Back before the whole SUV craze got its start, moms drove station wagons -- massive ones with marshmallow suspensions and slabs of fake wood glued to the sides. Today, wagons have a new image: They're sleek, they're sporty, and they stand out from the crowd of look-alike SUVs. Acura's new TSX Sport Wagon is a great example: Good looking, great to drive, and eminently practical. It may not have the cavernous cargo capacity of the Oldsmobile Vista Cruisers or Ford Country Squires of yore, but it'll do just fine for delivering bulky art projects or hauling the family to the mountains for a weekend getaway.
Like the Acura TSX Sport Wagon, Cadillac's new CTS Sport Wagon prioritizes form over function -- but what a beautiful form. The CTS Sport Wagon still hauls more cargo than a sedan (and about 2/3rds as much as a small SUV), and it will turn heads in the parking lot the way no SUV or minivan ever would. The CTS is packed with creature comforts, including a power-operated tailgate that can be set to open to any height (perfect for low garages and short owners). It offers a choice of two fuel-efficient V6 engines and three suspension setups ranging from soft-and-cushy to firm-and-sporty. And if you're looking to support our nation's auto industry, you'll be pleased to know that the CTS is designed and built in the USA.
3. Honda Civic
I have met lots of parents who just want a simple, reliable, budget-friendly car, and I almost always recommend the Honda Civic. The Honda Civic is big enough to accommodate a family of four yet small enough that get gets fantastic fuel economy -- but the Civic's best trait is it's about as reliable as the sunrise. Buy a Civic when your kids are infants, follow the recommended maintenance schedule, and there's every chance you'll be teaching them to drive on that same Civic 16 years later.
4. Honda Fit
At first glance, the Honda Fit looks too small to be a family car -- but look closer and you'll see the sheer genius of the Fit's design. Despite its small size, the Fit is amazingly space-efficient, with a cargo bay that stows 20.6 cubic feet -- more than the Audi A4 Avant wagon -- and a back seat that will accommodate two high-school-age kids in comfort. Fold the back seat down, and the Fit will haul as much cargo as a full-size SUV; flip the back seat cushion up and the Fit will accommodate tall, oddly-shaped items that can't lie flat (art projects, tall plants). All this in a small package that's easy to park and gets 35 MPG. Parenting tip: For maximum safety, buy the Sport model, which gets electronic stability control as standard.
The Elantra Touring was originally designed for sale in Europe; it's a unique car here in America, sized somewhere between a compact hatchback and a small wagon. That's a good place to be. The Elantra Touring has a generous back seat and a 24.3 cubic foot cargo bay -- almost as much space as a Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon -- but it drives and parks like a compact car. When I tested the Elantra Touring last year, I complained that the interior felt a little cheap for its $20k price tag. Hyundai has since introduced a sub-$17k version, the Elantra Touring GLS, which comes nicely equipped (including air conditioning and electronic stability control) and offers better value-for-money.
I know, I know -- a two-door convertible isn't exactly the most practical mommymobile. But moms work hard, and what better reward is there than a convertible? And if you're going to get a convertible, the Lexus IS 250C does the job better than most. Its retractable-hardtop design makes it weatherproof; the back seat is bigger than most of its rivals (though legroom will be a problem when your kids get older); and the trunk, while not exactly huge, provides decent room when the top is up. Leather-lined luxury makes it a treat to drive, and Lexus' impeccable build quality means that Mom will still be enjoying her Lexus when the kids have grown up and moved out.
7. Scion xB
The boxy Scion xB started life as a look-at-me boxmobile for young male extroverts, but after the car proved to be inexplicably popular with 36-year-old women, Toyota wisely decided to scale up the xB to proper family size. The current xB has more back seat and cargo space than many small SUVs, plus it's strong on safety with six airbags, antilock brakes and electronic stability control, all standard. It's also a good value: $16,520 including air conditioning, while strong resale values and last-forever build quality make it a safe buy.
Most moms I know put a high priority on safety, and the Impreza's combination of electronic stability control (ESC) and all-wheel-drive AWD is the best safety combination I can think of. ESC and AWD give the Impreza incredible agility in a sudden panic swerve; if you can't avoid an accident in an Impreza, the accident probably couldn't be avoided in any car. For mothers, I recommend the Impreza 2.5i hatchback; its 19 cubic feet of cargo space makes it easy to pack in everything from strollers to soccer cleats. At $18,690, the Impreza isn't exactly cheap, but I think the peace of mind is well worth the extra money spent.
9. Toyota Prius
The Prius' charms go beyond its environmental do-gooder image -- this is a practical 5-door hatchback that offers all the space and practicality that busy mothers need in their cars. And yes, it is good for the environment -- the freshly-redesigned Prius easily manages 48 MPG in mixed driving, so it uses only half the fuel of a typical mid-size sedan and about one-third as much as an SUV or a minivan. That's good for Mother Earth. And the fact that the Prius' price tag is comparable to other mid-size cars make it good for mother's budget.
In contrast to the Audi A4 Avant and Cadillac CTS-V Sport Wagon listed above, the Volkswagen Jetta wagon is all about cargo space -- 32.8 cubic feet, which is only a smidge less than Volkswagen's own Passat wagon and a half-smidge smaller than the Volvo V70, both of which are significantly bigger cars. And with the seats folded, the cargo space doubles. Since my last test drive, VW has given the Jetta a new front end and a much-improved navigation system, plus maintenance for the first 3 years or 36,000 miles is free -- so the Jetta SportWagen is a better bargain than ever.