The Mom Ride: How to Choose the Best Family Car For You

how to choose the right car for your family - working mom favorites!A girlfriend of mine just moved to the suburbs, and she had the most brilliant tip for how to find the right car for your family: rent it first for a family vacation! I’ve often heard people advise to rent a minivan for vacation — more space, more enjoyable if you’ve got a long drive — but I thought this mom hack was such a smart way to make sure they chose the best car for their family.

As a hilarious side note: I was thinking about this older YouTube video called The Swagger Wagon about some parents who really, really like their Toyota Minivan — but have you seen this newer video from the mom group The Texting Yogas, “Never Thought I’d Do It,” about buying a minivan?

For those of you who drive regularly (a good number of you, according to our survey!), do you have a “mom” ride? How did you choose the best family car for you? What do you like or dislike about your car? How important was fitting three carseats in your backseat — or being able to drive with three adults and two car seats? (Any car accessories that you absolutely love, for kids or otherwise? We got one of these sandbag Garmin Portable Friction Mounts for my parents and they absolutely love it, compared to the GPS thing that never stuck to the windshield — but note that such mounts are apparently are not allowed in every state.)

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Comments

  1. Mrs. Jones says:

    I have a Honda CR-V and really like it. We have one kid. I admit I wouldn’t mind a minivan–they have so many fancy features!

    • Kaydee says:

      Thanks for sharing your perspective on the CR-V–I’m about to inherit one from *my* Mom, but it’s bigger than what I’d chose for myself so I’m a little hesitant.

  2. The “how to” in this Sunday’s NYT magazine had to do with how to escape a car that’s in water (short answer: open your window right away and get out) had a great tip that sort of doubles as a car accessory: hang one of those little emergency hammers from your rearview mirror. This seems genius to me because my immediate thought every time I’ve seen one for sale was “who’s going to be able to find it in an actual emergency!?” Plus I bet it would look fun, like your own personal Thor hammer (but please don’t call it a “mom hack” ;)).

    • Anonymous says:

      We have this in both our vehicles.

    • rosie says:

      Another good item is those safety knives that will cut through a seatbelt but has the blade protected so you cannot cut yourself with it. (The blade is mostly in a metal casing, you sort of slide the seatbelt into it…a little hard to describe.) We have one in the storage compartment under the radio that closes, so it would be easily accessible & not go flying in a crash.

  3. Our “family” car is a Nissan Pathfinder, the Platinum trim option. My husband and I both love it. We bought it when our sedan, a 10-yr-old hand-me-down from my parents, died on a road trip when Kiddo was about 4 months old (what a disaster). When we were shopping, we really wanted the optional 3rd-row seat in case we wanted to squeeze a couple extra adults in on occasion or for future carpool options. We don’t use it often, but man, it’s been really nice to have when we’ve needed it! The backup camera is the 360 camera used on Infinitis, and it’s life-changing. It feels really smooth and comfortable both as a driver and as a passenger. We also test drove the Outback (DH said the driver’s seat was in a weird position in relation to the window frame for his height), a Pilot (too boxy), and a Highlander (also nice, but more expensive and completely non-negotiable price at the time).

    “My” car is a 15-year-old sports car that my parents gave me when I graduated from high school. In reality, whoever is doing daycare drop-off and pick-up drives the SUV, and the other parents drives the sports car. So far, we haven’t needed to each have a car for drop-off and pick-up. (It helps that daycare is a 10-minute walk from our house, so walking is an option if the SUV is unavailable for some reason.)

  4. shortperson says:

    timely, we are expecting #2 and taking the plunge this month. 95% set on a volvo xc90, second choice toyota highlander. we figure we might as well get a third row and cannot abide by a minivan, no matter how much we may actually prefer the features we just cannot do that to ourselves. if anyone has any negatives on the xc90 would love to hear!

    • I have a Ford Explorer with a third row. It’s basically useless right now, with a 5yo and 2yo. Both are in giant car seats in the second row, so we have to take OUT the car seat, fold down the second row, let people back there, fold back the row, re-install the car seat, and then go. And of course do the same to let people out.

      We’ve contemplated when our 5yo is a little older, putting his car seat in the third row and leaving his side of the second row permanently folded down, but I don’t love that option either.

