Editors' pick: Originally published Oct. 6.
What does the modern family car look like? Kind of like a living room.
Cambridge, Mass.-based car research and shopping site CarGurus recently found that parents who have to shuttle multiple kids around in sedans are generally less satisfied with their cars than those driving larger minivans and SUVs. Roughly 21% of sedan owners said their car does not meet their family's needs, while only 7% of both minivan and SUV owners felt the same about their vehicles. Of all the respondents reporting that their current primary car does not meet their families' driving needs, 62% said it's because their car is too small.
That would be easy to write off as the blathering of a site that depends on car sales for income if the numbers didn't bear that out. During the last year, with gas prices hovering around $2 per gallon or less, sales of cars of any size have dropped 8.2%, according to MotorIntelligence. Midsize car sales are down 8.3%, and small car sales are down 6.8% after helping lead automakers out of the recession.
"Cheaper gas prices may push some sales of bigger cars, but with capacity being a main driver in the car purchasing decision, low running costs really just make the decision to buy a car that fits the family's needs easier," says Matt Smith, editor at CarGurus. "In the end, this decision is based more on prioritizing space over fuel efficiency."
The combination of both has made crossover SUVs extremely popular. Sales are up 8% year-to-date as drivers with more gas money in their pockets spring for more space. Most surprisingly, however, is the return of the minivan from the brink of extinction. With Chrysler finally replacing its Town and Country with the Pacifica and Kia finally getting around to redesigning its Sedona, minivan sales are up a whopping 19.4% from this time last year. While they're still a relatively small portion of the market (they're little more than 10% the number of crossovers sold during the same period), they outsell all but midsize non-crossover SUVs.
For their part, families are using all of that space. The majority (56%) of parents with middle-school-aged kids report they are driving their kids to and from school or activities at least 5 days per week. One-in-three middle school parents spends four hours or more per week driving their kids around. That's more than eight days of driving per year, or two round trips from Boston to San Diego.
Remarkably, the majority of those hours aren't being spent in silence as the child in the back stares at a tablet. Almost half of parents surveyed (45%) said they are most likely to have a conversation with their children about their day while driving in the car as opposed to the dinner table or at their child's bedtime. In addition, most parents allow their children to eat in the car (78%), read in the car (73%), use mobile devices to play games or watch media online (70%) or choose the music for the ride (60%).
"We were surprised to see that while bells and whistles are often what's marketed and advertised, they were not the primary factors in this decision for families," Smith says. "A small percentage of respondents communicated that these types of features were crucial, with only 12% noting that entertainment technology features like Bluetooth or video screens and 9% stating that convenience features like an automatic tailgate lift were very important factors in their car buying decision."
So what do families want? Price, safety, cargo capacity and fuel economy, in that order. With that in mind, we took picks from not only CarGurus, but from automotive research and shopping sites including Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book and came up with the Top 25 family cars available today:
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.