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The best family cars
Buying guide

The best family cars

Got kids to move?

The choices have never been so diverse and impressive.

From traditional sedans and wagons to SUVs and people movers, the options for getting to school, the shops or your favourite holiday destination are wide and varied.

Here are some of the best.

Skoda Octavia wagon

As part of the Volkswagen Group, Skoda utilises the major mechanical components also found under vehicles such as the Golf.

And with a few more millimetres added to the body of the Octavia, it makes for a sensible size for those with one or two kids.

The availability of a wagon – alongside the unusually-styled hatch (it looks a bit like a sedan) – and frugal but muscular four-cylinder turbo engines make it one of the more enjoyable family cars on the road. Slick-shifting twin-clutch transmissions occasionally call for driving finesse around town but otherwise help define the fun-driving character of the Octavia.

There’s also some clever storage cubbyholes and the occasional surprise-and-delight – such as umbrellas in the doors – to cement the Octavia as a sensible everyday family car choice.


Toyota RAV4

Mid-sized SUVs have replaced the traditional large sedan in so many Australian garages. And the RAV4 was at the forefront of that revolution.

Since arriving on the scene in 1994, the RAV4 has evolved into something less about fun and funky motoring for singles and couples and more about everyday practicality for families.

And that family friendliness is delivered sensibly with the latest iteration.

That the RAV4 manages to throw in what are among the best driving manners of any of its mid-sized peers reasserts it as one of the more convincing SUVs on the road. It helps that there’s the choice of a petrol-electric hybrid drivetrain to reduce fuel use by about half.

The biggest challenge is getting hold of one, with demand outstripping supply, something that arguably makes the used car market a more tempting proposition.


Holden Commodore

Once the dominant best-seller in the country, the Commodore is now little more than a memory along with the once-vibrant Australian automotive landscape.

But that doesn’t rule it out as a potential used car bargain.

The last of the Australian-made Commodores – known as the VF – was the pinnacle of Holden and Australian engineering and reinforced how good that Australian engineering was.

Simple but effective V6 engine aside (or grab a V8 if the budget stretches!), the Commodore ended on a high, with the ability to devour country kilometres loaded with the family while still dealing admirably with suburban running.

The last-ever Commodore – the imported and short-lived ZB model – took a step back in some ways, although the front-drive four-cylinder turbo engine did deliver on performance. And it’s easy to find near-new used examples that are undervalued, making them genuine bargains.


Toyota Camry Hybrid

The Prius may have been the car to put hybrids in the automotive vernacular, but it was the Camry Hybrid that put them high on the sales charts.

Plenty of them hit the roads as government vehicles and company fleet cars, which means plenty are now circulating on the used-car market.

The Camry used basic hybrid tech – older nickel-metal hydride batteries in a world that’s shifted to lithium-ion – but it did what it promised: saved fuel.

Fuel use is around half that of a similarly-sized large sedan and performance is none too shabby, too, courtesy of an electric motor assisting a basic (but thoroughly reliable) four-cylinder engine.

With a sizeable back seat and all the sensibilities of a mid-sized Toyota the Camry is a great way to shift the family in comfort.


Kia Carnival

SUVs are the latest must-have for the school pickup, but if you’ve looking to move lots of people in a fair degree of comfort it’s a people mover such as the Kia Carnival that generally does a better job.

Three rows of seats provide accommodation for eight humans and there’s a cavernous luggage space thrown in for good measure. The Carnival is one of those rarities that can carry a lot of people (large or otherwise) and all of their luggage without fuss.

Sliding rear doors (powered on some models) are a bonus and there’s no seat in the house that won’t accommodate a full-sized adult, so arguments about who goes where tend to vanish over cries of “are we there yet”.

Front-drive dynamics don’t have the surefootedness of most city-focused SUVs, but the choice of diesel or (thirstier) petrol propulsion ensure you’re never lacking for grunt.

Throw in a seven-year warranty and a generous spread of standard equipment and it makes for a compelling family car choice.


Subaru Outback

Remember when families used to buy wagons? That’s pretty much fizzled out now as the world has gone SUV mad.