      And yes I hate minivans, so I can’t get behind that as an option. But you likely won’t be able to use a third row at all if you have two in non-booster-car-seats.

      • POSITA says:

        Thank you for confirming my hunch that a vehicle with a third row doesn’t really work with carseats.

      • shortperson says:

        i thought this too with little ones but what is wrong with having a 5yo in the third row and folding down one seat in the second row? just that he’s too far away? i figured by this age this would be feasible.

        • Mine is still a little too small for a true forward facing (like the Britax Pioneer/Frontier) and is still in a forward facing convertible (like the Britax Marathon). The convertible doesn’t fit quite right in our third row. We don’t have the Frontier to test it out, so my hope is it’ll be a little more feasible with that seat, but even then, it’s not ideal because you still have to fold/unfold the second row seat to get in, unless you have the kid crawl through the cargo area. And my kid still struggles sometimes with the button at the bottom of the 5-point harness, especially when he’s tired, so it’d be a huge pain to try to climb back there and get him buckled in/out. Plus that eats into the cargo space basically permanently, but I love that space for the stroller and groceries and our 80 lb dog.

        • Work travel? says:

          We have a 2014 xc90 and I love it but agree the 3rd row is hard to access. It works for us though. Everyday/around town: infant seat behind driver, middle row has integrated booster for 7-yr-old; forward facing britax frontier giant seat for 5-year-old (who was rear facing till 4.5 in a diono seat).

          For long trips or when we have an extra passenger the 7-year-old goes in the 3rd row in a britax high back booster. Note that at least on pre-2016 models the 3rd row seats do NOT have latch or anchors so you can’t put a car seat there, only booster. (I’m second guessing myself now – maybe yes latch? Def no anchor/tether though). The 7 year old only got upgraded to the booster when baby was born (luckily for us he just managed to grow and gain enough for me to feel safe about that, and also maturity wise can handle a seatbelt).

          As for getting in and out of the 3rd row w car seats installed on both outboard 2nd row seats, we have him climb through the back. Again…works for us for now bc that kid is old enough to be trusted to buckle and young enough to love the climbing!

          Love this car so much! Would have loved the 2016 version but needed bigger car before dealer could deliver last year.

      • Chi Squared says:

        We have a Ford Explorer with captain chairs in the middle “row.” It’s a pain, but I can clamber into the 3rd row over my kiddo’s forward facing car seat. We have a rearward facing car seat in the other captain’s chair. No way of climbing over that. I’ve also climbed into the 3rd row from the hatch (one side has to be flipped down, of course). So, for us, the 3rd row suffices in a pinch, which is why we wanted it in the first place.

        • Anonymous says:

          Yup, clambering is our MO, too. We have a minivan but really wanted another 3-row thing for 3 kids, two of whom are in car seats. We only considered models that have captains chairs for this reason, and ended a up with a GMC Acadia.
          First Aamerican-made car for me or my a husband and it’s surprisingly nice and comfortable. The trunk space is awful unless you fold the third row down, which we never do because my big 4 yr old is in a booster in the back seat.

          Minivan is way better, though. Minivans all day with kids. Try it, you’ll never look back.

    • mascot says:

      Admittedly, it’s been a few year since I looked, but the navigation and electronics seemed really behind in the Volvo compared to some other cars and I was a huge Volvo fangirl. We ended up with an MDX. Repair costs have been pretty low.

    • I really wanted a Volvo XC60. I have always driven small/midsize SUVs. I did a bunch of research on consumer reports and ended up with a Lexus RX350. I think it was rated more highly than the volvo in terms of reliability in several components, and also was a little less expensive. Year after year, across the board, it had excellent marks. The Volvo had some years that were excellent and other years that were not so excellent. So if you’re set on the Volvo and considering getting one that is not brand new, check consumer reports to see if there are any off years.

      • shortperson says:

        thanks. i was actually set on the lexus with third rows, can’t remember the model, but then learned the back door opens to the side and not automatically so that made it an automatic no. we are replacing a 20 year old lexus that we bought used so we are actually primarily lexus fans. our current lexus has been amazing, comfy and almost no upkeep costs. we will look into the MDX.

