Maybe you broke out the all-wheel drive for ski season, maybe you saved a few bucks braving the elements off-season, but for the rest of us, the unseasonable February warmth means the start of road trips in the family car.
According to a recent AAA survey, more than one-third of Americans (35%) are planning to take a vacation of 50 miles or more away from home involving two or more immediate family members this year. Since the overall volume of travelers remains hasn't changed from last year, that means family road trips continue to be the long hauls of choice.
They're taking far more of them, too: especially with gas prices still below $2.50 a gallon, on average. While most family travelers (70%) are planning to take one or two vacations, there is a significant increase this year in the number of Americans who say they are planning to take three or more vacations. The 28% of family travelers who will take three or more trips this year is 13 percentage points higher than in 2016.
"Families continue to see the value of traveling as a way to bond and reconnect in today's busy world," said Bill Sutherland, AAA senior vice president of travel and publishing. "The best way to wrap up a family vacation is to start planning the next one, as more and more Americans are starting to do."
The old school family road trip (79%) and visits to national parks (51%) and theme parks (40%) remain the most popular types of vacations for families planning to travel this year. Compared to 2016, 10% more families are expected to take road trips this year, despite average gas prices that are 52 cents higher than they were this time last year.
What does the family car of choice look like today? An SUV. Automakers sold more than 6.7 million sport utility vehicles and crossovers last year. While just 1.8 million of those were the gas-swilling truck-based SUVs that rose to prominence in the '90s and early 2000s, more efficient car-based crossovers saw sales grow twice the rate of standard SUVs year-over-year.
"Looking at sales trends, soccer field parking lots and school drop-off lines, it's clear that families have moved on from the family sedan, and now the modern family car is an SUV," says Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for vehicle pricing and analysis site Kelley Blue Book. "As SUVs have grown more comfortable and fuel efficient over the years, car shoppers have demonstrated an increasing preference for the elevated driving position, superior cargo versatility and higher profile of SUVs, which make them more functional as family cars than traditional sedans."While both standard SUVs and crossovers combined still fell short of the number of cars sold during the same span (7 million), thanks largely to low gas prices, their renewed popularity is raising questions amid a new presidential administration. In June, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a Midterm Evaluation of its goal to raise fuel to a combined 54.5 miles per gallon fleet-wide (roughly 38 miles per gallon on window stickers) by 2025. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that cars and light trucks purchased in 2015 got an average of 25.3 miles to the gallon.
That's actually down from 25.4 mpg the year before, and it's made the EPA a little anxious about whether or not automakers can hit that 2025 mileage mark.
While 25.4 mpg is far better than the 19 miles per gallon that the Department of Transportation measured for the same pool of vehicles in 1995, it's also closing in on double the average mileage of the light-duty vehicles on U.S. roads in 1980. However, when the EPA set its mileage goal in 2012, gas prices were close to $4 a gallon. According to AAA, they're down to an average of $2.36 per gallon, though they've risen by nearly 50 cents per gallon within the last year.
As a result, U.S. drivers stopped buying cars -- with sales of cars of every size down 8.1% since this time in 2015 -- and started buying SUVs, crossovers and vans. Minivan sales are up 8% within the last year, but even small and large van sales are up as Ford and General Motors switch to more European styles and fleets modernize.
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.
"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."
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 five 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. 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%) pr 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."
With all of this in mind, Kelley Blue Book came up with its list of the 12 best family cars of 2017. Unsuprisingly, there isn't a sedan on it:
Starting price: $25,645
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.
Starting price: $30,630
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.
Starting price: $29,850
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 Honda (HMC) 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.
Starting price: $29,750
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, panoramic moon roof, backup cameras and Entune entertainment and information system all available, the Sienna is keeping the heat on its rival Honda Odyssey.
Starting price: $30,595
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: 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.
Starting price: $19,465
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.
Starting price: $24,045
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.
Starting price: $26,900
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.
Starting price: $30,290
Combined miles per gallon: 23.5
Cargo capacity: 16 cubic feet with all the seats up, 79.8 maximum
As recently as thre 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.
Starting price: $47,215
Combined miles per gallon: 19.5
Cargo capacity: 15.3 cubic feet with all the seats up, 94.7 maximum
Families really don't care how much Wi-Fi 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.
Starting price: $28,995
Combined miles per gallon: 23
Cargo capacity: 32.3 cubic feet with all seats up, 140.5 maximum
Death to the Town & Country. Chrysler is really gunning for the whole "luxury minivan" angle here by offering features like leather seats, a three-panel sunroof and noise cancellation. At its core, though, this is still a family hauler: stow-and-go seats that fold into the floor, electronic safety features, handless sliding doors, an available vacuum, 3,600 pounds of towing capacity and a whole lot of interior cargo room leave little wonder why minivan sales have rebounded this year.
Starting price: $23,200
Combined miles per gallon: 26.5
Cargo capacity: 30.7 cubic feet with all seats up, 60 maximum
You can throw in all-wheel drive for $1,500, and this CUV still wouldn't break the $25,000 barrier.
Meanwhile, features including rearview camera, Sirius-XM satellite radio and Bluetooth wireless connectivity make lovely freebies, the UVO information and entertainment system and backup warning system also can still be had within the $25,000 price range. A redesign recently gave it 30.7 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats up and 60 altogether, but it also made it look a little less like a soccer shuttle and a little more like a fun beach buggy you might actually enjoy owning.