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The best family vehicles

Consumer Reports' recommended models measure up in performance, comfort, and reliability.

With almost 200 family vehicles from which to choose--including sedans, wagons, minivans, and sport-utility vehicles--picking the best one for you can be confusing. Consumer Reports can help you narrow your choices with its list of recommended models. To be recommended, models must meet two stringent criteria:

They must have performed well in Consumer Reports' extensive testing program, which evaluates a vehicle's performance, comfort, and convenience.
They should have at least average reliability, according to Consumer Reports' exclusive annual reliability surveys, which are based on real-world experiences reported by about 500,000 readers.
Site subscribers to ConsumerReports.org can access full road tests, complete test results and Ratings, and detailed reliability histories for most models on this list.

For advice on picking the right model for you, see Consumer Reports' Guide to choosing a family vehicle.

Small cars
Honda Civic
Mazda Protegé
Nissan Sentra
Subaru Impreza
Toyota Corolla
Toyota Echo
Toyota Prius
Volkswagen Golf
Volkswagen Jetta

Family sedans
Chevrolet Impala
Ford Taurus
Honda Accord
Infiniti G20
Mazda 626
Mercury Sable
Nissan Altima
Nissan Maxima
Subaru Legacy
Toyota Camry
Volkswagen Passat
Volvo S40

Upscale sedans
Acura 3.2TL
BMW 3-Series
Chrysler 300M
Infiniti I35
Lexus IS300
Lincoln LS
Mercedes-Benz C-Class
Saab 9-5

Upscale sedans
Acura 3.2TL
BMW 3-Series
Chrysler 300M
Infiniti I35
Lexus IS300
Lincoln LS
Mercedes-Benz C-Class
Saab 9-5

Large sedans
Buick Park Avenue
Chrysler Concorde
Ford Crown Victoria
Mercury Grand Marquis
Pontiac Bonneville
Toyota Avalon

Luxury sedans
Acura 3.5RL
BMW 5-Series
Jaguar S-Type
Lexus GS300/GS430
Lincoln Town Car
Mercedes-Benz E-Class

Wagons
BMW 325i
BMW 525i/540i
Ford Taurus
Lexus IS300 SportCross
Mazda Protegé5
Mercedes-Benz C320
Mercedes-Benz E320
Mercury Sable
Saab 9-5
Subaru Impreza
Subaru Legacy
Subaru Outback
Volkswagen Jetta
Volkswagen Passat
Volvo V40

Minivans
Chrysler Town & Country
Dodge Caravan/Grand Caravan
Honda Odyssey
Mazda MPV
Toyota Sienna

Sport-utility vehicles
Acura MDX
Lexus RX300
Nissan Pathfinder
Subaru Forester
Toyota 4Runner
Toyota Highlander
Toyota Land Cruiser
Toyota RAV4

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Important items in a Family Vehicle

What to look for when buying a family vehicle

Advice from Consumer Reports on how to pick the right vehicle for your needs.

The size and makeup of your family and the types of activities in which you participate influence what type of vehicle is best for you. Can you get by with a small, economical sedan, or do you need the extra passenger and cargo space of a minivan or sport-utility vehicle? Do you need something practical, but really want something sporty? Then perhaps a sport sedan or a modern wagon is the best compromise. Whatever your needs, you have a greater range of choices now than ever.

What kind of car should you buy? Safety, reliability, economy, and personal concerns--such as ease of access, child-seat compatibility, and size of the cargo area--should be considered when purchasing a family car.

"Finding the right family vehicle doesn't have to be a difficult, or long, process--if you invest some time to research your options before you go out shopping so that you know what to look for," said David Champion, the director of Consumer Reports' Auto Test Facility in East Haddam, Conn. Champion has three kids. "Parents need to think about how they'll be using the vehicle, what type of cargo they intend to carry, and how their needs may change during the years they own the vehicle."

In general, parents should focus their search on a vehicle with a roomy and versatile interior, plenty of cargo space, ease of access, and windows that make it easy for kids to look outside. "If they can see what's going on, kids are much happier," Champion said. "If the back seat is low, they can't look out the window. And that can trigger boredom and bickering among siblings."

Four-door sedans and sporty wagons are fine for families with one or two children. Bigger families (and those that use the family car for long road trips or need room for carrying friends) should consider a vehicle with a larger cargo area and/or more seating capacity. All minivans and many SUVs and wagons can carry seven passengers.

