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Family Car Shopping: Space vs. Fuel Economy

You may be eyeing that Mazda Miata on the showroom floor, but your family has grown, and it’s time to choose a vehicle that meets everyone’s needs. Picking a vehicle with good fuel economy will help your family save money, but that doesn’t mean you should run out and buy a Smart ForTwo just yet. It’s also important to buy a vehicle that has enough cargo and passenger space for everyone and their gear. After all, what good is great fuel economy if you can’t pack up the whole family for a winter ski trip or summer vacation?

We’ve analyzed some of the most fuel-efficient cars, minivans and SUVs to find models that strike the best balance between interior space and fuel economy. Although there are hybrids and diesel models that use less fuel, we stuck with traditional gas-powered vehicles to keep the sticker price down.

For a closer look at the most fuel-efficient and spacious family vehicles, check out our slide show.

Minivans

If you add passenger and cargo space together, the Honda Odyssey has a combined 210.9 cubic feet of interior space, which is more room for passengers and their gear than any other minivan. What’s more, the Odyssey gets the best gas mileage on the highway and earned Top Safety Pick status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Nissan Quest offers 5.3 more cubic feet of passenger space, but less room for cargo. With just 25.7 cubic feet behind the third row, the Quest pales in comparison to the Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, which have 38.4 and 39.1 cubic feet for cargo, respectively.

Make/Model

Price

Passenger Volume

Cargo Volume (all seats in use)

Combined Volume

City MPG

Hwy MPG

Combined MPG

Honda Odyssey

$28,075

172.5

38.4

210.9

18

27

21

Toyota Sienna (4 cyl.)

$25,060

164.4

39.1

203.5

19

24

21

Kia Sedona

$24,900

172.3

32.2

204.5

18

25

21

Nissan Quest

$27,750

177.8

25.7

203.5

19

24

21

*Numbers in bold designate the lowest price, most space or best fuel economy

Affordable Compact SUVs

If you’re looking for an affordable compact SUV with room for five that’s safe, spacious and gets good fuel economy, it’s tough to beat the Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain or Hyundai Tucson. All three are IIHS Top Safety Picks, and while the Equinox and Terrain have more room for cargo, the Tucson offers slightly more passenger space. Consumers looking for good city fuel economy may like the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport. It can’t compete with the Equinox or Terrain in terms of cargo space, but its lower base price may make it more appealing to families on a budget who pack light.

Make/Model

Price

Passenger Volume

Cargo Volume (all seats in use)

Combined Volume

City MPG

Hwy MPG

Combined MPG

Chevrolet Equinox (2WD 4-cyl.)

$22,995

99.7

31.4

131.1

22

32

26

GMC Terrain (2WD 4-cyl.)

$24,500

99.6

31.6

131.2

22

32

26

Hyundai Tucson (2WD, automatic transmission)

$20,045

101.9

25.7

127.6

23

31

26

Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (2WD, automatic transmission)

$19,995

97.5

21.7

119.2

25

31

27

*Numbers in bold designate the lowest price, most space or best fuel economy

Affordable Midsize SUVs

Shoppers who need seating for seven or eight, as well as ample cargo space, will appreciate affordable midsize SUVs like the Ford Explorer, Ford Flex, GMC Acadia or Chevrolet Traverse. Rivals like the base four-cylinder Toyota Highlander have better fuel economy, but choosing the Highlander means you’ll get only 10.3 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row. That’s less than half of what’s available in the Traverse, and its corporate cousin, the Acadia.

Make/Model

Price

Passenger Volume

Cargo Volume (all seats in use)

Combined Volume

City

MPG

Hwy MPG

Combined MPG

Ford Explorer (FWD)

$28,360

151.7

21

172.7

17

25

20

Chevrolet Traverse (FWD)

$29,370

153.1

24.4

177.5

17

24

19

Toyota Highlander (2WD, 4-cyl.)

$28,090

145.7

10.3

156

20

25

22

Ford Flex (FWD)

$29,355

155.8

20

175.8

17

24

19

GMC Acadia (FWD)

$32,000

154

24.1

178.1

17

24

19

Honda Pilot (FWD)

$28,320

153.7

18

171.7

17

23

19

*Numbers in bold designate the lowest price, most space or best fuel economy

Affordable Midsize Sedans

Among affordable midsize sedans, the Hyundai Sonata strikes an excellent balance, providing a large trunk, good passenger space and excellent 24/35 mpg city/highway fuel economy. Although the Kia Optima is built on basically the same platform, it’s also slightly less spacious. Optima buyers will lose 1.6 cubic feet of passenger space and one cubic foot in the trunk compared with the Sonata.

Make/Model

Price

Passenger Volume

Cargo Volume

Combined Volume

City MPG

Hwy

MPG

Combined MPG

Hyundai Sonata (4-cyl., manual transmission)

$19,695

103.8

16.4

120.2

24

35

28

Kia Optima (4-cyl., manual transmission)

$19,200

102.2

15.4

117.6

24

35

28

Honda Accord (4 cyl., automatic transmission)

$22,180

106

14.7

120.7

23

34

27

Ford Fusion (4-cyl., automatic transmission)

$20,745

100.3

16.5

116.8

23

33

26

*Numbers in bold designate the lowest price, most space or best fuel economy

Affordable Large Cars

Family-oriented large car shoppers should be pleased to find out that there are a number of spacious options that have top safety scores. But the Toyota Avalon and Hyundai Azera stand out with slightly better fuel economy than the rest of the pack. There is a trade off, however. The Azera has a lower price and roughly two more cubic feet of trunk space than the Avalon, but can’t match the Toyota’s exceptional crash test scores from the IIHS.

Make/Model

Price

Passenger Volume

Cargo Volume

Combined Volume

City MPG

Hwy

MPG

Combined MPG

Toyota Avalon

$33,195

106.9

14.4

121.3

20

29

23

Hyundai Azera (3.3L)

$25,495

106.9

16.6

123.5

20

28

23

Ford Taurus (FWD, automatic)

$25,555

102.2

20.1

122.3

18

28

22

Chrysler 300 (V6)

$27,170

106.3

16.3

122.6

18

27

21

*Numbers in bold designate the lowest price, most space or best fuel economy

Affordable Wagons

Compact wagons are a great choice for families who need the cargo space of a small SUV, but want better fuel economy and a lower base price. The Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen boasts impressive cargo space, good fuel economy and top crash test scores from the IIHS. However, if the SportWagen’s base price seems steep compared with the competition, don’t overlook the Hyundai Elantra Touring. Base models start at roughly $4,000 less than the SportWagen, and reviewers say the Elantra Touring’s roomy cabin means that even back seat passengers have ample head and leg room.

Make/Model

Price

Passenger Volume

Cargo Volume (all seats in use)

Combined Volume

City MPG

Hwy MPG

Combined MPG

Dodge Caliber (4-cyl., manual transmission)

$17,380

96.2

18.4

114.6

24

32

27

Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen (5-cyl., automatic transmission)

$19,995

91.7

32.8

124.5

24

31

27

Hyundai Elantra Touring (4-cyl., manual transmission)

$15,995

101.2

24.3

125.5

23

31

26

*Numbers in bold designate the lowest price, most space or best fuel economy

You’ve got options when you set out to buy a new car for your family, but if you pick one of these vehicles, you’ll be less worried about packing light, high gas prices or who has to squeeze into that uncomfortable middle seat.