Work. Daycare. School. Soccer practice. Band lessons. Grocery trips. Today's families keep a heavy, intense schedule. And they keep it in their cars.
A car is usually the second-most expensive purchase most families make, and sometimes it seems like they spend more time in it than at home.
Fortunately, great family cars are everywhere. Though the auto industry is in trouble these days, its products are better than ever - and a spacious, comfortable ride for four (or more) is within reach of most family budgets. Here are a few of our favorites:
When we sat down to calculate the Best Small Car for the Money, we expected our formula to crown one of the usual suspects...perhaps the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. But when we actually ran the formula -- considering initial sales price, five-year cost-of-ownership, and the position of each car in our rankings (which analyze the relative opinion of the automotive press) -- the winner was a bit of a surprise. The Hyundai Elantra turns out to be the best buy in the affordable small car class. That's a particularly impressive accomplishment when you consider that the Elantra isn't a small car. It's so spacious that the EPA classifies Hyundai's Civic-competitor as midsize. A midsize car, for the price of a small car, that's so reliable it's the most cost-effective buy in its class. That fits any family's budget.
Insider Tip: Worried the Elantra won't haul all of your family's gear? A surprisingly attractive wagon version, the Elantra Touring, has recently reached showrooms.
We're not sure if the Ford Flex is a wagon, an SUV, or a minivan wearing a particularly effective disguise. We are sure it's available with seating for seven (and yes, the third-row is spacious enough for adults), separate LCD screens for each second-row passenger, and even an actual working refrigerator mounted within reach of rear-seat passengers. The Flex may be the ultimate road-trip vehicle. And unlike that minivan, its supersized-Mini-Cooper look is actually stylish.
Insider Tip: Until June 1, the Flex can be purchased with 0 percent APR financing for 60 months. See our Ford deals for more details.
Eventually, every family is going to consider a minivan. No matter how much scorn pop culture may heap on the dreaded mom-mobile, it simply makes too much sense to ignore as your family grows. Unfortunately, these days minivans can cost as much as luxury cars to own, and with sedan-like powertrains hauling the weight of a truck, they can need expensive repairs down the line. Toyota's minivan, the Sienna, won our Best Minivan for the Money award for its budget-friendly combination of a reasonable purchase price, low five-year cost of ownership and strong position in our rankings, which reflect the collective opinion of the automotive press. The Toyota Sienna is smooth and easy to handle in parking lots, seats up to eight comfortably, has more storage spaces than you can count (several reviewers gave up trying), and costs little to own compared to its competitors.
Insider Tip: The Sienna is outstanding, but you might also want to check out the Hyundai Entourage. It's a nice ride as well, but Hyundai recently discontinued it, meaning that many dealers are willing to negotiate with any buyer who might take one off their lot.
Ford Fusion Hybrid
The perennial favorites in the world of family cars, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, might want to start looking over their shoulders. Ford's new green car, the Fusion Hybrid, is winning raves from the automotive press. It offers all of the space and utility of a midsize car, combined with an upscale interior that looks more expensive than it is, and a 41 mpg combined rating. Its standard SYNC system allows you to control Bluetooth-enabled phones with voice commands. You can even send and receive text messages from your teenager - the navigation system will read them to you out loud. The Camry and Accord have nothing comparable.
Insider Tip: If your kids will learn to drive in your next car, you might want to wait a year on the Fusion. The 2011 model will feature MyKey, a parental-control system that allows you to limit the car's speed, the radio's volume and other settings based on which key starts the car.
To design the Venza, Toyota engineers took the best of what people want from a sedan, the best of what they want from an SUV, a pinch of the utility that used to make station wagons great family rides, and a dash of sleek modern styling. The result is a vehicle that crosses a lot of categories, but is surprisingly athletic given Toyota's reputation for reliable-but-mushy cars. There is probably enough space inside the Venza for a third row of seats, but instead, Toyota gave it a huge rear seat spacious enough for older kids and all of their stuff -- which might suit many families better than two undersized rows of seating.
Insider Tip: Two engines are offered, but the V6 isn't much more expensive than the four-cylinder engine, and there isn't much of a mileage penalty for the added power.
Three words: Rear bucket seats. Rear-seat passengers are set far apart, in separate bucket seats, with a storage console between them. It's not quite as good as a wall between the kids, but it defines territory clearly. When the kids are big enough to reach across and snatch toys from one another, you'll get a Sienna and put them in separate rows. In the meantime, with the VW CC you'll have one of the nicest interiors available below $30K, a sporty-looking ride you're not embarrassed to park at the office...and a border between the two kids in the back, clearly defined by a two-tone upholstery color scheme.
Insider Tip: Keep it cheap. The CC can range from $27K to over $40K with options, but the base model is very well equipped.
Twenty-three words: Supple Poltrona Frau® leather-upholstered rear bucket seats with separate climate controls, power-adjustable positioning, massage function and a power window shade for each. Kids separated by an acre of space. Okay, okay, so if you buy a Quattroporte you'd be choosing a car over a college education for each of your kids. And probably retirement for yourself. And possibly a roof over all of your heads.
But consider this: they could learn art appreciation from the custom interior color palette, and natural history from the exotic Rosewood, Briarwood, Mahogany, rare Vovona and Polished Wenge wood accents in the cabin. They could develop a fine sense of athletic balance from the Skyhook suspension's millions of subtle adjustments to shock damping in response to road conditions. They could develop a refined ear for music from the visceral roar of the Ferrari-sourced V8 up front. And if they didn't, you could just accelerate, and it would drown out the whining.
Insider Tip: One of the best ways to cope with the stresses of parenting is an active imagination.