There was a time when buying a family car meant picking a station wagon the size of an oil tanker. Cars have gotten smaller, but they are also more space-efficient—which means that many of today’s compacts are perfectly suited to family duty, though they continue to deliver traditional small-car attributes like good fuel economy and easy parking. Here, in alphabetical order, are ten of our favorite family cars.
10 Best Small Family Cars for 2017
There’s an underlying notion that small cars must be cheap cars, but that isn’t necessarily the case, as Audi’s compact A3 demonstrates nicely. Here’s a car that delivers the great driving dynamics we expect from Audi, and offers amenities like leather upholstery and an advanced infotainment system—and yet it’ll slip into parking spaces that SUVs have to pass on by. Audi’s don’t come cheap, but the A3 is priced much lower than bigger luxury cars, showing that nice cars need not be expansive or expensive.
Photo Credit: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
The FIAT 500L may look strange to American eyes, but this format of car—basically a tall hatchback—is extraordinarily popular in Europe. The Fiat 500L is one of the few examples found Stateside, but it’s a good illustration of the benefits of these cars, which make good use of vertical space. Fiat offers the 500L with a panoramic sunroof, which makes for a bright and airy interior; some have likened it to driving in a fishbowl, but is that such a bad thing? One thing to keep in mind is the tall back seat: It makes light work of getting kids into car seats (less bending) but it can be a bit of a climb for young kids and older passengers.
Photo Credit: Honda
The Civic was just redesigned for 2016, and once again this compact sedan is setting the standard for other cars in this class. We love the new Civic sedan’s smooth, hatchback-like profile (there’s an actual hatchback coming later this year), and that expansive body opens on a back seat that offers as much room as you’d find in mid-size cars from just a few years ago. As always, the Civic is a paragon of efficiency and reliability, and a well-cared-for example should run for a couple of decades without any major problems.
Photo Credit: Hyundai
The Hyundai Elantra has always been one of the better small-car bargains, but a 2017 revamp has turned it into a surprisingly upscale vehicle. We’d stop short of calling it a luxury car, but it sure comes close. While previous Elantras had a more aggressive look inside and out, the new one goes for a more subtle maturity, and even low-end models look good from the inside. Interior and trunk space are both generous, so there’s plenty of room inside for a growing family. The Eco models offer fantastic fuel economy, always good for the family budget, but its small turbocharged small engine doesn’t like to take off very quickly from a stop, so we’d stick with the 2-liter SE and Limited models; both are comfortable and well-equipped.
Photo Credit: Mazda
There seems to be a notion (exemplified by all those drab SUVs running around on our roads) that having a family means giving up your sense of fun. For those who love to drive, we suggest the Mazda3: Though not as roomy as some of the other cars on this list, it’s got enough space for a small family and its great fun to drive. Mazda invests a lot of engineering brainpower in lightening their cars and fine-tuning the responses of the suspension, and as a result their cars drive like they are German—and yet they hold up to hard use like they are Japanese. The 2.0 liter “i" models are particularly fuel efficient, while the 2.5 liter “s” packs a bigger punch and doesn’t use much more fuel.
Photo Credit: Mitsubishi
Mitsubishi Mirage G4
The Mitsubishi Mirage is probably the most unloved car on the market; critics have derided it as being slow, noisy, and crude, and they aren’t entirely wrong. But the Mirage is a good choice for families on a right budget, especially the new G4 sedan, which offers a remarkably roomy back seat—far more space than we’re used to seeing in cars so small. The Mirage G4 is inexpensively priced, well, equipped, and incredibly fuel efficient—that tiny engine is capable of an honest 40-plus MPG in mixed driving. And the Mirage has one of the longest warranties in the business: 5 years or 60,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, which means that one need not worry about surprise repair bills for quite a while (provided one doesn’t crash it). It’s certainly not the nicest car on this list, but it’s a great way for families enjoy the peace-of-mind of a fully-warrantied new car without spending a bundle of money.
Photo Credit: Nissan
Like the Mitsubishi Mirage G4, the Nissan Versa is a great choice for families on a tight budget. The Versa is the least-expensive new car you can buy, and while the cheapest models are rather meanly equipped (and difficult to find at dealerships), a nicely-optioned Versa will still cost far less than the entry-level models of its competitors. Like the Mirage G4, the Versa sedan has a generous back seat, and the trunk is larger than many mid-size (and even some full-size) cars. The Versa’s warranty isn’t as long as the Mitsubishi’s, but Nissan has a well-deserved reputation for building cars that are as reliable as the sun. We should note that our recommendation applies primarily to the homely-looking Versa sedan; Nissan also makes a hatchback version called the Versa Note which is equally roomy and arguably much better looking, but also quite a bit more expensive.
Photo Credit: Subaru
If you live in a place where the weather gets rotten, you probably want the safety and security of all-wheel-drive, but that doesn’t mean you have to opt for some hulking SUV—thanks to Subaru, that is. The compact Impreza features all-wheel-drive as standard, just like their winter-conquering Outback SUV, and the Impreza is every bit as sure-footed on snow- and rain-slicked roads. Best yet, the all-wheel-drive system is essentially free: The Impreza doesn’t cost much more than similarly-sized competitors that only send engine power to two wheels. Subaru offers the Impreza in both sedan and hatchback body styles, and if you want something more SUV-ish, check out the closely-related Subaru Crosstrek XV—it’s basically the same car as the Impreza, but a bit taller.
Photo Credit: Toyota
The Toyota Prius is not so much a car as it is an institution: For nearly a decade and a half, it’s been delivering outstanding fuel economy to families who want to minimize their use of natural resources. Toyota redesigned the Prius in 2016, and the new version is the best yet: More futuristically styled, more fuel efficient, and—most important for this list—more family friendly. New for 2017 is a plug-in version called the Prius Prime: Plug it in, charge it up, and you can either drive for up to 25 miles or so without ever starting the gasoline engine (after which it runs like a regular hybrid), or drive it in hybrid mode and deliver fuel economy numbers that defy belief.
Volkswagen Golf SportWagen
Despite all the woes and miseries of Dieselgate, the Golf SportWagen remains one of our favorite family cars, primarily because wagons are still a really good idea. Here’s a car that offers a generously-sized cabin and SUV-like cargo space, and yet it will squeeze into the same size parking spot as a Honda Civic. We like the Golf SportWagen’s durable, no-nonsense interior, and we love the way it drives: It features an eager 1.8 liter turbocharged engine that pulls strongly and returns great fuel economy and a chassis that responds sharply and grips the road tightly. Volkswagen is adding more standard equipment and an all-wheel-drive option for 2017, so the Golf SportWagen is a better value than ever.