Best Family Cars of 2012

You can't go wrong with any of our cars, which offer safety, performance, value, and cool features for every parent -- and every budget.

  • Greg Clark

    America's Next Top Models

    You make decisions all day long ("Should I let the baby cry it out?" "What can I cook tonight?"), but picking a set of wheels is one of the most crucial ones you'll make. So for a fifth year we've teamed up with Edmunds.com, the top online car-buying resource, to help you sort through the dozens of models to find the ideal one for your family and your wallet.

    As always, safety is our primary concern. For that reason, every vehicle on our list is equipped with antilock brakes, electronic stability control, and a minimum of six air bags. Plus, a record 14 of our recommended cars earned a Top Safety Pick designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). To help you save money, we've favored vehicles that get great mileage and represent the premier value in their class. We paid close attention to kid-friendly features while also keeping in mind that a smooth, stylish ride makes everyone happy.

  • Courtesy of Toyota

    High-Mileage Cars: Toyota Prius V

    Starts at: $26,400
    MPG: 44 city/40 highway

    The newest, largest Prius provides a stable ride and the cargo space of a small SUV. The rear seats slide forward and back in two sections, so you can position a baby closer to the front while your grade-schooler gets more legroom; they also recline. The rear cargo area can fit a travel crib plus luggage for a weekend getaway. A backup camera, a touch-screen audio system, and a hands-free smart key -- which unlocks the driver's-side door as you approach -- are standard. The V's mileage doesn't quite match the 50-MPG average of the basic Prius (which starts at $23,520), but it's still PDG (pretty darn good).

    Features: Steering-wheel audio controls standard, IIHS Top Safety Pick, USB jack standard, Bluetooth capability standard, 5 passenger capacity, 3 car-seat capacity

  • Courtesy of Honda

    High-Mileage Cars: Honda Civic Hybrid

    Starts at $24,200
    MPG: 44 city/44 highway

    The redesigned Civic Hybrid is a pleasure to drive and is sleek inside and out. A cool digital readout lets you display mileage, speed, or radio stations. And the loaded version, with on-board navigation and leather seats, clocks in at under $27,000, making it among the most affordable full-feature hybrids.

    Features: Steering-wheel audio controls standard, IIHS Top Safety Pick, USB jack standard, Bluetooth capability standard, 5 passenger capacity, 2 car-seat capacity

  • Courtesy of Chevrolet

    High-Mileage Cars: Chevrolet Cruze Eco

    Starts at $19,245
    MPG: 28 city/42 highway

    Though it's gas-powered, the Cruze Eco sips fuel like a hybrid and costs a lot less. It has a zippy ride and generous interior space, including a deep trunk that won't leave you choosing between groceries and your stroller. Among the standard features are ten air bags, a leather steering wheel, and a brisk turbocharged engine. The six-speed manual transmission optimizes the mileage. You'll pay another $1,000 for automatic and may lose a mile or two per gallon, but you'll still feel like a winner.

    Features: Steering-wheel audio controls standard, IIHS Top Safety Pick, USB jack standard, Bluetooth capability standard, 5 passenger capacity, 2 car-seat capacity

    Raves From an Owner: "Our Chevy Cruze Eco is responsive. We've taken it on road trips with two young kids plus luggage and a stroller. It did great!" --Kara Norris; Corona, California

  • Courtesy of Chevrolet

    Budget Cars: Chevrolet Sonic

    Starts at $13,865
    MPG: 26 city/40 highway

    If you dread navigating around crowded parking lots, the Sonic's go-cart-like responsiveness might change your outlook. It's safe (with ten standard air bags). It's cheap -- for under $19,000 you can get a version with heated seats and a feature that lets you start the car from 50 feet away (so you can warm or cool the interior before strapping your little ones in). And it's versatile: Its rear seats fold down in case you need to haul a soccer goal or a folded crib.

    Features: IIHS Top Safety Pick, 5 passenger capacity, 2 car-seat capacity

  • Courtesy of Ford

    Budget Cars: Ford Focus

    Starts at $16,500
    MPG: 26 city/40 highway

    You'll feel hip behind the wheel, thanks to the Focus's edgy styling and grippy handling. The base model lacks a front armrest, so it's worth considering one of the mid-range trim lines (which can up the price to around $20,500); they also include backup sensors and Ford's voice-activated Sync audio and phone system. The hatchback ($18,300) has nearly twice the cargo capacity and a flat tailgate that makes it simpler to slide a stroller in and out.