      • The RX350 is a 5 seater, is smaller, and the technology is no-where near that of the XC90. And the 2016/2017 XC90 is significantly safer than the Lexus. It has received less than favorable ratings on Consumer Reports but only because some consumers didn’t understand the technology (and admittedly quirks in the first year production, which is common in any car). The XC90 compares more to the RX450 or GX, so yes, the 350 would be less expensive. Volvos are incredibly reliable cars and will last a very long time if they are maintained. The world record holder has over 3 million miles on one.

    • Clementine says:

      Also in the ‘Volvo XC90 vs Highlander’ boat.

      One of the oddities is that they didn’t make the XC90 in 2015 and so it’s literally impossible to buy one off a two year lease.

      I’m so torn – on the one hand, I drive a Toyota (fun fact! it’s impossible to fit 3 carseats across in a Rav4!) and have been very happy with it; however, I (very materialistically, I will admit) kind of want something a little nicer.

      Husband pointed out that we could do something much more productive with the 10-20k we would save… I hate that he’s right.

      • shortperson says:

        yeah, it’s hard to spend the money on something that’s obviously unecessary. but we try to keep cars forever so i kinda think it’s worth it over a 12-15 year driving life, since we can afford it, not that we wouldnt be happy to put another 15k into our savings. personally i drive a toyota sedan and love it but my my daughter always complains that it’s too loud on the freeway and my husband has been coddled by his (really old) lexus. and the volvo is so cushy.

  5. Anonymous says:

    We have a Dodge Caravan. Three kids (oldest + twins) forced us to move up from smaller vehicles. We still have a second smaller vehicle with three seats across the back so we can both do drop off/pick up at daycare.

    I resent having to drive a larger vehicle – I loved my small car – so we decided to spend as little as possible on the minivan. Zero bells and whistles. I LOVE sliding doors which I didn’t expect. SO SO much easier in windy parking lots.

    Game changer was not the minivan but how we set up the seating. Two car seats on back bench, one stow and go seat folded down on passenger side. Third car seat on captain’s chair behind driver. This means, in snowy weather or busy parking lots, I can load all three kids into the open space created by the stowed seat, close the door and then take my time getting everyone buckled in or bulky coats removed. So much easier than trying to climb back between the middle seats to buckle a third row child.

  6. Famouscait says:

    We have a Toyota Highlander that we bought used certified from the dealership. It is awesome! We live 7 hours and 4 hours from each set of grandparents, so we have done a lot of long driving in it. It is super duper comfortable. My husband comes from a Honda family, but the Toyota is by far more comfortable and quieter. We have a 2.5 yo and a 100lb golden retriever. They can both fit on the backseat together (Britax Boulevard car seat). The backup camera is small (I think our car is ~2014?) but the Bluetooth is good and we haven’t had any problems with it whatsoever.

  7. POSITA says:

    We are sticklers for fuel economy and are looking at a Kia Niro, though we haven’t pulled the trigger yet.

    We are still sad that our VW TDI wagon is a terrible polluter. We loved it’s fuel economy and range.

  8. Convert says:

    I was firmly in the No Minivans, Never, Not Ever camp until we found out we were expecting #3, due in June. And, sigh, we actually just bought a Honda Odyssey on Saturday. We got the EX-L trim because I wanted a power liftgate and a couple other features that come standard with that. But because of that, the standard leather seats, sunroof, and all the little conveniences built in *almost* make me forget I’m driving a minivan. In all seriousness, it’s an incredibly smooth drive, has FIVE seats where car seats can be used, and just has so. much. dang. room. Still holding onto hope of trading it in when we’re out of the car seat days, but I don’t think I’m going to mind driving this for the next several years.

    I also considered the Pacifica hybrid (because, hello, I could drive roundtrip to work without using an ounce of gas!), but the numerous delays and uncertainty about production gave me pause. We ultimately decided we’d rather let all the kinks be worked out of that before we switch over (if we ever do). We now have only Hondas and have been very happy with them, so we might just stick with the Odyssey as long as we need a minivan.

    Did I mention it has a million cup holders, it is so easy to fold the seats down or remove them, and my 6’1 husband fits comfortably with enough leg room even in the third row?!

