By on May 30, 2011

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?

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50 Comments on “Hammer Time: The Best Family Vacation Rides...”

  • avatar

    Vanagon Westfalia. Provided you have lots of time.

  • avatar

    1994 Chev Astro van, new at the time, it was everything previous family trucksters weren’t. Decent power and economy, smooth and comfortable, roomy inside while not overly large outside. This was also the vehicle that made me swear that if I got another GM, I would turn it in as soon as the warranty was up.

  • avatar

    Favorite line about the Family Truckster: “You may think you hate it now, but wait until you drive it”. And I do love the panels on the hood

  • avatar

    I’ll vouch for the roominess/versatility of the ’01-’05 Civic sedan. I packed mine to the gills for a 600 mile move, cruised comfortably at 75 mph and got 35 mpg. And the back seat has at least as much room as the Accord did circa 1994. Sure, the ride’s a little harsh and its short on power (particularly my non-VTEC LX model), but it does its job dependably.

    The best family ride is the smallest, most frugal one you can get away with. A small/midsize sedan is great unless you have more than 2 kids or have to carry lots of stuff regularly (read: not just once a year). Only then should you consider a CUV or something with a third row. Trust me: I’ve already unnecessarily owned one big SUV, I’m in no rush to do that again.

    • 0 avatar

      My ’89 Ford Probe could swallow up an incredible amount of stuff. At the time my college girlfriend and I would load that up with all of our camping gear with plenty of room to spare to still be able to see out the back glass.

      A well designed small car (Honda Fit, Nissan Versa) can carry a lot of cargo and humans.

  • avatar

    Great intro to the next three reviews I’ll be writing. I have a Mazda5 and Dodge Journey this week, and had a Dodge Durango mid-month. The question: how much functionality do you gain as you move up in size and weight?

    An implicit (or perhaps explicit–I haven’t started two of the reviews) comparison with all three: how do they compare to the Taurus X I actually paid for? The Ford will be used for a three-week trip spanning much of the eastern U.S. later this summer.

  • avatar

    I owned a 2001 Chevy Avalanche 1500 Z-71 for four years. Definitely in the screw the fuel economy department but the Avalanche could hold five full grown adults, things like their entertainment, snacks, etc. etc. etc. in total comfort with a huge storage capacity for all sorts of stuff and outdoor adventure toys. When the weather was perfect not only could the windows go down and the sunroof come open, but the back window would come out to let California sunshine and warm air through the cabin. The 4WD system could get is anywhere.

    With four in the family the portable DVD player (a drop down screen didn’t become an option until the 2003 model year and you had to forgo the sunroof) in the center spot in the rear. Additionally, the couch like back seat provided so much room there was never any, “he’s touching me,” grade wails from the back.

    Fuel economy was horrific and go on the twisties it wasn’t a lot of fun; but we road tripped like crazy in the Avalanche and found it to be ideal – a five passenger suburban with a throw up who cares sealed storage area and slightly better ground clearance, and a better ride.

  • avatar

    I thought the the first gen Civic hybrid was a no-no especially in stick shift because of it’s “too delicate straight from an insight” IMA setup.

  • avatar

    ’05 Expedition is heaven, until paying to fill up. ’04 Forester is much better but, obviously, not as spacious. I’ve found the Forester, with a Yakima Space Case up top, and class III hitch to hold the Saris CycleOn 4-bicycle rack, leaves plenty of space for our family of four (AND gear). I’m surprised more people don’t equip smaller cars like this.

  • avatar

    Any Ford Panther chassis, of course. Although that 3rd gen C/K Suburban looks like it could get you pretty much anywhere. (Anywhere with a gas station)

    • 0 avatar

      Not just any Panther will do for me make mine a HPP equipped Panther, and then yeah it’s the ulitmate road trip rig if you don’t have more than 3 others coming with you.

