5 roomy cars that can help busy moms over the holidays

These vehicles make holiday shopping and trips to grandma’s easier

Published: November 05, 2014 08:00 AM

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The holidays are stressful enough without trying to cram one too many shopping bags into the back of your car—or driving a behemoth that doesn’t leave room to open the doors in crowded parking lots.

Here are five cars with plenty of space, easy access, and pleasant rides for that long trip over the river and through the woods. In other words, they’re all good cars that scored well in our tests, are safe, and proved reliable in our Annual Auto Survey. So all are recommended, and we consider them to be especially family friendly. These cars may be especially appreciated during the holidays, but we think families will appreciate them year round. The vehicles are listed in ascending order of price.

Subaru Forester

As tested: $26,814
Base MSRP price range: $22,195 - $33,095

It may look like the box that the store clerk wrapped your aunt’s sweater in, but that square, upright back end leaves plenty of room to stack packages. And the tall windows make it one of the easiest new cars in years to see out of as you’re trying to navigate parking lots full of gleeful munchkins. Plus, all Forester trim lines get a standard backup camera for 2015.

Better yet, the Forester is available with Subaru’s suite of advanced safety systems, called EyeSight, which will automatically apply the brakes if you’re about to run into another vehicle.

Plus, the Forester gets among the best SUV fuel economy at 26 mpg overall. That kind of savings will even leave you with enough money to buy some gifts. The good mileage comes with a trade-off, though. The continuously variable transmission optimizes engine speed for the best fuel economy, but it also makes the engine wail every time you accelerate hard. Still, there is plenty of power, even from the base 170-hp four-cylinder.

The interior continues the practical, function-over-form theme. Everything is simple, purposeful, and easy to reach, although the cabin is far from plush. Tall, square doors make it easy to get in and out when somebody parks too close.

For about $26,000, you can get a nicely equipped 2015 Forester 2.5i Premium with handy features such as a power driver’s seat and giant sunroof. For about $3,000 more, you get heated leather seats, automatic climate control, and a power tailgate in the 2.5i Limited.

Subaru Outback

As tested: $28,852
Base MSRP price range: $24,895 - $32,995

Don’t think of the Outback as a wagon. Think of it as the world’s handiest, most affordable, and thriftiest midsized SUV.

Styled like a rugged hiking boot, the Outback exudes adventure. Its backseat is roomier than any small SUVs, and it has as much room overall as any midsized five-passenger model. And although the cargo space may not hold furniture as big as some SUVs', it can still pack an impressive amount of luggage. You don’t even have to spend a fortune to get a power tailgate.

With a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and a continuously variable transmission, the Outback gets 24 mpg overall.

Like its less-expensive little brother the Forester, the Outback will get you to the trailhead with a minimum of fuss, or risk. It offers Subaru’s optional EyeSight system, which incorporates all the latest driver safety aids: forward collision braking, lane departure warning, and active cruise control that can bring the car to a halt.

The Outback also finally offers a full-featured modern stereo and navigation system, with all models now coming with standard Bluetooth audio streaming and hands-free phone connectivity.

Our well-equipped 2.5i Premium four-cylinder test car cost less than $29,000. And even the fully loaded six-cylinder 3.6R Limited with EyeSight came in cheaper than most six-cylinder SUVs, at $36,835.

Honda Odyssey $38,055
Base MSRP price range: $28,975 - $44,600

Not only do minivans have lots more room than popular three-row SUVs, most also use less gas. Minivans as a whole are uniquely well suited to transporting people and things.

In fact, with its six-occupant capacity in the rear seats, and the ability to mount three child restraints side-by-side in the second row, the Odyssey is about the most young-child-friendly vehicle we've tested. And the spacious door openings and cavernous interior make securing children in car seats a cinch. Power sliding doors and a power tailgate, along with a lower floor, ease access for anyone to climb in and out of this rig.

Out on the road, this living room on wheels offers all the comforts of home: DVD player, abundant input and charge connections, triple-zone air conditioning, and on the top trim, an available vacuum cleaner to pick up spilled Cheerios along the way.

Behind the wheel, the Odyssey feels rather lively, especially compared to typical three-row SUVs. It’s 248-hp, 3.5-liter V6 is delivers plenty of thrust without any fuss, while returning 21 mpg overall.

Even if you don’t have kids, the interior flexibility afforded by minivans makes it easy to accommodate dinner guests or fit a new kayak or a pair of bikes. Even such awkward cargo just slides right inside. Try that in a small or midsized SUV.

Toyota Highlander

Price as tested: $38,491
Base MSRP price range: $29,415 - $49,990

Need a little larger SUV, perhaps with a third-row seat to take out shopping for the holidays? Consider the highly rated Toyota Highlander.

Drivers will find plenty of space behind the steering wheel. The wide front seats are comfortable, well-padded, and provide good support. At first glance, the cabin looks well finished, but a closer look reveals some evidence of cost cutting. Available in different seating configuration, this roomy, three-row SUV can take up to seven kids to their favorite sledding hill.

While not really sporty, the Highlander corners soundly, with minimal body lean and prompt turn-in response. A trade-off for improved handling is ride comfort that's somewhat less plush than in the previous model. The ride excels on the highway, making it well-suited to those holiday sojourns.

For those long trips, the fuel economy is a plus. We got 20 mpg overall with the V6 version, tying with the Hyundai Santa Fe as the most efficient midsized SUV that isn't a hybrid or diesel. And a Hybrid model is available that gets 25 mpg—on par with some midsized sedans. A four-cylinder engine is available only with front-wheel drive. We’d lean toward the 3.5-liter V6 as money well spent since it delivers strong performance and class-competitive fuel economy.

All that makes this the perfect SUV for long trips to see the grandparents or for grueling days schlepping between shopping malls.

Acura MDX

Price as tested: $49,460
Base MSRP price range: $42,565 - $56,780

The MDX delivers all the space and easy-to-use features of lower-priced Mom-mobiles, but with a little more reward.

Moms with a passion for driving will appreciate the MDX’s responsive and refined road manners, and its energetic 290-hp, 3.5-liter V6 and slick-shifting six-speed automatic transmission. And all moms will appreciate the way the silky, seamless engine never drowns out her favorite tunes on the amped-up stereo and how it gets a respectable 20 mpg overall—very decent gas mileage for a three-row SUV.

All but base versions get driver safety aids such as forward-collision alert and blind-spot warning. Higher trims get active cruise control, forward-collision brake assistance, and lane keeping—all of which make navigating holiday gridlock safer.

Behind the wheel, she’ll nestle deep into the leather seats, bask in the luxury-car cone of silence, and entreat the available DVD system to placate the kids.

Even kids can quickly fold the backseat out of the way to clamber into the third row, using a simple push button. Likewise, the power tailgate provides convenience when you approach the SUV, laden with packages.

All that whiz-bang technology, unfortunately, takes a toll in the form of some complicated radio, navigation, and climate controls, split between one touch screen, and another big, hooded screen that requires a controller knob. It’s often hard to know which one to turn to.

Even with that quibble, the MDX is an appealing purchase for the bustling family. Just be careful with the options list. It’s easy to add up accessories and eat into your holiday budget.

—Eric Evarts

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