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Best family wagons and minivans

For families on the go, these are the right fit

Published: March 07, 2014 09:00 AM

These people-movers are just the thing for many families on the go. Today’s wagons are few and far between, but they combine the cargo-carrying flexibility of a small or midsized SUV with the ride comfort, fuel economy, handling, and performance of a sedan. And though minivans have lost some of their popularity in recent years, they still provide an inviting combination of roominess, versatility, and cost effectiveness. They can carry up to seven or eight people while providing more passenger and cargo space and easier cabin access than a three-row SUV.

Drawbacks: Wagons aren’t as roomy or flexible as minivans, and they usually hold only five adults at best. among minivans, only the Toyota Sienna offers all-wheel drive, and many midsized SUVs are catching up in fuel economy.

Best overall

The Odyssey provides a versatile, spacious cabin that can carry up to eight people. It returned a class-leading 21 mpg overall in our tests and is very kid-friendly, allowing three car seats to fit across the second row. In addition, driving this minivan is no chore, thanks to its supple ride, good handling, and slick powertrain. A variety of advanced safety systems are standard on higher trims.

Price as tested: $38,055
Overall mpg: 21

This microvan is a smaller but more affordable and fuel-efficient alternative to a minivan. It seats six people and has dual sliding doors for easy access. There’s ample room for second-row passengers to spread out, but the third-row seat is tight and reduces cargo space considerably when it’s in use. The Mazda5 is relatively agile and fun to drive, although it can feel overtaxed on hills and is loud inside. It also has first-rate reliability.

Price as tested: $24,820
Overall mpg: 23

This agile wagon provides performance and practicality. It has responsive handling and a composed ride, which make it fun to drive. Equipped with a manual transmission, our diesel-powered TDI version delivered an impressive 36 mpg overall and 49 on the highway, although acceleration is leisurely. The SportWagen also has a roomy interior, good reliability, and excellent resale value.

Price as tested:
Overall mpg: 36

All-season traction

Subaru Outback
Audi Allroad
Volvo XC70
Toyota Sienna

With available all-wheel drive, these models show that you don’t need an SUV  to handle a variety of road conditions.  At 24 mpg overall, the Outback also proves that you can get  AWD and decent fuel economy. Its EyeSight system gives you a number of electronic safety aids that are commonly found on more expensive cars.

The Allroad, which gets a decent 22 mpg, is pricey but fun to drive. It also has extra ground clearance for dirt-road adventures. The XC70 is also on the expensive side and is a bit thirstier at 18 mpg overall. It offers many safety systems, including one to help avoid low-speed crashes.

The Sienna is the only minivan that offers all-wheel drive. We measured 19 mpg overall in our tests, which is only 1 mpg less than the front-wheel-drive version and is respectable for a large vehicle.

Cargo-friendly fuel-sippers

Photo: Dewhurst Photography

Toyota Prius V: 41 mpg
Ford C-Max
: 37 mpg
Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI:
36 mpg

Not all compact wagons offer good fuel economy. These three, however, are up to the task. The Prius V hybrid gets an excellent 41 mpg, only 3 mpg less than the smaller Prius hatchback. With a manual transmission, the diesel Jetta SportWagen gets a whopping 49 mpg on the highway. In this class, the Jetta and Prius V are also the least expensive models to own over the first five years, based on our owner-cost estimates. We measured 37 mpg in the C-Max Hybrid, although its reliability has been well below average.

Gas mileage is overall mpg based on Consumer Reports testing.

Model to avoid

The Crosstour ranks at the bottom of our wagon Ratings. There are much better choices.

This car tries too hard to multitask. It’s intended to combine the ride and handling of a sedan, the versatility of a wagon, and the all-weather traction of an SUV. But it doesn’t add up to an inviting whole. Visibility is difficult even with a backup camera. Its ungainly handling makes the Crosstour feel less agile than larger SUVs. And for 2013 Honda added an unintuitive and complex touch-screen radio system.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the April 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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