The all-American love affair with gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and recreational ramblers may have gone the way of the cloth diaper and the VCR.
Across the nation, families are putting the brakes on long-distance travel plans. The days of endless road trips to faraway destinations appear to be a thing of the past.
But they don’t have to be. While the single-digit mileage machines are heading into storage, there are many new models of leaner, greener vehicles that provide renewed hope for the family vacation.
With assistance from Kristin Varela, chief mother and senior editor at MotherProof.com, and some automotive expert input from the editors at Car and Driver magazine, Kelley Blue Book and HybridCars.com expert Michael Coates, we’ve put together a list of some of the most fuel-efficient, family-friendly vehicles on the market today.
Mini Cooper Clubman
32 mpg/base price $19,900
This is not your standard family hauler. But a look at the Mini Cooper Clubman reminds us somewhat of the Ford Club Wagon our parents used to drive. A spinoff on the popular Mini Cooper, owned by BMW, the Clubman adds critical family-friendly leg room and cargo space in a hip design.
Another Clubman quirk is the flip-out doors on the side and tail of the vehicle. These unorthodox doors may look strange, but they open up the passenger area for much easier entry and exit than conventional car doors.
46 mpg/base price $22,175
By most accounts, the Prius is the original hybrid (although the Honda Insight actually came first) and it certainly is the most successful. The second-generation Prius has the most original appearance of any hybrid and stands out in the parking lot.
MotherProof.com reports that the Prius’ bigger-than-expected rear passenger area is a pleasant surprise and the cargo space is large enough to fit a pair of child-sized bikes.
Honda Civic Hybrid
42 mpg/base price $22,600
For those who’d rather blend in than stand out, the Civic Hybrid is designed to look the same as the gas version. In fact, with a real-world mileage of 42 miles per gallon, the Civic hybrid manages only about 7-10 mpg more than the conventional Civic with a base price of $7,000 more for the hybrid version.
The interior of the Civic Hybrid garnered a bit of a concern from the MotherProof experts: "I could use a plumbing snake to get to the top-tether anchors (for child seats) and the light-colored cloth armrests in the doors will be covered with gross banana gunk in short order."
29 mpg/base price $11,515
This Korean automaker is quietly and quickly opening eyes and turning the heads of cost-conscious young families who like a little spice in their sedan.
The Kia Rio sedan and Rio5 five-door made an award-winning splash soon after being redesigned in 2006. They were deemed "Most Fun to Drive" by the Wall Street Journal and "Most Wanted" by Edmunds.com.
Nissan Altima Hybrid
34 mpg/base price $25,480
Available in just eight states (California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont), the Altima Hybrid uses the same hybrid technology as the Toyota hybrids, although with a different engine. Like the Toyota, the Altima Hybrid can switch from purely electric to straight gas or a combination of both.
The automotive experts at CarandDriver.com point out that the Altima’s hybrid system is nearly identical to that of Toyota Camry. "The Altima hybrid ... delivers on its sporty looks and design-forward interior with a fun, enthusiastic chassis and precise steering."
Toyota Camry Hybrid
33 mpg/base price $25,200
The Camry has been one of the best-selling mid-size sedans for cost conscious families over the years, so you’d expect the hybrid version to be even more popular, right? Not so fast. The Camry hybrid comes in a 6-cylinder model only, which offers plenty of power, but lower fuel mileage than might be expected.
For busy families, the batteries for the Camry hybrid take away critical cargo space. "The trunk doesn’t have much room. It can handle about one errand at a time due to the space the batteries take up," says Varela. "I can fold the rear seats down, but only get a small hole to perhaps pass things through, or use for skis or something. The trunk does fine for a regular grocery store trip, but an outing to my local membership warehouse would require some rope and space on the roof."
Mercedes E320 BlueTec
Clean diesel/31 mpg/base price $52,300
People tend to shudder when they hear the words "Mercedes" and "diesel" spoken in the same sentence. The image of a noisy old, smoke-belching tank with a three-pointed star on the hood is a hard one to shake. But the diesel engine has come a long way from that smelly sedan of yesteryear.
The E320 BlueTec system is leaner (27-36 mpg), meaner (V6 turbo) and cleaner than ever before. And the price is right, especially when compared to the standard gasoline-powered E350. For just $1,000 more, you get a high-gas mileage luxury sedan that is clean and quiet.
The auto experts at CarandDriver.com are sold on this new diesel: "Mercedes beat Volkswagen back to the nationwide diesel market with the full Mercedes experience—rattle-free, pampered quietude and effortless speed—while consuming considerably less fuel than the comparable gasoline-powered model. The current car gets six more miles per gallon in the city and eight more on the highway than the E350, yet it still makes the run to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds."
29 mpg/base price $14,395
If your sights are set on all-around savings—from the sales lot to the gas station—then your focus might well be zeroed in on this Ford model. With a starting sticker price under $15,000, the Ford Focus also gets great gas mileage with an average of up to 35 mpg in steady freeway driving.
But Varlela was less than thrilled at the lack of head restraints in the back seats. "Children in backless boosters and teenagers (not to mention adults) would probably experience some serious head whipping if the car were hit from behind," she reports. "I was really in a quandary with my very tall but very light 8-year-old—her head was a good foot above the back of the seat when she sat in the booster, but the seat belt cut across her neck without it."
