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How To Choose A Family Car & The Best Family Cars 2021

By Mark Nichol

Thanks to the non-literal explosion in the number of cars that are shaped like SUVs now – crossovers, that is – families have more choice than ever. A bewildering amount of choice, to be honest, thanks in large part to the rise of the family crossover – cars like the Nissan Qashqai, Volkswagen Tiguan and Citroen C5 Aircross.  

But the crossover trend also means that even a lot of ‘small’ cars are now suitable for some families, because despite taking up relatively little space on the road, they have tall, spacious bodies; carmakers today are really good at squeezing maximum interior space from cars that are still relatively easy to park. 

Obviously, family cars aren’t limited to the ones shaped a bit like SUVs though. Far from it. So for the next few minutes, we’re going to take you through the things you’ll need to think about when considering your family car, some of them probably obvious, but some less so. 

You’ll almost certainly find that if you ponder factors beyond just how many kids you need to fit in for the school run you’ll discover a good few types, makes and models of car that you hadn’t thought of before. So, let’s go.  

What To Consider When Finding The Best Family Car

How Many People? 

An obvious place to start, but it’s really the crux of the whole thing. If your new family car will be regularly used to transport up to four people then you have a multiplicity of choice, because the vast majority of cars will seat four folks. It gets more complicated if you’ve got any more than that though, because although most cars seat five technically, very few of them actually seat five in comfort. Which brings us onto the next question….

How Old/Big Is Everyone?  

If you have younger children and child seats to think about you’re in a different place to someone with older kids, for two reasons: one, you’ll want to be sure that the child seats you have (or are considering) will fit safely and correctly into the car, and two, you’ll be surprised how much space a child seat actually takes up, whether front-facing or rear facing. You might need a bigger (or longer) car than you realise. 

It's really important to check out whether the car you want and the child seat you have (or are planning to get) are compatible, from a safety perspective. Most child seat manufacturers and sellers will have tools on their websites to help you figure that out. It’s then important to get a car with as long a wheelbase as possible (that’s the distance between the front and rear wheels) because that generally determines how much leg space a car has. 

There’s really no replacement for actually taking the child seat you have and putting it into a car you’re considering, but Googling the wheelbases of cars you like and comparing them will give you an idea. Check out the ‘Best For Rear Seat Space’ cars below if you need a starting point. 

If your kids are older, then both rear leg space and head room are concerns. This is where crossover type cars come into their own, generally, although most four- or five-seat cars will have adequate rear space for anyone under 6ft tall. 

Find out which cars best suit child seats and offer 3 isofix points

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How Often Will Others Be In The Car? 

According to UK Government stats, around 60% of car journeys are made with only the driver in the car, and so it’s almost certainly true that a lot of the time you’ll be in your car alone. The following might seem a bit selfish at first, but actually with that in mind isn’t it worth considering that a bigger car is a bit, well, wasteful? 

Of course you’ll need enough seats and space to fit everyone and everything in, but if you’re driving alone most of the time – or, at least, with the back seats not in use – then driving a bigger car could just mean you’re using more fuel and spending more money than you need to. 

That’s why maybe…just maybe…you could look at a smaller, more efficient car than you at first feel you need. Or perhaps even a sportier one? If the kids aren’t in the car that often, or for very long when they are, could they make do with a smaller space? 

What Are Your Priorities? 

Do you want maximum space for your money? Something that’s a little smaller and easier to park? Something stylish with only ‘occasional’ rear seats? Do you need lots of luggage space and a flexible boot? Is cabin storage a priority? What about running costs? Safety? 

It’s a known trait of psychology that most people tend to make snap choices and look to justify them afterwards. That’s especially true with cars. They’re an emotive and costly purchase, and it can feel more comfortable to commit to something we just happen to like for intuitive reasons, as opposed to an over-calculated decision. Strange but true. 

Honestly though, going through all your options using a list of priorities is a really helpful process that will make you feel completely at ease about your car choice in the long run. We suggest you have a think of what’s most important to you, in order of priority, and at least start there…before then deciding to go with what you like anyway, probably. 

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What’s Your Budget?  

Another fairly obvious one to finish before we start digging down into specific considerations and options, but it really is important you see the bigger picture when it comes to your budget. One of the great things about leasing is that it really does help you manage your costs effectively, not only because your monthly costs are clearly laid out, including maintenance if you choose to include it, but because you’re driving a brand-new, warrantied vehicle, with very little risk of additional wear and tear costs.

Your budget should include a deposit (anywhere between one and 12 times the monthly payment), the monthly payment itself, servicing costs, insurance costs, fuel costs, and some allowance for depletable things like washer fluid, oil, AdBlue and, possibly, tyres.