  • avatar

    Here’s a guy in his 20s who has a more retro view of best vacation wagon…

  • avatar

    I would offer up the Ford Flex as a great family ride as well. It is really the spiritual ancestor to the giant plood paneled wagons of our youth.

    • 0 avatar

      Scrolled down through comments to see if anyone else had the same idea as me. I drive an 87 Volvo 740 wagon, and if I had to buy something new, I’d trade up to a new boxy wagon with “Flex” on the tailgate, no question.

    • 0 avatar

      “… spiritual _descendant_ of…”

      If your Volvo 74x/94x is ever forcibly “replaced” by a Ford Flex – or anything else including some awfully comfortable, expensive and “modern” high-dollar rides – you may find the more-than-occasional Volvo maintenance headaches are comprehensively forgotten.

      Ask the man who used to own one or two. I’ve retrieved family possessions, including through the shattered remains of the hatch of a 945 wagon, of Volvos which were designed to surrender their earthly existence (and successfully did so) to preserve their drivers’ and occupants’ lives and well-being.

      Think of them as an extension of their engineers’ (and the former Volvo Car Corporation’s) concern going far forward in time, and you won’t be far wrong.

  • avatar

    The answer of course depends on the number of people, amount of junk you’re bringing along and how far you’re going. If it’s going to be 4 or less people the hands down winner is a HPP equipped Panther. Mid 26 MPG is easy on the freeway and with the HPP’s air suspension it rides and handles beautifully no matter what the load. A few more passengers or more junk and the old Windstar of the 98 vintage, limited flavor was hard to beat at the time. The Limited got you rear air suspension which meant is handled just the same even if you stuffed 7 guys averaging at least 200 lbs in it. The 500/Montego/Taurus/Sable is pretty darn good and if you need a little more passenger capacity Freestar/TaurusX/Flex.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Among new cars how about the new Sonata? High mpg, resonable price, good cubic ft rating on the trunk for the size of it.

    Although I’ve got to hand it to Lang, I’m now wondering if there are any clean well cared for used 4cyl Escapes from back when Ford still offered a selectable transfer case on the vehicle. (Instead of AWD all the time on non-FWD models.)

  • avatar

    Second, third and fourth the minivan suggestions. Two rows of seats + lots of space for kids + no worries packing stuff + easy sightlines == peaceful drive.

  • avatar

    4 cyl Escapes are definitely great cheap haulers. I also like CRVs and Foresters.

    • 0 avatar

      Honda CR-Vs are great family vacation trucksters. They’ll easily hold 75 all day long while delivering around 30 mpg. They hold puh-lenty of stuff. And the back seat is slightly elevated giving the folks back there a a good view to the front as well as sides.

  • avatar

    I like the way the late humorist Jean Shepherd (A Christmas Story) went on vacation back in the day when his family loaded up the old Chevy for a vacation at the lake .

  • avatar

    A succession of SAABs (9000 hatchbacks) have served me well over time: they are unbelievably spacious. Mk1 9-5 Station Wagon can swallow huge amount of stuff, too – without compromise to the economy or performance (your labrador will love being slapped against the rear hatch).

    My currently rather modest needs are 100% covered by the 05 Outback 3.0R: quick and reasonably economical all-weather / all-road cruiser for 2-4 folks with some gear. Oversized stuff can travel on the roofracks.

    As minivans go, nothing beats the last Sienna ride, it snoothens almost all irregularities. Otherwise boring as hell, though.

  • avatar

    My Crown Vic wagon gets about 17 mpg, not 10. I’d like better, but just to set the record straight …

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      Are you talking about a late 80’s /early 90’s vintage?

      Here’s an interesting discussion about MPG’s in vintage 1970’s wagons. Hope you enjoy it.

    • 0 avatar

      1991 Mercury Colony Park. 3 trips from Minnesota to Florida over the past 7 years. 21 mpg each trip driving between 65 and 75.

