With a prices starting under $17,000, the Caliber gives you a lot of cargo space for the money. How much cargo space? 18.5 cubic feet, which opens up to 48 cubic feet with the back seats folded down. That's not quite as much as a compact SUV, but it's within shouting range, and the cargo bay is lined with durable plastic -- a useful feature not found in many SUVs. Other advantages: Better-than-SUV fuel economy and chunky SUV-like good looks. The Caliber isn't the best car to drive, but it's one of the most versatile compact wagons on the market.
2. Ford Taurus
One of my complaints about SUVs is that you have to get a pretty big (and thirsty) one in order to get a decent-sized back seat that's easy to get in and out of. The Taurus solves that problem -- it's got a huge back seat with big doors that give you plenty of room for ingress and egress. The trunk is mind-bogglingly big, and the Taurus even offers available all-wheel-drive for all-weather security.
3. Honda Fit
Don't laugh! The Honda Fit may be tiny, but it's a model of space efficiency. The cargo bay stows a massive 20.6 cubic feet. Folding the rear seats down yields 57.3 cubic feet of space -- just 9 cubic feet less than a Ford Escape SUV with the back seats folded -- and you can even fold the back seat bottoms upwards to accommodate tall, awkward items (big houseplants, large paintings, etc.). The 1.5 liter four-cylinder engine develops more than enough power for the featherweight Fit, and delivers the kind of fuel economy SUV owners can only dream about.
4. Kia Rondo
The Rondo was designed to bridge the gap between cars, minivans and SUVs. The Rondo has seven seats, including a third-row seat that offers far more space and comfort than most small seven-seat SUVs. The Rondo is also ridiculously inexpensive -- even a fully-equipped V6-powered model sells for under $26,000, a price point at which many seven-passenger SUVs are just getting started. The Rondo's weak point is that it doesn't store much cargo with all seven seats in place -- but many SUVs have the same problem.
If your family has grown too big for a 5-seat sedan, consider the 6-seat Mazda5. The Mazda5 is basically a mini-minivan, offering a nice compromise between passenger space and cargo room plus the convenience of sliding rear doors. The Mazda5 gets all the power it needs from a fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine, plus it's cool looking and fun to drive.
When I was a kid, big wagons were the family-haulers of choice. In Europe, many families still rely on station wagons, and the E-Class is one of the best. The E is elegant, luxurious, and relaxing to drive. A rear-facing seat in the cargo bay allows the E-Class to seat 7 in a pinch -- and when the seat isn't in use, it folds down flat into the floor. The base-model E350 comes with a powerful V6 and 4Matic all-wheel-drive as standard, while the E63 AMG, which packs a 507 horsepower V8, is the ultimate stealth muscle car.
7. Scion xB
A lot of people complained when Scion came out with a newer and bigger xB in 2008, but I was cheering -- the xB's new-found size makes it an excellent family car and a fantastic SUV alternative. The xB boasts a roomy rear seat and a huge, well-shaped and easy-to-load cargo bay that rivals many small SUVs. The xB's unusual looks and quirky interior are a nice change from the status quo. It's fun to drive, easy to park, fuel efficient and packed with safety features -- plus it's a Toyota, which means it's as reliable as the day is long.
If you're considering an SUV for its foul-weather prowess, consider doing what countless rust-belt residents do: Buy a Subaru. Like all Subarus, the Impreza comes with all-wheel-drive as standard. The Impreza may not look very big or beefy, but keep in mind that the bits that make it go are tucked up under the bodywork, not dangling down underneath as they are on big truck-based SUVs, so the Impreza has 6.1 inches of ground clearance -- only an inch and a half less than a Jeep Liberty. The Impreza is available as a 4-door sedan or a 5-door mini-wagon, the latter offering a useful 19 cubic feet of cargo space. A great way to get from point A to point B no matter how bad the roads get.
9. Suzuki SX4
When the SX4 Crossover made its debut in 2007, it was remarkable for many reasons -- not least of which was the fact that it came with standard all-wheel-drive for less than $16,000. For 2009, all-wheel-drive is a $500 option, and the SX4 is not as cheap as it once was -- but it now comes with a standard navigation system. Add in all-wheel-drive and the tab is $17,249 -- which means its still the least-expensive all-wheel-drive car you can buy. I like the SX4 because it's tiny on the outside, big on the inside, well-equipped, powerful, and a lot of fun to drive. Fuel efficiency isn't great for a small car, but it beats the pants off of most SUVs.
With 32.8 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats, the Jetta wagon stows away more cargo than many compact SUVs -- and it's a well-thought-out cargo bay, with a flat floor, almost-flat sides, and a thick, durable carpet lining. The Jetta has a fun-to-drive factor that few SUVs can touch, especially if you opt for the manual transmission (another feature rarely found on SUVs). The Jetta SportWagen offers a choice of three engines, all of which offer plenty of cargo-hauling power; the base 2.5 liter five-cylinder is pretty thirsty, but the 2.0T turbo is a lot of fun and the TDI diesel gets unbelievably good fuel economy.