I’ve tested the 2008 Scion xD and xB, 2008 Chrysler PT Cruiser and 2007 Dodge Caliber, and rented a Kia Rio, Ford Focus sedan and countless other cars for my camping and racing adventures. Here’s the skinny: You’ll have to make tradeoffs. What you want to pay attention to is how much room is on the inside of the car, not how big it is on the outside. Hatchbacks are usually the best choice here.
You often get decent mileage.
These cars are generally easier to park (trust me, it matters).
You won’t have a ton of luxury amenities.
You’ll lose time loading everything because it has to go in just so.
Some of your passengers will have to go — your four friends are not going to enjoy a ride to a campsite 100 miles away in a Mini Cooper.
Many automakers offer hatchbacks and wagons. Those are the best choices in this category, but take a hard look at what’s there. The Scion xD really surprised me with how small and inadequate it was on the inside, but its xB sibling really impressed me.
It’s a popular category, both with outdoorsy types and with the general driving public.
They are bigger cars, so (duh) loading your toys is easier.
You’re more likely to find all-wheel-drive vehicles.
Gas mileage usually takes a hit.
It’s much harder to store things on the roof, if that’s your thing. It’s too high in the air.
This is probably the best overall category for folks who want to go out and play, but also want to keep their stuff inside the car when they travel. I tend to prefer wagons myself, but I find it hard to argue against the utility of these things.
This is the segment I’ve tested the least. Part of why is that I leave larger SUVs to the Suburban Dads of the world, and partly because it’s not a challenge to fit your stuff in a massive vehicle.
Cargo space is massive, so you can bring all your toys.
Often, you get more luxury items as standard equipment.
As a rule, your gas mileage will suck.
Load height can be a problem. Some are low enough, but shorter folks need to look at how high the load floor is and whether their cargo will scoot too far back into the SUV to retrieve.
Parking will definitely become an issue.
Whether or not this category is where you want to begin you search depends on what you’re doing and who’s doing it with you. If you’re hauling tons of kids and refuse to buy a van, yeah, this is probably what you’re left with. Happy hunting. If it’s just you, a significant other and your toys, the other categories are better.