Becoming a parent is the best time of your life, except when it comes to car buying. Practical concerns intrude upon that beautiful relationship between driver and machine. Your next car will be roomier, less responsive and a little less fun. Truth be told, so will you. Here are six vehicles family vehicles that still offer a little bit of fun, or enough practicality to be worth sacrificing it.
The Standard SUV: Volvo XC90
That catalog-perfect Brooklyn family carts Noah and Aiden around in an artfully worn Volvo 240 Wagon. A real family, however, can’t be bothered with rust, sourcing 30-year-old engine parts and 1980s fuel economy. That family needs the Volvo XC90. Classic Volvo charm and Scandinavian style. Modern Volvo engineering.
Like every Volvo, the XC90 is safe. It comes with Volvo’s City Safety and Run-Off Road Protection and Mitigation packages. It features a rigid safety cell made from “ultra high strength boron steel,” which sounds formidable. The XC90 is versatile. It can seat up to seven. It offers 85.7 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats down. There’s a clean base model to compete with Audi and a lux “Inscription” trim with Nappa leather and Linear Walnut wood. You can level up to the $104,900 “Excellence” version if crystal gear shifters and rear-seat luxury are your bag. The T-8 Plug-in Hybrid blends power and efficiency with a combined 400hp and 27 mpg highway rating.
Why It’s Still Cool: The XC90 offers the premium feel of a luxury SUV, the practicality of a family car and the right amount of understatement. It makes a strong impression that is not “I’m trying too hard” or “I’m overcompensating for something.”
The Station Wagon: Mercedes-Benz E450 4MATIC All-Terrain Wagon
Let’s face it: A hot hatch is not happening with kids. Neither is a Mercedes AMG E 63 S wagon — as a parent, releasing the 603 hp Kraken on an unsuspecting Porsche is no longer a thing you do. The weary parent requires comfort and ease. Perhaps a little aromatherapy? A massage for that strained lower back from kid lifting? Ambient lighting? Consider the E450 All-Terrain.
Performance? It’s a Mercedes. The air suspension delivers a quiet, velvety ride. It behaves with the gravitas and precision of a Mercedes Benz. The 3.0L V6 puts out 329 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque, enough for a respectable 5.0 seconds from 0-60. Driving a Mercedes can feel like driving the future. That’s true in the safety features. The PRE-SAFE system will brace you for impact, close the windows and sunroof and even emit pink noise to protect your hearing if a collision is imminent. The cargo space, up to 64 cubic feet with seats folded, is ample. The car seats up to seven with rear-facing fold-up seats. What child (or adult) does not enjoy rear-facing fold up seats?
Why It’s Still Cool: SUVs are for the masses. Wagons are for discerning drivers. A Mercedes wagon was John Lennon’s choice when it was time to settle down and start adulting.
The Rugged Parental Transport: Jeep Wrangler
The Jeep Wrangler has become a sales phenomenon. The four-door version annoyed purists at the start — but, it transformed the Wrangler from an awesome but impractical single person’s car into a viable kid porter without sacrificing the charm and off-road capability. Many of those purists grew up, met someone, and procreated. The four-door variant became the Wrangler of choice.
With the JL generation, Jeep made the Wrangler an easier car to own. On-road handling is far less boaty. The soft-top no longer presents a nightmare of zippers and velcro. The doors, now made from lighter-weight aluminum, take less effort to remove. The proper four-wheel drive will leave you whistling, rather than white-knuckling, through winter weather. The spare tire remains at the back (where it belongs) but has been lowered for better visibility. The engine options – 2.0L four-cylinder (270 hp) and 3.6L V6 (285 hp) – deliver adequate power. Trim it how you wish. Don’t buy the automatic. You want the six-speed.
Why It’s Still Cool: You and your brood are too busy hopping along sand dunes freed from the oppression of doors and windscreen (also now easier to lower) to explain.
The (Gasp!) Minivan: Honda Odyssey
Parents bought minivans in the 1980s and 1990s. Kids who found them dismal then are now having their own kids and opting for super-cool third-row crossovers. To be blunt, those crossovers are de facto minivans lifted a few inches — they don’t do the job as well, and your offspring, on the off chance they look up from their phones, will find them just as dispiriting. Think differently. Dispense with your vanity. Consider the car that meets your family’s needs, the Honda Odyssey.
Who says minivans can’t be awesome? The Odyssey has streamlined styling and can be outfitted with 19-inch wheels and rad Obsidian Blue paint. It can seat up to eight people in different configurations. It can have up to a stupendous 144.9 cubic feet of cargo capacity for all of your cool stuff. The 280 hp Honda V6 engine can be tuned into a 1,000 hp burnout machine for the ride back from the school run. The Odyssey even has paddle shifters on the base trim, because sure, why not?
Why It’s Still Cool: The Odyssey is loaded with “parent cool” features. There’s a CabinWatch rearview camera with night vision. There’s CabinTalk which can override rear speakers and headphones. Did your children tear into Nacho Cheese Doritos like rabid bears? There’s a built-in vacuum cleaner for that. Feel like having one of those lime LaCroix cans you bought from Costco? It’s waiting there chilled… in the built-in cool box.
The Full-Size Family SUV: Ford Expedition
The Lincoln Navigator or Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class will give you the luxury land yacht of a car reviewer’s dreams. That vessel will cost very near six figures. It will be more fit for transporting VIPs than withstanding kids spilling. Consider the redesigned Ford Expedition. An XLT can be outfitted well for less than $60,000. It can store eight adults in relative comfort and 15 of their beverages. One poor sod will get coffee or a bottle of water, but not both.
Redesigned is the operative word. You get the best of recent Ford engineering. The non-Platinum 3.5L V6 still produces 375 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque with a 10-speed transmission. It does so efficiently for this segment. The 4×2 version gets 20 mpg combined. It can tow up to 9,200 lbs. The Expedition has Ford’s Safety Canopy and SOS Post-Crash Alert systems. It also offers an “advanced cargo management system” to optimize space usage behind the rear seats.
Why It’s Still Cool: The Expedition is formidable, well-engineered and fit for purpose. Your only risk of looking like a doofus is parallel parking.
The Eco-Conscious Kid Hauler: Kia Niro
Some parents care about the environment their kids will inherit. Others care more about gas expenditure than torque and throttle response. That’s okay. Kia has a crossover designed just for them, the Niro. The Kia Niro is incredibly fuel-efficient. The base FE version of the 1.6L four-cylinder hybrid gets 50mpg combined, which is Toyota Prius territory. The tarted-up models with 18-inch wheels still get a quite respectable 43mpg. The 139 hp combined isn’t peppy, but it will transport the family to Point B from Point A with ease.
The Niro offers characteristic Kia value. It can offer many of the passive and active safety features and comforts (heated and ventilated seats) of fancier cars. Those features come at a low cost. The FE trim begins at just $23,340. Even a luxed-out “Touring” version will struggle to top $34,000.
Why It’s Still Cool: The Niro eschews the dorky styling associated with many EVs and Hybrids, particularly the Prius. It’s not a shrill advertisement for your environmental views. It’s not an invitation for gas-guzzling drivers to get aggressive. It’s a normal, decent-looking crossover. What’s not cool? Hanging out at the gas station more often than every 500 miles or so.