Unique Family Vehicles for Every Pocketbook

By The Car Family

Good fuel economy, room for five, fun to drive, and plenty of safety features are what makes a great family vehicle. What makes these six unique is that they are often overlooked and that results in these being exceptional buys as dealers are often very willing to make some dramatic deals on them. For example, two of them have diesel engines and they are quiet, clean, and remarkably efficient. Two are priced under $20,000, and one cost over $50,000

There are six that instantly meet that criteria. First, the Volkswagen Routan. This is essentially a Dodge minivan with a sharper interior, better handling, and the same spacious interior. Except for the dreadful headlights, this is a better driver than the Chrysler products. However, with a price significantly more expensive than the Dodge look for the Volkswagen dealer to be eager to meet the competition’s price. Gas mileage seldom exceeds 20 mpg and the engine and transmission don’t always agree, but it you want room and an abundance of useful storage features the Routan is worth a look and they offer a Carefree Maintenance program, too.

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Volkswagen’s Jetta Sports Wagon is terrific. For a base price under $20,000 you are going to house the family in a vehicle capable of getting over 35 mpg and with much less maintenance than a gas powered wagon. Get the optional six-speed automatic with Tiptronic over the manual transmission mainly because the clutch on the stick shift has such a high take up point that it makes it more difficult to shift if you have shorter legs. Besides, there is virtually nothing to favor the standard transmission in terms of gas mileage and resale will be less with the manual. The rear hatch is very easy to open, but someone didn’t ask the ladies about where to put the opening latch. The designers decided that the dirtiest place on a wagon would be best, right above the rear bumper. I can’t imagine any women living in the snow belt who is going to appreciate that location.

Safety wise the Volkswagen Jetta wagon has ABS, traction control, antiskid system, curtain side airbags, front side airbags, and rear side airbags. The car feels heavier then it is and you aren’t going to find a better handling wagon outside of the BMW and that costs at least ten thousand dollars more.

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Mercedes’ R-Class Bluetec is a vast, heavy, unflappable Mercedes wagon that is surprisingly nimble on its feet, fairly frugal at the diesel pump, and has awesome passing acceleration. What’s not right is the overly complicated stereo and temperature controls, the placement of the turn signal, cruise control, and shift lever, and the lack of some features that should be standard on a vehicle that costs nearly $50,000 in base form.

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This is a very enjoyable alternative to a minivan and much more fun to drive. The handling is pretty good considering the 5000 plus pounds it is touting and the visibility is quite good. Options on our test vehicle were the rear entertainment center, which has two screens mounted in back of the front row seats, and separate head phones as well. The system works, but is even better is the fact that those in the rear seats have a good view of the road and the advantage of being able to get in and out easily. Although we prefer the sliding doors of most minivans, the more traditional swing out doors on the R-Class are much easier to use, and during inclement weather, can be closed much faster.

But the real story is under the hood. Mercedes makes the best diesel engines for luxury cars and has for years. In Europe they are common, but elsewhere there has been some reluctance to accept these models. In the past they have been noisy and prone to smelly exhaust fumes. That is no longer the case. They are nearly as quiet as a gasoline powered vehicle, get at least 20 percent better fuel mileage, have higher resale, and require less maintenance. What’s not to like. Indeed with a listed 18 mpg, city/24 mpg, highway, it as economical as most minivans and the Mercedes as all wheel drive. However, we found it very easy to get well over 28 mpg on the highway and 24 in town. Add to that the 25 gallon tank and you 500 plus miles before refueling isn’t that difficult to obtain. If you want more mileage try the fabulous E-Class sedan with the Bluetec engine and 30 mpg is common for this luxury sedan.

The R-Class safety features include an interesting Pre-Safe program that uses the brakes, accelerator, and steering inputs to detect if a crash/rollover is imminent. Once the computers sense this danger they tighten the seatbelts and, this is nearly impossible to believe, the passenger seat is moved into the optimum position for the airbag to deploy, and the windows and sunroof are closed. Other safety features include ABS, traction control, antiskid system, curtain side airbags, and front and rear side airbags. I would also consider the optional park-assist system.

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The Mitsubishi Lancer is priced around $18,000 with a lot of features for those willing to take a chance on an “off-brand” sedans. The Lancer got high crash scores, and has dual-stage front, side and head curtain air bags with some models getting anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution. Always get as many safety options as you can on any vehicle. The 2.0-liter, 152-horsepower four-cylinder engine delivers well over 26 mpg in mixed driving. It look sporty and drives sporty while still offering room for a family and it has an exceptional warranty with five years/60,000 on the car and 10 years / 100,000 miles on the drivetrain as well as five years of roadside assistance.

One of our favorites doesn’t have a pretty face, but it is a beauty with a price tag of $10,000 and room for five. The Nissan Versa is probably the best small family car you can buy for the money. It has a huge interior, enough pep to make it fun to drive, especially with the manual transmission, and it is easy to get over 30 mpg. Good crash safety ratings. However, the 1.6 engine and the bare bones interior, even air conditioning is an option, is really not what most families would want. Thus consider adding a few extras and you can still have a family friendly vehicle for well under $12,000 and that includes six standard airbags. We also recommend better tires and the optional safety equipment. Be aware that if you load the 1.6 with too much you are going to make it more expensive than the much better equipped 1.8 model. The Versa isn’t the quietest or the best looking, but it is frugal and roomy.

Hyundai’s Genesis 3.8 is well equipped at $38,000 and a breath of fresh air for those looking for a family vehicle with plenty of luxury and still gives you 24 mpg in mixed driving and a terrific warranty that Hyundai calls “America’s Best.” Plenty of room inside for five, a list of standard features that makes other manufacturers blush, and a pleasant, if not sporty, ride. It was our family car of the year and deserving, but the difficult part is explaining to everyone that you didn’t pay over $50,000 for the Genesis.

High-tech equipment features you can order include electronic stability control, XM NavTraffic, adaptive headlights, radar-based active cruise control, a 500-watt 17-speaker Lexicon audio system, and electronic active head restraints. The Genesis also has heated and cooled seats and ultrasonic sensors located on the front and rear bumpers to help park in tight spaces. Safety wise the Hyundai has dual front airbags, front and rear seat-mounted side-impact airbags, and roof-mounted side curtain airbags.

Family conference: These vehicles are the perfect remedy for the family that needs good transportation, exceptional fuel mileage, and cargo space without surrendering to the thought you have to buy a tipsy, gas swilling SUV. Pick your price range and one of these unique vehicles could save you plenty.

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