10 Best Cars for Heading Back to School

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) – If your family just sputtered its way through the last school year in a broken-down gas guzzler, put a car dealership on the back-to-school shopping itinerary.

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 vehicles for years longer than they envisioned. With the National Retail Federation estimating that U.S. families will spend roughly $74 billion on back to school shopping this year alone, putting a little of that toward a new vehicle isn't out of the question.

With used car inventories and prices still not quite recovered from the recession and options such as leases making a comeback, new cars aren't completely out of the question. Sure, there will still be older high schoolers scanning used car lots for bargains, but not nearly as many as in years past. The share of new cars being bought by Americans between 18 and 34 is down 30% in the past five years, according to auto pricing site Edmunds.com, while Pew Research Center study notes that people under 35 bought 12% fewer cars than they did in 2010.

With the Department of Transportation noting that just 28% of 16-year-olds and 45% of 17-year-olds have drivers licenses -- down from 50% and 66% respectively in 1978 -- the burden falls largely on parents to haul kids and their stuff around.

To that end, we've tried to put together a list of family cars with enough room for that first morning in the dropoff zone, but with a price that won't preclude the kids from going to college. Some of these picks may seem a little pricey, 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 without sending parents to the poorhouse:

10. Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen diesel
Starting price: $26,565

Behold one of the most endangered cars on U.S. roads: The station wagon.

Not a crossover, not a small SUV, but an actual station wagon that's basically a car with an extended cargo area. You know, like the Subaru Legacy wagon that morphed into the outback or the Toyota Camry wagon that became the Venza?

The modern versions of those vehicles now look nothing like the cars that came before them and, other than a platform that you'd have to dig deep to find, bear little resemblance to the midsized vehicles that were their ancestors. The Vista Cruisers and Volvos alike are gone, leaving the Jetta Sportwagen to turn out the lights on an entire era.With roomy seating for five, 33 cubic feet of cargo capacity with the rear seats up and 67 cubic feet of room with the seats flat, this is the family wagon for those who can't bear the thought of a minivan, never bought into SUVs and don't want to spend on Audi or Mercedes wagons. 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 other back to school items. Throw in a nearly 13-square-foot panoramic sunroof, touchscreen navigation and a rearview camera, and you have perhaps the last great update to this venerable family favorite.

9. Honda Odyssey
Starting price: $28,825

A minivan isn't fun unless you're one of the passengers in back watching a movie. It isn't fuel-efficient at a combined 24 miles per gallon, but 28 miles per gallon on the highway isn't bad for the class. It's comfortable and roomy, and that's all you need to get you through a long school year.

Before vain U.S. parents became preoccupied with how cool they looked trucking kids to school, the minivan was the ride of choice. It's never stopped being less practical or comfortable and, in fact, has only tacked on more amenities. In the Odyssey's case, 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 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 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.

8. Ford Flex
Starting price: $29,015

All of the little cube-shaped party boxes that were released a few years ago to entice young people into the road trips of yesteryear all failed spectacularly for one big reason: They didn't have enough room to appeal to families, older buyers and other folks who actually spend money on new cars.

The Flex has no such issue. 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 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 20 combined miles per gallon. It used to look like a giant Mini cooper, but standout frame, spacious 80 cubic feet of cargo room make it as close as you'll get to a locker room on wheels.

7. Dodge Journey
Starting price: $19,995

Fiat-owned Chrysler is just starting to get a handle on what crossover vehicles it's going to keep and what bulky American grocery getters are going to be slimmed down into a sexier Italian frame.

The Journey was spared the same execution as much of the Dodge brand, but isn't going to look much like its 2014 incarnation in its next model year. Sure, it's inexpensive, but its combined 23 miles per gallon are absolutely dreadful by crossover standards. Its “amenities” aren't a whole lot to write home about, either. Daytime running lights, a power driver's seat, Bluetooth and a USB port -- standard on most vehicles -- are part of an options package. Keyless entry, a push-button starter and an optional (but small) third row of seating are nice, but the Journey's biggest upside is its cargo space. There's nearly 40 cubic feet behind the second row and roughly 68 with the seats down, plus lots of tucked-away storage compartments in the floor and beneath the driver' seat.

That may be worth jumping on if you're in dire need of space for your stuff or your family's, but it may be worth waiting for the Fiat-designed 2015 upgrade if you want the most for your money.

6. Mitsubishi Outlander Sport
Starting price: $23,795

Mitsubishi doesn't sell many cars in the U.S. compared with its competitors, but it sells a whole bunch of this one.

The Outlander Sport is just a step above the base model and comes with dual-zone climate control, a rearview camera with 6-inch screen, keyless entry, push-button start, three rows of seating, 34 cubic feet of storage behind the second row and 63 behind the first. Combined with the multi-information display, heated front seats, HD Radio, Bluetooth and leather steering wheel -- and combined 27 miles per gallon -- the Outlander Sport is Mitsubishi at its best.

5. 2014 Hyundai Tucson
Starting price: $21,450

The Tucson and its larger sibling, the Hyundai Santa Fe, aren't mentioned enough on lists like this one.

Long considered the frugal car buyer's answer to Ford, Honda and Subaru crossovers, they're basically more tricked-out versions of the more frequently cited Kia Sorento and Sportage. The Tucson, for example, is sized and priced similar to the Sportage -- and has a combined 25 miles per gallon, similar to its less-than-efficient cousin. 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 a $2,000 upgrade and you have a far more luxe version of Kia's economical alternative.

4. Honda Accord
Starting price: $21,955

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 moonroof 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.

3. Chevrolet Traverse
Starting price: $30,795

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.

2. Subaru Forester
Starting price: $21,995

It's tough to ask for a better investment for a family on the go.

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.

The Forester's combined 28 miles per gallon aren't are a vast improvement over the 2013 model's 24 mpg, but its interior is bigger than what the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape offer (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.

1. Honda CR-V
Starting price: $24,195

This is the go-to family crossover in the United States and a perennial Top 10 best-seller not only for its price, but what that price affords. The all-wheel drive version is a less-than-$2,000 upgrade, but a welcome addition to this mainstay's wealth of perks.

The popular crossover's 2012 overhaul only made that transition easier by adding a leather interior, moonroof, Pandora-connected information display, heated seats and rearview windows and navigation system with controls mounted on the steering wheel. It's also trimmed fuel efficiency to a combined 25 miles per gallon in the AWD version while leaving all 70 cubic feet of cargo space untouched. It gives cash-strapped families a whole lot for their money, which may explain why so many continue to shell out for it.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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