PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Buying up clothes, backpacks, notebooks and other school supplies can be taxing enough. Throw a new car on top of it, and you're looking at one costly start to the new year.According to Polk, the average U.S. car has been on the road for more than a decade. The recession didn't help matters, as families held on to their school and soccer shuttles for years longer than they envisioned. Whether it's a relatively new family sending kids to school for the first time this year or a group of pickup/drop-off veterans just trying to get their youngest through high school, eventually a family is going to need something more spacious and reliable. The back-to-school car is still a rare purchase, but one we're aware many families will be making this year. While their older high schoolers can scour the used-car lot for a low-rent ride, his or her parents are looking for something big, safe and affordable. That first qualification and the last rarely align, which is why we've tried to put together a list of family cars with enough room for that first morning in the drop-off zone, but with a price that won't preclude the kids from going to college. We've tried to keep the cost under $30,900 -- and the top cars on this list fall well below that -- but newcomers to practices and parent-teacher conferences may consider spending a little more for the long haul. The following 10 vehicles will get your family and its stuff to school, softball and sleepovers, but without sending car-poor parents into crushing debt:
MSRP: $30,900 This Ford doesn't look like the financial backbreaker of the bunch, but this funky ride for growing families is the most expensive on our list. Basically a minivan in a crossover's body, the Flex has room for seven, 44 inches of legroom in the second row and a power folding mechanism for getting into the third row. A surprising amount of headroom make easy to transport a large crew or throw some gear in the back and take a long trip, all while giving them enough room to maneuver regardless of height. Options such as sliding second-row captain's seats, Microsoft ( MSFT) Sync phone, entertainment and navigation systems in its MyFord Touch screen, DVD entertainment center for the back, a multipanel sunroof and second-row fridge console for road sodas compensate somewhat for its roughly 22 combined miles per gallon. Potential buyers may be turned off by its looks, but that standout frame and spacious 80 cubic feet of cargo room make it a pretty ideal family hauler.
Starting price: $28,675 There was a time the minivan ruled suburban America's roads and was a schoolhouse fixture. Though parents concerned with keeping up appearances shied away after the mid-'90s, savvy parents have kept Toyota's ( TM) Sienna and Odyssey have been slugging it out for families' affections. The key difference for families is the Odyssey's slight space advantage: The Odyssey 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. Yes, it's a minivan and still carries all the uncool connotations that image-conscious parents disdain, but Honda has no qualms with loading it up with features to make those selfish folks thing twice. Second-row seats can be configured to fit three child seats. The Odyssey's removable center console has a flip-up trash-bag ring and a "cool box" beverage cooler for sandwiches and drinks. Include the optional 16.2-inch split-screen entertainment system that lets passengers watch two programs at once and the stigma of minivan driving fades in a cloud of convenience.
Starting price: $25,795 But why stop family history at the minivan when the station wagon has seen far more school days? It's a rare, dying breed, but Volkswagen knows there's a circle of stalwarts out there that still wants the wagon. The Volkswagen SportWagen is among the last of its kind, offering roomy seating for five and 33 cubic feet of cargo capacity with the rear seats up. The quiet cabin and smattering of Volkswagen tech throw-ins are a nice touch as well, but it's the turbocharged 2.0-liter diesel engine that gets nearly 42 miles per gallon on the highway that helps a budget-conscious family spend a little more on the vacation itself.
MSRP: $26,650 The "cool parent" needs only to look at the Prius V's website to know where their freewheeling urban life is going: An icon grows up. That cute little Prius they used to rent from Zipcar ( ZIP) for weekend road trips and grocery outings back when they lived in the city has followed them out to the 'burbs and transformed into a wagon. So what if its combined 42 miles per gallon now lag behind the 50 of the original Prius? The V's 67.3 cubic feet of cargo space is considerably larger than the original-recipe Prius' 39.6 cubic feet and closer to that of compact SUVs such as Toyota's RAV4. No, they're probably not going to be parallel parking this one as much, but those grocery runs are getting a lot bigger now that there are more mouths to feed. Besides, it's still the most fuel efficient vehicle on this list. With any luck, they'll remember that on rides home from the supermarket as they stare at the skyline they once called home.
MSRP: $23,495 The Outback has been comfortable with its role as the upper-middle family ride of choice since it was a glorified Legacy wagon driven by early lacrosse parents. Now that it's an almost full-size crossover with roughly nine inches of ground clearance, 70 cubic feet of maximum cargo space and combined 27 miles per gallon that's practically in CR-V/RAV4/Sorento. Though it isn't always a must for summer vacation driving, the Outback's standard all-wheel drive is still the dealmaker for families who have to brave tougher conditions for the rest of the year. For hockey moms and dads, this basically is the minivan.
Starting price: $21,195 It's far more sporty that its compact-crossover cousins, but the Mazda CX-5's more practical features are the big draw here. Let the driver play with the 155-horsepower engine and available Bluetooth hands-free phone and audio streaming, HD radio, Pandora ( P) Internet radio and TomTom navigation system. It's the ample rear seating and up to 65.4 cubic feet of cargo space that are going to get you and your family through this trip. That, and maybe the optional blind-spot warning system.
Starting price: $28,650 It took the Pathfinder a long time to forget its SUV heyday, but it looks like it finally crossed over. 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. This year it finally 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.
Starting price: $22,795 In the stages of adulthood grief, the CR-V is acceptance. It's the sign that young adult parents committed to someone else's needs other than their own. It's surrender, but at least it's an amicable one. The popular crossover's 2012 overhaul only made it more alluring by adding a leather interior, heated seats and rearview windows and navigation system with controls mounted on the steering wheel. It's also trimmed fuel efficiency to a combined 27 miles per gallon while leaving all 70 cubic feet of cargo space untouched. As practical utility vehicles go, it's a sound and popular choice.
MSRP: $14,400 It's billed as an "urban crossover" and has its own iPad app. So how did it go from commercials featuring beat-bumping hamsters to life as the family grocery getter? Well, it just turned out to be more practical than its youthful exterior implied, and the price was just right for cost-conscious post-recession parents. Last year, Kia gave the Soul an overdue overhaul that streamlined its front and rear body, kicked its output up to 138 horsepower and improved its efficiency to a combined 31 miles per gallon. The nine-color palette, mix-and-match accent plates and audio and sunroof upgrades remain, but it's the Soul's versatile 60/40 rear seating and 23.7 cubic feet of cargo space (53.4 with the rear seats down) that make it just as likely to pack in the neighbor's kids for a ride to a birthday party as it is to go on a solo surf weekend.
MSRP: $22,470 Ford brought in a redesigned Escape for 2013 with a 1.6-liter engine with 28-miles-per-gallon mileage similar to the 2012's hybrid version and the MyFord Touch entertainment and communications system. Combined with 34 cubic feet of space in the back, 68 cubic feet with the seats down, available intelligent four wheel drive and tech thrown-ins such as a foot-activated lift gate, parking assist, blind-spot sensors and other perks, the Escape offers a lot of peace of mind before families hit the open road. That sub-$25,000 price brings some comfort all its own. -- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.