What Is A Family Car Anyway?

September 2, 2010

The phrase "family car" is kind of misleading these days. What works for one family may not be appropriate for your neighbor or the family down the street. In fact, family cars may not even be cars at all. They may be minivans, sport utility vehicles (SUVs), crossovers, even pickup trucks with extended cabs or four doors. To make matters even more confusing, there are sedans and coupes in the small car category that may work for families with one to three individuals, and mid-size and full-size or large coupes and sedans that are more appropriate for other families. So, what is a family car these days, anyway, and how did it all change?

Let's go back in time a few years. Remember way back when automakers rolled out their new models at a single point in the year? Usually that was in September or early fall, just in time for back-to-school shopping and getting buttoned down for winter.

Dealerships held gala celebrations, invitation-only events where the whole family could show up and see the new models. There was food, entertainment--even door prizes! It was great fun, didn't cost a dime, and created a lot of buzz and a whole lot of business as Mom and Dad figured out their next new family car.

Auto shows were another great time for the family. In a single location, they could climb in cars from every automaker, grab brochures, and dream about the next family car purchase.

Of course, family cars back in the day usually meant full-size sedans or wagons. These were the Ford, General Motors (especially Chevrolet, GM's volume leader, but also Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and, for well-heeled folks, Cadillac), and Chrysler cars. And there was usually only one car in the driveway or garage. This was way before the advent of the two, three, or more car families.

buick enclave

buick enclave

Enlarge Photo

That all changed with the introduction of minivans, more family-friendly SUVs (instead of the big, hulking brutes of days past), and, finally crossovers. Now, cars sprouted up in the neighborhoods like daffodils emerging in spring. Dad or Mom passed down their family sedan to eldest teens that passed their driver's test and needed reliable, safe wheels to get to and from school, part-time jobs, and going out with friends. There was always one kid in the group whose parents gave him (sometimes her) a car.

After a while, teens got the keys to a subcompact or compact car of their own, financed, of course, by the parents--with perhaps a good chunk of change kicked in from the teens' job. No matter. There were cars in the family of all shapes, sizes, and price ranges.

With the passing decades, cars got more safety features--always a high priority in family cars. Low ownership costs, high dependability and reliability were also big on the must-have list for family wheels. They still are--even more so in today's uncertain economy--when the family car needs to be serviceable for perhaps years after the loan is paid off.

Oh, and today there are literally dozens of automakers offering hundreds of vehicles that could, more or less, all be classified as family cars. They serve the needs of families large and small, wealthy and frugal, urban, suburban and rural. Besides Ford, GM, and Chrysler, there are also Infiniti, Honda, Toyota, Acura, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and so on.

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Enlarge Photo

Ah, the choices we have today are almost endless. Don't forget the hybrids, and cars that eke out beaucoup miles per gallon while emitting fewer emissions. These are becoming increasingly popular in family cars of any stripe.

The good news for consumers is that you can have it all. If you're a single mom with two small children, your needs may be met best with a subcompact or compact coupe or sedan with anti-lock brakes, plenty of airbags and other safety features. It could be a 2011 Chevrolet Camaro or Ford Mustang (yes, family cars can be muscle cars, too).

Maybe a compact crossover like the 2010 Honda CR-V fits the family's needs for the second car in the garage. Mid-size cars, SUVs, and crossovers form the largest block of family cars. It is here you'll find the most variety and the widest price ranges--everything from the under $25,000 affordable coupes and sedans to upscale mid-size counterparts costing $25,000-$40,000.

Then, again, there are the full-size affordable cars, generally priced under $35,000 and the luxury large cars costing anywhere from $40,000-$60,000. Mercedes-Benz E-Class, anyone?

And those are just the car choices.

Family cars never looked so good, offered so much value, performance, fuel economy, safety, style, versatility, and comfort. What is a family car, anyway? It's whatever works best for you.

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