Top Family Cars For 2021

So, you’ve considered all the above. Now what are your options? We’re going to give you some practical examples based on various priorities to help you find the perfect family car. Of course, all of the following have a least four seats, and all could appear in more than one category, but we’ve listed them based on their primary qualities. It’ll become clear as you go through. 

This list isn’t exhaustive, so consider the options a starting point for a certain type of car then have a browse through other, similar ones on the website here. 

Best For Maximum Flexibility 

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Citroen C5 Aircross 

One of the rare cars with three full seats across the middle row, as opposed to a bench with a smaller middle seat, and the rear chairs also slide. The C5 Aircross boot space is a huge 780-litres with the seats furthest forward. 

Volkswagen Caddy Life 

Based on the Caddy Cargo van, the Caddy Life is around the size of a Golf between the wheels but its van-based origins mean it has seven seats, tonnes of passenger and boot space, and car park friendly sliding rear doors.  

Ford Galaxy

One of the last big MPVs available today – the shift towards SUVs is killing them off – the Galaxy is nonetheless a brilliant all-purpose people carrier. It’s also very refined and surprisingly dynamic to drive, for a vast seven-seat family car.

Best For Safety 

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Volkswagen Tiguan 

The Tiguan runs the Giulia very close with a 96% adult occupant score, while beating the Alfa with its 84% child occupant score. It comes with lots of high-tech safety stuff as standard, like emergency city braking with pedestrian detection.

Alfa Romeo Giulia

Despite a reputation for style above all else, the Alfa Romeo Giulia holds an astonishing 98% adult occupant score in the Euro NCAP crash tests. As a bonus, it’s also one of the best looking and most interesting family saloons available.

Volvo XC60

There had to be a Volvo in here, right? The XC60 is a remarkably safe SUV, with a fantastic 98% score for adult occupant protection from Euro NCAP and a 95% score in the Safety Assist category. Autonomous emergency braking, speed limit recognition and lane keeping assistant are all standard fit.

Best For Fuel Economy 

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Hyundai Ioniq Plug-In Hybrid 

Plug-in hybrids offer unbelievable fuel economy…no, really. They often boast three-figure mpg ratings (the Ioniq’s is 257mpg) but getting decent real-world efficiency is very dependent on keeping the battery full and only driving short distances at low speeds. Still, the Ioniq is a very spacious, tax-friendly family car. And one of the most economical you’ll find.

SEAT Leon 1.6 TDI 

There’s still a place for a small capacity diesel if you really want the best fuel gains, and the Leon 1.6 TDI is one of the most parsimonious. If you’re very careful and do the majority of your driving on the motorway it’s very possible to top 60mpg in the Leon, and although it’s not quick it’s still really good fun to drive. Comfy too. 

Toyota Prius 

Available as a plug-in hybrid or a ‘self-charging’ one, the latter meaning it has a smaller battery and cannot be plugged in, “Prius” is a byword for ‘green’ motoring. In reality there are more efficient hybrids than both now, but you’ll get a good 50mpg from the self-charging one and around 30 miles from a full battery with the plug-in. 

Easiest To Park 

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Volkswagen T-Cross 

Compact crossovers are your best bet if you want lots of cabin and boot but without taking up too much road space. The T-Cross is one of the best. Really refined, highly intuitive cabin, big boot, and yet still feels quite small to drive.

Citroen C3 Aircross 

Probably the quirkiest small crossover available, the C3 Aircross is also one of the easiest to live with. It’s relatively tall so it feels very spacious, and although it’s not the most dynamic of these things, its soft suspension makes it great at long journeys. 

Kia Stonic 

Kia’s small crossover is interestingly styled, very high quality and is great value too. It doesn’t have the biggest or most flexible boot in the class – check out the Skoda Kamiq if they’re priorities – but it feels small around you while offering plenty of cabin room. 

Seven-Seat Options

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Peugeot 5008

The most exceptional thing about the Peugeot 5008 is how much fun to drive it is, given its large proportions. The rearmost seats offer very little legroom, but they fold away easily into a huge and flexible boot space. It also has three individual chairs in the middle row – great if you have three kids.

Volvo XC90 

Not the cheapest, true, but the XC90 offers true luxury SUV space and refinement but for far less than the price of a Range Rover Sport or BMW X5. It too has three individual chairs across the middle row, and its sheer size means that it’s extremely flexible.

BMW 2-Series Gran Tourer 

The 2 Series Gran Tourer is the seven-seat version of the Active Tourer MPV, offering more space and practicality than the equivalent SUV – the X1, that is – but without feeling any bigger on the road. Not the biggest seven-seater for sure, but has a ‘premium’ feel that most MPVs can’t match. 

Looking for more 7 seater options for a large family? Take a look at our guide to the best 7 seater cars available.

The Most Comfortable Family Cars

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Volvo XC40

You’ll be surprised just how much like a luxury SUV the XC40 can feel, while not being the mildly intimidating size of one. Brilliant driving position, really quiet, and one of the most flexible cabins of any family car. 

