With another school year about to begin, parents nationwide are preparing to spend lots more time driving children to and from after-school activities. According to a recent CarGurus online poll of car shoppers with school-age kids, 38% of parents estimate they spend between 30 minutes and an hour shuttling their kids around on a typical weekday, while 33% of parents polled say they spend more than an hour. If your current daily driver isn’t up to the task, here are 10 vehicles with high safety ratings that also offer plenty of cargo space, seating capacity, cabin comforts, and a host of modern technology features that should at least make that extra time spent shuttling children around a little more comfortable for the whole family.
First, let’s look at some midsize SUVs and crossovers. These generally have plenty of space for a group of kids and all their gear during the week while also being well-suited to family road trips on the weekends.
Toyota’s Highlander offers room for 7 or 8 people in 3 rows or more than 80 cubic feet of cargo. It’s available with all-wheel drive (AWD) for folks who will have to drive in snow, and the top trims include a blind-spot monitor, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warnings, and front-collision mitigation braking. The Highlander offers relatively upscale interior appointments without the luxury price tag, making for a nice ride whether or not the kids are in the car. Mileage ranges from 20 mpg city/25 highway with a 185-hp 4-cylinder engine to 18/24 with the larger 270-hp V6 and AWD. A standard power liftgate makes cargo handling easier, and an optional sunroof can brighten up the interior. A new 2015 Toyota Highlander base trim starts a little below $30,000. A used version could also work, but the Highlander was overhauled for the 2014 model year. Older models are fine, but won’t offer some of the comfort and safety features we think are most worth having.
The Mitsubishi Outlander was also recently overhauled, and the 2016 version features an improved third-row seat and offers additional safety features. That third-row seat is still mostly for children and separate second-row seats limit capacity to 7; but those second-row seats recline for comfort, all trims offer an Eco mode to improve fuel efficiency, and AWD and a sunroof are available. An upgraded sound system is offered in higher trims, as well as lane-departure warnings, adaptive cruise control, and forward-collision mitigation. The Outlander looks particularly good from a pricing standpoint—a base 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander starts at about $23,000, and its mileage ratings range from 20 mpg city/27 highway with a 224-hp V6 and AWD to 25/31 with a 166-hp inline 4-cylinder and front-wheel drive (FWD). If you want to go used, keep in mind that the Outlander was redesigned for 2013, and that the previous version was less efficient and didn’t look or feel as good inside.
If what you want most in a family vehicle is lots of room to carry stuff, you should definitely take a look at the Chevrolet Traverse, which offers what GM calls a class-leading 116.3 cubic feet of cargo area. The Traverse offers a single 281-hp V6 engine that gets 17 mpg city/24 highway or 16/23 with AWD. That mileage doesn’t match the Outlander’s or the Highlander’s, but the Traverse offers up to 5,200 pounds of towing capacity, which would be useful if your family regularly hauls a boat, snowmobile, or other motorized toys. It seats 7 or 8, depending on whether you choose captain’s chairs or a bench for the second row. A sunroof is optional, of course, as well as DVD entertainment for the rear seats, and a power liftgate makes easier work of loading and unloading the rear. The 2016 Chevrolet Traverse starts at around $31,000. The Traverse got a refresh for 2013 that improved the interior’s look and feel, but previous versions are also worth a test-drive.
The Ford Explorer has now been in production for 25 years, having launched as a midsize SUV for the 1991 model year and turned into a crossover in 2010. This vehicle got a substantial redesign as part of its 25th anniversary celebration for 2016, with a new engine, refreshed interior, and new flagship trim. The Explorer’s third-row buckets cap seating capacity at 7, and its most powerful 365-hp V6 engine gets 16 mpg city/22 highway with AWD. But the Explorer does have other strengths. Its new 280-hp 4-cylinder engine is rated at 19 mpg city/28 highway or 18/26 with AWD, and it can be equipped with 4-wheel drive or for towing. More important for families are the Explorer’s new safety and convenience features. Active Park Assist takes the worry out of crowded parking lots, and fast-charging USB ports in both the front and the back will let kids keep their devices working without interruption on long trips. A hands-free liftgate lets anyone open the cargo area by passing a foot under the rear bumper, and that new flagship Platinum trim offers “Nirvana leather” seats and trim and an exceptional Sony audio system. The 2016 Ford Explorer starts at $30,700, but the Platinum starts at over $52,000. A used version would offer savings, but not the new 4-cylinder or our favorite safety features.
If you’re a parent with some extra money to spend and would like to treat yourself to a more luxurious ride, you might want to spring for a luxury SUV. Let’s face it, you’re probably going to want to be able to go out to a swanky dinner or show with your significant other in this vehicle too.
The Infiniti QX60 boasts a 5-star safety record and comes jam-packed with a multitude of anti-collision features and driver-assist functions to keep you prepared for whatever the road throws your way. It wraps all this up with impressive style for a midsize SUV, so for families looking to combine luxury with practicality, it’s a great choice. We especially like the accessibility of the third row, with generous pass-through space when the second-row seat is pushed forward. The 2015 Infiniti QX60 is offered in only two varieties, each of which uses a 265-hp V6: a base front-wheel-drive version starting at a little over $42,000 that gets 21 mpg city/27 highway, or the AWD trim, which costs a couple grand more and gets 19/26. The QX60 is a relatively new model for Infiniti, having been just introduced in the U.S. in 2014, but it’s a descendant of the JX35, which is also worth considering if you’d prefer to shop for a used version.
