It’s an American rite of passage: the family road trip.
While everyone loves the destination – whether it be the Grand Canyon or the beach a few hours from home – not many people relish the time spent in the car. But the type of car you choose can help ease that discomfort.
Large sedans or minivans are best for families with younger children, because the windows sit lower and make it easier for kids to look out, says David Champion, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. Station wagons are great, too, because it’s easier to reach in back and get snacks.
When it comes to features, Champion suggests nixing built-in navigation, which can be pricey. It’s too hard to talk to those systems over the sound of the kids in the back, and they can be frustrating to deal with while driving. Instead, have a passenger type in the destination on a hand-held navigation device or smartphone.
Here are five new or recently redesigned cars and SUVs that are ideal for road trips because of their family-friendly features or great gas mileage. All of them have top ratings from the government or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And, of course, plenty of cup holders.
Toyota Prius V
If fuel economy is your main concern, consider the Prius V hybrid wagon, which went on sale last fall. The five-seat Prius V gets an estimated 42 miles per gallon in city and highway driving, which isn’t as good as the 50-mpg standard Prius small car but better than its non-hybrid competitors among crossovers.
It’s also roomier than a standard Prius, with 13 additional cubic feet of luggage space behind the rear seats. That cargo space doubles when you fold down the rear seats, which also recline for young nappers.
Champion says the Prius V isn’t the most comfortable vehicle for a long trip, and it’s noisier than some competitors, but it can get you further before you have to fill up.
The Prius V starts at $26,550. A well-equipped version, with a sunroof and a hands-free parallel parking system that parks the car by itself, will set you back $30,140.
The CR-V, which was redesigned last fall, is consistently one of the best-selling crossovers in the country. Car buying site Edmunds.com praises the five-seater’s carlike ride and fuel economy, which averages 26 miles per gallon. It has 37 cubic feet of cargo space – the equivalent of 52 grocery bags – behind the rear seats.
The CR-V has a lot of standard family-friendly features, including a backup camera and a “conversation mirror” that makes it easier for parents to see what’s going on in the back seat.
The CR-V starts at $22,495. To get Honda’s rear entertainment system, which has a 7-inch screen mounted above the rear seats and wireless headphones, you have to upgrade to a $27,945 EX-L model.
It’s hard to beat a minivan for convenience when traveling with a family. The Mazda5, which was redesigned for the 2012 model year, offers minivan amenities like dual sliding doors in a small package that’s fun to drive.
It seats six, with second-row captain’s chairs that can recline or fold down for easier access to the third row. It’s not as roomy as its rivals, and its four-cylinder engine has less power than their V6s. But it also gets better fuel economy: 28 miles per gallon, compared with 24 on the Toyota Sienna.
The Mazda5 starts at $19,625 for a manual transmission. For $1,200, you can add a seven-inch overhead monitor with a remote control and wireless headphones.
The redesigned Azera, which went on sale earlier this year, has the most head and leg room of any large sedan and an ample, 16-cubic-foot trunk. For comparison’s sake, that’s two more cubic feet than the Toyota Avalon, a close competitor.
Among the Azera’s standard features are a backup camera and heated front and rear seats. At 23 miles per gallon, fuel economy isn’t great, but it’s comparable to others in the segment.
The Azera starts at $32,000.
Champion’s hands-down favorite for a road trip is the Ford Flex, a seven-passenger wagon that was redesigned for the 2013 model year and went on sale earlier this year. According to Ford, the Flex has the most second- and third-row leg room of any large utility vehicle, and there’s 43 cubic feet of cargo space if the third row is folded down.
It also has one feature exclusive to Ford: inflatable seat belts in the rear that give extra protection to kids in a crash. The Flex gets 23 miles per gallon.
It starts at $30,885, but many features cost extra, and they can add up in a hurry. The inflatable belts are a $195 option, for example, while an entertainment system with two 7-inch DVD monitors can be installed for $658.
The ultimate family feature – a refrigerated center console in the back seat that can chill seven cans – is a $795 option in the $42,000 Flex Limited.
The sportier Ford Escape crossover, which arrives in dealerships this month, might also be a good road trip contender, but it hasn’t yet been tested by safety agencies.