20 Biggest, Safest Family Cars You Can Buy

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:

20. 2016 Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen
20. 2016 Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen

CarGurus under $30,000 pick

Starting price: $18,744

Combined miles per gallon: 31

Cargo capacity: 30.4 cubic feet with all seats up, 66.5 maximum

It gets five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for safety and is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety pick. But that seating for five, 13 square-foot panoramic sunroof, touchscreen navigation and rearview camera come with a bit of Dieselgate baggage courtesy of the now-vanished TDI version. CarGurus's take?

"What's been lost in the bustle of Dieselgate is that VW still does make pretty great cars, and diesel only accounted for a small percentage of Volkswagen sales," Smith says. "The gas-powered Sportwagen is a safe car that managers to deliver lots of space and a fun driving experience while still getting good fuel economy, and that hits on the three most important factors we uncovered in our survey - safety, space and fuel efficiency."

19. 2016 Subaru Outback
19. 2016 Subaru Outback

CarGurus under $40,000 pick

Starting price: $25,119

Combined miles per gallon: 29.4

Cargo capacity: 35.5 cubic feet with all seats up, 73.3 maximum

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 that cargo space and the EyeSight and driver's assistance systems make it a perennial family favorite.

18. 2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
18. 2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

CarGurus under $50,000 pick

Starting price: $44,625

Combined miles per gallon: 27.5

Cargo capacity: 13.8 cubic feet with all seats up, 83.2 maximum

This Camry-based crossover helped kill the lumbering conventional SUV when it was introduced little more than a decade ago and continues to trim the fat, especially in hybrid form. That mileage complements features like a panoramic moonroof, power liftgate, three-zone climate control and backup camera without sacrificing the Highlander's 94 cubic feet of storage space or three rows of seating. the NHTSA and IIHS both give it their highest safety ratings for good reason: this seven-seater is an absolute tank.

17. 2016 Honda Odyssey
17. 2016 Honda Odyssey

CarGurus minivan pick

Starting price: $25,836

Combined miles per gallon: 24

Cargo capacity: 38.4 cubic feet with all seats up, 148.5 maximum

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. 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.

16. 2016 Volvo XC90
16. 2016 Volvo XC90

CarGurus luxury pick

Starting price: $42.995

Combined miles per gallon: 23.6

Cargo capacity: 15.8 cubic feet with all seats up, 85.7 maximum

Forget the hefty horsepower of the more expensive versions. What garnered the NHSTA and IIHS's top honors were Volvo's trademark safety features. Collision avoidance, lane-departure warnings, road-sign information, and roll stability control all come standard, with a surround-view camera, adaptive cruise control, cross-traffic alerts, and a lane-keeping aid among the options.

15. 2016 Kia Soul
15. 2016 Kia Soul

Edmunds and Parents Magazine's Best Budget Vehicle:

Starting price: $15,800

Combined miles per gallon: 27.5

Cargo capacity: 24.2 cubic feet with all seats up, 61.3 maximum

This wasn't such a great family car in its early years, when it basically looked like every other boxy neo surf wagon on the street. That's why why Kia gave the Soul a character-altering overhaul this year that made it look like a wagon, dropped horsepower down from 138 to 130 and modestly improved mileage. With high output headlights, LED taillights, heated and ventilated seats, pushbutton starter and the 8-inch touchscreen UVO information and entertainment system, the Soul offers lots of perks at relatively low cost.

14. 2016 Chevrolet Volt
14. 2016 Chevrolet Volt

Edmunds and Parents Magazine's Best Green Car:

Starting price: $25,720 after federal tax credit

Combined miles per gallon: 42.5, with 53 miles of all-electric range

Cargo capacity: 10.6 cubic feet maximum

It definitely doesn't have the cargo space of any of the above, but its silent interior carried over into its 2016 redesign. It also added more battery capacity, subtracted weight and improved mileage. The facelift to a sleeker body was nice, but the dual 8-inch LED color displays and Chevrolet MyLink apps system (with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) all make the Volt a little more accommodating. You're not hauling much more than family around in it, but its spacious, silent interior makes for a pleasant ride.

