Big-load haulers: Fit for moving day, Home Depot runs . . . and daily life

These wagons and hatchbacks offer flexible interiors and ample cargo room

Published: January 29, 2015 06:00 AM

Macho guys may think they risk losing their Man Card by not driving a pickup to the hardware store. In truth, you can do most hauling tasks in many everyday cars. Whether your daily existence requires you to have a maneuverable, easy-to-park hatchback; a go-anywhere, all-weather family hauler; or a compact minivan alternative, these four models we recently tested have the flexible interiors and cargo room that let you hop from family time to tool time and back.  

Click on the model name in the write-up for each car to read the comprehensive road test and get Ratings.

Subaru Outback: Return of the wagon

Often overlooked in a sea of SUVs, the Subaru Outback wagon may be the best way to reconcile the weekday commute with your weekend chores.

Wagons have a tough image slog to make, up against the machismo of the modern SUV. But this butch brawler has all of the capability of most car-based crossovers, with more capacity to boot.

To create the Outback, Subaru took the redesigned Legacy sedan and added almost 3 inches of ground clearance, giving it SUV-like height. Its standard all-wheel drive can traverse most climate and urban obstacles. Yet unlike jostling SUVs, the Subaru soaks up all but the worst ruts and bumps.

Though most small SUVs have rear seats designed for jockeys, the Outback can carry two linebackers and their coach—as well as their shoulder pads and sackfuls of footballs. That roominess is a byproduct of the Outback’s upright styling, which also provides a commanding view from the quiet cabin.

Fold down the rear seats—courtesy of a one-touch lever—and you get 34 cubic feet of usable space. That will swallow bicycles laid on their sides or handle your Costco run to stock up for the zombie apocalypse. Add a hitch and you can tow 2,700 pounds.

The predominant power­train is the adequate and unexciting 2.5-liter four-cylinder, mated to a continuously variable transmission. We got 24 mpg, good for the wagon set. But if you’re in a hurry, the 3.6R version’s 256-hp six-cylinder comes with a deep well of power and gets 22 mpg.

For 2015, Subaru made a backup camera standard. The EyeSight safety suite, with forward-­collision and lane-­departure warnings, is available on all but the base trim level.

With its elegant blend of SUV- and carlike virtues, the Outback makes a strong argument for the return of the wagon to America’s driveways.

Price $24,895-$32,995
Fuel economy 175-hp, 2.5-liter 4-cyl.; 256-hp, 3.6-liter 6-cyl.
Engine 24 mpg; 22 mpg

Volkswagen Golf: The do-it-all hatchback

Creating a one-size-fits-all car is a challenging task, but the VW Golf comes tantalizingly close. Don’t be fooled by its “small car” label; this cubist’s dream of a hatchback has a shopping spree-friendly cargo space and an upscale interior.

The zippy 1.8-liter engine makes the Golf energetic and fun to drive. At 28 mpg overall, fuel economy is average among its peers. If you really need good mileage, opt for the TDI version’s efficient turbo-diesel engine.

The Golf’s ride control is unlike that of any other small car—exuding a living, breathing connection between driver and machine. And the suspension eats up bumps without being too soft. Interior noise levels are impressively low for a small car.

Volkswagen deserves applause for its restrained styling hand. Compact car design can be a bit swoopy and adolescent, which can result in poor access. But the Golf’s squared-off openings allow easy entry for people and gear.

Over the years, the Golf has grown up a bit, figuratively and physically. The interior could be mistaken for one from a premium sedan, and the inviting rear seat lets two adults retain their dignity back there.

Pop the large VW emblem on the rear hatch and it opens to swallow copious amounts of groceries. Drop the rear seats and you’ll fit all of the potting soil and petunias you can lay down in an afternoon. Payload capacity is 1,005 pounds.

A neat detail is that the hatchback’s large VW emblem also houses the optional backup camera. It tilts open when you put the car in Reverse.

But those premium features don’t come cheap, so you’ll pay more for the Golf than for its compact peers. Yet they can’t deliver the Volkswagen’s almost perfect combination of traits.

