Car recommendations for a growing family
February 13, 2017 7:26 AM   Subscribe

We're in the market for a mini-van, or possibly a station wagon, and could use some advice.

Our 17-year-old Honda Civic is on its last legs, and with two adults and two kids we're looking to upgrade to something with more useful interior space. Even though we're likely topping out at two kids, we'd definitely like a car that we could cram a few additional people in to for team carpooling or daytrips with friends, etc., so right now we've got our eyes on the standard slate of minivans; Odyssey, Quest, Sienna, TransitConnect, etc. But they're expensive and not great on gas and tend to be stuffed to the gills with features like DVD players and vacuum systems and stuff that we're just not interested in. And though it's not really a consideration, minivans are pretty blah, whereas a station wagon like an Impreza might actually be fun to drive...

In my mind the absolute perfect car would be a stripped-down Volvo station wagon with fold-out jump seats in the way back, but I don't think they even make jump seats anymore and Volvos are way too expensive these days anyway.

So what else should we be looking for? In my limited research I don't think that station wagons are a viable option... am I right about that? And if not, are there any other 6+ passenger vehicles out there that check the right boxes (see below) that I should be aware of? And if not, do you have a five-passenger station wagon recommendation anyway? We drove a Golf SportWagen a couple of days ago and were so-so on it.

Things we care about, in descending order:
- Safety
- Fuel economy
- Reliability
- Price
- Leg room (I'm 6'5")
- Cargo space
- Visibility from the driver's seat
- Easy to clean interior
- Sportiness/fun to drive

Things we don't care about:
- DVD players
- Dual climate control
- Off-road capability
- All-wheel drive
- Leather anything

Things that would be total deal-breakers:
- Too big to park in our smallish one-car garage (so no giant SUVs).
- More than $30k

What should we be considering? Avoiding?

posted by saladin to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total)
Take a look at the Mazda CX-9.
Don't get cloth seats.
posted by jmsta at 7:37 AM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

We get about 20 mpg on our Honda Odyssey (I'm blanking on whether we have the 2014 or 2015). Minivans are pretty darn safe, and we didn't have any trouble finding a basic model; we bought a certified pre-owned from the dealership. Only thing I wish we had held out for was the rear backup camera; our other car has it and I would feel so much safer having one on our van, too, given how high and flat the back of it is. Nice thing about a minivan is having the sliding doors on either side; much easier to park in a tight space than a car where all the doors hinge out.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:40 AM on February 13, 2017

The Mazda CX-9 is a 7 seater and overall well built, without too many bells and whistles.
posted by nickggully at 7:46 AM on February 13, 2017

We have done the tour de SUV and Mazda CX-5 and Nissan Rogue are the most fun to drive, cx5 being the overall winner due to space and windows.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:54 AM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was all set to go out and try out a Honda Odyssey this weekend, but found myself pretty impressed with the Kia Sedona instead. It's a commonly used rental car, so there are a bunch of low mileage 2016 models sitting available for around 20k. All the nice minivan features, without the unnecessary ones, for a very decent price. The gas mileage is slightly worse, but definitely makes up for it in the price difference.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 8:20 AM on February 13, 2017

You're not going to beat a minivan for cargo capacity. We thought about switching away from the minivan life at the last car-purchase time, but the 3rd-row of seats in anything else isn't something I'd inflict on anybody I even vaguely like. We have 3 teens, so cramming them in a bench seat is out of the question. Our 2012 Chrysler Town&Country gets 21 mpg city, so it's no fuel sipper, but not as bad as an SUV. That being said, its build quality is way below that of our 2001 Dodge Caravan. Lots of random interior squeaks and rattles, and it just seems "cheap" after having it a couple of years.
Once you have the remote-opening side and rear doors, you'll wonder how you lived without them, though. If you're a handyman type, most minivans can haul a 4x8 sheet(s) of plywood/drywall/whatever if the seats are folded down.
Our friends have a Volvo station wagon, and they hate it - WHEN in runs, it runs great, but it's constantly and expensively having mechanical and electrical issues.
posted by Mr. Big Business at 8:28 AM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you don't need a new one, the Mazda5 is what I bought mine specifically for. It is a car chassis but a big hatchback with fold-up/fold-down 3rd row seating. It hauls a lot of stuff and up to 6 people, with sliding doors and captains chairs in the middle. I loved mine (2008 model) but the newer model (2010?+) has heat in the back, which is probably important depending on where you live. It is a small, nimble, minivan-esque car with decent gas mileage, fun to drive even with the 4 cylinder engine, excellent crash test rating, and I've owned mine since 2008 as my daily commuter with roadtrips and have had no major fixes other than a recall on the power steering - fixed for free. I can see really well in it. I am a foot shorter than you, though, so it would be good for you to try sitting in it.
posted by jillithd at 8:54 AM on February 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