13. 2016 Mazda 3
13. 2016 Mazda 3

Edmunds and Parents Magazine's Best Hatchback:

2016 Mazda 3

Starting price: $18,545

Combined miles per gallon: 35

Cargo capacity: 20.2 cubic feet with all seats up, 47.1 maximum

The Mazda3 contains a striking amount of power in an extremely small space. A 2-liter engine gives this little hatch 155 horsepower, which basically dusts most vehicles in its class while still putting up nearly 36 miles per gallon of fuel efficiency. Meanwhile, even this vehicle's lesser trims come with standard Bluetooth, six-speaker audio and the Mazda Connect system with 7-inch full color touchscreen, multi-function Commander control, voice command, HD Radio, Pandora, auto text and voice reply and E911 emergency notification. The 12 cubic feet of trunk space isn't great, but it expands to more if you need it and works out just fine if you travel light.

12. 2016 Hyundai Tuscon
12. 2016 Hyundai Tuscon

Edmunds and Parents Magazine's Best Crossover:

Starting price: $22,700

Combined miles per gallon: 29

Cargo capacity: 31 cubic feet with all seats up, 61.9 maximum

Long considered the frugal car buyer's answer to Ford, Honda and Subaru crossovers, the Tuscon is a more robust version of its cousin, the Kia Sportage. The Tuscon, for example, is sized and priced similar to the Sportage, but its wealth of cup holders, bottle holders, Bluetooth controls and multifunction trip computer give it a slight edge. Throw in heated front seats, a touchscreen display, rearview camera and other perks for an upgrade that still keeps this under $25,000, and you have a far more luxurious version of Kia's economical alternative.

11. 2016 Nissan Murano
11. 2016 Nissan Murano

Edmunds and Parents Magazine's Best Crossover:

Starting price: $29,740

Combined miles per gallon: 24.5

Cargo capacity: 39.6 cubic feet with all seats up, 69.9 maximum

It's nice to have the Bluetooth and streaming audio, 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve V6 engine and dual zone climate control standard. It would be nicer if families didn't have to pay $8,000 more for the SL and then $2,260 more for a technology package to get safety features including intelligent cruise control, emergency braking, driver attention alerts, moving object detection, rear traffic alerts, Nissan Connect emergency services/navigation, the Around View camera and collision warning.

10. 2016 Toyota Sienna
10. 2016 Toyota Sienna

Edmunds and Parents Magazine's Best Minivan:

Starting price: $28,850

Combined miles per gallon: 23

Cargo capacity: 39.1 cubic feet with all seats up, 150 maximum

It's terrible mileage, but great space. Toyota's Sienna uses an upright folding seat in the second row to squeeze in as many as eight passengers and its entire second row slides up to allow third-row access. With power sliding doors, keyless entry, power liftgate in the back, second row climate controls, a sliding center console, a panoramic moon roof, backup cameras and Entune entertainment and information system all available, the Sienna is keeping the heat on its rival Honda Odyssey.

9. 2016 Honda Pilot
9. 2016 Honda Pilot

Edmunds and Parents Magazine's Best SUV:

Starting price: $29,990

Combined miles per gallon: 23.5

Cargo capacity: 18.5 cubic feet with all seats up, 109 maximum

This is why the standard SUV is shrinking into a nice: Lots of space, terrible mileage. The Pilot got a huge upgrade for 2016 because the 2015 version was even more terrible. The folks at Honda's plant in Lincoln, Ala., trimmed 300 pounds off its frame between generations, brought combined mileage up from 20 mpg and maintained 27.5 inches of legroom in the back and 4.5 inches of headroom. It's spacious, if still a bit sluggish.

8. 2016 Kia Optima
8. 2016 Kia Optima

Edmunds and Parents Magazine's Best Sedan:

Starting price: $22,140

Combined miles per gallon: 33.5

Cargo capacity: 15.9 cubic feet maximum

We know: You don't want to hear about sedans. Nobody wants to hear about sedans. Never mind that this one gets better mileage than just about anything on the list that isn't a hybrid, has a standard rear camera and keeps its safety features standard across all trims. That's fine, we'll let you play with the trucks and vans.

