cars to satisfy different types of families has spawned a new breed of vehicle, the crossover. Crossovers ride like a car, offer comforts and conveniences of a minivan or SUV, and sit slightly higher than a passenger car to provide improved visibility. The cars tend to be more fuel-efficient than SUVs, yet are more stylish than your standard minivan, often including cutting-edge features.
The Ford Edge is equipped with a voice-activated hands free in-car communications and entertainment system called "Ford Sync" that fully integrates mobile phones and media players into the vehicle using Bluetooth technology and USB connection. Ford developed this system with Microsoft.
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Even within the crossover segment there are different shapes and sizes of vehicles. The Edge does not have a third row of seats, but the Saturn Outlook does. The second-row seat cushion flips up while the seatback slides forward for easy third-row access.
More or less, every family car can adapt to the changing needs of a family. That's what they're designed for.
"Families grow and change, and the changes probably will occur during the lifespan of the car," says Varela. "Families need to think ahead about their lifestyle and needs beyond today so they can purchase a vehicle that will grow with them."