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Top Ten Family Cars

Finding a budget-friendly car is tough enough; when you have kids, it becomes more difficult. I’ve picked ten cars which I think represent the best family cars for under $20,000. Here they are presented in order of price, from lowest to highest.

1. Nissan Versa – $10,710

Though Nissan pitches the Versa against subcompacts like the Toyota Yaris and the Honda Fit, it’s a lot bigger than those cars on the inside — so much so that the EPA classifies it not as a subcompact, not even as a compact, but as a mid-size car. Nissan offers both sedan and hatchback body styles; both have big back seats that provide plenty of room for kids of all sizes, whether they’re small enough for a rear-facing car seat or big enough for their high school football team. The basic Versa 1.6 offers few amenities, but its super-cheap price makes it a great choice for families on a tight budget. And nicer Versas aren’t a whle lot more expensive — even with all the bells and whistles, the Versa tops out at just over $18,000.

2. Nissan Cube – $14,710

Like the Versa, the Cube offers a spacious back seat, and its tall roof provides plenty of room for parents to maneuver Junior into his car seat. The cargo bay (shown here) is a little small, but while it’s deep lip poses a problem for bulky cargo, it’s actually a boon for parents of young’uns — you can store your stroller standing up and not worry that it’ll come flying out when you open the tailgate. The Cube’s price tag is exceptionally budget-friendly, and its standard equipment list includes air conditioning, power windows and locks, and electronic stability control — all items that I consider must-haves in a family car.

3. Honda Fit – $15,610

Whether it be strollers or soccer gear, carrying kids usually means carrying lots of extra stuff, and few small cars can match the Fit’s 20.6 cubic feet of cargo space (seen here) Bulky baby strollers are a bit of a squeeze for the Fit’s narrow trunk, but the Fit will haul just about anything else, and there’s room for more than cargo — both front and back seats are surprisingly roomy for a car this small. The Fit is also fun to drive, it gets great gas mileage, and it’s safe, having been specifically designed to survive crashes with larger, heavier vehicles. That said, I would urge parents to buy the $16,410 Sport model; unlike the base-model Fit, the Sport has electronic stability control as standard.

4. Scion xB – $16,520

Though the Scion xB is technically a car, its interior dimensions are more like a compact SUV, what with its roomy trunk and mile-high roofline. A wide cargo bay with narrow suspension intrusions makes the xB well suited to hauling bulky baby gear, while the back seat is generously sized for growing children. And the Scion xB delivers big-time value-for-money — its $16,510 price tag includes a long list of comfort and safety equipment. You’d have to spend thousands more to find an SUV with comparable space, safety and ameneties. Without question, this is one of the best family-car bargains on the market.

5. Hyundai Elantra Touring – $16,715

The innovative Elantra Touring is bigger than a hatchback, smaller than a wagon, and perfectly sized for new and growing families. The big cargo bay makes for a great vacationmobile; check out this photo of the Elantra Touring loaded up for a 5-day family trip with room to spare. (The kennel is for the dog, not the kids.) For 2010, Hyundai has introduced a new base model, called the GLS, with a price tag well below $17k. The GLS drops a few creature comforts — sunroof, leather-wrapped steering wheel — but it offers all the important stuff, like air conditioning and electronic stability control. The Elantra Touring is a great choice for families with lots of bulky baby gear or a penchant for road trips.

6. Dodge Caliber – $17,090

Active families can be rough on their cars, which is why I like the Caliber. Specifically, it’s why I like the Caliber’s cargo bay, which was clearly designed by people who work with pickup trucks — the Caliber’s trunk offers 18.5 cubic feet of space with a wide opening and durable plastic lining that won’t get stained or smelly. Moving forward, the Caliber has a decent back seat and roomy front seats with a high, SUV-like driving position, no surprise given its chunky SUV-like good looks. The Caliber doesn’t drive as well as its rivals, but seeing what a few years of family life can do to the neat, carpet-lined trunk of a typical sedan or wagon, that’s a compromise I’d be willing to accept.

7. Kia Rondo – $18,190

The Rondo is a cross between a car, and SUV and a minivan. That makes it hard to classify, but it also makes it a good choice for big families, because the Rondo offers seven seats — and unlike many SUVs, the Rondo’s third-row seat can actually accommodate full-size people. (The third-row seat is a $650 option; 2010 Rondos, which won’t arrive in dealerships until spring, will come with 7 seats as standard.) Two important notes: The base-model Rondo lacks air conditioning, and the four-cylinder engine is a bit of a slug — I definitely spend the extra grand for the air conditioned Rondo LX, and I’d seriously consider a grand more than that for the V6 engine, which doesn’t use a whole lot more fuel than the anemic four-cylinder.

8. Subaru Impreza – $18,190

If you’re looking for a car to haul your spouse and kids, chances are safety is a high priority on your list. The best way to survive an accident is not to have one in the first place, and that’s where the Impreza excels — it comes with both all-wheel-drive and electronic stability control as standard, which means that in a panic swerve, the Impreza is much more likely to go in the direction you point it than a regular front-wheel-drive car. Not that safety is the Impreza’s only high point; it’s also well-equipped, good to drive, and available as a 5-door hatchback, which features a stroller-friendly cargo bay and an optional ($70) plastic cargo bay mat that’s durable and easy to clean.

9. Volkswagen Jetta – $18,485

There are a lot of compact sedans on the market, but few do family duty as well as the Jetta. A roomy cabin, tall roof, and upright seating make it well suited for kids of all ages, from infancy to don’t-you-think-it’s-time-you-moved-into-a-place-of-your-own. Base models have cloth interiors, but the $21,300 Jetta SE gets fake leather, which is durable and easy to clean. The trunk is boxy and lined with thick, durable carpet. Both engines (a 2.5 liter five-cylinder or a super-frugal two-liter turbodiesel) develop loads of torque, so they won’t slow down with a full load. All this, plus the Jetta is good looking and good fun to drive.

10. Mazda5 – $18,745

Love ’em or hate ’em, minivans are arguably the ultimate family cars, because they pack the most interior room for their exterior size. But minivans aren’t cheap: The least-expensive Kia Sedona starts at $23k, and a nicely-equipped Honda Odyssey will set you back around $35,000. Mazda’s much-cooler alternative is smaller (it seats 6, versus 7 or 8 for a typical minivan) and a lot less expensive, but you get all the chief advantages of a minivan: Mega-space, sliding rear doors, and a long wheelbase, all of which make it easier to load up the kids, especially if they’re still in child seats. One drawback: The Mazda5’s 2nd and 3rd rows seat two across, so you can’t fit a child seat in the middle position.

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