Minivans are an excellent choice for families because they have easy access for passengers through big sliding doors, cargo areas that are easy to reach, and a low waistline that gives kids a better view out.

Sport-utility vehicles are popular in part because many have big, roomy interiors and four-wheel-drive systems to better handle bad weather and unpaved roads. But young children may have a tough time getting into larger SUVs because these vehicles ride higher off the ground and sometimes have door handles that are difficult for youngsters to operate. Loading groceries, strollers, and other items into a large SUV can be more difficult because the cargo area is higher off the ground. Remember, too, that taller vehicles such as SUVs have a higher center of gravity, which makes them more top-heavy and more susceptible to rolling over than lower vehicles, such as sedans and wagons. Fortunately, the recent trend toward car-based, all-wheel-drive SUVs has provided a greater range of choices, including models that are more family friendly than traditional versions.

To zero in on what type of vehicle is right for your family, consider these questions:

How many people will you be carrying? If you have one or two children, you can probably get by with a small or midsized sedan, which is usually less expensive and more fuel efficient than a larger car. While most cars are equipped to accommodate five people, the center rear position is often uncomfortable and equipped with only a lap belt. Check out the rear-seating quality of any vehicle that you're considering.

Some larger sedans can be equipped with a front bench seat, which allows them to carry six passengers, but it's a tight fit and the center passenger only has a lap belt. A roomier solution would be a minivan, or seven-passenger wagon or SUV. All seven-passenger vehicles include a third-row seat that can be removed or folded down when not needed for passengers. The latter is the better solution because you don't have to struggle to get the seat in and out, and because it's always there when you need it. Typically, the third-row seat in a wagon faces rearward and is small and suitable only for children. Check out how easy it is to get in and out of all seats. That can vary a lot from one vehicle to another.

How old are your children? Plan ahead. Small children may not need a lot of room now, but if you intend to keep a vehicle for a number of years, their space needs will change as they grow. If you have kids that will reach driving age while you own the vehicle, they likely will be using it themselves. Consider getting a vehicle that will be easy to handle and control as they learn to drive. Small or midsized sedans and wagons are usually good choices. Large vehicles are often harder to maneuver, and taller vehicles can be more difficult to handle.

How much cargo space do you need? For smaller families, the trunk of a sedan may provide adequate cargo space. A vehicle with more cargo space may be a better choice for larger families or those involved in outdoor activities, or who tend to travel a lot, or who need extra room for carrying gardening or home-improvement supplies. There's a wide range from which to choose, from small wagons to extended-length minivans to large SUVs.

In addition to cargo-space size, consider its usability. Does the rear seat fold down? If so, is it a split design that allows one side to be folded separately from the other side? For carrying extra-long items, can the front passenger seat also fold down? As described above, if you are considering a seven-passenger vehicle with a third-row seat, check whether the third seat needs to be removed completely when not needed or, better, whether it can simply be folded out of the way. Finally, vehicles that sit lower to the ground are typically easier to load and unload.

What conditions will you driving in? The area of the country in which you live influences the type of drivetrain you may need. For rain and very light snow, for instance, a two-wheel-drive vehicle will likely work fine. Front-wheel drive with traction control is the preferred setup for slippery conditions. All-wheel drive, however, would provide an additional margin of safety. AWD is fine for most normal snow conditions or for traveling on dirt roads without high rocks, deep sand, or steep inclines. If driving where you'll encounter more severe conditions, you should opt for a four-wheel-drive vehicle. If you drive a lot on snow and ice, switching to a set of winter tires will provide additional grip--and added safety--with any vehicle.

How important is fuel economy? As a general rule, the larger the vehicle, the lower the fuel economy. Small, lightweight sedans typically get the best economy, while large, heavy SUVs get the worst. The most fuel-efficient gasoline-powered family car is currently the Toyota Prius, which uses a hybrid gasoline/electric powertrain and averaged 41 mpg overall in Consumer Reports' tests. Later in 2002, Honda will introduce a hybrid version of the Civic, which will use an efficient powertrain that's similar to the one currently used in its two-seat Insight. If you need more cargo room than a sedan can provide, consider a wagon. Some models provide as much usable cargo space as an SUV, but usually get better fuel economy. If you need a seven-passenger vehicle, minivans also typically get better mileage than seven-passenger SUVs.

For a list of Consumer Reports recommended family vehicles, see The best family vehicles. For specific advice on what to consider when comparing vehicles, see Consumer Reports' guide to sedans, wagons, minivans, and sport-utility vehicles.
 
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