Need to cross a minivan with a Prius (or vice versa)
May 30, 2014 11:19 AM   Subscribe

Just discovered that our next car purchase needs to happen this summer, so I've gotta get into research mode stat. Is there such a thing as a family car (ie kid transporter etc) with great city gas mileage? Special snowtires inside.

The kids will be going to the same school next year -- so starting this fall we will apparently need the ability to carry them plus a friend each, i.e. four six-year-olds (in booster seats), at the same time. For many families this translates to "minivan!" -- and maybe it ultimately will here too. But my wife and I have other essential criteria for our next mode of transport, so before we give up we would like to see if they all can possibly coexist.

1) Four wheel drive. We get a lot of snow and my wife is not comfortable driving in the winter without it. (Bonus for a tall undercarriage like that on the CR-V -- plowing is not always an immediate thing in our neighborhood.)

2) Great city gas mileage. We do about 90% city driving, usually 3-10 mile hops (smallish city). Routine trips never involve more than a couple of miles at a stretch on a highway. I quail at the idea of getting under 20 miles per gallon, especially during the day when there's just one of us in the car. I was really looking forward to something Prius-like as our next car until the 4-kids requirement made itself known. Any larger hybrids or EVs out there that can get at least 25mpg city or greater?

3) Reliability. From past posts here that translates to "Honda or Toyota" as I understand it.

4) Manageable cost. Previous cars have all cost in the $20k -$23k range; I'd like to stay below $27k if possible. No problem if that means used.

Right now we're envisioning a used Toyota Highlander hybrid as the best bet. Is that an option? Is it the only one? Any possibility of a Ford Escape or whatever the new Subaru hybrid is as a dark horseless carriage? (Or an Outback?)

Any thoughts? Thanks all.
posted by sesquipedalia to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Whatever you end up trying, take four booster seats you'll be using with you to try all at once. Lots of good data on

We've got an older Prius and a recent Soul; only do two across and the third kid is usually squozed in between the high back booster and we put an older one in the front seat from time to time. So not the Soul. I've heard the new Honda Insights ride very roughly.

One other thing to watch out for; one of my friends bought a Ford C Max and there's no spare tire, just a can of stuff you squirt into a hopefully simply flat tire to get you to the dealer.
posted by tilde at 11:26 AM on May 30, 2014

Hybrid Highlander is a great choice. The hybrid Subaru XV Crosstrek is also a great fit for your criteria. Both are very reliable, very safe, great gas mileage, lots of room. The Crosstrek will be cheaper, and definitely fit in your under 27k criteria. Highlander...might be tougher. Not sure if finding a used hybrid highlander will be very easy, and a new one will run you over 40k. Outbacks are awesome cars (I'm biased), but the Hybrid Crosstrek will get slightly better city gas mileage.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:27 AM on May 30, 2014

My boss has a hybrid highlander. It's extremely reliable, easy to drive and confidently planted(i've borrowed it several times)... and gets utterly crap gas mileage. I've never broken 20, even totally feather-footing it and trying to see how high i could get the trip mileage reading.

It's the 1st generation they made a hybrid of those from ~2006/7 or so, so the newer ones may be a bit better... but yea. It gets like 18mpg from what i've seen, and i've seen the combined trip gauge read like 13 before on an entirely in-city trip.

I believe she gets better than that with cruise on doing highway driving with lots of ski/snowboard gear in it, but i'd have to ask her.
posted by emptythought at 11:44 AM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just looked up the 2014 Crosstrek, and it retails around $26,000 and gets 29 mpg in the city. Plus it comes in orange.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:48 AM on May 30, 2014

I don't know why people think minivans are so uncool. The Toyota Sienna comes in all-wheel drive, it will hold all of those kids, a couple of dogs, and a whole bunch of groceries.
posted by mareli at 11:57 AM on May 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Maybe the answer is two vehicles? We bought a 1997 Toyota 4Runner for under $1K to drive in winter, to spare our 2013 Accord from road salt baths, and I can honestly say it saved my life more than once this past (terrible) winter. I've never really liked trucks/SUVs before but older Toyotas ARE amazing (just like MeFi said!). I'm sad that I've had to go back to driving my fuel-efficient car.
posted by lily_bart at 12:03 PM on May 30, 2014

