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Size Matters: Small Family Cars

Frances Hoysradt, who has a 3-year-old daughter, would like a car that’s smaller than the 2004 Buick Park Avenue she inherited from her mom. “This isn’t a car that I would have chosen myself,” she says. “It’s not good for car seats, and there’s not much leg room for a kid (in a car seat).”

While a lot of parents assume that all family cars need to be large, it’s easy to find a small car with plenty of space, upscale amenities and good fuel economy that can meet your family’s needs.  

In Pictures - Size Matters: Small family Cars

Sedan, hatchback or wagon?

Hoysradt’s Park Avenue’s trunk can hold a stroller, scooter and groceries, but “the Buick’s trunk is probably too big,” says Hoysradt. No small sedan has a 19.1 cubic-foot trunk like the Buick, but hatchbacks and wagons offer more space without the Buick’s bulk.  

The Honda Fit hatchback and Hyundai Elantra Touring wagon cost less than $16,000 and are great examples of small, affordable cars that have lots of cargo space but aren’t too big. With 101.2 cubic feet of passenger space and 24.3 cubic feet of cargo space, the Elantra Touring has good interior room. While the Fit has a smaller 90.8 cubic-foot cabin and 20.6 cubic feet of cargo space, a standard Magic Seat distinguishes the Fit. The Magic Seat has four modes (people, utility, long and tall) that conform to your needs. You can seat three kids comfortably in the rear seats, or carry a bike or a surf board for those rare, adventurous excursions you take alone.

If you don’t want a hatchback or wagon, the Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Cruze are also family-ready. Both vehicles have two of the largest cabins in the class and about 15 cubic feet of cargo space, which is comparable to a midsize sedan. With about 95 cubic feet inside the cabin, both the Elantra and Cruze have more interior space than the Honda Fit, Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen and Acura TSX.

The best way to decide if the car you want can hold your stuff is to bring your gear to the dealership. Put a stroller, scooter and plastic toy tubs in to see if they fit with the seats up.

How’s fuel economy?

Hoysradt pays about $100 a week to fuel her Buick, which got an EPA-estimated 18/27 mpg city/highway when it was new. With a small car like the Hyundai Elantra, which gets 29/40 mpg, your savings will be significant. You can drive about 371 city miles in the Elantra on a full tank, which will cost $47.10 if gasoline is $3.68 a gallon.

Wagons and hatchbacks like the Hyundai Elantra Touring, Honda Fit and Jetta SportWagen are less fuel-efficient than the Elantra and Ford Fiesta SFE, but upscale models offer diesel options with impressive ratings. The Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI starts at about $25,000 and gets 29/39 mpg with an automatic transmission, compared with the 24/31 you’ll get on the base gas engine. Those figures are great for a vehicle that can hold as much stuff as a compact SUV.

Is the interior family-ready?

One of the main problems Hoysradt has with her Buick is that its plush leather thrones weren’t designed for car seats. The large seats make it difficult to install her daughter Kiera’s car seat, and when Hoysradt straps Kiera in, she kicks the driver’s seat. The Buick’s large proportions also made it difficult for Kiera to grab cups and toys when she was younger.

As you search for a small family sedan, grab your car seats and take them and the kids with you to the dealership. Secure the seats, strap in your kids and ask your older children to sit beside them or in the front seat.

Once you’re behind the wheel, decide if there’s enough interior space for you and the kids. With car seats installed, are the driver or front passenger squished? Do the kids kick the front seats, and are they able to reach cups and toys on their own? Don’t forget about kids old enough to ride sans car seats and booster seats. Are they comfortable in the back, especially with one or two car seats installed?

When Hoysradt buys a smaller car, she’ll prioritize the number of interior storage compartments it has “because with a kid, things get messy.” Luckily, small cars aren’t short on center consoles, side pockets and cup holders. The Honda Fit’s cabin, for example, has 10 cup holders, front door-pocket storage bins, pockets on the back of each front seat. The Fit’s cargo area also has nifty storage features: two tie-down anchors (the Fit Sport has four), bag hooks and a storage pocket are all standard. The Jetta SportWagen also has seat pockets and tie-down hooks, but it also adds a standard cargo cover and a roof compartment for storing a pair of sunglasses. If a car doesn’t come with all the storage features you need, most automakers offer cargo nets, trays, organizers and covers as optional equipment.

You can’t get rear-seat DVD systems in your small car or wagon, but features like Bluetooth, navigation, sunroof and USB ports are easy to come by. A fully-equipped Hyundai Elantra, for example, costs about $22,550, including navigation, Bluetooth and heated leather rear seats. Brand-conscious parents will like the Acura TSX Sport Wagon. It’s about twice as much as the Honda Fit, but the TSX Sport Wagon has 25.8 cubic feet of cargo space with all the seats in use and comes standard with leather seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth and a USB input with iPod integration.