The 2016 Acura MDX will satisfy any parent’s desire for a luxurious ride while also meeting family hauling needs. It can seat up to 7, with a small third row (for little ones), and the host of technological features and conveniences you’d expect to find in this price range. New to the 2016 model, Acura is offering the AcuraWatch Safety and Driver Assistive Technologies, a suite of features that includes adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, automatic emergency, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, and a blind-spot warning system. This medley of tech features is among the most cutting-edge methods to keep you and your kids as safe as possible. Mileage from the MDX’s 290-hp V6 is also relatively strong, ranging from 20 mpg city/28 highway for FWD versions to 18/27 with AWD. New 2016 MDXs have hit dealer lots with a price tag starting a bit under $43,000. This latest generation of MDX has been around since 2014, and although you’re likely to find some better deals on the SUV from before that makeover, the latest MDXs offer much more than their predecessors.
Of course, if you’re looking for a vehicle that can handle lots of people and cargo while providing comfort and safety, minivans are worth a look. No, they’re not the most stylish vehicles out there, but they do serve a number of useful purposes, one of which is family hauling. The good news? Today’s minivans offer a wealth of features that will make family hauling easier and safer, and they offer considerably better mileage than the vehicles that give birth to the category.
Anyone reluctant to go the minivan route might want to give Honda’s Odyssey a close look. What it lacks in “cool” it more than makes up for with its impeccable safety record, comfortable appointments, and multitude of family-friendly features. We especially like its highly adaptable seating for 8, with fold-flat third-row seats that allow extra cargo space, and its 19 mpg city/28 highway mileage estimates. The Odyssey also offers its fair share of state-of-the-art safety features and tech, proving that these features aren’t just for luxury vehicles. And a built-in vacuum cleaner provides the most convenient way to keep every inch of this vehicle as clean as possible well into the school year. The 2015 Honda Odyssey base trim starts at just under $29,000. And although you’ll be able to find plenty of used Odysseys offering a wide variety of style and features, we recommend you purchase an Odyssey younger than the 2011 model year to get the more advanced safety features and modern convenience features and tech.
All-wheel drive in a minivan? For folks living in snowy parts of the country, this alone makes the Toyota Sienna stand out. We also like its wide appeal: The Sienna offers flexible seating that can accommodate up to 8 passengers, or 150 cubic feet of cargo if you choose to fold down the second and third rows, and options for everything from leather seating to a Dual-View Blu-ray entertainment center in the second row that can display images from two separate sources at the same time. We’re not sure we agree with Toyota’s marketing folks, who call the 2015 version “the original Swagger Wagon,” but its mileage estimates of 18 mpg city/25 highway or 16/23 with AWD are certainly far better than those of the original minivans. The 2015 Toyota Sienna starts at $28,700. The Sienna underwent a mild update for 2015, which includes a redesigned dash, but anything from 2011 forward (the third generation) will offer most of the Sienna’s best features.
The Kia Sedona offers a ton of family-friendly options and features at a compelling price. The Sedona cedes practically nothing to its competitors—it offers dual sunroofs, tri-zone climate control, a power liftgate, 142 cubic feet of cargo room, and even leather lounge seating for up to 8. Under the hood you’ll find a 276-hp V6 that gets 18 mpg city/24 highway. Kia actually refers to the Sedona as a “Multi-Purpose Vehicle,” rather than a minivan, and the point gets across. There’s a lot here for a lot of purposes, be they long road trips that demand a high level of comfort or, of course, trips to and from school and after-school activities of every sort. The 2016 Kia Sedona starts at $26,400. Kia gave the Sedona a total overhaul for 2015 and briefly discontinued the second generation during the 2013 model year. Check out the 2014 Sedona for the most up-to-date features.
If you have a big family or have become the chauffeur for a whole team and need something huge, Chevrolet’s Suburban almost speaks for itself. It’s been in production far longer than any other vehicle on this list, but its most notable feature continues to be its size. This is the vehicle to choose if you’re looking for something huge that you can outfit with, say, AWD and a trailering package that gives a max towing capacity of 8,300 pounds, allowing you to take your family pretty much anywhere worth going. And the Suburban does not scrimp on comfort, technology, and entertainment, either, so you don’t have to feel like your family is missing out just because of this SUV’s emphasis on sheer size and power. Its 355-hp V8 is the largest engine on this list, and it still gets 16 mpg city/23 highway or 15/22 with AWD. The 2016 Chevrolet Suburban starts at $49,700, but its wealth of options can drive the price considerably higher. The 2015 launched the Suburban’s twelfth (!) generation. The eleventh generation dates back to 2006, but look for used Suburbans from the 2010 model year onward for many of the technology and comfort features you’d expect from a newer vehicle.
–Amy Mueller, Chase Hammond, John Harrington, and Steve Halloran
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Used Toyota Highlander
Used Mitsubishi Outlander
Used Chevrolet Traverse
Used Ford Explorer
Used Infiniti QX60
Used Acura MDX
Used Honda Odyssey
Used Toyota Sienna
Used Kia Sedona
Used Chevrolet Suburban