If you've just recently started a family, or if you're contemplating having (or adopting) that first kid, it's important to have a family-friendly car that best suits your budget and lifestyle. Here, in alphabetical order, are twelve cars that I've found to be particularly well suited for growing families.
Frumpy as they may be, station wagons are the most practical cars for growing families. From hauling the hundred pounds of gear that seems to accompany our first baby, through carrying delicate art projects to school, right up to transporting your kid's football gear and bass drum, no other type of car will serve you so well from delivery room to college graduation. Acura's TSX Sport Wagon makes the transition easy -- it's good looking, good fun to drive, and reasonably priced. And since its an Acura, you can count on it to deliver years of trouble-free service.
2. Ford Fusion
There is no shortage of good mid-size family cars, but I'm particularly partial to the Ford Fusion. Its big back seat makes it easy to maneuver babies into their car seats, and the extra legroom comes in handy if your kids grow faster than expected (as happened to me!). The large trunk easily swallows all of your baby apparatus with room left over for a couple of suitcases. The Fusion is attractively priced and offers several variations, including a fuel-efficient four-cylinder base model, the fun-to-drive Fusion Sport, and the super-green Fusion Hybrid. It's even available with all-wheel-drive, an important safety feature if you live where it often rains or snows.
3. Honda Civic
There are two reasons the Civic makes such a great family car. First, its back seat is especially well designed, with a flat floor that provides lots of extra space. Second, Honda's legendary build quality isn't just a legend -- Civics really are exceptionally reliable cars. Stay up on routine maintenance, and there's a every reason to expect that the Civic you use to bring your newborn home will be the same car in which you send her off to college. Great fuel economy and low running costs round out the Civic, making it a practical, efficient way to haul your family.
Starting a family often means making financial sacrifices -- giving up some of the luxuries in life to have more funds available for kids. The Elantra makes the transition easy -- not only is it one of the least-expensive compact sedans on the market, but it's also one of the most well-appointed, with a beautifully trimmed interior and a long list of standard equipment. Not ready to give up all the finer things? No problem -- you can get a leather-upholstered Elantra for less than $21,000. And with a 40 MPG highway rating, the Elantra will continue to save you money as long as you own it.
The Hyundai Elantra Touring is actually a completely different car than the Hyundai Elantra. Essentially a re-badged version of Hyundai's European-market i30, the Elantra Touring spans the size range between 5-door hatchbacks like the Mazda3 and compact wagons like the Acura TSX. Result: Lots of space for baby gear and luggage and less bulk to park. And like all Hyundais, the Elantra Touring is inexpensive and protected by a long warranty. Low-grade interior materials are the biggest negative point; the Touring is based on the old-shape Elantra, not the new one. Note: In my review, I griped a bit about the price; Hyundai has since introduced a less-expensive version, and I like the value equation much better.
6. Kia Optima
For years, the Optima has been my standard recommendation for families who want the space of a mid-size car but don't have the budget -- the old Optima made a great cut-rate Camry. For 2011, the Optima is all new, and it's absolutely fantastic. A kissin' cousin to the Hyundai Sonata -- voted our 2011 Readers' Choice for Best Family Car -- the Optima has a fantastic engine and a roomy interior. One thing that hasn't changed is the value: For the same price as a nicely-equipped Honda Civic, you can get an Optima LX with cruise control, alloy wheels, and an automatic transmission, and two grand more buys you easy-to-clean leather and automatic climate control. Best yet, the Optima looks great sitting in the driveway -- and no one will ever guess how little you paid.
7. Nissan Versa
The Nissan Versa is my favorite family car for parents on a tight budget, because no other new car offers so much space for so little money. Though the Versa is sold (and priced) as a subcompact, its interior (specifically its back seat) is as roomy as many mid-size cars. Prices start under $11,000 and nicely-equipped examples can be had for less than $16,000, which means that even families on a tight budget can have the peace-of-mind that comes with owning a new car. The Versa is offered as both a sedan and a hatch; I prefer the sedan, because its wider trunk opening makes it easy to load a large stroller.
8. Scion xB
Scion's big box-on-wheels is one of my favorite family cars for a host of reasons. First and foremost is the shape, which provides easy access to the spacious back seat a cargo bay that stows as much luggage as a small SUV. Second is the value: The xB is priced at $16,720 ($950 more with an automatic transmission) which comes with all the necessities: Air conditioning, power windows and locks, an iPod-compatible stereo, and all the safety equipment a growing family needs, including electronic stability control and six airbags. Fuel economy is significantly better than an SUV, though not as good as a compact car. And since Scion is a division of Toyota, you can count on the xB to run virtually forever.
Having kids doesn't mean giving up your passion for driving, and no car combines family practicality and raw thrills like the Impreza WRX. The WRX accelerates like a sling-shot and sticks to the corners like used gum, yet it's roomy and practical, reasonably affordable, and has a tolerable ride. One can even argue that it's a safe choice, since its all-wheel-drive system provides superior traction in all weather conditions. Speaking of all-wheel-drive, I also like the base-model Impreza 2.5i. Though it's not as thrilling as the WRX, it's incredibly safe and can handle inclement weather as well as -- if not better than -- most SUVs.
10. Suzuki Kizashi
Buying a Kizashi is a little like stumbling upon a great little restaurant that none of your friends have ever heard of. The Kizashi is sized between traditional compact and mid-size cars, which means plenty of space for children and child seats in back, and easy maneuverability around town. The interior trimmings have a subtly upscale feel, and the handling is a lot of fun -- and did I mention that it offers all-wheel-drive as an option? If you find compact cars to be too small and mid-size cars too boring, the Kizashi is a nice compromise.
11. Toyota Prius
It's hard not to appreciate a car that routinely gets 48 MPG -- when gas prices spike, Prius owners don't feel nearly as much pain in their wallets. But there's a lot more to like about the Prius than fuel economy. Though its aerodynamic-doorstop styling was designed to cheat the wind, it also makes for a great family car, with a roomy backseat and a cargo bay that is long, rather than tall, which provides a lot more usable space for strollers and sports gear. The Prius was redesigned in 2010, and while I prefer the previous version, I still think the new Prius makes an excellent family car.
Station wagons are few and far between here in the States, but back in Europe, they are still the family-car of choice. The Volkswagen Jetta is probably one of the best of the breed, because it was designed from the back-end first, with a huge cargo bay lined with durable materials. Bought the world's biggest twin jogging stroller? Got twins who both play the sousaphone? Perhaps your kid volonteered to take his school's pet polar bear home for the weekend? Whatever you need to haul, chances are it'll fit in the back of the Jetta SportWagen. Although the Jetta sedan was updated for 2011, the wagon is still based on the old Jetta, which is a good thing -- it has a nicer interior and it's better to drive, and you can even get it with a super-frugal diesel engine.