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How to buy the best car for your family

Whether you already have a big family or are just starting a new one, we'll help you find the right car to carry them all.

Top picks

Sedans:Chevrolet Malibu

Latest Chevy Malibu is lighter, larger, more efficient, and packs lots of intuitive cabin tech.

Station wagons: Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic Wagon

Benz's E350 Wagon brings additional space and a satisfying dose of luxury in a manageable and handsome package.

Minivans:Honda Odyssey

Honda's strong minivan hand includes a smooth V6 engine, solid ride quality, and an available integrated vacuum helps to easily clean up after messy families.

Crossover SUVs:Ford Explorer

With a trio of engine options, compliant suspension and spacious cabin, the Explorer is a solid family crossover option.

Family car, defined

A family car can come in all different sizes and forms, meaning there's no magic bullet vehicle that will satisfy the needs of every household. These vehicles are put into action for everything from driving kids to school, making a trip to the grocery story, hauling gardening supplies home from the hardware store and taking the yearly family road trip.

Since families aren't all the same, that means there will be numerous vehicles that can be classified as a "family car." Fortunately, there are plenty of great options out on the market for families that are small, medium and large.

Segment overview

It wasn't long ago when minivans were held in high esteem with families. Lots of passenger and cargo space, and the ease of ingress and egress with rear sliding doors, make a good case for these living rooms on wheels. Today, consumer tastes are different, with many turning their backs on vans because they carry a stigma of not being cool. There are still minivan buyers out there, though, but just not as many as before.

Like Minivans, wagons don't have the greatest reputation, but ones like the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen offer healthy amounts of cargo space.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Like minivans, station wagons carry a tarnished reputation. Maybe there are too many bad memories of old family wood-panel wagons floating around people's heads, but modern wagons also make a good case for families. They feature large cargo areas and low load floor heights, while remaining easily maneuverable without suffering the fuel efficiency penalties of larger, less aerodynamic vehicles.

Crossover SUVs have been streaking in popularity and have become the go-to people mover of choice among families today. The fast growing segment offers entries of all different sizes and drivetrain options, with all-wheel drive available on virtually every model.

Sedans remain big business for carmakers, and are among the most fiercely contested segments in the industry. The midsize category includes perennial best-sellers like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Nissan Altima, which all offer roomy cabins and large trunks suitable for daily errands and road trips, while delivering impressive fuel economy.

Power versus economy

With such a wide range of family-friendly cars available, you can expect to encounter a variety of engine choices, with each type of vehicle offering varying levels of fuel efficiency. For sedans, the volume drivetrain remains four-cylinders offering roughly 180 horsepower. For example, the Nissan Altima's 2.5-liter I-4 packs 182 horsepower and carries a 27 mpg city and an impressive 39 mpg highway fuel economy rating. V-6s and turbo I-4s are usual engine upgrades in the midsize sedan segment at the expense of fuel efficiency. The Altima can be had with 3.5-liter, 270 horsepower V-6, but fuel ratings drop to 22 mpg city and 32 mpg highway.

The Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid features a 95 mpg-e city and 81 mpg-e highway EPA fuel economy ratings.

Josh Miller/CNET

Green options in the midsize sedan market are plentiful with hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions available on vehicles such as the Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata. The EPA rates the Fusion Hybrid at 44 mpg city and 41 mpg highway, and the Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid at 95 mpg-e city and 81 mpg-e highway.

On the affordable end of the admittedly limited wagon market, you'll find a small turbocharged, 170 horsepower I-4 in the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen that's capable of returning 35 mpg on the highway with the automatic transmission on the affordable end. Head upmarket to a larger and more premium wagon like the Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic Wagon, and fuel economy drops to 27 mpg on the highway for its 3.5-liter, 302 horsepower V-6.

With crossover SUVs, power options depend on the class you're shopping. Subcompacts and compact SUVs are typically powered by non-turbo and turbo four-cylinder engines with combined EPA ratings usually in the high 20s. Midsize crossover SUVs generally work with V-6s for EPA combined figures typically in the low 20s, and full-size SUVs often have big V-8s under the hood garnering EPA combined ratings in the high teens.