7. 2016 Honda Civic
7. 2016 Honda Civic

Edmunds and Parents Magazine's Best Small Sedan:

Starting price: $18,640

Combined miles per gallon: 36.5

Cargo capacity: 11.9 to 15.1 cubic feet maximum

Nope, we're not going to keep sedans out of your face, because you people are ridiculous. Why do you own homes? Why do you pay mortgages? Not to throw a kid a Gogurt after school, ask him how the day went, drop him off at practice, eat a sad prepackaged meal in the living room and then pick them up and fall right into bed after everyone walks through the door. Don't know anything about life balance, about quality time? If you did, you'd be paying a whole lot less for this efficient, reasonably priced vehicle with plenty of space for your family and some modest cargo. P.S. Who said you had to bring a whole team's worth of gear with you?

6. 2016 Honda HR-V
6. 2016 Honda HR-V

Kelley Blue Book's Best Two-Row Crossover SUV:

Starting price: $19,215

Combined miles per gallon: 31.5

Cargo capacity: 23.2 to 24.3 cubic feet with all the seats up, 55.9 to 58.8 maximum

This small crossover comes with 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.

5. 2016 Honda CR-V
5. 2016 Honda CR-V

Kelley Blue Book's Best Two-Row Crossover SUV:

Starting price: $19,215

Combined miles per gallon: 29.5

Cargo capacity: 37.2 cubic feet with all the seats up, 70.9 maximum

Hail to the king. We end up writing about this car and its competitors, the Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4, for the same reason station wagons received a lot of press in the '70s, minivans soaked up a whole lot of ink in the '80s and far larger SUVs garnered attention in the '90s... they're the family cars for their time. They're the top-selling crossovers in a fast-growing category, and the CR-V's cargo space and amenities like a leather interior, moonroof, Pandora-connected information display, heated seats and rearview windows and navigation system with controls mounted on the steering wheel have kept it ahead of the pack.

4. 2016 Kia Sedona
4. 2016 Kia Sedona

Kelley Blue Book's Best Minivan:

Starting price: $26,400

Combined miles per gallon: 21.5

Cargo capacity: 33.9 cubic feet with all the seats up, 142 maximum

This minivan entered the U.S. market in SUV-flooded 2002 was bold but received a far better-timed makeover in 2015. 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. Its cargo space and mileage still trail the category's leaders, but Kia's gamble is paying off.

3. 2016 Nissan Pathfinder
3. 2016 Nissan Pathfinder

Kelley Blue Book's Best Three-Row Crossover SUV:

Starting price: $29,830

Combined miles per gallon: 23.5

Cargo capacity: 16 cubic feet with all the seats up, 79.8 maximum

As recently as two years 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, 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.

2. 2016 Chevrolet Tahoe
2. 2016 Chevrolet Tahoe

Kelley Blue Book's Best Three-Row Crossover SUV

Starting price: $47,215

Combined miles per gallon: 19.5

Cargo capacity: 15.3 cubic feet with all the seats up, 94.7 maximum

Again, families really don't care how much WiFi you put into a car this large. They don't care that you can fit nine people in it and that stability features make it far safer than the trucked-up SUVs of yore. Even if they have a camper or a boat, that towing capacity can now be found in cheaper, more efficient cars. That said, the 15% increase in sales of large SUVs like this one since last year shows that families care about the total package. If this apartment on wheels can do it all, they're going to take it.

1. 2016 Hyundai Sonata
1. 2016 Hyundai Sonata

Kelley Blue Book's Best Sedan:

Starting price: $21,750

Combined miles per gallon: 31.5

Cargo capacity: 16.3 cubic feet maximum

We're going to make one last case for a sedan because this one is enormous. 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. 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 3 seconds, which is going to make some parent fumbling with grocery or gear very happy.

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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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