Not available with 4WD (in the US, anyway), but check out the Mazda5. It satisfies all your other requirements nicely.
posted by ndg at 12:03 PM on May 30, 2014

I don't think the Crosstrek will accommodate 4 booster seats - probably only 3 - it's smaller than my Forester which only seats 3 in the back unless there's an option for an additional seat in the far back.
posted by leslies at 12:39 PM on May 30, 2014

Best answer: If you *really* need 4WD - few people actually do, although many people want it as a peace of mind magic bullet - then your answer boils down to the Toyota Sienna.

If you can get by without 4WD, the Honda Odyssey is more fun to drive.

Not much else will meet your space and reliability requirements while being manageable in cost. Get something one year old under the "Honda Certified" or equivalent program - the warranty is actually better than a new car, and it gets cheaper too.

As for your mileage requirements - good luck. If you want something with lots of space, it'll have awful mileage. You might consider getting a tiny Honda Fit/Jazz or Civic as a second car if you'll have many 1-person drives.

(My brother in law owns a Sienna; we're on our second Odyssey. Our first one was totalled by a distracted driver; we walked away thanks to solid engineering, and bought another Odyssey the next week.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:13 PM on May 30, 2014

Response by poster: Yep, the Crosstrek only seats 5. And the AWD Sienna gets only 16mpg city. Yikes.

Mazda5 looks good in all respects other than the lack of AWD (and possible reliability concerns since it's not a Honda or Toyota).

If we find a cheap enough Highlander I'll try to give it enough of a test drive to make sure the actual city mileage meets expectations.

Wish I could split these needs among two cars! Unfortunately, the same car that will be doing the kids' pickups is the one that one of us will be driving around in the winter and to/from work when the kids are at school.

Probably no mythical beast that meets all the criteria, but I had to ask.
posted by sesquipedalia at 1:15 PM on May 30, 2014

It's also worth noting, as a counterpoint to my poo-pooing post above, fuelly disagrees and infact in my searches for similar vehicles(subaru tribeca, etc) that seems to be the highest mpg you can get out of a car that size, unless you're willing to buy like... an audi q7 or vw toureg TDI or something.(and then you own a VW, and... lol repair bills).

maybe my bosses car just sucks for some reason. it does seem very well maintained mechanically, but it seems to not be the norm for that vehicle...
posted by emptythought at 1:18 PM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just throwing this out there- the Ford Transit Connect is a small box on wheels that seats seven and gets great gas mileage. I drive a Toyota Matrix (Corolla hatchback) and am always amazed when I park next to a Transit Connect how it has basically the same footprint but can carry so much more. It isn't super fancy like the traditional minivans, but it would get the job done, and you could use it to haul lots of stuff when the kiddos aren't in there as well.
posted by rockindata at 1:47 PM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

The XV Crosstrek is a nice car; we just got ours (yes, in orange). But it's too small for your purposes, and the hybrid isn't much of an improvement, mileage-wise, to be worth the candle. The only thing Subaru makes that might be big enough for your purposes is the Tribeca, which is Highlander-class but is being discontinued, and I don't know whether the third row allows for booster seats.

This may well be a case of AWD, space for six, fuel economy: pick two.
posted by mcwetboy at 2:25 PM on May 30, 2014

I drive a Mazda5 almost exclusively in-city (similar trip lengths to yours) and I get 25 mpg easy. If I have to fill up more than once every three weeks I'm very grouchy about it! It has been extremely reliable and fun to drive, and other Mazda5 owners I know say the same (and it's pretty well-rated for reliability on Edmunds and Consumer Reports). I bought used (from Hertz Rent2Buy) and paid a little under $12,000 for a 2010 in late 2011, so well within your budget.