Citroen C5 Aircross 

Possibly the softest-riding car this side of a Range Rover, the C5 Aircross therefore feels like an actual luxury car at times. It’s far from the most dynamic, but it offers amazing space and comfort for the money. Personality, too.

Mercedes-Benz E-Class 

Not small, nor cheap, the E-Class is well worth the outlay though because it combines true luxury ride quality and refinement with sensational build quality.

Best Family Cars For Rear Seat Space 

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Skoda Superb 

It’s amazing quite how much rear space (and boot space) the Skoda Superb has. You’re basically looking at the space of a limo – something like a Meercedes-Benz S-Class – but at a price more akin to a Volkswagen Golf. Nice

Honda Jazz 

The Jazz has always been extraordinarily packaged, especially when it comes to rear space and flexibility. The latest model is no exception. You’ll comfortably fit four very tall adults in a Jazz, despite it being little bigger than a Ford Fiesta. 

Volkswagen Touran 

If you need lots of rear legroom and three individual rear chairs the Touran is a great option. 

Best For Boot Space

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Skoda Superb

If you don’t like the idea of an SUV or an estate then the Superb hatchback could be the big-booted family car for you. The hatchback itself is enormous – great for loading things – and it opens to reveal a 625-litre space. 

Audi Q7 

The Audi Q7’s 770-litre boot space (with the rearmost seats folded flat) is just enormous, but then again so too is the car itself. Maximum space is a van-like 1955 litres.

Volvo V60 

The V60 estate’s 529-litre boot doesn’t look the best in volume terms, but it’s a very flexible space with a square shape and a large, flat loading floor. 

Need your next car to offer plenty of boot space? Take a look at our picks of the best cars for boot space.

Most Stylish Family Car

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BMW 4 Series 

It’s a two-door coupe, yes, but the 4 Series has a large boot and two rear seats, and it will just about pass as family transport if those seats are only being used occasionally for smaller teenage kids.

Audi A5 Sportback 

Arguably the perfect blend of style and substance, the A5 sportback is a very striking five-door with the feel of a coupe but the space of a large family hatchback.

Alfa Romeo Giulia 

The saloon body style hinders practicality a little, but there’s still something mildly exotic about the Alfa Romeo brand, and if you buy a diesel one it’s very economical too.  

Most Fun Family Cars To Drive

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Ford Puma

The Puma might be a family SUV-style car but it’s genuinely one of the most enjoyable small cars you’ll ever drive. It’s also very practical, with a big boot that includes a large waterproof storage box under the floor.

BMW 3 Series 

Not the most spacious rear seats, and the fifth passenger will struggle because of the raised transmission tunnel, but saloons don’t come much more dynamic than the rear-wheel drive BMW 3 Series

Volkswagen Golf GTI 

There are loads of quick family hatchbacks, but the golf has always been the best one at blending day-to-day comfort and space with manageable fun. 

Take a look at our top picks of the most fun cars to drive.

Best For All-Terrain Ability 

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Land Rover Defender

Not cheap, but the new Defender pulls off an amazing trick of feeling like a Range Rover as a runabout, yet being absolutely impeccable off-road.

Skoda Yeti

Not a ‘proper’ off-roader but you’ll be amazed at how adept the 4x4 versions actually are over rougher terrain. A great choice for those who need occasional off-road ability. 

Jeep Wrangler 

Effectively the last old school off-roader you can get your hands on new, the Wrangler has a ‘body-on-frame’ chassis, meaning it’s not the most refined SUV in the world but it’s amazing on the muddy stuff. 

Most Cost-Effective Family Cars

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Dacia Duster 

The Duster isn’t the most refined crossover available, but this entry level option offers really, really good value and is very cheap to run too, thanks to a range of efficient Renault engines. Very spacious too.

Skoda Scala 

Skoda’s ‘budget’ hatchback is arguably the car truest to Skoda’s high-value, no-nonsense roots. The Scala feels a little basic, but it’s very practical and the engines are all economical.

SsangYong Tivoli 

If badge stuff doesn’t bother you then the Tivoli offers a huge amount of space, and surprisingly good quality, for very reasonable money. Also the name comes from “I LOV IT” spelled backwards. Strange but true. 

Some Great Electric Options 

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MG ZS EV

Arguably the best value electric car available. Its 44.5kWh battery is far from the biggest, but the MG ZS has loads of space and drives nicely.

Hyundai Kona 

A big battery, spacious body and lots of standard equipment make the Kona EV a brilliant electric family car.

VW ID.3

Volkswagen’s first proper electric model isn’t perfect, but it’s very clever indeed, really refined and packaged in such a way as to liberate lots of space from a relatively small body. Our verdict? The ID.3 is highly recommended.

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