PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- For U.S. households, spring and summer can be the most trying seasons for the family car.
It doesn't have to take the kids to school, soccer practice, rehearsals or to relatives' houses for the holidays, but the heat makes the interior feel twice as small while the road trips can get considerably longer. The comfort, fuel economy and reliability are tested every day a family's on vacation. One failure or slip-up and the family car is relegated to the mechanic while its owners drive off in a loaner or, worse, a rental.
The weather isn't as bad, but stop-and-go road conditions can take a toll not only on the harried parents in the front seats but the bored, uncomfortable brood in back. Space, storage and even something as minor as entertainment can make a major impact on just how well that flight-free family excursion will go.
Vehicle ratings services such as Kelley Blue Book know just how crucial the lazy days of summer can be for the family car, which is why it compiled a list recently of the vehicles it believes are the best available to American families today. We took a look at that list and culled its 10 best offerings. The following are the vehicles most likely to turn a chorus of "are we there yet" into a simple, more satisfying journey between points A and B:
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:
2014 Ford Flex
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 makes it 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 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.
2014 Honda Odyssey
Starting price: $28,825
For families in the know, the minivan category isn't just some '90s throwback. It's an absolute essential that inspires pickup-style loyalty.
Hardliners swear by their Toyota Siennas, Nissan Quests and Dodge Grand Caravans. But 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.
It doesn't matter if it's cool. Second-row seats can be configured to fit three child seats. The Odyssey's removable center console has a flip-up and a "cool box" beverage cooler for sandwiches and drinks. The optional 16.2-inch split-screen entertainment system that lets passengers watch two programs once was once considered this van's killer app; now the addition of the HondaVac to this year's Odyssey Touring Elite gives shuttle-driving a helping hand when the Shop-Vac is miles away in the garage and the backseat is filled with beheaded animal crackers.
2014 Subaru Forester
KBB didn't just put the Forester at the top of its list of all-wheel-drive cars; it put five Subarus in the Top 5 spots of its all-wheel-drive Top 10.
The Outback ($23,495), Legacy ($20,295), Impreza ($17,895) and XV Crosstrek ($21,995) all scored high marks with KBB, but all managed to limbo beneath its $25,000 cutoff.
Still, you can't ask for a better investment. A 10-year-old Forester still has more than 25% of its original value. The newer models have even reverted to the boxy wagon look of their predecessors while retaining the standard all-wheel-drive for Bohemian Bourgeois parents trying to balance shuttle runs to lacrosse practice with trips to Whole Foods or Trader Joe's. Those combined 28 miles per gallon aren't are a vast improvement over the 2013 model's 24 mpg and its interior is bigger than both the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape, though its 34 cubic feet of cargo space is on the low end. 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.
2014 Nissan Rogue
Under $25,000 with nearly 30 miles per gallon worth of combined fuel efficiency? How did this make the list?
Easily one of the the most fuel-efficient and cost-effective vehicle of the bunch, the five-passenger Rogue crossover with its all-wheel drive and 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is the undercover Forester. Its interior is less plastic than its upmarket competitor and has comfortable seats, a huge center console bin and glove box, an organizer under the floor and nearly 40 cubic feet of cargo space with all seats in place.
Nissan even beefed up the features by making former options such as Bluetooth, keyless entry, folding side mirrors, cruise control, a tilt steering wheel, air-conditioning, full power accessories, a 60/40-split-folding rear seat, a trip computer and a four-speaker sound system with a CD player, an auxiliary audio jack and an iPod interface standard. In a mid-market increasingly populated with go-to small SUVs such as the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape, the Rogue is the all-wheel-drive winter wagon suited for school and shopping, but without all the socioeconomic baggage.
2014 Nissan Altima
Perhaps the king of utilitarian family sedans, the Nissan Altima is trying to shake that image by offering a combined 33 miles per gallon. It's also been streamlined with a sporty new exterior and is laden with a smattering of new toys to placate patents settled into a sedan existence.
That 15.4 cubic feet of cargo capacity isn't a whole lot, but the cabin is quiet, the new tech features include satellite radio, Pandora, Bluetooth and hands-free texting and safety options include blind-spot monitoring, a lane-departure warning system and a moving-object detector.
It's not the most exciting car on the market, but it's safe, sturdy, roomy and efficient. It's a tough tradeoff, but often necessary.
2014 Honda Accord
It's nice to watch a year of upgrades pay off immediately.
Back in 2013, Honda's goal was to make the Accord less of a Point A-to-Point B snooze fest by adding standard an 8-inch LCD display for its information, communication and app-based entertainment system, a single-angle backup camera, dual zone climate control, a lane-drift detector, a power moon roof and alloy wheels. Other new options include a three-angle backup cam, enhanced safety sensors, LED running lights and adaptive cruise control.
The one element that remained intact, however, was the Accord's combined 32 miles per gallon. Though the Detroit makeovers haven't helped the Accord, either, it's still one of only two cars among the Top 5 vehicles sold in the U.S. The country that loves it a Ford F-Series, a Chevy Silverado and a Dodge Ram also loves an Accord.
2014 Nissan Pathfinder
Starting price: $28,950
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. 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.
Your '90s fun wagon is gone, but its transition to the family shuttle is just beginning.
2014 Honda CR-V
Starting price: $22,945
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 that won't be the worst in the school lot.
2014 Chevrolet Traverse
Built on the same platform as the GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave, this is the entry-level version of General Motors' Lambda crossover platform. Aside from window dressing, there really isn't much separating the three.
They all have roughly the same electronics package featuring the MyLink radio and apps-based entertainment system. They all seat eight passengers comfortably. They all have 116 cubic feet of combined cargo space -- the best in their class.
So why pick the Traverse? Because a family on a budget doesn't need to blow $8,000 extra on the Buick's luxury appointments. $31,000 isn't cheap by any means, but it also isn't nearly $40,000.
2014 Toyota Sienna
If you're going to play the minivan game in 2014, you have two strategies at your disposal: Cram the giant box with tech toys or fill it with people.
Toyota's decided to take the latter route with the Sienna and use 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.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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