Cars for Big Families on a Budget

As your family grows, so does your need for a larger car. Which models offer the best combination of size and fuel-efficiency?

You've got two kids and just found out another is on the way. If you're like most families, that means it's time for a bigger car—which is the last thing most parents want to think about these days.

It used to be so simple. Gas was cheap, safety laws were virtually nonexistent, and cars were big enough that the whole extended family could squeeze in comfortably. Not anymore. Finding a car that can fit five or more meant, until recently, shopping for a big, usually American-made SUV such as the Chevrolet Suburban, Ford Expedition, or a minivan. And while these vehicles have the room to accommodate a small army—and its gear—they also have gas mileage that is only slightly better than an M1 Abrams tank.

Fortunately there are alternatives, ones that are all the more attractive as we head into the summer driving season. Automakers have been scrambling to offer family transporters that won't hurt so much to fill up at the pump. And while none are as thrifty as hybrid sedans such as the Prius from Toyota (TM), the current miles-per-gallon champ that gets 48 mpg city/45 mpg highway, buying one of the new crop of smaller, more fuel-efficient, or simply less powerful SUVs or crossovers can still save a lot of money on gas.

As they turn away from traditional, truck-based SUVs, Americans have embraced the crossover/sport wagon category, for which sales in the first quarter rose 2.7% from the year-ago quarter, to almost 600,000, according to Woodcliff Lake (N.J.)-based AutoData. In the same period, total U.S. light-truck sales fell 12.1%, to about 1.8 million. The growth in crossovers came in part at the expense of both traditional SUVs and minivans.

Smaller Cousin

Still, parents need to have realistic expectations. Fuel-efficiency is a relative term. For example, a Chevy Suburban 1500 with two-wheel drive and a 5.3-liter, 8-cylinder engine barely ekes out an EPA-estimated 14 mpg city/20 mpg highway. (The four-wheel-drive version with a 6-liter engine does even worse.) It's slightly smaller cousin, the 4,936-lb. GMC Acadia, which weighs about 670 lb. less and is 11 in. shorter, but also comes with three rows of seats, gets 16 mpg city/24 mpg highway for its two-wheel-drive version—not a huge improvement over the Suburban, but still an improvement. (The EPA estimates that average mileage for the four-wheel-drive Acadia is a marginally lower 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway.)

Naturally, big crossovers with three rows of seats get worse gas mileage than small crossovers, or any smaller, lighter vehicle. But that third row is vital for so many families. Vehicle weight is a big factor. So is engine choice.

The new Dodge Journey crossover from Chrysler with the base four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive gets an EPA-estimated 19 mpg city/25 mpg highway. That's good for a vehicle that size, with three rows of seats. The aptly named Journey could be a good choice for a family road trip. But with a six-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive, it gets 15 mpg city/22 mpg highway, not much better than the Suburban. (The base model, the SE, does slightly better at 19 mpg city/25 mpg highway, but with a wimpier 2.4-liter, 173-hp engine.)

"There's a power-train shift in the four-cylinder area," said George Pipas, U.S. sales analysis manager for Ford Motor (F) during an Apr. 1 conference call. "For models where people have a choice, they are opting to an increasing extent for four-cylinders over six," he said. For instance, he said the four-cylinder version of the Ford Fusion midsize car now accounts for about 70% of sales, as opposed to less than 60% a year ago.

Rides Like a Car

What crossovers have in common is a car-like "unibody" that's all one piece, as opposed to a traditional, ladder-shaped truck frame, with a body bolted on top. That's how traditional pickups and SUVs are made. The crossover unibody looks like a truck but rides like a car. Most people prefer a car-like ride, assuming they don't have a practical need to carry heavy loads or pull heavy trailers, when the heavy ladder frame is an advantage.

There are two other important ways to improve fuel-efficiency when buying a crossover—or, indeed, any car. One is to opt for two-wheel drive over four-wheel, which requires more power from the engine. The other is to choose manual over automatic transmission—although this is an increasingly hard-to-find option on most cars sold in the U.S. But of course there is also a trade-off. Four-wheel or all-wheel drive allows for better handling in snow and ice conditions, something that many parents may feel justifies the additional expense.

Hits and Misses

Speaking of additional expense, the most fuel-efficient SUV with a third row is the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which gets an impressive 27 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. But because hybrids cost more, the sticker price—$28,750—is north of $12,000 more than the next most fuel-efficient model, the Kia Rondo, with 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway. (Hybrids always perform better in city than in highway mileage.)

But not all crossovers have been hits. There have been some failures, too, like the Chrysler Pacifica, which was introduced in 2004. Chrysler announced on Nov. 1 it will drop the Pacifica after the current model year. Its first-quarter sales were down 83.6% to only 2,693, AutoData said.

Ford's Pipas said industrywide crossover sales are now roughly double the level of traditional SUVs. "At the beginning of the decade, SUVs outsold CUVs [crossover utility vehicles] by 9 to 1. What a turnaround in that period!"

Obviously, a lot of parents have thought so, too.

Check out the slide show to see the most fuel-efficient family SUVs, crossovers, and minivans.

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