    Features: IIHS Top Safety Pick, Backup camera available, Backup sensors available, 5 passenger capacity, 2 car-seat capacity

  • Courtesy of Hyundai

    Budget Cars: Hyundai Elantra

    Starts at $15,345
    MPG: 29 city/40 highway

    This eye-catching little car comes with frills you'd expect in models costing thousands more: heated mirrors, a rear armrest with cup holders, and a trip computer. The cabin has a sizable center storage box and a number of nooks for stowing Binkies, blankies, and small toys. The Elantra is nimble enough to take the drudgery out of running errands, and the hatchback version (which starts at about $16,000) has cargo space to rival some midsize wagons.

    Features: IIHS Top Safety Pick, USB jack standard, Backup camera available, 5 passenger capacity, 2 car-seat capacity

    Raves From an Owner: "The Elantra has a tight turning radius and is a dream to park. Our three kids love this car's sporty feel too. It's a lot of car for the money." --Michael Robinson; Pasadena, Texas

  • Courtesy of Mazda

    Crossovers: Mazda 5

    Starts at $19,625
    MPG: 21 city/28 highway

    This one-of-a-kind vehicle has enough moxie to make you forget you're a parent (at least when the kids drift off for a nap). It handles like a small car, yet it's practical, with seating for six. All three rows have cup holders. A clever activity table between the plush second-row captain's chairs stows out of sight when you don't need it, and the third-row seats fold into the floor for extra space.

    Features: Steering-wheel audio controls standard, 6 passenger capacity, 4 car-seat capacity

  • Courtesy of Kia

    Crossovers: Kia Sorento

    Starts at $23,150
    MPG: 22 city/32 highway

    With a super smooth ride and an available third row (standard on LX-V6 and SX trim levels, an $800 option on others) that expands the seating capacity to seven, the Sorento is a great choice for growing families and carpoolers. The second-row seat is among the widest in this category, which comes in handy when you need to squeeze in three adjacent car seats. Standard appointments include large seatback pockets for your kids' books and a rear armrest with cup holders. The optional V-6 (an extra $1,300 to $1,800, depending on the trim line) is worth it if you need the 3,500-pound towing capacity. Otherwise the standard four-cylinder engine, which provides ample pickup and yields better mileage, is a smarter choice.

    Features: Steering-wheel audio controls standard, All- or four-wheel drive available, IIHS Top Safety Pick, USB jack standard, Backup camera available, Backup sensors available, Bluetooth capability standard, 7 passenger capacity, 5 car-seat capacity

    Raves From an Owner: "The Sorento is stable on the highway yet agile on twisty back roads. Our kids love the reclining rear seats. The third row is a plus for carpooling, and the cargo area fits all their sports gear." --Lisa Mueller; Milton, Georgia

  • Courtesy of Honda

    Crossovers: Honda CR-V

    Starts at $22,495
    MPG: 23 city/31 highway

    The cabin of this redesigned crossover is reminiscent of a minivan, with a slew of cup holders and a gear shifter situated on the dashboard. Standard features include a backup camera, a rear armrest to keep warring siblings apart, and rear seats that fold flat with a single touch. Fortunately, two things that didn't change are the CR-V's carlike feel and superb handling.

    Features: Steering-wheel audio controls standard, All- or four-wheel drive available, IIHS Top Safety Pick, USB jack standard, Bluetooth capability standard, 5 passenger capacity, 2 car-seat capacity

  • Courtesy of Volkswagen

    Sedans: Volkswagen Passat

    Starts at $19,995
    MPG: 21 city/32 highway

    You'll appreciate this refreshed model's clean dashboard design, while your kids will enjoy stretching their legs (or kicking their feet) without bumping into your seatback. The Passat has crisp handling, a sprawling trunk, and impressive standard features such as dual-zone climate control. A mid-priced trim line includes heated front seats, a touch-screen audio system, a rear armrest with cup holders, and leatherette seats for around $24,000.

    Features: Steering-wheel audio controls standard, IIHS Top Safety Pick, Bluetooth capability standard, 5 passenger capacity, 3 car-seat capacity

    Raves From an Owner: "The Passat's quiet ride is a pleasure on the highway. And there's lots of room in the back, which makes installing car seats a breeze." --Peter Bui; Seattle, Washington

  • Courtesy of Toyota

    Sedans: Toyota Camry

    Starts at $21,955
    MPG: 21 city/35 highway

    The newly redesigned Camry offers a winning combination of space, comfort, and sure handling. We'd recommend skipping the austere entry-level model in favor of the LE trim line ($22,500), which includes automatic on/off headlamps to prevent a dead battery and digital controls that simplify your audio and phone options. Even tall adults won't bump their head in back, and there's enough legroom to install the bulkiest car seat.

