First-Rate Family Vehicles

by Becky J. Beall

The past few years have produced a lesser quantity of family-friendly vehicles due to the automotive industry crisis, government bailouts, and honestly, just a struggling nationwide economy. And while many parts of that equation are still in the mending stages, our vehicle manufacturers are giving us some SUVs and minivans for 2012 that are well worth the drive.
We’ve tested and selected our favorites in a range of prices. We looked at the features families find most important: safety, interior design, gas mileage and price. Though all of the vehicles passed our criteria, we’ve listed them in alphabetical order – we didn’t want to say one vehicle was better than another for your family, because that’s largely dependent on what fits your family’s style and pocketbook. Here are our picks and why:

Chevrolet Traverse

  • What We Like: Entering its fourth year in the marketplace, the Chevy Traverse continues to do well in its segment of crossover vehicles. It is a safe vehicle with Stabilitrak and a rear camera available. This eight-passenger SUV gets 24 mpg on the highway. The power lift gate is handy, and the cargo space configuration is well thought out.
  • What’s New: Dark Silver Metallic and Crystal Red Tintcoat are two new colors for 2012. Aside from that, the only really notable change is to the outsidemirrors, which are power-adjustable, power-folding and heated.
  • Base Price: $29,430
  • Fuel Economy: 17/24  (intown/highway)   
  • Classification: SUV

Chrysler Town & Country

  • What We Like: The Town & Country has long since set the standard for the minivan segment of vehicles, and Chrysler is moving forward innovatively and technologically to continue providing the bells and whistles available with the competition. The minivan handles great and even the lowest trim level is well-equipped. Stow ‘N Go seats allow for extra storage.
  • What’s New: 2012 sees Chrysler add leather and a rear seat DVD entertainment system as standard equipment, even on the least expensive Touring model. The new sapphire blue lighting is a cool color to see in the cabin at night. And the Limited model gets a wood-and-leather steering wheel makeover. Some new exterior color choices are also available (True Blue, Crystal Blue, and Cashmere Pearl).
  • Base Price: $29,995
  • Fuel Economy: 17/25 
  • Classification: Minivan

Dodge Durango

  • What We Like: This seven-passenger crossover is roomy and stylish. The instrument panel is beautifully crafted, giving an upscale appearance. It’s a comfortable vehicle with tech-savvy features, and 23 mpg on the highway is good for this class vehicle.
  • What’s New: Dodge made only a few changes to the prior year’s Durango. The V8 gets a six-speed automatic, captain’s chairs are now available for the second row, and rear seat entertainment is an option.
  • Base Price: $29,845
  • Fuel Economy: 16/23
  • Classification: SUV

Ford Expedition

  • What We Like: This SUV has so much room to spread out – no kids in each other’s space on long trips (or short ones either). The power-fold seats are definitely a favorite option as is the power-lift gate. The independent rear suspension ensures a smooth ride, and this vehicle has powerful towing capacity (take that boat to the lake!). Additionally, the engine is a 5.4L V8 so it is able to deliver power when needed.
  • What’s New: There is nothing new or redesigned on the 2012 Expedition. You’ll find every amenity just as you expect from the 2011 model.
  • Base Price: $37,375
  • Fuel Economy: 13/18
  • Classification: SUV

Honda Odyssey

  • What We Like: This minivan leads its class for fuel economy, comfortably fits eight people, is engineered/assembled in the USA, earned a 5-star vehicle score from Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and has stayed true to the needs of its buyers – families.
  • What’s New: The Odyssey was redesigned in 2011, so not any big changes for this model year. The Touring gets a new exterior color choice – White Diamond Pearl.
  • Base Price: $28,225
  • Fuel Economy: 19/28
  • Classification:  Minivan

Hyundai Santa Fe

  • What We Like: The wide platform of the Santa Fe provides an aerodynamically sound ride and less wind drag than is sometimes felt in an SUV or minivan. Safety features such as Downhill Brake Control and Electronic Stability Control along with standard, side, and curtain airbags provide some of the most current life-saving technologies available. 
  • What’s New: The front grille is newly redesigned, there are two new color options (Venetian Red and Cabo Bronze), Downhill Brake Control (uses a Hydro-Electronic Control unit to receive information from the wheel speed, steering angle and acceleration sensors to maintain control and speed on steep declines without having to use the brake), and a new premium leather shift knob.
  • Base Price: $23,225
  • Fuel Economy: 20/28 (2.4L); 20/26 (3.5L)
  • Classification: SUV