But while the Subaru Outback has the tang of an SUV, it’s DNA is very much regular wagon. That wagon is the Subaru Liberty, a nameplate that no longer exists.

The Outback is the wagon version of the Liberty but riding slightly higher and with some rough-and-ready cladding to ram home the adventurous character.

While modern SUVs nicely deliver car-like driving manners, the Outback is just that little bit closer to behaving like a car, all of which makes it such an easy thing to live with.

Plus it dishes up more space than your average mid-sized SUV courtesy of a long boot and adult-friendly back seats (teenagers rejoice!).

Throw in some cleverly-engineered off-road ability – yep, the Outback can tackle some trails most others would shy away from – and it makes for a thoroughly tempting family machine.

Roof rails that rotate through 90 degrees to create roof racks are indicative of the cleverness built into a Subaru with staying power.


Volkswagen Passat

Forget mediocrity, because Volkswagen’s mid-sizer isn’t having a bar of it. The deceptively spacious sedan and even more spacious wagon has a thoroughly Teutonic flavour, reinforcing that elegant simplicity sometimes works a lot better than over-trying.

The cabin uses quality finishes and a basic but ergonomically friendly layout that goes all the way from the central infotainment screen to the wonderfully supportive seats. That the kids aren’t overlooked in the rear seats adds valuable points to a sizeable family car.

The Passat also delivers the sort of dynamic confidence few can get close to, no doubt a result of its German engineering that treats high-speed autobahns equally importantly as narrow city backstreets.


Mazda6

One of the stalwarts of the fading mid-sized sedan/wagon category is also one of the best.

The Mazda6 adds some flair and pizazz to the family sedan and wagon, each with its own unique personality. The sedan has slightly more rear seat space than the wagon, which makes up some marks with a more flexible load area.

Both get a willing 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine, although it’s the turbocharged unit that brings a bunch more punch.

Excellent reliability credentials and a refreshingly upmarket interior help the Mazda nicely straddle the thin line of white space between the top end of the mainstream car market and the burgeoning prestige tiddlers.


Hyundai i40

Made partly for Europe but also wending its way Down Under, the i40 was available as a sedan and wagon. It was the wagon that separated it and provided a hint more design flair than the slightly larger i45 that is these days known as the Sonata.

That Euro focus meant the i40 wasn’t as hulking as some wagons, which is good and bad.

Not terrific for larger families, but arguably a Goldilocks size for one- or two-kid families.

While the 2.0-litre engine was nothing special – a tad undernourished and vocal – it was fine for suburban duties, while the 1.7-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel was better suited to longer journeys.

The plasticky interior was no standout, nor the modest infotainment screen, although the availability of a panoramic sunroof could distract you from that.


Honda Odyssey

The Honda Odyssey has long bent the people mover rules, somehow melding some wagon thinking with the clever packaging of a three-row hauler.

The latest generation tilted more towards the traditional people mover side of the equation, right down to its sliding rear doors that (thankfully) make it virtually impossible for the little ones to leave a permanent scar on the car parked alongside.

The 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine is arguably the least impressive part of the Odyssey, especially if you want to make use of all eight seats (or seven, depending on the exact model).

But the unexpected spaciousness of the interior and the quality of finishes makes for a fantastic way to move plenty of people.

There’s even a whiff of sportiness in the way the Odyssey tackles corners.


Nissan X-Trail

If you need any convincing the X-Trail has families in mind, look no further than the cooled cupholders. Channeling some of the air-conditioning through the front cupholders can add some much-needed chill to a glass of water or something fizzier on a sizzling Aussie summer day.

But Nissan’s long-lived mid-sized SUV runs a lot deeper, with a larger body than most rivals. And that makes for a thoroughly practical family machine.

Settle for two-wheel drive and you can even get a seven-seater version, albeit with a third row of seats that’s unlikely to get a thumbs-up from lanky teenagers.

Still, it packs plenty in and promises years of trouble-free motoring.

Less impressive is the 2.5-litre engine mated to a CVT auto; yes, it gets the job done, albeit with occasional laziness around town. It’s clearly more about keeping things moving than eliciting a smile.

Similarly, the way the X-Trail tackles a bend is more about the basics than driving enjoyment.