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5 best new cars for families that aren’t minivans

Tireless researcher, enthusiastic product reviewer and dad, Jeffrey Mutch hit the Canadian International Auto Show to report on his five favourite cars for families.

Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen

Finally, you’re thinking, an article about the coolest cars for parents. Well, I have some bad news: No matter how slick it looks on the outside, it’s your kid’s car on the inside. The juice stains and cereal dust don’t lie. So focus on what counts. As a parent, you need something to move the kids around with all of their supersized accessories—car seats and double strollers— and you want to do it easily.

A minivan does move people efficiently, yes. But it’s designed to move seven to eight people, not an average family of four. And the trade-off for that increased size and weight is that it uses more gas, plus it’s not as fun to drive a hunky vehicle like that—and minivans just keep getting bigger year over model year. The quintessential family hauler can now swallow up a full-size piece of plywood with some seats down. Backup cameras are a necessity. Central vacuums are an included option. None of that is a bad thing if you need it—I’m just saying many, if not most, families don’t.

The not-quite-a-minivan car is a compromise. Some companies call them Sport Utility Vehicles, others have coined the term Crossover Utility Vehicles. You might notice every car on my list has a hatchback. I’ll be honest: I don’t really get the point of a trunk. Hatchbacks take the size of a trunk, double it vertically and when you fold the seats down, you can handle even the most ambitious trip to Costco. These ones have some of the utility of minivans, but are more drivable, more parkable and won’t make you wince every time you head down a narrow street toward an oncoming car. Maybe you have a small driveway, maybe you want to save on gas, or maybe, like me, you’re odd enough to actually enjoy creatively packing a car. Here are my five favourite picks for the minivan averse.

Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen trunk

1. Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen
Technically speaking, it’s a station wagon. This party-in-the-back style isn’t exactly embraced by Canadians because of the legacy left by those wood-paneled monstrosities from a generation ago: slow, ugly, gas-guzzling beasts. Since then, the station wagon has gotten hip in Europe, where almost every car from compact to midsize has a station-wagon variant. The Golf Sportwagen is based on the company’s beloved Golf, which was a finalist this year for “Canadian Car of the Year.” It shares the same compact size (not counting the huge trunk), and the general great handling and fun drive Golf is known for. The Sportwagen comes in a very fuel-efficient diesel version and has one of the nicest interiors in its price range­—simple, clean design and premium materials like “soft-touch” plastics instead of a hard plastic dash. For 2015, the already ample trunk space has been increased by 20 percent, which isn’t easy to visualize, so I took a picture of the trunk. Note the Mortimer board book (I travel with a board book for just such visualizations) for scale—and that’s with the seats up. Need to haul 1,000 board books? No problem. You don’t even have to flip that little side switch—new for 2015—that drops the seats down.

cars for families

2. Kia Rondo
I have a bit of a soft spot for the Rondo. It’s one of a very few cars that’s sold in Canada and not the US (the Toyota Matrix is another), because, darn it, Canadians are pretty practical, and practicality is the Rondo’s reason for being. Even with a relatively short overall length, this car offers 10 different seating configurations to handle any combo of passengers or cargo. Its popularity might be owing to the fact that you can easily toss several hockey bags in the back with five passengers, but whatever it is, I like it. This one also comes in a seven-passenger version with another row of bench seating, but it doesn’t leave much room for cargo unless the back seat is folded down. Once known as a bargain brand, Kia has really been differentiating itself with unique models like the Rondo, and the brand has been near the top of initial reliability reports for the past few years.

cars for families
3. Honda CR-V
The CR-V has the perfect size figured out and this one sells like hotcakes every year. Plenty of room for people and their stuff, it’s easy to load a kid into his carseat without bending over and the doors open that extra bit to accommodate. Normally I’m not a fan of high-riding vehicles (they use more gas), but it’s got great mileage for a CUV, especially for one with four-wheel drive thanks to the “Eco” mode. The CR-V has always been at the top of the pack for overall reliability and resale value, meaning it’s an inexpensive car to maintain that will hold its value for years to come.

cars for families
4. Toyota Prius v
The car that kicked off the hybrid frenzy now comes in three sizes. The V is the one with the extra-sized trunk, but otherwise it’s near identical, right down to the engine it shares with the standard Prius. It won’t win a race or a beauty contest, but there’s a reason this formula works: it sips gas, it’s reliable and now comes with more room. Toyota has a long history of making dependable hybrids and this one suits families with more space and better visibility for the driver.

cars for families
5. Ford C-Max
Considering my feelings on the size epidemic of minivans, I think the C-Max is what a minivan should be: restrained in size, it’s a good passenger-focused vehicle with lots of headroom at the front and back thanks to its tall shape. Available in both plug-in and standard hybrid versions, I’d choose the hybrid because the plug-in batteries eat up storage space in the trunk. The kids might love the secret floor-storage compartments in the backseat, but my favourite feature is the foot-activated liftgate—as you approach the trunk with an armful of board books (or groceries), simply stick your foot out to automatically lift the hatch.

Jeffrey Mutch is a father of two kids younger than three and the guy you go to before making any big purchase—he has done the research and weighed the pros and cons of each product in the category so you don’t have to. And he likes it.

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