We have had a base model Dodge Caravan for about 4 years now. We got for the option of the captains chairs for the center row to make it easier to access the kids inn the rear bench seat even though it meant giving up an extra passenger.

Things we like:
With all seats folded down you can load a pretty decent amount of 4x8 sheet goods in the back and the trunk door still closes all the way.

It's been more reliable than my sister's Sienna, and seems better built than most other minivans we looked at.

The seats fold down into the floor rather than having to be removed. If you are not stowing the seats you get a huge storage area under the floor. This has been awesome for road trips when the trunk is full.

extra 12V ports sprinkled throughout the cabin

things we don't like:

gas mileage. It gets 20 something average, which is pretty good for a V6 with a big chunk of steel strapped to it, but I wish it was better

Spare tire is a PITA to access.

poor traction in winter conditions without chains.
posted by Dr. Twist at 10:24 AM on February 13, 2017

We were hoping to fit two extra kids into our most recent car purchase but ultimately decided all those cars were too big and went for the Mazda CX-5. We love it. We can fit three kids (two in boosters) or two kids and one thin adult in the back, plus our two dogs in the back. It's fun to drive and gets reasonable gas mileage. The only downside for your purposes is that I feel like the visibility sucks, but I felt that way about everything I test drove. We sprung for the package with blind spot monitoring and that helps.
posted by xeney at 1:24 PM on February 13, 2017

The Subaru Outback wagon ticks most of your care-about boxes, but includes the all-wheel drive you don't. With just me in it, my 2014 gets 28-30 mpg at 75 mph, +30 at 60, about 22/24 stop-and-go in town (winter/summer) ; plus the new ones are EPA rated a couple mpg higher than mine was. Mileage seems sensitive to midwest wind, for good and ill, and may also be to load (I haven't really tested that last). The 4 cylinder and CVT transmission give it the good mileage, but also can make it feel a bit of a dog acceleration-wise, though it's been adequate for every situation I've encountered. Great turning radius though and very comfortable ride. I find the visibility to be quite good compared to a lot of others out there. Safety and reliability seem to be a Subaru thing.

It's strictly 5 passenger, but the back seat has good leg room and there's lots of cargo space behind. I'm 6'2" and have the driver's seat moved up a bit (shocking to me coming from smaller cars where it was always full-back and even then not enough), but you'd have to see if it's enough for you. Its sedan-type seating might be a little less forgiving of your height than a van/SUV's upright seating. Head room shouldn't be a problem though. Cloth interior should be under $30k if you don't load up on options.

Make sure to measure the space available in your garage for this and most of the others mentioned above, though. I have a single-car garage as well and the Outback is an easy fit, but it's also a long-ish space.
posted by ClingClang at 2:48 PM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Done this dance- eventually we looked seriously at used Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna - the dodge was meh for the driving/engine and ignored the kia cause there just wasn't any around in our price range/options. The crossovers just seemed like fat cars, especially the subie's. And I already have a fat car.

We didn't care about the same things you didn't care about but there is a limited number of trims and you will want the power gates so that leaves with something that will likely have leather or DVD. Ours has both. We ended up with the Honda. It's the best for hauling everything around.