After this winter I have a LOT of experience with it on snow. In general I thought it handled extremely well in the snow. It does have a low-clearance bottom, but I didn't find that made much difference in the snow (it makes more difference on an overly-steep parking lot ramp). I've never had an AWD car so I can't really compare for that; this is my first car with traction control and I've generally approved of it, although I wasn't super-thrilled with it going up an fairly steep iced-over hill. (To be frank I probably shouldn't have been driving at all that day, but oh well.) I've found that the low center of gravity on the car and the wide wheelbase make it feel very secure on the snow -- actually moreso than most sedans I've driven.

I have hauled six people in it. I like that I can leave the back seats folded flat for four of us (especially when we travel and I can put luggage there!) and fit two extra kids in there for carpool. (I HAVE put two adults in the third row seats but boy is that tight.) Third row is quick to fold and unfold. Little kids (in boosters or not) are basically the perfect use of the third row in a Mazda 5. Teenaged boys in the third row would be awkward. It's also difficult to put a full car seat with a five-point harness in the third row -- or, rather, to get a child strapped in and out. Third row is definitely for self-buckling children.

It's also hella easy to parallel park for a 6-seater, if that's something that comes up in your city driving!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:41 PM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

As you're thinking about this I wouldn't rule out a car that would require one of the kids to sit in the front, if legal in your area. That would dramatically increase your options, since nearly all cars can fit three booster seats in the back if you opt for narrow ones. Look at the statistics and see if it's worth considering based in your own risk assessment.
posted by metasarah at 3:20 PM on May 30, 2014

FWIW, we've owned 4 Mazdas, and they have all be very reliable. Among my friends, there are at least 3 Mazdas (including 2 Mazda5s) and no one has ever had a problem with them.

You can get AWD on the 7-seater CX-9, but it is more expensive and less fuel-efficient than you would like. You might look into a used one.
posted by jeoc at 3:29 PM on May 30, 2014

I think there are a lot of people like us looking for this. It's not out there and I wish it was.

The Ford Transit Connect looks good with it's fuel promise but I will be forever skeptical because we are driving a 2006 Honda Odyssey that is getting 14 city MPG and 22 freeway MPG. Far below what Honda claimed. And it needed a new transmission at 62K miles. :(
posted by 58 at 4:15 PM on May 30, 2014

The Transit Connect is built on a Ford Focus chassis if I recall correctly. We've got two kids and some of the same needs as the OP and we're considering a Transit Connect. The model with full windows is harder to find and pricier. The last time I looked I was seeing used models (50-70k miles) for 11k-15k USD.
posted by werkzeuger at 6:30 PM on May 30, 2014

In response to emptythought's note about not breaking 20 in a HiHy, do note that the onboard computer's estimation of gas mileage is dodgy at times. And by "at times" I mean almost all the time.

We have a 2006 HiHy Ltd 2WD purchased new in 2005, now with 113.8K miles on it. Using the time-honored technique of tracking the number of gallons pumped and dividing the total mileage by that, we show 24.80 miles per gallon over the life of the vehicle.

I can tell you that the number is substantially worse in winter (nothern US) and much better in summer. The vehicle is not driven aggressively but we do not normally baby it. I have managed hypermiling over long distances and it is able to get up to 40MPG doing pulse and glide (measured over about 300 Indiana/Ohio miles) but at the cost of averaging about 35MPH. It does reasonably well on MPG all on its own if you set the cruise control.

The vehicle does not get the mileage I was hoping for when we bought it, but it is an extremely pleasant vehicle, has had only one major problem (inverter failure which hit us prior to the recall), no other significant repairs other than new tires, and still looks nearly new in part due to a careful annual cleaning and detailing regimen.

I honestly would love to see it get to 200K.
posted by jgreco at 7:19 PM on May 30, 2014

Obviously you need 3rd row seating to get > 3 back seat spots.
There's the Prius V, aka the big Prius. Unfortunately you can't get the 3rd row seating option on that in the USA due to local safety rules. So you need either a mini-van or a something like a Hybrid Highlander with the 3rd row option. Here's a handy list of vehicles like that.
posted by w0mbat at 8:33 PM on May 30, 2014

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