    • GirlFriday says:

      FWIW, I always thought the Odyssey was a pretty baller minivan. I have one kid currently and drive a very, very old CRV, which I’m planning to upgrade at the end of the year, IF the used car values continue to fall.

      • Convert says:

        And we got a good deal on it be of the upcoming redesign for the 2018 model. Fuel economy also isn’t awful, especially for a big vehicle – just drove 22 miles across town today and the dash says I averaged 31.2 mpg (mostly highway admittedly but still pretty dang nice!).

    • Spirograph says:

      I love my Odyssey. We also have one of the “fancy” trim levels and it’s great. So comfy, so great for long car trips. We have he middle seat in the middle row removed and I have literally climbed from the passenger seat straight thru to the back while DH was cruising at highway speed (I’m not saying it was safe, but it was possible, quick, and necessary, trust me). You can’t do that in anything else!

  9. Anonymous says:

    We have a Subaru Outback. I don’t hate it… I just don’t love it. I wish we could comfortably fit 3 carseats in the back for playdates or whatnot, but we can’t. I wish we could easily squoosh a grown-up in the back if we want to drive with 5 of us, but it’s really uncomfortable, even with the car seats moved next to each other.

    • Blueberry says:

      Sigh… I have an Outback and I really do like it. We’re expecting a third kid, and I think we’ll ultimately decide it’s not a viable option for the family car anymore. I really don’t want to get a minivan though. My parents have had them forever, and I really hate driving them.

    • Having sat squished in an Outback between two car seats… yeah. It’s barely doable. But I really like the Outback! I would hate to drive something larger.

      • Blueberry says:

        Mayyybe we can get three seats back there? I’m not sure when my very tall 4-year-old would be switching to a booster, but I want to keep him in the carseat as long as possible for obvious safety reasons.

    • anonacar says:

      We have an Outback and fit two car sears (Diono Radians – it only works because these seats are so narrow) and an adult in the back seat without a problem. Not super comfy for the adult on a long trip but it works for shorter rides. We have the seats behind the driver and in the middle, so no one has to squeeze in between.

  10. MGreenf says:

    Timely post! I am just about to upgrade my ’06 Civic. Was considering the Rav4 and the CRV, but really liked how the Subaru Outback drove. We just have one kid, still in her bucket seat and are in the Bay Area where it feels like every other car is a Subaru.

    • Clementine says:

      I don’t know if you’ll see this, but be aware that certain years of the Rav 4 have a 9 inch wide middle seat. Yes, 9 inches. That means that it is literally impossible for us to fit a third carseat across the back or have anyone- child or adult- sit in the back with two carseats.

      Other than that, I do love my Rav4.

  11. AuntE says:

    My husband and I both drive 2010 Mercury Mariners (the Mercury version of the Ford Escape) and love them. We have a rear-facing convertible car seat and will be adding an infant car seat this fall, which might make it a bit tight, but it works for us now. The seat height is the best part — I can’t imagine bending down to a sedan after this — because the car seat is just about at waist height. The trunk/cargo hold is nice and spacious; it holds luggage for the three of us for a few days away and a folded BOB stroller with room to spare. But, I’ve been thinking of a minivan because of the sliding doors.

  12. We have a Prius V and have really liked it for the city. We have two Diono’s in the back seat and I have sat back there. It’s not the most comfy but doable. Lots of cargo room. We liked it because it had a lot of headroom. We now call that VW Passat Station Wagon “The Station Wagon for Short People” because our heads literally touched the ceiling when we test drove it!

    • We also have a Prius V and its do-able for an adult to ride in the back between the two car seats. My husband has a long commute so he mainly drives the Prius on a daily basis although this is also what we take on trips and it has plenty of cargo room unless we’re also bringing the Bob stroller, then things can be a little full. I drive a 10 year old volvo XC V70 wagon. It predates our children. It was useful when we were in grad school and had two large dogs. It also works as a family car. Its comfortable and good in snowy weather, although not great for gas mileage. I can’t recommend the Prius V enough, I think its a great eco-friendlier family car.

