10 Best Back-To-School Cars Your Family Can Buy

Back-to-school car shopping happens, even if it's just parents shopping for a new school shuttle.

According to IHS Automotive, the average U.S. car has been on the road for more than 11 years. The recession forced families held on to their vehicles for years longer than they had planned, while stagnant wage increases haven't given them much extra to play with. With the National Retail Federation estimating that U.S. families spent roughly $68 billion on back to school shopping in 2015, it isn't hard to imagine that a new car might be part of that equation.

Especially with fewer school-age kids driving. The New York Times discovered that less than half of U.S. youths aged 19 or younger had a license in 2008, down from nearly two-thirds in 1998. Meanwhile, the share of new cars being bought by Americans between 18 and 34 is down 30% in the last five years, according to auto pricing site Edmunds.com. A Pew Research Center study notes that people under 35 bought 12% fewer cars than they did in 2010.

The Department of Transportation notes that just 28% of 16-year-olds had driver's licenses in 2010, with just 45% of 17-year-olds claiming the same. That's slid from 50% and 69% respectively in 1978. The number of 16-year-olds with driver's licenses peaked at 1.72 million in 2009, but plummeted to 1.08 million by 2014.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) notes teen driver fatality rates started dropping around 1996, when states first began graduated driver licensing (GDL), and have kept falling. That decreased accidents involving 16-year-olds by 68% between 1996 and 2010. During that same span, fatal crashes fell 59% for 17-year-olds, 52% for 18-year-olds and 47% for 19-year-olds.

However, Kelley Blue Book puts the average price of a U.S. vehicle at $33,865. As Bankrate notes, even a well-paid U.S. market like San Jose, Calif. -- with a median income of $87,210 -- can't afford that price with a 20% down payment, four years of financing and insurance that's 10% of a household's gross income. How are families supposed to get themselves a car under those conditions? Well, we consulted Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds and came up with ten vehicles that will keep families moving during the school year without breaking the $30,000 ceiling:

10. 2016 Honda HR-V
10. 2016 Honda HR-V

Honda doesn't have a true wagon in the absence of the discontinued Crosstour, but this mini-crossover will do.

The CR-V's little sibling has 58.8 cubic feet of cargo room with the seats down (not including the front passenger's seat, which folds down for longer items), LED brake lights, heated side mirrors, the HondaLink app suite, a 7-inch touchscreen entertainment and communications center, voice texting, wheel-mounted controls, multi-angle rearview camera and options including a power moonroof, heated seats and automatic climate control. It isn't the biggest wagon out there, but it's a nice middle ground between the CR-V and the subcompact Fit. At 31.5 combined miles per gallon, it's also incredibly efficient for a non-hybrid crossover.

9. 2016 Subaru Outback
9. 2016 Subaru Outback

Starting price: $24,995

This is not the wagon it once was, but certain features never change

The newer models look more like larger SUVs than lacrosse wagons, but the standard all-wheel drive that routinely draws fans from wet and snowy locations remains. The Outback's combined 29 miles per gallon aren't great, but aren't terrible, while its more than 35 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats up gets the job done. With the rear seats down, that turns into a cavernous 73.3 cubic feet of cargo room for everyone's backpacks, sports equipment and other gear.

Subaru's added Bluetooth connectivity to all its models and beefed up the options on its pricier trims, which means rearview cameras, power liftgate, voice-activated GPS and X-Mode engine control that provides additional traction on inclines and wet roads.

8. 2016 Kia Sedona
8. 2016 Kia Sedona

Starting price: $26,400

Introducing a minivan into the U.S. market in 2002 was bold, but its minivan makeover in 2015 was absolutely daring.

Sedona sales peaked at about 61,000 vehicles way back in 2004 before settling in at roughly 7,000 in 2014. However, after making the exterior look a bit meaner, giving the Sedona xenon headlights, LED taillights and accents, Sirius-XM satellite radio, a touchscreen information and entertainment system, Bluetooth, steering-wheel-mounted controls and a backup warning system, sales jumped quickly.

It helps that it has 33.9 cubic feet of cargo space with seats up, 78.4 cubic feet with the third row down, 142 cubic feet with second and third rows down. That's a half-inch more legroom in the third row than the Dodge Caravan or Chrysler Town and Country and has almost a full cubic foot more cargo space with the seats in place than either of those two. Its total cargo capacity still trails the more popular minivans, even if the driver and front passenger get more legroom, but it's an improvement.

33.9 cubic feet with seats up, 78.4 cubic feet with the third row down, 142 cubic feet with the second and third rows down.

7. 2016 Toyota Sienna
7. 2016 Toyota Sienna

Starting price: $28,850

If you can't give people more than 21.5 miles-per-gallon combined, you at least have to give them space.

Toyota's Sienna uses an upright folding seat in the second row to squeeze in as many as eight passengers. The entire second row slides up to allow third-row access, and the second and third rows can fold away if there's a need for extra storage. That 39 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row can expand to as much as 150 cubic feet with the seats away.

With power sliding doors, keyless entry, power liftgate in the back, second row climate controls, a sliding center console, panoramic moon roof, backup cameras and Entune entertainment and information system all available, the Sienna is only giving families more to love by raising the stakes on its rival Honda Odyssey.