29 mpg/base price $15,510
One of the lowest priced vehicles on our family-friendly green list is also the first wagon. The Matrix and the Pontiac Vibe are basically the same vehicles with different names and exterior appearance and both deliver good fuel economy for a low starting price.
However, the Matrix is being redesigned for 2009, with more room for family at a slightly greater starting price ($18,620). Here’s what Michael Coates at HybridCars.com has to say about the new Matrix model:
"The Matrix seats up to five adults comfortably. The rear seat, especially, has been expanded to make more passenger room. The compromise has been a slight loss of cargo space, but not enough to notice. Overall, its functionality is still top-notch for those who like to throw in their stuff and hit the road."
Mercury Mariner Hybrid
Mazda Tribute hybrids
32 mpg/base price $25,310-$26,300
This year’s 3-for-1 award goes to the Ford Motor Company, which is pumping up its hybrid lineup by building three nameplates out of one award-winning model: the Ford Escape.
With an average fuel mileage (32) that many small sedans would envy, the Escape—as well as the Mariner and Tribute hybrids—quietly keeps the emissions low and mileage high without much external fanfare.
The hybrid trio also has the fuel-saving advantage of running in electric-only mode up to a speed of 25 miles per hour. This means in the 100 yards or so that you may roll down your street and into the driveway, the hybrid system is gobbling kilowatts—electricity from a battery that is recharged by the vehicle’s brakes—instead of gas.
Mothers are also equally impressed with the space of the mid-size SUV.
"The cargo area is plentiful and is not reduced in any way by the presence of the battery," says Varela. "I could easily lift up the cargo area carpet and see the battery there, but I could place all of my gear on top of it with no worries."
Best of the rest
Many more of our favorite family-size vehicles are coming out in hybrid versions, offering the greatest space with better fuel economy than ever before.
Some examples include the Lexus RX400h (base price $42,000) and Toyota Highlander (base price $33,700) hybrids, which average 26 mpg while offering a smooth, silent ride with family-friendly utility. Green Car Journal’s 2008 Green Cars of the Year, the Chevrolet Tahoe hybrid (21 mpg/base price $50,500) and the GMC Yukon hybrid (21 mpg/base price $50,500), became the first large SUV hybrids to hit the market. In 2009, Chrysler is joining the hybrid herd with a two-mode hybrid version of the Aspen (20 mpg/base price $45,570) and Dodge Durango (20 mpg/base price $45,340) SUVs. And the all-new Ford Flex (24 mpg/$28,000 to $40,000, estimated) features some unique seating and cargo configurations for active, do-it-all families.
Keith Turner is an automotive writer and the father of two teens. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews can be found at thefamilycar.com and greenfamilycar.com.
Hybrid myths busted
Fuel-sipping hybrids are hitting neighborhood driveways in record numbers, but there are still some questions and misconceptions about the gas-electric vehicles. Michael Coates, of HybridCars.com, offers some answers to common myths about hybrids:
MYTH: Hybrid batteries are dangerous and costly to replace.
FACT: The hybrid battery packs are designed to last for the lifetime of the vehicle, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 miles. The warranty covers the batteries for between eight and 10 years, depending on the carmaker. Today’s hybrids use nickel metal hydride batteries that can be fully recycled.
MYTH: Plug-in Hybrids get 100 mpg.
FACT: At this point, plug-in hybrids are gasoline-electric hybrids with added batteries allowing them to theoretically drive farther on purely electric power; they are plugged in to an electrical outlet to recharge the batteries. In some cases, they can achieve up to 100 miles on a gallon of gasoline because they run as an electric vehicle part of the time.
MYTH: Hybrid owners get a break on their taxes.
FACT: Federal tax credits have been available for buyers of hybrids. The credits vary depending on the vehicle and are capped at a certain number for each model. For instance, Prius buyers can no longer get tax credits for buying new models, while many of the other models are still eligible. Here’s the source for the latest info: fueleconomy.gov/feg/taxcenter.shtml.
MYTH: Hybrids can save you a lot of money.
FACT: The actual financial savings of a hybrid is minimal. Saving money is probably the wrong reason to buy one. You buy it because you’ll be using less fuel. The existing rule of thumb is a hybrid costs roughly $3,000 more than its non-hybrid counterpart, but fuel savings at today’s rate will pay off that difference in about three to five years. Do you typically drive a vehicle for more than five years? Then it’s probably worth getting a hybrid.
Use less gas
• Don’t speed. Driving 65 mph instead of 75 mph will increase your fuel economy by about 10 percent.
• Avoid "jack rabbit" starts. Flooring the gas pedal wastes gas and leads to drastically higher pollution rates.
• Anticipate stops. Think ahead to anticipate stops so your vehicle can coast down. Accelerating hard and braking hard wastes gas, increases pollution and wears out your brakes.
• Keep your tires properly inflated. For every three pounds below recommended pressure, fuel economy goes down by about 1 percent.
• Avoid rush hour, if possible. Stop-and-go driving burns gas and increases emissions of smog-forming pollutants.
• Travel light. An extra 100 pounds in your trunk reduces fuel economy by about 1 percent.
• Combine trips. Warmed-up engines run more efficiently and generate less air pollution.
• Turn off the air conditioning. AC increases fuel consumption. At high speeds, open windows increase drag; use vents if possible.
• Check your own fuel economy every few weeks. If you notice the numbers slipping, then think about how your driving might have changed and consider getting a tune-up or an oil change.
• Drive less. Take public transportation, ride a bike or walk.