As an automotive journalist, the criteria for what makes a car good dramatically changes once children are thrown into the equation. Or born into it, I guess. I went through this metamorphosis last year, and I've been casually detailing on my personal blog how my son, Carter, has fit into what I drive every week.
I don't consider myself a child-seat expert, and I certainly haven't raised a brood yet (like the fine reviewers at MotherProof.com). But Carter is 16 months old now, and just two weeks ago welcomed a baby girl into the family. That means the opinions below should be taken for what they are: The picks of a dad who needs to ferry a child to day care then get his butt to work. Carter also gets lots of seat time on the weekends when I need to get testing miles in.
I would guess that there are lots of other guys like me out there who need a car both to get to work and to pull double-duty for the kids more often than just in a pinch. These picks wouldn't replace a minivan or crossover (except for the crossover picks), but they need to be serviceable for transporting the kids, even on longer drives. So here goes.
Best Budget Car: Hyundai Elantra Touring
Runner Up: Honda Fit
Worst: Toyota Corolla XRS
The biggest surprise in terms of cars this year had to be the Hyundai Elantra Touring (above). It's really a great package of standard features and lots of room for a good price. The backseat seemed as big as the one in my 2008 Subaru Outback — which, granted, isn't saying much -- but the Elantra costs much less. The cargo area is also decent.
The Honda Fit's rear headroom is fantastic. It remains one of the easiest cars I've yet tested in terms of getting in and out without bonking my — or Carter's — head.
I recently revisited the new Corolla in its sportier XRS trim, and I was floored by how cramped the back was once the car seat was installed. It was nowhere near as roomy as the Civic or last-generation Mazda3.
Best Crossover: Toyota Venza
Runner Up: Tie — Buick Enclave and Subaru Forester
Worst: Volkswagen Tiguan
Let me just say that I'm not a fan of the driving experience in the Venza, but everything else about it screams “terrific daily driver for dads.” The backseat is positively huge, and the cargo area swallows golf bag after golf bag for those times when dad foursomes get a day off to hit the links, like on Father's Day. Some dads might even like the standard 19- or 20-inch wheels.Check out my video review of it above.
The Buick Enclave and its GMC Acadia and Chevy Traverse siblings are also impressive. They're very easy to get in and out of when holding a baby, despite their height. I'd say the Ford Flex is a little easier, but not much, and you don't have to give up the high riding position and SUV looks.
All that needs to be said about the Tiguan is that it has a tiny cargo area. With the rear seats up, good luck getting a full-size stroller back there. The smaller Forester has a much more usable cargo space, and it costs less and comes with standard all-wheel drive.
Best Wagon: BMW 535xi
Runner Up: Hyundai Elantra Touring
Worst: Audi A4 Avant
As far as wagons go, nothing beat the BMW 535xi I tested recently. That said, I haven't driven the Mercedes, Audi or Volvo equivalents with Carter around, either. Not only was there plenty of room for parents and child seats in back, but the cargo area was nice and big, with a nifty lift-up cover. It might have been near $70,000 as-tested, but it was well-enough equipped around $66,000 for this to be the über daddy-mobile.
I love the looks and performance of the smaller A4 Avant, but the miniscule backseat (check out the 2:40 mark in the video above) and cargo area — which has about as much room as the A4 sedan's trunk — are two huge strikes against it. Sorry, Audi.
Best Performance Car: BMW M3
Runner Up: Dodge Challenger SRT8
Worst: Cadillac CTS-V
I'll just admit it right here: The BMW M3 is my dream car, and the fact that the sedan gives up so little in the usability department makes it the winner here.
I couldn't believe how well the baby seat fit in the center position of the Dodge Challenger, and given Kelsey Mays slept like a baby in the backseat, I'd guess children under 6 feet tall would, too.
The CTS-V has so much power most dads likely won’t find a time or place to use it. Plus, the cramped backseat and minimal trunk space made it tough to get kids and cargo in and out.
Best Sports Car/Coupe: Infiniti G37
Runner Up: Mercedes-Benz CL550
Worst: Nissan 370 Z
The G37 was terrific in the day-to-day-use department. It had electronic controls to slide the front passenger seat forward on both the door side of the seat and the side near the driver. That meant that when it was raining I could shut the door with the seat all the way forward after plopping Carter into his seat, then when I was safely sheltered from the rain in the driver's seat I could hit that side's button to slide the seat back. It's really well-thought-out.
I wouldn't typically pick a $100,000+ coupe for family errand-running, but the CL550 sure did come in handy one weekend when we had to hit the big-box baby store. Carter was so comfy in it he took a nap, which he rarely does in the car anymore. I was so comfy in it I wanted to move in full-time, and for the price that might be the only way I could get one.
The Z may be a great car, but it has no backseat.
Best Sedan: 2010 Ford Fusion
Runner Up: 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart
You know what's weird? I haven't tested many sedans over the past year and a half. How odd is that? Sure, the CTS-V and BMW M3 have basic sedan siblings, but they didn’t come my way. I'm sure a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry would have been fine for the kids if I’d tested them, but I was impressed with the Fusion more for its great mileage — I had the four-cylinder version — and quiet ride than its child-carrying capacity. It did have easy-to-reach Latch connectors, though, and a big trunk. Too bad I didn't have more to compare it with.
The Lancer Ralliart was a blast to drive for sure and had some very well placed LATCH connectors. The Ralliart may be the high-performance trim of the Lancer, but it is essentially the same as even the base model in terms of room in the back, which is ample for this size car, which is a little bigger than a Corolla and smaller than a Fusion.