Consumers who can't ignore the practicality of minivans and couldn't care less about the negative connotations about them will be looking at V-6 engines in everything including the Chrysler Town & Country, Nissan Quest and Toyota Sienna. According to the EPA, the Quest's 3.5-liter V-6 is the most fuel efficient option in the segment with a combined mpg rating of 23.

Tech and safety

Basic connectivity options between cars and portable devices like smartphones and digital music players through Bluetooth and USB ports are common features in the majority of vehicles today. Navigation system availability has spread out and is no longer a feature only available in luxury models, and they also do a whole lot more than just give you turn-by-turn directions. Most systems feature real-time traffic information that will alert you of high congestion areas and offer you an alternate route.

Rear DVD entertainment system with a 16.2-inch screen in the Honda Odyssey

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

In-cabin Wi-Fi hotspots are becoming more common with vehicles like the GMC Terrain offering the service through OnStar. The technology brings additional connectivity to cars, and will help keep the kids in back busy surfing the Internet on their tablets. Rear DVD entertainment systems will also help entertain young ones with many systems now able to play Blu-ray discs, and offering auxiliary inputs to hook up video game consoles.

A slew of driver assistant technologies are becoming more predominant, like blind-spot monitoring to avoid collisions while changing lanes. Lane departure warning can prevent distracted or sleepy drivers from drifting out of their lane. Rear traffic alert systems watch for any side traffic that may be in the vicinity while backing out of parking spots. And forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking uses sensors and cameras to detect potential collisions, engaging the brakes if the driver doesn't act in time.

For added convenience, adaptive cruise control is a trick feature that maintains a set speed, and will automatically slow down to match the pace of any slower traffic you encounter. Backup cameras will become standard on all vehicles by 2018, but some systems, like the one found in the Nissan Pathfinder, takes things a step further by showing a 360-degree view around the car.

Top sedans

Chevrolet Malibu

Chevrolet's latest Malibu is the biggest threat yet to the Japanese's stranglehold on the midsize sedan segment. The ninth-generation model grows in size and offers numerous fuel-efficient engine choices, including a hybrid. Inside, the MyLink infotainment system is Apple CarPlay- and Android Auto-capable, and OnStar services including 4G Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities and a RemoteLink mobile app to remotely start the car and lock/unlock doors are available. Base price for the Malibu is $22,000. If your needs require something a little bigger and prefer something plusher, the Hyundai Genesis offers luxury features at a reasonable $38,000 base price with available V-6 and V-8 engines, as well as all-wheel drive.

Station wagons

Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic Wagon

Mercedes-Benz

It's slim pickings when it comes to wagons, but the $60,000 Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic Wagon is flexible luxury wagon offering 57.4 cubic feet of cargo capacity and third-row rear-facing seats that can hold two children to make it a seven-passenger vehicle. For a more affordable and slightly smaller option, the Volvo V60 boasts 43.8 cubic feet of cargo space and seating for five with a $36,000 base price.

Crossover SUVs

Ford Explorer Limited

Jon Wong/CNET

The midsize Ford Explorer's move to a more comfortable unibody platform, trio of available engine options including a downsized 2.3-liter EcoBoost I-4 engine, and spacious cabin with a serviceable third-row yields a solid family crossover option. Available navigation with SiriusXM Traffic information, Sync with MyFord Touch infotainment system, and rear DVD entertainment system will come in handy during long road trips. The Explorer starts at $31,000. Another three-row crossover SUV worth checking out is the new Honda Pilot that adopts a sleeker exterior look, packs a smooth V-6 engine, and plenty of dashboard tech.

Minivans

Honda Odyssey

Josh Miller/CNET

For those who find the functional benefits of a minivan impossible to ignore, the Honda Odyssey is our top pick and features variable cylinder management on its smooth V-6 engine allowing it to run on four or even three cylinders to improve fuel economy. All models include Bluetooth streaming audio and plenty of USB inputs, while features like navigation, a rear DVD entertainment system with 16.2-inch screen, and a built-in vacuum are offered. Pricing for the Odyssey begins at $30,000. With an impressive 10-year or 100,000-mile warranty, the Kia Sedona is another minivan option worth taking a gander at.

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