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Best Cars for Carpooling

Parents will agree that it’s hard to keep one child content while riding in the car, and it’s a lot harder to pacify a carful of kids. Parents who carpool need a lot from their family hauler. Good safety ratings, fuel economy, interior space and cargo room are important, but a few other features also take priority.

In email interviews with three mothers, we found that third-row seating, second-row captain’s chairs and a DVD system are the most sought-after mommy must-haves among the car pool bunch. Other features that make carpooling easier include leather seats, a conversation mirror and multiple cup holders.

Overall, minivans have the best combination of must-have car pool features, and the most cargo space with all three rows of seats in use. If you prefer the look of an SUV, midsize and large SUVs are the best for carpooling, but a few compact SUVs also offer that critical third row.

In Pictures: The Best Cars for Carpooling

Third-Row Seats and Second-Row Captain’s Chairs

The best cars for carpooling have third-row seats, which increases passenger capacity from five to seven or eight. Third-row seats are standard on vehicles like the Toyota Sienna, Kia Sedona, Honda Odyssey, Mazda CX-9, Chevrolet Traverse, Toyota Sequoia and Chevrolet Tahoe.

These are great for hauling half of a soccer tream, but getting to the back row can be difficult. Second-row captain’s chairs, which leave a space in the middle for kids to get to the third row easier, are great for parents who frequently carpool.

Stephanie Caldwell, a mother of an 18-month-old son whose family drives a 2011 Kia Sorento, says that three rows of seats are a must for hauling around multiple kids. “We have the third row seating (in our Sorento), but you either have to get to it through the trunk or over the second row of seats,” she says. “My sister recently got the Chevrolet Traverse with the captain's chairs for the second-row seating, which gives great access to the third-row seating and no kiddie feet on the leather!”

Cery Globeck, whose daughters are 4 years old and 18 months old, says she would love third-row seats in her next car because space is tight in her family’s 2006 Kia Optima and 2005 Jeep Liberty. “I can get two car seats and one booster in the back (of the Optima),” she says. “It’s a pain, but doable. The trunk is huge though. I think minivans are much easier to get kids in and out, plus storage is way better. The Jeep Liberty only holds two kids and storage is tight.”

Sarah Grope, who has a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, agrees that captain’s chairs are ideal for accessing the third row. “My mother-in-law has a brand-new 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan and it’s very nice,” she says. “I like the automatic open and close doors, stow-and-go seating, captain’s chairs and all the storage.”

Cargo Space

If you’re carpooling, you’re probably using most or all of the seats, which means you have less room for groceries and sports gear. Minivans, like the Toyota Sienna, Chrysler Town & Country, Honda Odyssey, Dodge Grand Caravan and Kia Sedona are all good options if you need cargo space when carting around multiple kids. They all have more than 30 cubic feet of cargo space with all seats in use, and a couple of them have almost 40. In comparison, most SUVs have less than 20 cubic feet of space with all three rows of seats in use.

Grope says she likes the Dodge Grand Caravan better than her cousin’s Chevrolet Traverse. “Although (the Traverse) has a third row and captain's chairs, I think it takes away from trunk space. The minivan is the best for carpooling with its seating and space.”

DVD System

DVD systems are optional in most minivans and SUVs. They’re also available as aftermarket systems that can be purchased separately. Manufacturer DVD systems include one or two flip-down screens mounted on the ceiling or screens that are built into the front row seat headrests. The GMC Terrain, for example, has two headrest screens, wireless headphones and a remote as part of its optional DVD system. Wireless headphones for the kids are great for parents who would rather listen to music instead of “Dora the Explorer” or “Yo Gabba Gabba!” DVDs. Some DVD systems even have optional satellite TV.

Caldwell says a DVD system is an important feature for carpooling because it keeps kids occupied and keeps them from screaming while she’s driving. “It’s a must-have for parents with kids,” she says. “My 18-month-old doesn't necessarily sit and watch a movie constantly because they simply don't have that kind of attention span. However, it is a bonus when he starts to get bored; the movie will hold his attention for a period of time, which just helps me make it to where I'm going without a major meltdown because he wants out of his car seat.”

Grope says her family is spoiled by the DVD player in their 2006 Chevrolet Trailblazer. “The kids love the DVD system, which is especially nice for long car drives.”

Some vehicle DVD systems have screens almost as big as home televisions. The Honda Odyssey has a 16.2-inch split-screen DVD system, which is standard on the Touring Elite model. It plays two videos simultaneously, which is a nice feature when you carpool and the kids can’t decide what to watch.

Features That Make Carpooling Easier

Caldwell says another must-have for parents is leather seats. “You absolutely need leather because it's the easiest to clean when juice, milk, mud, etc. gets spilled on it.”

Backup cameras and sensors are also good for carpooling parents who have trouble seeing out the rearview mirror when they have a carful of kids. SUVs like the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Explorer and Buick Enclave all have optional rear cameras that spot what you can’t.

Grope says her family’s next vehicle will “definitely be a three-row SUV with a DVD system and maybe a camera for backing up, so I don't run anything over!”

Things like multiple cup holders, a conversation mirror and a cool box for drinks (cool box is optional in the Ford Flex and Honda Odyssey), are nice extras for a family vehicle that’s also good for carpooling.

Keep these key features in mind as you head to the dealership. Bring your kids with you to see how many can fit comfortably, and if they can access the third row easily. These, along with the other features mentioned, will make your carpooling days more stress-free.

Ideal Vehicles for Carpooling

Vehicle/Price

Cargo Space (cubic ft. with all seats in use)

EPA-estimated Fuel Economy (mpg city/highway)

Maximum Seating

Captain’s Chairs

Minivans

2011 Honda Odyssey $28,075

38.4

19/28 (six-speed auto)

8

yes, removable  middle seat

2011 Kia Sedona $24,595

32.2

18/25

7

yes

2011 Toyota Sienna $25,060

39.1

19/24 (four-cylinder)

8

yes, removable middle seat

Compact SUVs

2011 Mitsubishi Outlander $21,995

14.9

23/28

7

no

2011 Toyota RAV4 $22,475

12.3

22/28 (four-cylinder)

7

no

Midsize SUVs

2011 Kia Sorento $21,195

9.1

21/29 (auto four-cylinder)

7

no

2011 Mazda CX-9 $29,135

17.2

17/24

7

no

2011 Chevrolet Traverse $29,370

24.4

17/24

8

optional on 7-seat model

Large SUVs

2011 Toyota Sequoia $40,930

18.9

14/20

8

removable middle seat/console

2011 Chevrolet Tahoe $37,980

16.9

15/21

8

yes

*All vehicles listed above have three rows of seats standard or optional.