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The picture of the ideal American family car has changed over the decades, evolving from old Detroit's land-yacht sedans to the minivans of the 1980s and now the ubiquitous SUV. But today's families have the widest range of options ever, with a model to suit every scenario.
Small family that lives in the city? A compact SUV or midsize wagon that's roomy but easy to park might be the best call. Three kids and an appetite for outdoor life? One of today's crew-cab pickups makes a great fit. Team carpool parent? Proceed directly to minivan.
Each comes with trade-offs, of course. Compared to a midsize sedan, a pickup will exact its toll at the pump. Then again, you won't be loading two dirt bikes into the trunk of a Honda Accord, despite its generous size.
Here we've gathered our picks for the top family car in multiple styles: sedan, SUV, minivan and truck. These vehicles rank at or near the top of Edmunds' expert rankings, having risen above the competition based on our comprehensive evaluation across more than 30 categories. They are, quite simply, the best family cars you can buy right now.
Cars and SUVs can be loaded with the latest audio, navigation and infotainment tech, or plenty of convenient features such as hands-free door locking and unlocking. But those don't mean much for a family car if it doesn't pass modern muster for safety. It's important to look at scores derived from crash tests conducted by the federal government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a non-profit organization funded by insurance companies. The NHTSA rates cars on a star system, with five stars being the best, while the IIHS issues four grades: Poor, Marginal, Acceptable and Good.
Although each group breaks down its ratings differently, ultimately both consider how well a car fares in various crash and rollover scenarios. Ideally, look for a car that aces both tests: five stars from the NHTSA and a grade of Good from the IIHS. More recently, cars that offer driver assistance features, such as automatic emergency braking and automatic high beams, have earned additional credit from the IIHS via its Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ awards.
Other factors to consider when shopping for a new family car include fuel efficiency (look first for the EPA's combined mpg rating here), maximum cargo area (most SUVs should hover around 70-80 cubic feet, and a good-size sedan trunk will have 16-18 cubic feet), ease of installing and removing an infant seat, and overall reliability.
We can forgive things such as quirky foldout cupholders and shallow center consoles when they come with our favorite sport coupes or convertibles. But family cars are all about practicality, and for today's families that means comfort, space, safety, utility and technology. Plenty of families make do with sedans or two-row SUVs, but even families with three children should consider an SUV with three rows. Many make it easy to get in and out of the third row with second-row seats that slide or tumble forward, often with enough room to keep a second-row child seat in place. Luxury-oriented models will also often offer power-folding rear seats to make loading cargo easier.
Other features you'll want to consider when shopping for a family car include a hands-free-opening trunk or liftgate. These typically work by swiping your foot under a sensor in the bumper and prove invaluable when approaching your car with an armload of groceries. In-car Wi-Fi will pay for itself many times over while keeping kids and teens connected to their favorite games and YouTubers. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, meanwhile, extend smartphone capability to the dash and are quickly replacing native infotainment systems as the preferred tech interface. Anyone who's driven a large SUV or minivan knows it's difficult to keep tabs on small passengers in the back, so conversation mirrors — narrow convex mirrors that magnify your view into the back — are helpful, as are some newer intercom-type systems that can project the driver's voice into the second and third rows.
Now that you've pored over the research, read reviews and watched videos, it's time to see if the cars you're considering will fit your family's life. Use Edmunds to start a conversation with dealers in your area and schedule an appointment to look at the car. We suggest bringing the whole family — if not for the first reconnaissance visit, then definitely for a follow-up.
It's critical to get the whole family in the car at once. Get everyone seated and belted up. Do the driver and front passenger have enough room with passengers behind them? How about with a forward- and rear-facing car seat? Try the car seat in the middle and both outboard seat positions, and check its effect on the front-seat positions. Note how easy or difficult it is to access LATCH anchors. Anchors that are hard to access will be frustrating when trying to move an infant seat in a hurry.
While everyone's seated, take note. Can small passengers reach cupholders? Can older kids reach USB ports or climate controls without issue?
Finally, check the cargo area. Test-fit strollers, large gear bags and even golf clubs. Fold down all seats and lie down back there. Seriously. If you could sleep back there comfortably, chances are the car can handle whatever maximum cargo requirements you throw at it.