Family cars: They’re the workhorses of the car world. Maybe not the Clydesdales that do all the heavy lifting, but they’re definitely not show-ponies, either. And they’re not just for Sunday rides; family cars earn their living.
When you think about it, the family car is not only a tradition in countries like Australia, everyday life is hard to imagine without a set of wheels that can move the whole family when and as they need to. Our cities and towns are laid out as a direct result of our insistence on the motor car and as for regional areas, forget about living outside the metro area if you don’t own a car.
So what makes a good family car?
These days, a large part of that answer is the ability to be able to afford to buy it, own it and run it, as the cost of living creeps ever upwards. So owning a car that doesn’t empty the kitty every month when the lease is due, doesn’t send insurance companies running for cover and doesn’t require a second mortgage to fill the tank, is pretty important.
Then there’s safety. In 2022, we don’t even think of safety as a luxury any longer. Airbags and ABS brakes have been with us for three decades and even the cheapest hatchbacks can now be found with driver aids such as autonomous emergency braking and rear cross-traffic alert. Which is not to say some cars aren’t safer than others, so a close look at the safety features is still compulsory before making a decision. Especially if the kids will be borrowing the car.
Beyond those things, the best family car rather depends on how it will be used and how many people are likely to use it at once. So here are some of our suggestions according to various categories that seem to crop up when the question is asked of us (which is a lot):
Best 7 seater family car
It’s pretty hard to go past the ubiquitous SUV in this department. It was once the preserve of four-wheel-drives, but these days you don’t need to haul around all that driveline and suspension to seat seven bodies. The other old faithful, the conventional station-wagon was rarely seen in seven-seat form and is now all but extinct anyway. Just make sure that the SUV you buy has enough room behind the third row of seats to be able to carry at least some luggage. Many mid-sized and small SUVs lack this space, making them for short or day-trips only.
Best large family car
Are we talking best large car for a family, or best car for a large family? Doesn’t really matter, because the answer is the same. Large cars fit large kids in the back better, so if your teenagers are following global trends by being seven foot tall before they’re 15-years-old, a physically large car is the answer. Again, this is likely to be an SUV purely from the point of view of that’s where the market is headed, so that’s where the new-model development is going and that’s where the choices are. Things like the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Carnival are both huge inside and have enough performance to be convincing one-car-does-all vehicles.
Best value family car
This should also be called best second-hand family car, as buying second hand definitely makes more financial sense than buying brand new. Even a well priced new car will dump value (with a few exceptions lately) in the first handful of years, which is when the switched-on bargain hunters will swoop. Buying a three-year-old second hand means you still get a quality product with lots and lots of life left in it thanks to modern-car levels of reliability and durability. And in some cases, you’ll also get some of the factory warranty that’s still to run. What more do you want for your dollar?
Best cheap family car
This is distinct from best value family car, because, while the two things sound the same, there’s a huge difference in `best value’ and `cheap’. While the former might still be a relatively expensive car, a cheap car is just that; one that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to own. So do what true bargain hunters do: Go for something unfashionable. Things like late-model full-sized sedans. Six-cylinder Ford Falcons and Holden Commodores are huge value in terms of what you get versus what you pay. They go forever and they have enough of everything to be great family transport.
Best economical family car
This sounds like it could be interchangeable with the best cheap family car, but this time around, we’re trying to keep a rein on the running costs rather than the purchase cost. With that in mind, all roads lead to an electric vehicle. EVs are now much more affordable than they’ve ever been and there are even some good second-hand buys like a used Nissan Leaf at comfortably under $20,000. Meantime, you won’t be tied to petrol (and its ever-rising price) and the hatchback layout of most EVs makes good family-car sense, too. If your motoring is all around the city and suburbs, a petrol hybrid is a good foot in either camp, and a modern turbo-diesel family car will keep fuel costs down in country running. Overall, though, the EV wins out for being cheap to run and even cheaper to service thanks to fewer wearing parts compared with an ICE-powered car.
Best luxury family car
There are some sensational bargains to be had in second-hand luxury cars if you’re prepared to take a chance on an elderly European car. We’re talking S-Class Benzes and 7 Series BMWs but all require commitment from their owner as well as deep pockets if something major goes wrong. In new cars, the best luxury for a family is probably the high-end SUV stuff which will give you the space you need and the standard equipment you want. Something cheaper? Try a late-model second-hand Holden Statesman or Ford Fairlane.
Best SUV family car
The doors of opportunity get blown wide open here, as pretty much every manufacturer has an SUV on the market now. And any maker wishing to be a player has a range of SUVs in a range of sizes. Which means you figure out what you want and then find a vehicle that fills that bill at the right price. To tackle the best new family car question, many SUVs now offer seven or even eight seats and you can find them in petrol, diesel, hybrid and even fully electric forms. The world is your oyster. The best midsize family car will be found within the same makes and models one size smaller. Compact family SUV? One size smaller again.
Best family sports car
This is a trickier one as the demands of a family-car buyer rarely mesh with those of somebody looking for a sporty drive. But that doesn’t mean such a thing doesn’t exist. Big, V8-powered Aussie cars once filled this role (and are still around second-hand) but new cars like the Kia Stinger can seat five and perform like crazy thanks to plenty of power and decent handling. Don’t rule out some of the European sedans, either, which can also carry off this duality of purpose.
Best sedan family car
Conventional sedans are a dying breed. But thankfully, some makers such as Hyundai and Kia are keeping the faith. By having a global outlook unique to South Korea, companies like these continue to build sedans, even though the cars are an also-ran layout in Australia. The Hyundai Sonata and i30 Sedan as well as the Kia Stinger are all sedans that perform the family-car role extremely well.
Best car for young family
Safety is everything in this category. Whether it’s a sedan, hatch or SUV, make darn sure that the car you buy to carry infants has the best safety suite you can afford. Check for driver aids such as autonomous emergency braking, lane-keep assistance and rear cross-traffic alert. Check that the mounting points for child restraints are easy to use and difficult to mess up, and be sure that there’s enough space inside for the mountains of luggage and gear that infants seem to require. And for goodness’ sake, make sure the car has a clear, precise reversing camera.