      • 0 avatar

        I stand corrected thinking ’89 was the last year — that ’91 Colony Park must be the creme de la creme … you sure are a lucky individual to have it!

        I don’t recall even when I last saw a Colony Park wagon.

        Was ’89 at least the last year for the optional front vent windows?

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        I think that was the last year of vent windows on Panthers which reminds me someone should do a segment on vent windows.

      • 0 avatar

        Johnyangel, you are correct, it is the last model year. Only 2,947 Colony Parks that year. Mine rolled over 100,000 miles last fall, but still looks (almost) showroom fresh. Only major flaws are parking type dings that occurred with the elderly first owner. I have had it for almost ten years and 40,000 miles. I found it at the back of a Lincoln-Mercury store’s lot in the row of “unwanted” trades. Talk about a diamond in the rough!

        Nicest difference between the Mercury and the Ford is the trim around the woodgrain. You cannot find a Ford that does not have the clear covering over the faux wood trim peeling, even a car that is otherwise pristine. The Mercury has the chrome (i.e. aluminum) trim with the woodgrain insert, which does not have any peeling problem.

        I am also lucky to have a great color combo, a metallic light blue that looks silver in most lighting, with a dark blue interior. Toss on a set of Keystone Klassic rims and it turns heads everywhere.

  • avatar

    MKIV Jetta TDI with a 5-speed.

  • avatar

    “his 100+ pound dog”

    Sorry, but anything that big is no longer technically a dog. It should be pulling your vehicle, not riding in it.

    The Taurus/Sable wagons offer a lot of versatility. Third row rear facing seats when needed (kids only), out of sight storage when not needed, lots of cargo space with the rear bench seat up, and vast open spaces with the back seat folded flat. I can even fit a twin mattress in the back for the poor man’s camper. Plus a standard roof rack for the occasional odd item that can’t ride inside. All in a package that drives like a car and gets high 20s MPG on road trips.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Yeah which is why the Fusion never had a wagon. It would have made too much sense.

      • 0 avatar

        There is a Fusion wagon. It’s called the Edge. ;)

        Last month Mrs. pdieten and I took our kids and her mother roadtripping in my Five Hundred. The trunk was great plenty big to swallow everyone’s luggage (include a week’s worth of groceries) and everyone was comfortable. Couldn’t have asked for a better vehicle. It reminded me a lot of roadtrips in the family ’77 LeSabre sedan when I was a kid.

      • 0 avatar

        It’s too bad that the 2006 Ford Futura Sprint GT/A wagon was just a figment of John Phillips’ imagination.

  • avatar

    It’s all in how you pack…

    ten years ago I managed to fit myself, my aunt and uncle and 13 year old cousin, along with a weeks worth of luggage, lawn chairs, a cooler and groceries into my old Ford Contour and spend a week in Myrtle Beach. The car got 30 mpg even while traveling through western NC in the mountains. My aunt and uncle couldn’t believe that I could get it all in that car, but I did. And, we were all quite comfortable.

    Several years later, I took three friends and myself to Detroit for a three day weekend in my Olds Alero. I managed to pack in it: a large suitcase, three large duffel bags, three guitars, an amp, and other assorted things. Granted when we got to the hotel, I told them to stand back when I pushed the button on the clicker for the trunk, as I wasn’t sure what would happen when the trunk opened!

    Moral of the story, large cars aren’t always necessary. How ironic that I just bought a lovely old Buick LeSabre for myself…

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    We had 3 kids (they are all grown now). The Minivan advantage was that with 3 rows of seating, we could put one in each row. We made the trip from Ohio to just north of Myrtle in an 86 Plymouth van back in the day, and got everything into it. It was sort of compact sized. I think the W.Va. turnpike had something to do with the engines premature demise.

    The 92 was easier because it was bigger and had a V6.

