Minivans. Frankly, there's nothing more practical for families. Not only are minivans spacious and accommodating for passengers, but when they're configured for pure cargo-hauling, they turn into furniture-sucking black holes. The downsides? At the risk of sounding superficial, minivans are usually a bore to look at. They aren't exactly fun to drive, either. So, what do you do if you want to go bigger than a basic family sedan, but want to avoid making the leap to a minivan?
Before the minivan exploded onto the scene in the 1980s and redefined the entire notion of what a family car should be, families drove station wagons. The once-ubiquitous wagon is now more of a niche vehicle, but there's still a surprising variety to choose from. The top-rated Subaru Outback is now all-new for 2010, growing in size without sacrificing fuel efficiency. Ford calls it a crossover, but its jumbo-sized, three-row Flex is essentially the modern version of the large wagons so many of us spent or formative years riding in. Luxury automakers like Audi and BMW offer sporty, engaging wagons, but they're priced like the premium vehicles that they are. The VW Jetta Sportwagen is compact, practical, and fun, even offering a punchy-yet-economical diesel engine as an option. Bottom line: if you enjoy the act of driving, a traditional station wagon is hard to beat, as it's going to perform much like a sedan. Just know that most of the time, you're restricted to just two seating rows, which can be an obstacle if you have more than two children in boosters or child seats. Compact SUVs like the Toyota RAV4 and Subaru Forester are also possible station wagon alternatives worthy of consideration.
Car-based crossovers, or CUVs, have been supplanting traditional body-on-frame SUVs in most automakers' lineups. They're usually more comfortable to drive, in addition to being more fuel efficient. Examples such as the Mazda CX-9, Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse, and Toyota Highlander offer minivan-like family amenities, ample cargo space, and third-row seating, but in a more SUV-styled wrapper. Most crossovers also have moderate towing capabilities as well. Rest assured that CUVs aren't going anywhere. You're only going to see more of them. For example, the next-generation Ford Explorer won't be truck-based; it's going to be a crossover sporting more efficient powertrains beneath its skin.
While many people consider SUVs gauche in today's marketplace, where efficiency is applauded more than a tough image, many are still equipped to handle family duty, albeit not as well as the newer crossovers just mentioned. Third-row seats can be found in old-school, truck-based midsize SUVs like the Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder, as well as large SUVs like the Chevy Tahoe and Toyota Sequoia. Traditional SUVs can tow much more than car-based CUVs can, too. On the downside, fuel economy for most truck-based SUVs is pretty terrible, handling and braking pales in comparison to crossovers or station wagons, and even though many offer third-row seating, the interior packaging in most SUVs just isn't nearly as useful as what you'll find in the latest crossovers, much less a supremely practical minivan.
In the end, if you're bent on transporting your brood in something other than a minivan, the alternatives are out there, and new ones continue to hit the scene every year. Just do your research and find the combination that'll best meet your family's schlepping requirements while keeping you happy behind the wheel.