Top cars

The Today's Parent guide to finding a set of wheels that fit your family's needs and your budget

There are times when buying more actually costs less. Breakfast cereal in bulk is a good deal. So is a “club pack” of toilet paper. But buying more car than your family needs only means you end up spending more — not just upfront, but every time you fill the tank with gas. (Could your family manage with a smaller vehicle? See left for one mom’s trial week of downsizing.)

And don’t be fooled into thinking the higher cost of going hybrid will pay you back with unbelievable savings at the pumps. While it may be good for the environment, unless you drive a courier van or cab (Mom’s taxi service not included), a hybrid won’t contribute to the long-term health of your bank account.

To get the most for your money, forget about high-tech frills and consider these basics: How much gear goes into your trunk? Do you really need more than five seats? And which vehicle will keep your family safest without guzzling gas? To help you answer these questions, Today’s Parent asked four experts (their credentials below) which vehicles are the best fit for families of three, four, and five or more. When you’re ready to start shopping, just find the family profile that’s the closest match for your bunch, and use the expert picks as your personal shortlist of choices.

Our experts

Mohamed Bouchama is the director of Car Help Canada (carhelpcanada.com), a national non-profit association that helps consumers find the best new and used vehicles.

Phil Edmonston has published more than 125 best-selling books on consumer rights and the automobile industry, including the Lemon-Aid series of vehicle buying guides.

Petrina Gentile is an award-winning automotive journalist who writes for The Globe and Mail and produces a weekly television show that airs on CTV and BNN.

George Iny is president of the Automobile Protection Association (apa.ca), a national non-profit group best known for its under­cover investigations of used-car dealer­ships shown on the TV program W-FIVE.

Baby makes three

Your parents finally have that grandchild they’ve been nagging you about. That means it’s time to mix The Wiggles into your music collection and trade your old two-door heap for something more reliable. Of course, safety is a huge priority, but so is having a rear seat that can easily fit your infant seat, and a trunk that’s big enough to tote both a stroller and a portable playpen. These expert picks might work for you:

Compact sedans

2008 Honda Civic
$16,990–$26,680
The Civic is hard to beat on so many levels, including the distance between fill-ups, standard side airbags and ABS brakes on even the lowest-price base model. It also has a surprisingly deep trunk and cup holders for all seats.

Also recommended
Toyota Corolla
$14,565–$23,210

Mazda3
$16,895–$26,740

Compact wagons

2009 Toyota Matrix
$15,705–$26,855
The fold-flat rear seats and a big hatch make this wagon capable of hauling just about anything a small SUV can handle. With the same engine as a Corolla, it’s also great on gas and comes standard with stability control to prevent skidding, and side airbags for all passengers. The Matrix also rides a little higher than your typical compact, giving drivers a better view of the road ahead, with less bending to lift little ones into their seats. General Motors sells a Matrix clone called the Pontiac Vibe ($15,995–$24,995) that is also well regarded.

Also recommended
Subaru Impreza Wagon
$20,695–$34,995

Mazda3 Sport
$17,895–$27,290

Subcompact wagons

2008 Nissan Versa Hatchback
$14,598–$21,248
Uses a touch more fuel than other cars its size, but has large, comfy front seats and can easily fit two child seats or even three slender adults in the back. The rear seats are split, and can be folded down one side at a time to allow for extra gear without disturbing your infant seat. Six standard airbags and larger-than-normal tires make for a safe and smooth ride.

Also recommended
Honda Fit
$14,980–$20,880

Toyota Yaris Hatchback
$13,945–$17,975

Four for the road

Your brood of two is growing up. And while you may not need the space of a minivan or large SUV, you still need elbow room and a trunk that can easily swallow a hockey bag plus a week’s worth of groceries. Fortunately, there are plenty of choices, with some delivering sweet savings at the pump. These expert picks might work for you:

Compact SUVs

2008 Honda CR-V
$27,790–$35,190
Like most so-called “Cute-Utes,” the CR-V is built more like a car than a real SUV, which makes it easy to drive and park. For those scary moments in the snow or rain, stability and traction control are standard at every price point.