Price $18,995-$29,095
Fuel economy 28 mpg
Engine 170-hp, 1.8-liter turbocharged 4-cyl.

Honda Fit: Big where it counts

Judge the pocket-sized Honda Fit by its wrapper and you would be selling it short. Yes, it’s a fuel-efficient subcompact. But it doesn’t shy away from cargo-carrying challenges.

The wee Fit uses its tall stance and magical flip-and-fold rear seats to swallow a surprising amount of stuff. The seats are a snap to adjust and reconfigure—they even fold vertically, creating space for a row of saplings or even bikes standing up crossways. You can fit a lot in a Fit.

For the 2015 redesign, Honda gave the Fit better space, equipment, power, and fuel economy. Although its CVT is one of the better applications of the oft-droning transmission technology, the base six-speed manual is a more fun match for this frugal hatchback.

Still, the Fit can’t escape its small-car roots. The engine labors even when the cargo hold is empty, feeling more furious than fast. The noisy cabin inundates your ears with road rumble and wind howl. Although its handling is nimble on twisty roads, the Fit’s harsh ride transmits every pavement imperfection to your backbone. Ever sit on a brick wall? That’s more comfortable than the Fit’s front seats.

Another particularly peeving shortcoming: Honda is seemingly striving to build confounding infotainment systems, and the top-level touch-screen audio system is a frustrating mess. The screen often doesn’t respond to inputs, and the system logic is ... illogical.

Smart touches include standard Bluetooth and backup camera, and you can dress up the Fit with optional heated leather seats and a sunroof. For those concerned about small-car safety, the Fit scored best-in-class marks in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s narrow-offset crash test.

Urban runabout? Yes. Long road trip? It’s not the right fit.

Price $15,650-$20,925
Fuel economy 33 mpg
Engine 130-hp, 1.5-liter, 4-cyl.

Ford Transit Connect: A back-to-basics cargo van

If you split your life between 9-to-5 office worker and weekend contractor, consider the Ford Transit Connect. This proletarian Ford serves as a work-first van that can also handle family duty. But bear in mind that the savings compared with typical minivans requires sacrificing creature comforts.

The extended-length, seven-passenger version is a cavernous space. It has room to load lumber, Sheetrock, or a variety of gear in the tall, rectangular cargo area. Ford modified its global compact car platform—the basis for the Focus—with a beefier ­suspension setup to handle the impressive 1,270-pound load capacity.

Despite its utilitarian mission, this cargo van has frisky handling and a graceful ride, two qualities you wouldn’t expect based on its looks.

All of those pluses still can’t wallpaper over the Transit’s shortcomings. Features common in other vans, such as forward-collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, and power-­sliding doors and tailgate, aren’t available. Even Blue­tooth costs extra.

The standard 2.5-liter engine feels barely adequate, even with a light load. Its 21 mpg matches the best minivans, but they’re more plush. A 173-hp turbo is optional on short-wheelbase vans, but it doesn’t help much.

Clearly the biggest knock is the rear seats. It can take 14 steps to fold them flat, requiring you to decipher convoluted hieroglyphics and engage in World’s Strongest Man heaves. That stands in stark contrast to the simple tumble-and-fold seats in most vans.

The big tailgate is a gaping maw, but you have to backpedal quickly to avoid a Mike Tyson uppercut. Optional barn doors provide a bit more convenience.

In the end, your tools, boxes, and building supplies will be plenty happy. Your family? Not so much.

Price $24,525-$29,000
Fuel economy 169-hp, 2.5-liter 4-cyl.
Engine 21 mpg
Most space for the least gas?
Minivan Ford Transit Connect 61/21 cubic feet/mpg
Small SUV Subaru Forester 2.5i 35.5/26 cubic feet/mpg
Medium SUV
Toyota Highlander Hybrid 40.5/25 cubic feet/mpg
Large SUV
Chevrolet Suburban 62.5/16 cubic feet/mpg
Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the March 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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