  • avatar

    For long distance hauling one or two people, I loved my XR4Ti. Fast, could get 25 mpg on the highway if you didn’t run it at 15 lbs. of boost all the time (riiiiiight), and the only things that could haul more stuff for the size car with the back seats folded down were a Saab 900 hatch or a first generation Probe (Saab was the best with low liftover). Of course, I did have that problem of the car’s ECU losing its smoke on vacation once….

    Now with two kids, wife, dog, stroller, great-grandmother often along for the ride, and all the stuff that goes with them, I have to admit it’s tough to beat our new Sienna AWD. It’s about as quick as a stock XR4Ti to 90 mph (closed course, professional driver), and on a trip to Florida from NH, it took a ridiculous amount of luggage and was barely half full. I wish the dashboard was made of a higher quality plastic than my kids’ toy trucks, but aside from that, it is a fine family truckster. And it’s not (quite) as ugly as an Odyssey or Caravan/Town and Country.

    The problem I see with all the CUV/SUV things is they’re as big as a minivan, but they don’t use their size nearly as well and you don’t get the benefit of the sliding doors when parked. Minivans are just so [email protected]$%@# convenient, and the AWD in the Sienna (yeah, it’s FWD until things get slippy…but it works) does everything I NEED for bad road/bad weather driving.

  • avatar

    If you had the cash, the Audi Allroad was perfect for us up in the north land. Bottomless wagon in back, super comfy seats, butch-yet-chic style that looked great against the pine forests and tundra. And the AWD + trick up-and-down actually was useful for traversing hill and dale. The V8, if you could get one, was just icing on the cake, too…

  • avatar

    Myrtle Beach, seriously? It’s child neglect if you don’t take your kids to Disney World.

  • avatar

    about once or twice a year until I was in high school, my family drove to Florida from NYC to see relatives (only two of those trips were to disney, talk about neglect!). Sometimes we drove to Virginia and hopped on Amtrak’s autotrain.

    Best rides for that trip:
    Jeep Cherokee Chief- got us through a Christmas time blizzard in the carolinas
    1994 Lincoln Continental – yes, it actually survived the roundtrip

    Worst rides:
    1986 Camaro V6 – yep, family of four plus our teenaged cousin driving to Florida in a Camaro. Can you say white trash?

    Oldsmobile Toronado Trofeo – broke down in Virginia heat, then again in the Florida heat. when did it work? Good question.

  • avatar

    Steve, I gotta disagree with you on the “screw the mpgs” choice. It is only a Suburban if your passengers don’t mind crawling into smallish 3rd row seats which still take up most of your luggage room so that stuff is piled up over the back window.
    The real winner would be a Ford Club Wagon. Before Nasser cheaped them out starting in 1997, the Chateau version was the perfect vaca-vehicle. 4 really comfy captains chairs and a very good bench seat could seat up to 7, or 6 in supreme comfort. Lots of leg stretching room, plus you could easily pack for 6 in the rear.
    We spent many happy years in a 94 model and it is the best travel vehicle ever.

  • avatar

    I too had a 2001 Alvalanche, mine was the Z66, 2 wheel drive and got 18 mph. Not a bad truck, sometimes wish I still had it.

    And Disney World vs Myrtle Beach – really? Disney is great sucking vac that will leave you broke and VISA card maxed. I have always had a good time at Myrtle, if you can’t then you wouldn’t understand.

  • avatar

    I’m with Steve on the surprising hauling ability of compact sedans. For our summer pilgrimages over the Cascades to Bend we can jam 4 people, three mountain bikes, two road bikes and a week’s worth of stuff into a Saturn SL2. Admittedly this takes a roof rack and a trunk rack for all the bikes and leaves us looking like a Mavic neutral support car but we get over the mountains, to and from the trailheads, and back to Beaverton on two tanks of gas.
    Further to that, our Ford Escort took us over the pass and up to Mt. Batchelor in a snowstorm during Spring Break, on all season tires, without chains.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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:

    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…

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