    Features: IIHS Top Safety Pick, USB jack standard, Backup camera available, Bluetooth capability standard, 5 passenger capacity, 3 car-seat capacity

  • Courtesy of Kia

    Sedans: Kia Optima

    Starts at $21,000
    MPG: 22 city/35 highway

    Kia continues to win converts by offering indulgent features for a moderate price. The basic Optima has heated mirrors and a glove box that keeps formula or juice boxes chilled. A spirited ride helps you forget you're driving a family sedan. Chrome exhaust tips and alloy wheels add further flair, and for an extra $3,000 you can get leather seats, wood trim, and a smart key, so you don't have to dig through your purse when you're carrying an infant or grocery bags.

    Features: Steering-wheel audio controls standard, IIHS Top Safety Pick, USB jack standard, Backup camera available, Bluetooth capability standard, 5 passenger capacity, 3 car-seat capacity

  • Courtesy of Dodge

    Large Vehicles: Dodge Durango

    Starts at $28,995
    MPG: 16 city/23 highway

    Despite its muscle-car exterior and high-performance 290 horsepower V-6 engine, the redesigned Durango is actually a plush, cavernous, family-friendly vehicle. It has a roomy second row that seats three kids comfortably, and the three-zone climate system lets them choose their own temp and air flow. The front center console is large enough to contain a diaper bag, and there are bins and storage nooks to accommodate every doodad imaginable. Options include voice-activated radio controls and a swanky rear-seat entertainment system to keep your little passengers occupied. But Dodge hasn't abandoned this model's SUV heritage entirely: There's an optional V-8 engine (which starts at around $36,000) in case you plan to tow a boat or a trailer.

    Features: Steering-wheel audio controls standard, All- or four-wheel drive available, Power lift gate available, IIHS Top Safety Pick, Backup camera available, 7 passenger capacity, 5 car-seat capacity

  • Courtesy of Toyota

    Large Vehicles: Toyota Sienna

    Starts at $25,060
    MPG: 19 city/24 highway

    The Sienna's serene ride will make lengthy drives with your kids a breeze -- well, almost. The base model comes with oversize captain's chairs that slide forward and back and recline (an optional second-row bench boosts the capacity to eight), a three-zone climate system, one-touch power windows, deep door pockets, spacious glove boxes, and two rows that fold down when you're transporting furniture and other large objects. Although the four-cylinder engine provides a price advantage over the competition, the powerful V-6 engine's supreme passing power may be worth the investment.

    Features: All- or four-wheel drive available, Power lift gate available, IIHS Top Safety Pick, Backup camera available, 8 passenger capacity, 5 car-seat capacity

  • Courtesy of Honda

    Large Vehicles: Honda Odyssey

    Starts at $28,375
    MPG: 18 city/27 highway

    You'd expect a stable ride from a vehicle of this heft, but the Odyssey somehow manages to corner like a midsize car. It has endless storage compartments and second-row captain's chairs that slide forward (to get closer to you) and sideways (to put extra real estate between siblings or make room for three car seats in the row). An optional middle seat in the second row transforms into a cool beverage and snack tray when no one's using it. You can stow the third-row seats with a simple tug, yielding room for a weeklong summer vacay -- and then some.

    Features: Power lift gate available, IIHS Top Safety Pick, Backup camera available, 8 passenger capacity, 5 car-seat capacity

    Raves From an Owner: "The Odyssey has lots of space for adults in back and holds tons of cargo. The low entry lets our 2-year-old climb right into his car seat, which is a real convenience." --Andrea Whitaker; Sherwood, Oregon

    Don't skip the fine print. Car prices listed are for entry-level trim lines and don't include delivery fees, optional equipment, or other charges. Some photos may represent models with optional equipment. Mileage ratings represent a range for all trim lines and may differ based on engine and transmission choices. Car-seat estimates are based on our measure of how many would fit comfortably in each vehicle (some models may technically have the capacity for more). Maximum passenger capacity is based on the number of seat belts and includes optional third rows and extra seats. For the most up-to-date car-safety ratings, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (safercar.gov) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (iihs.org). If you made it all the way through this paragraph, you're going to be a crackerjack car customer!

    Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Parents magazine.