Infiniti QX56

  • What We Like: This is an upscale, traveling-in-style vehicle at its best. Infiniti thought of everything from appropriateness of space distribution in the middle and back rows to dual DVD screens in the backs of the headrests. Cupholders abound – you can’t have too many! Everything is super comfy, the ride is awesome, and the power gives a feeling of security when merging in traffic or needing to pass on the highway.
  • What’s New: Only minor changes have been made and mostly for upgrades to certain trim lines. The Deluxe Touring Package has two additional speakers, Blind Spot Intervention is included in the Technology package, heated second row seats and tip-up second row seats are now available in the Theatre package, and 2WD models with the Deluxe Touring package now have headlight washers.
  • Base Price: $58,700
  • Fuel Economy: 14/20
  • Classification: SUV

Kia Sedona

  • What We Like: Kia Sedona is a four-time recipient of the “Top Safety Pick” award and proclaimed the “safest minivan ever tested” by IIHS. Kia offers an industry-leading 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty and is comparable to the Honda Odyssey in amenities and use of space.
  • What’s New: LX models will add an available rear-seat entertainment system and electro-chromatic rearview mirror.
  • Base Price: $24,900
  • Fuel Economy: 18/25
  • Classification: Minivan

Lexus RX350

  • What We Like: This popular luxury crossover has lots to enjoy, including an overall exciting driving experience. Count on a smooth, quiet ride. The exterior is as elegant as the interior, and silly as it may seem, we also love the gradual lighting that fades in on the instrument panel upon entry – it’s a special feature that says, “Hey, I’m no ordinary car!”
  • What’s New: The 2012 RX 350 sees little change, but owners will appreciate the new fuel recommendation of 87-octane gasoline. Additionally, a new color, Nebula Gray Pearl, replaces the Smoky Granite Mica.
  • Base Price: $39,075
  • Fuel Economy: 18/24
  • Classification: Midsize SUV

Mazda 5

  • What We Like: An affordable family vehicle that seats six with the third row, a V6 engine that supports a vehicle of this size, and the sporty exterior design all draw folks to this vehicle. Safety ratings are good and fuel economy is of an affordable range for families who are on the road a lot. It handles well and is very easy to park and maneuver, given that it’s not a full-size minivan.
  • What’s New: All-new for 2012, the three-row Mazda 5 brings Nagare design to the multipurpose vehicle segment. The Japanese term nagare means flow, and that’s how Mazda describes the stylish design of its 2012 Mazda 5, from flanks set off by elegant swooping lines to a backside that trades vertical lights for wraparound glass and horizontal lamps. The front seats are a little wider and there’s a new engine under the hood.
  • Base Price: $19,345
  • Fuel Economy: 21/28
  • Classification: Multi-Purpose Vehicle

Nissan Quest

  • What We Like: The design of the Quest is straightforward and the gear shift is up on the dashboard, freeing up the floor and console space. The feel is comfy and the ride is gentle, yet dependable in traffic. The space is well allocated. The under-floor storage is a hit!
  • What’s New: After undergoing quite the makeover last year, there will be little changes to this year’s model. It looks a little more like its sister, the Murano, yet still carries itself as Nissan’s proud minivan. It has all the safety features you expect, including multiple airbags and ABS (anti-lock breaking system). The entertainment system is unchanged as well.
  • Base Price: $27,750
  • Fuel Economy: 18/24
  • Classification: Minivan

Subaru Outback 2.5i

  • What We Like: We like the rugged build of this Subaru, which encourages outdoor activity for families. The base model 2.5i comes with a manual transmission, which is great for mpg. We also love that air bags are everywhere and safety isn’t compromised even in this standard model.
  • What’s New: The fourth-generation Outback features a new standard audio system for all Premium models, which includes: AM/FM stereo/CD, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and audio streaming, iPod control capability, USB port, and more; harman/kardon display-type audio system optional for Premium models; Alloy Wheel package for 2.5i (17-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, All-Weather package with two-stage heated front seats, heated exterior mirrors, and wiper de-icer); and steering wheel Bluetooth switches standard for Premium models.
  • Base Price: $23,295
  • Fuel Economy: 21/27
  • Classification: Midsize Utility Vehicle

Toyota Highlander Hybrid

  • What We Like: The exterior design is ruggedly handsome and withstands most off-roading functions. The interior is well appointed, with quality craftsmanship and a full set of amenities. It’s a roomy, comfortable mid-size crossover SUV and seats up to seven people.
  • What’s New: There are no changes to the 2012 Highlander or Highlander Hybrid. It’s the same beautiful machine it was last year.
  • Base Price: $38,140
  • Fuel Economy: 28/28
  • Classification: SUV