  13. Lorelai Gilmore says:

    Slightly different question: we own a CR-V and a Prius. Two kids in boosters. The Prius just died and we need to replace it. What should we get? We need something with great mileage that my husband can commute in, but it also needs to be family-friendly (he does a ton of kid duty), and needs to be appropriate for very tall people like both of us. (I hate some of the sedans where my head touches the ceiling!) Would appreciate something we could get used.

    • POSITA says:

      Check out the Kia Niro and the Chevy Volt.

      The Niro is a great family size. It gets better mileage than the Prius.

      The Volt is an awesome commuter car–you basically never need to get gas (one of my most hated chores). The Volt is a hatchback so it is taller in thr back than many sedans.

    • POSITA says:

      I just saw your request for used. Neither of these is available used, but both may have state/fed incentives.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Take your stroller or car seat when you go car shopping. Sometimes you will be surprised by the cargo space. We found a Jetta had as much cargo space than many crossovers. Our second car is used more for commmuting to work and quick daycare pick ups. As our stroller and car seat both fit into a Mini Cooper, we were able to get the vehicle we preferred

  15. I’m in the NAM mindset forever (Never A Minivan). We have 2 kids, ages 7 and 2, and have family visit often, as well as go on day trips with friends, etc. often as well. So, I searched high and wide for an SUV that would drive more like a car, be incredibly reliable, be big enough without being a Suburban size, and had a third row with good legroom.

    We settled on the Honda Pilot and I couldn’t be happier. I haven’t had any problems with it and we bought it before giving birth to the little one, and it fits our needs perfectly. On a daily basis, I have both kids in the second row – toddler is in his forward facing Peg Perego, and the 7 year old is now in just a booster. But when baby was born, he was still in a 5 point harness highback booster.

    For daily use, it was great and the 3rd row folds down for storage and such. When we had other people visiting, or needed the 3rd row for sitting, we’d pop the booster in the back row and he’d sit back there. The second row will seat 3, so the whole car will fit 7 comfortably, even with a big-ish carseat in the second row.

    When using the 3rd row, the storage in the back is small, but on the occasion we have to travel and pack more, we purchased a soft sided carrier for the roof and purchased post-production roof rails (incredibly easy to install as it turns out).

    It TOTALLY works for us in all ways, and it gets good gas mileage, is comfortable and can pile lots of kids and/or adults into it with ease. If you have more than 2 kids all in the bigger less moveable carseats, it may be more of a challenge, but for us, it’s perfect.

    Again, it’s all about you do you and find what works for your family, but if yours is anything like ours, I highly suggest looking at a Honda Pilot.

  16. Katarina says:

    We currently have two kids (1 and 3.5) and drive a Nissan Frontier (I hate, but we have to keep it) and a Hyundai Sonata. We are looking to replace the Hyundai Sonata with something that would be suitable for three kids, and I hate my options. We are only considering used. I like the idea of the Mazda5, but my husband thinks it is ugly, and there are not too many available. On the plus side is is much less expensive than other options, and it has Captains Seats in the second row. My husband wants a Honda Pilot, but I hate big SUVs on principal, especially when our other vehicle is a truck. I am not sure how easy it is to access the third row with two carseats. If we have a third, we would have two in carseats and the third in either a carseat or a booster. I theoretically like the idea of a minivan, but we can’t fit one in our garage with the truck.

  17. Anonymous says:

    On the three-row SUV front, I have been very happy with the Acura MDX. Feels nice and luxurious, but very low-maintenance like any Honda. Also have a Honda Odyssey and I do prefer the minivan for convenience with three kids. But the SUV is nicer for work — I do sometimes have to drive places with colleagues and found that embarrassing in the minivan. And the third row of the MDX allows me to go straight from work to pick up soccer carpool. My kids are all in elementary school, so we are out of the big carseat phase and so accessing the third row is not a problem.

  18. I was totally in the “no minivan” mindset and we ended up with a Chevy Traverse. Three rows, and I sued to say it was like a minivan but without the sliding doors. Then I started having to park the thing and get both doors open enough to access carseats. Suddenly, sliding doors make more sense.

    Our other car is a Chevy Equinox, and we’ve been mostly pleased with both Chevys. Now that one kid is almost 3, I just open one door and keep chanting “climb across, climb across.” If we move to the Lower 48 (which is looking likely), I’m on the fence about selling one vehicle and buying a new one down there.

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