Also recommended
Nissan Rogue
$24,998–$29,598

Toyota RAV4
$26,050–$34,890

Sedans

Toyota Camry
$23,400–$36,620
Some automotive critics pick on the Camry’s ho-hum styling, but you could hardly ask for better value in a roomy sedan that you can own for 10 or 12 years of worry-free driving. Your kids will like the built-in MP3 player, rear cup holders and dual-zone AC for customized cooling after the big game.

Also recommended
Honda Accord
$25,090–$37,790

Chevrolet Malibu
$22,995–$33,610

Compact crossovers

2008 Mazda5
$20,795–$29,945
Despite its name, the Mazda5 actually fits six passengers in three rows of seats, with tons of head­room. Each of the four rear seats can individually fold flat to fit in all sorts of odd-shaped items. Plenty of standard features add up to great value, and the minivan-style sliding doors make it a breeze to load up the kids, particularly in tight parking spots.

Also recommended
Kia Rondo
$19,995–$26,095

Chrysler PT Cruiser
$18,995–$23,495

Full house

We don’t have to tell you that three or more kids can be a handful, especially when you’re still struggling with infant and booster seats. When you throw friends, extended family and carpool into the mix, you really need a versatile vehicle with space to spare. Six or more seats are a must for those extra riders, but watch out for vehicles with scant storage behind the last row of seats. (Rover’s got to ride somewhere, too!) These expert picks might work for you:

Minivans

Dodge Grand Caravan
$20,245–$25,445
A reasonable price tag is one reason this is the bestselling minivan in Canada. The price covers standard safety features like side airbags, plus family-friendly touches in — cluding easy-clean upholstery, built-in child booster seats and tons of storage compartments. And how cool is this for road trips: The optional second-row “Swivel ’n Go” bucket seats can turn 180 degrees to face the third-row seats, and you can set up a plastic table so kids can play games instead of watching DVDs.

Also recommended
Toyota Sienna
$29,400–$49,270

Honda Odyssey
$31,490–$48,890

Mid-size SUVs

2008 Hyundai Santa Fe
$36,945
While only the top-of-the-line Limited version (the one we priced here) offers seven seats, all Santa Fe models come with lots of standard features. It can switch into all-wheel drive on demand to power you through the worst weather, and Hyundai’s five-year/100,000 kilometre bumper-to-bumper warranty offers great peace of mind.

Also recommended
Toyota Highlander
$34,900–$54,220

GMC Acadia
$36,495–$46,880

Large crossover

Ford Edge
$31,529–$36,869
Ford no longer sells a minivan, but its new Edge aims to woo families with a stylish look, roomy interior and cool technology, including standard Sirius satellite radio. All-wheel drive is available as an upgrade, but our experts suggest steering away from this pricey and gas-guzzling feature unless you live in a snowbelt region or travel often on unpaved roads.

Also recommended
Dodge Journey
$19,995–$27,995

Ford Taurus X
$32,429–$39,994

Don’t skip the booster

Despite the laws in seven provinces requiring booster seats, 28 percent of Canadian children transition from infant seats right into built-in adult seats. That worries Steve Rouhana, senior technical leader with Ford Motor Company’s Passive Safety Research department, who helped developed the first realistic abdomen for paediatric crash test dummies. Their research found children four to eight who are in a crash without a booster seat are at a 25 percent greater risk of spinal and abdominal injury. A booster seat raises the child up so the shoulder and lap belts contact their bodies in the right places.

– Sarah Kirmani

“Will my kids’ car seats fit?”

Tips to ensure your new wheels give a safe ride to everyone inside

• When you’re ready to test drive your top contenders, take your kids and their car seats along for the ride. Some child seats may be too large for the back of a compact car, and bulging seat padding or protruding headrests can interfere with proper installation. If the kids’ seats seem too upright, see if you can recline the back seat slightly.

• Make sure you can find the LATCH points for installing infant seats. Beware: Some vehicles only accommodate infants in the outer seats, even though the middle rear seat is considered the safest spot for children.

• Once the seats are properly installed, get the kids to climb in. Make sure they’re comfortable and that their feet aren’t kicking mom and dad’s backrests.

• For more info, check out our car seat guide.

FILED UNDER: