By Jim Gorzelany
As anyone who's gone through the process can attest, becoming a first-time parent is truly a life-changing experience, and that extends beyond changing diapers and awakening for middle-of-the-night feedings.
What was a den or office becomes a nursery. “Baby-proofing” the house to thwart perils real and imagined becomes a crusade. And that sporty coupe in the driveway inevitably makes way for something more practical.
Just ask Chicagoans Liz McCorry and Phil Koesterer, who found themselves with a baby on the way and the need to replace their Volkswagen New Beetle for a more accommodating ride. “All we knew going into the process was that we wanted a bit more space, four doors and something that would be safe and affordable to maintain.” says McCorry.
To that end we’ve compiled a short list of models we feel are among the most family-friendly cars on the market. These vehicles remain affordable enough to fit a growing family’s budget – each starts at well under $25,000. All feature relatively roomy cabins, with cargo areas large enough to accommodate the inevitable baby gear. Each comes with the requisite safety features, including a full complement of air bags and electronic stability control to help keep the vehicle on track during extreme or emergency handling maneuvers. And each of them retains a youthful quality so Mom and Dad won’t necessarily feel like old fogeys behind the wheel.
• Subaru Impreza. Stylishly redesigned for 2012 in compact sedan and hatchback versions, the latter is an especially worthy alternative to a small SUV. It’s sufficiently roomy and is playful to drive, with a 148-hp four-cylinder engine. All-wheel-drive is standard. MSRP: $17,495
• Chevrolet Equinox. This suburban-chic crossover SUV does just about everything right. Performance is first rate with either the fuel-efficient four-cylinder or quicker V6 engine. All-wheel-drive is optional for secure wet-road performance. MSRP: $23,450
• Mazda5. A “mini minivan” with sliding rear doors for handy back-seat access, the Mazda5 is easier to maneuver than a standard minivan. A 157-horsepower four-cylinder engine is both quick and economical. It accommodates six passengers across three rows, but the rearmost seats are best folded flat for cargo space. MSRP: $19,345
• Honda CR-V. Solid, reliable, refined and reasonably attractive, the CR-V remains popular by sticking to the basics and executing them admirably. Its interior is roomy and comfortable, and its four-cylinder engine is both modestly quick and economical. All-wheel-drive is optional for added surefootedness in foul weather. MSRP: about $22,000
• Kia Soul. Kia’s funky-yet-practical compact wagon gets upgraded styling and more power for 2012, with a choice of 138- and 164-hp four-cylinder engines. An available Eco package is tuned for maximum mileage at 28/34 mpg with the base engine. Both rear-seat room and cargo space is expansive, and the Soul offers a long list of accessories for customization. MSRP: $13,900
• Toyota RAV4. Toyota’s compact crossover SUV is a solid choice, with frisky handling, a choice of four-cylinder and V6 engines and available all-wheel-drive. Available features include a third-row seat for future family expansion. MSRP: $22,750 (est.)
• Scion xB. With boxy styling that affords a high roofline, the xB compact wagon affords generous rear legroom and a large cargo hold. A 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine delivers lively acceleration and the car can be spiffed up with myriad cosmetic and functional accoutrements. $17,250
• Volkswagen Jetta. This compact line of sedans and wagons features uncluttered styling and a spacious rear cabin. Engine choices include a 115-hp four-cylinder, peppier 170-hp five-cylinder or a truly quick turbo-four with 200 horses. A diesel-powered version gets 42 mpg on the highway. MSRP: $15,365