6. 2016 Honda Odyssey
6. 2016 Honda Odyssey

Starting price: $29,275

Speaking of the Odyssey, its versatile cabin seats up to eight, with second-row seats that can be configured to fit three child seats. The Odyssey's removable center console offers a useful flip-up trash-bag holder, and there's also a "cool box" beverage cooler to accommodate chilled refreshments. Available features include a blind-spot warning system and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system with a 16-inch screen capable of simultaneously displaying two different program sources.

Best of all, an in-cabin vacuum is an available option for parents who just know that a healthy percentage of that trip's road snacks are going to end up on the floor. It also comes in handy for a vehicle that can carry up to eight people with enough room behind them for a small grill. More importantly, it can carry five family members, collapse the third row and have 93.1 cubic feet for more storage.

5. 2016 Nissan Pathfinder
5. 2016 Nissan Pathfinder

Starting price: $29,830

Just becoming a crossover was a tough task for the Pathfinder, which was far more used to life as an iconic '90s SUV.

As recently as a year ago, the Pathfinder was still being built to compete with the Chevy Blazer and Ford Bronco. It was hopped up on trucks, still getting a paltry 18 miles per gallon and it still firmly believed a 4.0-liter V6 is something anyone wants in a family vehicle. Recently, it joined the rest of the modern automotive world by switching to a car-platform crossover, trimming to a 3.5-liter V6 and cutting fuel economy to a combined 23 miles per gallon. It still has seven seats, nearly 80 cubic feet of storage room with the two rows of rear seats down. The second row moves up five inches for easy rear-seat access and there's three-zone climate control to go with an available three-zone entertainment center.

4. 2016 Toyota Highlander
4. 2016 Toyota Highlander

Starting price: $29,990

This Camry-based crossover helped kill the lumbering conventional SUV when it was introduced little more than a decade ago, even if its 22.5 miles per gallon seem a bit gluttonous by today's standards. Features like a panoramic moonroof, power liftgate, three-zone climate control and backup camera complement the Highlander's hulking 83.7 cubic feet of storage space or three rows of seating.

The 27.5 inches of legroom in the third row is generous, even if the inch of headroom isn't. However, the 31.5 inches of legroom in the second row is near-miraculous, while the 42 inches of legroom up front is among the best available on this list. Having a backup camera, Toyota's Entune touchscreen audio system, Apple's Siri eyes-free voice controls and Bluetooth all standard also helps.

3. 2016 Hyundai Sonata
3. 2016 Hyundai Sonata

Starting price: $21,750

At one point, family cars were actually cars. Ask an old person.

The Sonata isn't an apartment on wheels, but there's 106.1 cubic feet of cabin space that's beyond adequate for a family of four. There's 35.6 inches or rear leg room, and the back seat bench can sit three adults comfortably and three kids with room to spare.

Throw in the Blue Link telematics system, backup camera, touchscreen audio, steering wheel mounted controls, Bluetooth and optional dual-zone automatic climate control, and you're getting a lot of sweet perks for less than $25,000. That includes 31.5 combined miles per gallon or 16.3 cubic feet of trunk space, but it also lands you a hands-free "smart" trunk opener fob that automatically unlocks the trunk if the person with the key stands behind the car for more than three seconds.

2. 2016 Chevrolet Malibu
2. 2016 Chevrolet Malibu

Starting price: $21,525

There are a whole lot of toys in this unassuming package. General Motors made a big point of overhauling the Malibu in 2013 by packing its base model with an AM-FM stereo with iPod/USB and auxiliary input jacks, Bluetooth with hands-free streaming of audio from compatible devices, OnStar and Sirius-XM Satellite Radio. Everything above that base model also received a large touch-screen display using Chevrolet's MyLink information and entertainment system, Pandora Internet Radio playback and Sirius-XM Travel Link navigation.

The combined 32 miles per gallon is better than the highway mileage of some midsize competitors and an improvement from 27.5 in 2012, but the facelift it received for 2016 makes the Malibu's exterior just as stylish as its two-tone interior.

1. 2016 Honda Civic
1. 2016 Honda Civic

Starting price: $18,640

Miles per gallon: 31 city, 42 highway. 36.5 combined

Edmunds characterizes it as a "popular car for students and those on a budget," but it's popular by just about any measure. The Civic routinely ranks among the Top 10 cars in the country in sales, but a slight uptick in mileage (36.5 miles per gallon combined, including 42 on the highway) from the previous year's model and a lovely little facelift for 2016 that includes rain-sensing wipers, a capless fuel tank, heated seats and steering wheel controls makes quite a difference.

It's a bit snug for more than two, but the Civic's mileage will make it easy to grow into once gas prices rise again. It seats five with a surprising amount of space left over, is coated in airbags and has a new 7-inch touchscreen display that shows fuel efficiency, music info and photos -- as well as Apple Play and Android Auto capability. The utilitarian small sedan also tends to hold up well over the years, making it a gem for used car buyers who aren't just waiting for a larger, far less efficient vehicle to get less expensive.

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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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