Volvo XC90

  • What We Like: Volvo’s continued commitment to safety, its sporty SUV that handles the road extremely well, especially in adverse weather, and the new app for iPhone or Android.
  • What’s New: Several features have been upgraded and/or redesigned to offer more character and luxury. New Day Running Lights, redesigned silver metallic bumper bar, new lower door moldings that are fully color-coordinated, new tail lamps with dual light guides, LED brake lights, and new six-spoke 18-inch wheels in silver matte finish. Inside materials have had an upgrade and the steering wheel is three-spoke. A new Executive version is available with elevated upscale features such as soft leather seats with ventilation and massage. Favorite new feature: Volvo On Call – a mobile app that allows cool things like car locator, remote heater start, vehicle dashboard (fuel level, range to empty, average fuel, average speed, odometer reading, trip meter reading), and car check (bulbs, brake fluid level, coolant level, engine oil level and oil pressure).
  • Base Price: $38,400
  • Fuel Economy: 16/23
  • Classification: SUV

 

One Family’s Choice

A faithful friend – one you’ve spent more time with than you care to admit – is on its last wheels. Or maybe your family is growing and it feels like your vehicle is shrinking. It’s time to shop for a new or gently used minivan or SUV.
What should you look for? If you’re like most parents, you’ll be looking hardest at the vehicle’s safety record, along with its price, interior space and layout, gas mileage and repair frequency. Also of interest could be the “backup camera” feature and amenities from a GPS to a DVD entertainment system.
When Allison Redd and her husband, Gaines, bought their 2007 Toyota Sienna in June, more space was a must. The Peachtree Corners couple was expecting their third son in August, and the family’s 2001 Honda Civic couldn’t accommodate three child safety seats.
“Obviously, we needed something soon,” Allison says, with a laugh.
“And price was a factor. We wanted to pay cash as much as possible.”
Safety and reliability also were at the top of their list.
The Redds are fairly typical of families shopping for a new or pre-owned vehicle, says Carey Wynn, general manager of the CarMax superstore in Lithia Springs. “Their primary concern will be price, then gas mileage and some of the amenities, and of course, safety, definitely safety.”
Price often drives families to shop for a used minivan or SUV. But, surprisingly, high on the priority list after price is a want-to-have feature, a DVD system.
“They want to keep the kids entertained, especially on road trips,”
Wynn says. “Space inside is important, too, and lots of families want built-in navigational systems so they don’t have extra cords everywhere from a GPS.”
Whether the vehicle is new or used, researching before you buy is key.
The Redds spent two to three months searching for the right vehicle for their family. They checked out vehicle ratings in Consumer Reports, talked with other minivan owners, and compared makes and models online. They narrowed their choices to the Honda Odyssey and the Sienna, then discovered that the Odyssey held its value a little too well for their budget. They also were swayed by the Sienna’s performance record.
“The Sienna had the highest safety ratings, and no transmission problems,” Allison says. “We were looking for a vehicle with the durability to last 10 years.”
They found a Sienna on sale at a Marietta dealership, then had an independent mechanic check it out. “The mechanic told us it was a great vehicle in very good shape, and we’d talked to other dealers who couldn’t match that price,” Allison says. “We think we got a good deal.”
Before buying, Wynn says families should get the vehicle’s repair history, look at its reliability record, do a price comparison, ask if the dealership has a return policy or warranty, and ask if the vehicle has been inspected for mechanical problems. And if the vehicle passes those tests, get your own mechanic to check it out.
“It’s tough to look for a car,” Wynn says. “It’s a big investment for most families. It starts with research.”
The Redds are glad they spent the time. Their minivan seats up to seven – enough room for child safety seats for Jacob, 4, Ethan, 2, and Calvin, 3 months – and for the grandparents to come along occasionally. It has plenty of room for luggage and strollers.
“I never realized how much easier it would be to get the kids in and out – and to lug around all our stuff,” Allison says. “I love the automatic door. I love that it’s easy to drive.”
And if she could change anything about her minivan?
“I wish it had leather seats – they’re so much easier to clean than cloth seats. And maybe a portable DVD. We’ve never had one – the kids sing and read in the back seat – but I can see how a DVD system might be a good thing to have sometimes.”

– Amanda Allen