The Griswolds had ultimate nerd-chic space and style with their 1970’s Wagonqueen Family Truckster. But the fuel economy? About 10 mpg. The ride? Pogo stick bad. Never mind the fact that the dog needed to huff it all by itself (with tragic consequences). We’ve definitely come a long way from the poorly designed body on frame vehicle of the 1970’s.
Today’s compacts can even swallow a week’s worth of groceries given the right planning. Gas may be $4 a gallon and the roads cram packed with slow rides and rubbernecks. . But your ride can still offer serious comfort, fun and savings if you plan for it. Here are some of my favorites.
The week’s worth of stuff for the beach car: Any compact will do. For the last three years my family has been using a 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid for the 500 mile ride between Northwest Georgia and Myrtle Beach. We average 46 mpg even with several traffic jams between semi-rural Georgia and the commercialized morass that has become Myrtle Beach.
In spite of the myth of compacts being ‘too small’, the usable space in most compacts today is about the same as the mid-90’s Camry. A car that was also technically a compact. So long as you don’t need to haul anything bigger and boxier than what fits in a normal sized trunk, a compact is just fine for most folks and families.
Tricks: The packing tricks are simple and routine for us. We put hard stuff in the middle of the trunk. Squishy stuff along the sides. Boogie boards in the top of the trunk spacesince they can be inserted flat and width wise. A mobile cooler lays in the middle of the flat back seat floor. Removable DVD player between the front seats for our two kids. Finally, snacks, audiobooks and sandwiches with mom in the front. With about $50 worth of groceries and $70 worth of gas you can enjoy a week long getaway with plenty leftover for eating out and partying hard.
The ‘hauling some outdoor stuff’ ride: We have made do with our vanilla incarnate Civic. But if you need a bit more pace, grace, and space, and don’t want anything too costly to own, then a compact SUV would be real-world perfect. I bought my brother-in-law a 2001 Escape (2009 Escape review enclosed) with a five-speed and four cylinder back in 2006. It had about 100k and he later spruced it up a bit by buying leather seats on Craigslist for $150.
Today he still drives it with about 200k. Kayaks, motorycle trailers, cross country road trips and plenty of boat and canoe hauling have followed. 27 mpg on the highway and nary a hiccup. He can haul five people and his 100+ pound dog. The Escape fits far more than I can in the Civic, and tows plenty more than a front wheel drive sedan of nearly any size. So if I were to pick something for long trips and lots of hauls an Escape like vehicle with squarish dimensions and a five-speed would be my top choice.
The ‘screw the MPG’ ride: Why it would be a Suburban of course! Yes the Expedition would offer vintage Detroit cheapness and a Hummer the added incentive of ‘poultry and produce recycling’ if you drive it in certain SUV hating parts of our country. But if your scenery is boring and you’ve got to cover a lot of it with tons of family and their belongings, a full-sized SUV like a Suburban offers it all.
A burbling V8 made for the finest in interstate cruising, and enough room to hopefully keep yapping dogs, kids, and mother-in-law’s far far away. Certain wagons from the 1990’s and early 00’s deserve honorable mention for their rear facing third seats. But in good beater form they are getting increasingly hard to find. Suburbans are still as common as kudzu in this country. So if you are on the road a lot with the need for personal space this may be the way to go.
The ‘All-American’ family ride: CUV’s and SUV’s may still have their following these days. But I’m sorry. Nothing compares to a loaded up minivan when it comes to family rides. If you don’t need to tow anything, two minivans offer it all. The Honda Odyssey and Chrysler Town & Country. The Freestyle and Taurus X are worthy of this honor as well. If you’re looking in the ultimate in space, comfort, safety and fuel economy for a family sized ride, these vehicles are very hard to beat.