To your list:
Safety - 5 star NCAP and gets "Good" across the board from IIHS
The fuel economy is ok in the city we get 22 ish, but it does go fast and that means poorer MPG
The reliability is largely sorted - big weak spot was the transmission, but that was 2 generations ago. All power doors will eventually require servicing, but so far no-one I know has had that issue.
Price well.....not exactly cheap these mini vans.
Leg room- you'll have to go sit in one. I expect you'll fit in the first two rows.
Cargo space. ha. It's a small apartment. You can bring everything. and extra people. and all their things. It makes doing social stuff with other people much easier - but we are in an urban space so YMMV.
Visibility from the driver's seat - pretty good.
Easy to clean interior. It's a big space- but some models have vacuums. I wish mine had that. Seriously - that's the only mechanical shortcoming. It can do anything cheerfully.
Sportiness/fun to drive. US Stig drove it.

Point of order: I would counter ClingClang claim about subi's reliability- I would put it below Ford and rank it with FIAT or Hyundai. Good but not outstanding.
posted by zenon at 3:55 PM on February 13, 2017

Dr. Twist: "The seats fold down into the floor rather than having to be removed. If you are not stowing the seats you get a huge storage area under the floor. This has been awesome for road trips when the trunk is full. "

If you either rarely intend to remove the seats or don't mind storing them when you do I'd avoid the stow and go seats. They are seriously uncomfortable for full sized people.
posted by Mitheral at 7:06 PM on February 13, 2017

Get a minivan. They're not stylish but the interior space arrangement is just so much more practical than what the 3rd row SUVs can deliver (and don't underestimate those sliding doors, and how much headache they will save you in parking lots.) I succumbed to vanity and got a SUV with a little 3rd row and I seriously regret it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:21 PM on February 13, 2017

If you are going minivan Dodge/Chrysler with the stow and go seats is the only way to go. Well worth the slightly less comfortable rear seating. In a non stow and go van, you can pull the seats out on on the occasion that you need to but, only if you know that you need to and then it takes two people to get the bench seat out of the back. Then you have to have a place to put the seat. where as it takes one hand to make the stow and go seats disappear.
posted by jmsta at 6:52 AM on February 14, 2017

We just a week ago got rid of our Honda Odyssey after 10 years of steadfast service (and we bought it used for much less than $30K). As other posters have said, it's a workhorse.

One thing you didn't mention is the ages of your kids. We have 3 kids, not 2, so we were pretty much headed towards a minivan anyway, but what we found is that as the kids move out of the pre-K stage, you need more room. If your kids will be doing sports, you will want space for their gear. Even if your kids don't do equipment-intensive sports (soccer vs. hockey, for example), you will likely be carpooling their friends to/from practice. I would say that from, say, 8 to 16, extra space in your car to haul kids around is extremely useful.

Our kids are 10, 10 and 8, and we just replaced our Odyssey with a Pilot. We were hoping to buy something smaller or a hybrid (my commuter car is a hybrid), but when we looked at our life and what our actual needs are, we realized we still need a big car. It's great to be able to drive 6 kids to an event, for example. When the kids are old enough to be driving themselves in about 6 years, we'll keep the big car for when we're all together and get them a smaller car to share.

So - all that to say: go for the minivan. You can't beat it for the space, the safety and the reliability.

Since we bought ours used we didn't really have a say in the color, so we drove a BEIGE MINIVAN around for 10 years. (What you won't do for your kids... I am not a bumper sticker person, but I saw this and ordered it for my car immediately.)
posted by widdershins at 2:48 PM on February 14, 2017

Oh, and I meant to add: don't underestimate the fabulousness that is dual climate controls! Being able to set a different temperature in the back for the kids is gold, particularly on long trips when they're getting hit with a lot of sun.

Ditto for leather seats - from an animal-loving and price perspective, I'm not a fan, but from a keeping the car from smelling like little Timmy's puke from that trip last year perspective, I love them. My commuter car has fabric seats and I won't let the kids drink anything except water in there...
posted by widdershins at 2:54 PM on February 14, 2017

I'd be surprised if you could get an SVU or minivan these days without dual climate controls; it seems to be the standard in autos that size now.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:19 AM on February 15, 2017

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