When you have kids, there may come a point where you realize that you need to purchase a family car. You may try to resist, as I did, but reality soon sinks in that you can not cram your car seat into your VW Beetle. Even if you did, the strain on your back getting your kid in and out would not be worth it. Does this sentence you to an SUV or even worse, a minivan for life? I say no! In fact, you don’t ever have to own one of those beasts to have a happily commuting family.
So what are the choices when you really would rather be driving a Smart Car?
I Heart Wagons
For the new family, wagons (and I’m talking real station wagons here, not hatchbacks) make a great alternative to more monstrous choices without having to compromise too much in function or space. Plus, you can dream that you are driving a 1968 Town and Country with wood paneling. New wagons are not the land yachts of yore. Many wagons get great gas mileage, especially if you go with a diesel and run it with biodiesel. For instance, newer VW Passat wagons get 31 city and 43 highway miles per gallon (though they stopped selling VW Passat wagons in the U.S. in 2011) and Jetta TDI wagons get around 29 city and 39 highway miles per gallon. I’ll admit that biodiesel from stations is not the cheapest, but you still save on gas mileage. And, if you are really industrious, you can start your own biodiesel home brew operation following this guide. If you can find a newer Mercedes diesel wagon on the market, they are great options as well. Diesel engines operate at least twice the miles as gas engines, meaning you can pass it on to junior when they start driving without buying stock in your local auto mechanic’s shop.
Hybrid wagons are also a good choice, but the U.S. electric wagon offerings are almost non-existent (unless you want to call the Prius hatchback a wagon, which they do and I don’t). Volvo did release a diesel/electric hybrid in Europe in December 2012, and they are rumored to bring a gas/electric hybrid version to the U.S sometime this year. For now, you are out of luck. Traditional fuel wagons, such as the Jetta Wagon once again is tops as far as fuel efficiency at 23 city and 33 highway mpg. Subaru wagons also get great gas mileage, but are on the small side. Saabs get decent gas mileage and have a larger capacity. And since Saab just declared bankruptcy, you can get some deals there. My local mechanic tells me you can get Saab parts reliably for at least 7 years. And if you need a third row of seats, need to use the back as an off-site storage unit or a dog kennel, the Volvo xc70, despite its less than optimal 19 mpg in city, is the perfect classic full scale choice.
Shrinking as the Family Grows
You may find that as your family grows (not necessarily in numbers but in age), you can get around with ease in a sedan. I have seen families (usually with an only child) do perfectly well with a Mini Cooper, and nowadays, with the Minis looking a little more like Maxis, it could be a viable choice. But, let’s be practical here and save the fashion statement for pixie haircuts and mod patterned pants. When it comes to hauling the kiddos, you need function first (and usually that means four doors).
A real benefit to going with the sedan is that you could then choose the most eco auto so far, the 100% electric vehicle. Now that all of the major car makers are jumping in on the band wagon, the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt are not your only options. Both the Nissan Leaf and Volt plug in to charge, but the Chevy Volt has a gas engine to charge the batteries on the go to extend your range. Some other candidates to enter the fray are the Ford Focus Electric, Toyota RAV4 EV, and the Honda Fit EV. Oh wait, I forgot, if you have $90K lying around, you can get the 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year, the Tesla Model S for your four-door sports sedan.
Going electric these days is not as complex as you would think, especially if you drive in or near a major metropolitan city. Charging stations can often be found all around town. And setting up a plug-in station in your garage is easy peasy. For most, you will just need to install a 240-volt home charging dock, but the Chevy Volt only requires 110 volts, which is like plugging in your toaster. But, if you are not quite ready for full electric, some great family hybrid choices include the Ford Fusion and Honda Civic hybrids, and of course the Prius.
Trailing Out On a Limb
For those a little more adventurous, there are awesome opportunities to cart the kiddos around as you get some fresh air. Biking with baby is a great choice, especially if you live in a city with nice bike paths or lanes or where drivers are generally friendly to bikes. Just be sure your babe is at least one year old (in fact, if you are in New York, it is against the law before your child’s first birthday). Something about needing sufficient bone mass and muscle tone to sit unsupported with their backs straight. Safety first!
As as soon as your tot has blown out that first year candle, it’s family crusin’ time. Just as soon as you figure out how you will cruise. Bike seats on the front, bike seats on the back, bike trailers, bike buckets, tandem bikes? Though your head may spin thinking through all of the choices, there is sure to be the perfect bike solution to fit your family. If you are taking one small child out on the town, and fancy a chat while the wind is whipping through your respective heads of hair, the iBert handlebar seat is a popular choice. If you have two kids and want maximum safety, a bike trailer may be a better choice. The roll bar on most trailers keeps the trailer from collapsing and your kids safe in their bubble should you wipe out. And then there are some newer choices out there that just look like a whole lot of fun, like the bucket bike by Madsen, where yes, you put your kids in a bucket (with seatbelts and helmets, of course). I have also seen some homespun bucket-like kid carriers out there but I would suggest some sort of engineering degree before attempting. And of course, when your kids are a little older, a tandem bike might be just the thing. It is helpful if your child knows how to ride a bike, but they don’t necessarily need to. In fact, some people use tandems to teach others how to ride. And you can even get custom tandems made to fit your family size!
An article on eco-transit would not be complete without a mention of mass transit, which is a great way to get the family around if you live in, say, New York City or Portland. Seattle? Not as easy as you would think but improving. Los Angeles? Forget it unless you are going from LA to Long Beach.
And as a final note, don’t despair if you just can’t keep your driving gloves off of an SUV. But please choose from the plethora of hybrid options out there. Even minivans now have hybrids (which somehow seems a little bit wrong). Though for my money, I would cruise Craigslist for a diesel Vanagon and let the kids sleep in the car.