Mom #1: "Footprint-Friendly"
Ashley Bryan, 26, Las Vegas
her cargo: 2-year-old twins, plus a baby on the way
she drives: 2004 Lexus RX 330
why it's one of the best family cars for her: The sporty look, great gas mileage and handling, automatic back hatch, DVD system, and leather seats
what she wants: A reliable, inexpensive-to-repair car that fits three car seats and a triple stroller and isn't so nice that she'll stress about dirt. She's "anti-minivan," though.
budget: $25,000 to $30,000
on her list: A GMC Acadia. Tom Appel, associate publisher of Consumer Guide Automotive, calls Bryan's choice "outstanding," but, for a slightly cheaper alternative, suggests the Chevy Traverse, which is "mechanically identical, has one of the nicest third rows in the industry," and was rated a Consumer Guide Best Buy for 2010. Another option: the Honda Pilot, which is "a little more fun to drive."
Mom #2: "Sporty, with a Little Zip"
Kari Kuhn, 36, Eden Prairie, MN
her cargo: One 5-month-old
she drives: 2008 Pontiac Grand Prix
why it's one of the best family cars for her: The mileage, acceleration, overall sporty look
what she wants: Something larger, with lots of space, good acceleration, a good safety rating, and ABS, plus extras like a DVD system and leather seats. Easy access to the middle-seat car seat and doors that don't open as wide as the Grand Prix's are a plus, as is a backup video camera
budget: Under $25,000
on her list: A Nissan Murano or a minivan. The Murano's options "get pricey in a hurry," says Appel, so Kuhn's dream car would likely top $25,000. To stick to budget, Appel recommends the Honda CR-V, which lacks huge acceleration power (though it's "more than adequate") but boasts a backup camera. Price tag for a 2009: $25,600.
Mom #3: "Roomy, and Used"
Denise Dauplaise, 42, Green Bay, WI
her cargo: One 5-year-old and 2-year-old twins
she drives: 2001 Impala
why it's one of the best family cars for her: Room for three in the backseat, a huge trunk, and good gas mileage
what she wants: A vehicle that can fit a family of five in the two front rows, and optional third-row seating
budget: $8,000 to $12,000
on her list: Something used, possibly a minivan. Try a 2004 Honda Odyssey EX, which is reliable, has a foldable third row, and can be had for $11,600 on the private market, says Philip Reed, consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com. The 2007 Chevrolet Malibu LT is another option that won't break this budget. Appel's choice: The Kia Rondo, a wagon with a roomy second row and a high roof that makes loading and unloading "super easy." The best news: A 2007 Rondo runs about $11,000.
Mom #4: "Easy on the Gas"
Carol Lowe Brooke, 41, Arlington, VA
her cargo: One 6-year-old
she drives: 1994 Toyota Corolla
why it's one of the best family cars for her: Gas mileage
what she wants: An SUV or a wagon that's roomy, safe, fuel-efficient, and reliable
on her list: A newer used Subaru. Subaru's SUV, the Tribeca, is a little pricey for this budget, says Reed. Instead, try the Subaru Forester , which "feels like an SUV, with slightly higher ground clearance." A high roof and upright seating make it "great for getting a child in and out of a booster seat," adds Appel. And it has safety favorites like an ABS braking system, all-wheel drive, and front and side airbags. To save cash and a little gas, try manual transmission. Or consider the Ford Escape, which has a similar layout. "On her budget, she can get into a 2004 (or earlier)," says Appel.