Hammer Time: The Best Family Vacation Rides

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

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 beingtoo 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.

I know there are plenty of other worth contestants. Heck I even like my 1st gen Insight or a Miata for two people and a weekend’s worth of the schleppage. But I’m a minimalist. What says you?

Steven Lang
Steven Lang

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  • JMII JMII on May 31, 2011

    Drove from South Florida to West (by god) Virgina for a summer vacation once in the wife's '93 Civic EX - for two people this was perfect. Good gas mileage, quiet & smooth, with plenty of luggage space, once again just two people. However most the time we go on vacation these days its with my boat in tow... which means taking my V8 Dakota Quad Cab, crappy seats and mileage are a given, but it has three Big Gulp sized cup holders up front so it works out just fine. Bikes and luggage go in the bed, coolers and fishing / snorkel gear in the boat. Shorter women are fine in the rear seats if the drive is under 2 hours, but otherwise I would only say those seats are really only child friendly. Stepping up to the full size Ram Quad Cab is better if four adults want to be truly comfortable. My father has a TrailBlazer and honestly the rear seat room is about the same as my Dakota Quad Cab, it just feels bigger because your head is not right up against the rear glass.

  • AJ AJ on May 31, 2011

    My screw the mpg ride is my Jeep. Depending on hills, if I try and drive it over 65 mph and which way the wind is blowing, it can go anywhere from 12 to 15 mpg. Last summer I drove it to Colorado which took 230 gallons. It was a great trip and we it a lot of high mountain passes and we camped where few are able to. It was such a great trip! At the Continental Divide: http://img230.imageshack.us/img230/5996/19746559.jpg But this year for another trip to Colorado, we'll probably take our Honda with gas prices as they are. I'm truly depressed about it...

  • DS No for 2 reasons. 1-Every new car pipelines data back to the manufacturer; I don't like it with domestic, Japanese and Euro companies and won't put up with it going to Chinese companies that are part financed by their government. 2-People have already mentioned Vinfast, but there's also the case of Hyundai. Their cars were absolutely miserable for years before they learned enough about the US market
  • Theflyersfan Well, if you're on a Samsung phone, (noticing all of the shipping boxes are half Vietnamese), you're using a Vietnam-built phone. Apple? Most of ours in the warehouse say China, but they are trying to spread out to other countries because putting all eggs in the Chinese basket right now is not wise. I'm asking Apple users here (the point of above) - if you're OK using an expensive iPhone, where is your Made in China line in the sand? Can't stress this enough - not being confrontational. I am curious, that's all. Is it because Apple is California-based that manufacturing location doesn't matter, vs a company in a Beijing skyscraper? We have all weekend to hopefully have a civil discussion about how much is too much when it comes to supporting companies being HQ-ed in adversarial countries. I, for one, can't pull the trigger on a Chinese car. All kinds of reasons - political, human rights, war mongering and land grabbing - my morality is ruling my decisions with them.
  • Jbltg Ford AND VAG. What could possibly go wrong?
  • Leonard Ostrander We own a 2017 Buick Envision built in China. It has been very reliable and meets our needs perfectly. Of course Henry Ford was a fervent anti-semite and staunch nazi sympathizer so that rules out Ford products.
  • Ravenuer I would not.
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