Finding the Right-Sized Car for Your Family

Posted on March 11, 2011 by Allie

We must have cars on the brain around here at The Greenists, because guest poster Daniel Frank just shared a great piece about how to junk a car for charity.  And, while I’ll most likely trade it in, I really would like to junk The Crapmobile, my small SUV, which is on its last legs.  It’s only a 2003, and it just passed inspection, but it feels like it could all fall apart in a stiff breeze, and getting it up to forty miles an hour in any sort of timely fashion is a challenge.  The way it bounces around over Rochester potholes leaves me feeling lucky when I make it home without any chipped teeth.  And I shudder to think about the fuel efficiency situation at this point.

The impending death of The Crapmobile, combined with my recent Top Gear addiction, has me thinking about cars lately.  I’ve done a lot of research and test driven a few cars, but I’m still royally stumped.  I’d love to get a teeny-tiny super fuel-efficient wonder car, but I also need a vehicle that’s capable of hauling two big, slobbery German Shepherds and various types of camping and sporting equipment around in some sort of relative safety and comfort.  If I downsize, I will no longer have a vehicle that meets my needs.So, when I got a press release about and Lynne Thompson’s new book The Official Soccer Mom Devotional, I was interested, because even though I’m not a soccer mom, I face similar vehicle choice challenges.  Here’s a little bit about the book:

“Lynne Thompson is author of “The Official Soccer Mom Devotional” and Lynne says between carpooling several kids throughout the week and even serving as “mobile offices,” the minivan or SUV has become ultra-important to the soccer mom and downsizing to a fuel-sipping vehicle would be virtually impossible. “Space is a necessity and will always make the soccer mom’s decision, not the amount of MPGs a tiny car will get,” she says. Serving as a double-whammy of sorts, Lynne says soccer moms get hit twice as hard because the majority of their driving is within the city, not on the highway, where gas consumption turns to higher mileage output.”

Also from the release:, a car lease transfer website that helped lots of people escape large vehicles in favor of smaller ones during the 2008 gas price hike, says soccer moms were the one demographic that remained in the same size vehicle even when gas rose above $4 a gallon. The company says more than 75 percent of soccer moms using the service stayed in the same size vehicle and it expects a similar trend this summer as gas prices continue to rise.”

I talked with John Sternal at about car size and family needs and asked him what can be done when families aren’t able to downsize their vehicle drastically.  Obviously, car choice is important.  He says he has mixed feelings about crossover utility vehicles or CUV’s, because often times the fuel efficiency of the vehicle doesn’t amount to significant savings compared to an SUV, and while they’re a great fit for some families, they may still be too small for others.

I’ve found this in my car research as well.  I think we need to get it out of our heads that small always equals greener.  When I bought the Crapmobile, I hadn’t even looked at any larger cars, because I was sure they would be less efficient. But using, I discovered that some minivans get better mileage than my little SUV.  Not that I want to trade The Crapmobile in for a minivan, but you get my point, right?

John said that Honda and Lexus are doing great things when it comes to hybrid engines and that when it comes to fuel efficiency, diesel engines are worth a second look.  According to John, today’s diesel engines are nothing like the dirty running engines of the seventies.

We also talked about the fact that how you drive can be as important as what you drive.  To cut fuel consumption, John recommends making sure tire pressure is optimal, using the highway whenever possible, and thinking strategically about your drive routes.  Idling in traffic or stopping and starting at stoplights are an inefficient use of fuel.

And, of course, we chatted about, which helps car owners in leases find people who are willing to take over their lease.  And also allows car buyers to take on a short-term car lease to see if the car they are considering really meets their family needs.  For me, this was a very appealing idea.  I’d love to take a few months to see if a car I think I want will actually be dog-friendly, gear-friendly, driver-friendly and as fuel efficient as promised, all at the same time.  Unfortunately, right now’s listings in Rochester are limited to one Volkswagon Rabbit, but I’m hoping as they expand, this might be a good option in the future.


  1. Dianne had many of the same concerns. We dumped her crapmobile for the Toyota Highlander Hybrid around the time Alexis was born. I was stunned by how much better fuel economy it had compared to the 8 year old small SUV it replaced. And it was a performance Hybrid rather than a real one.

    Honda has really been the only car company looking at getting into this market with their Hybrid Odyssey Mini-van, but the price point is breath taking all things considered. It would great if one of the car companies would take the problem seriously and revolutionize the marketplace, but I don’t see it happening in my lifetime.

    March 11th, 2011 at 9:00 am
    Comment by Jamison
  2. I think most people overestimate how big of a car they’d need. We have two adults and a young child in our family and we’ve never needed anything larger than our Toyota Prius. In the past, we’ve taken long driving vacations from the East Coast to Wyoming with all of our camping gear and the extra crap you need for a 2-year-old. During the tennis season, I can manage three tennis players, their gear, and the drinks cooler for the team. Of course the Prius is a midsize instead of a compact car and the hatch creates more storage room than most cars of a similar size.

    If we were to have a second kid, I don’t think we’d need a larger car, especially not for day-to-day things. Taking long camping trips could be problematic, though, with an extra carseat.

    I do have to keep a truck at my house, though. We don’t have curbside garbage pickup, so I have to haul off my own garbage. I’m not putting full trashbags in my car.

    March 11th, 2011 at 9:36 am
    Comment by Jacob
  3. Also, I’ve been interested in the diesels. The fuel economy of some of those cars is incredible, especially for their size. It’s a shame that it seems that most of the passenger vehicles with diesel engines are either European higher-end vehicles or giant pickups.

    March 11th, 2011 at 9:40 am
    Comment by Jacob
  4. I recently sold my mid-sized sedan and bought a small SUV and I love it but I do feel like I’m always at the pump. Part of that is the new tank holds 2 gallons less and part of that is the 20 MPG vs the old 24 MPG. I’ve been told that they efficiency will improve as the vehicle gets “broken in” but I still think it’s worth it. I test drove the Prius and it’s a very nice car but not right for me.

    March 11th, 2011 at 11:04 am
    Comment by Julie
  5. It’s a shame that the Crapmobile is only a 2003 and already falling apart! My Honda Civic is a 2003 and it’s doing fine.

    I am not a car aficionado, but I’ve long thought that my next car will be a hybrid. I don’t have any kids or large dogs, so my sedan works just fine for me, but I could see upgrading to a bigger size if I did have a kiddo to cart around. Fortunately, more and more vehicles are coming out with hybrid versions these days.

    March 11th, 2011 at 11:15 am
    Comment by Courtney
  6. Jacob – As someone who spent years taking 9 hour car trips to Michigan with a 100lb German Shepherd on the back seat of a Corolla, and then cramming two GSDs into the back of The Crapmobile with no room for a crate, I’m pretty sure my need for a bigger car is legit. I think my goal is to eventually have a very efficient car and then a truck or something of that sort to haul things and dogs when I needed to, and live in a place where we could get around efficiently with out a car, so J and I could just take the car we needed for the job we needed when we did drive. Where we live now, that would mean having 3 cars, not two, because it’s extremely hard to get around here without a car. The bus routes are inefficient and take forever and the weather in the winter rules out bike travel for a good part of the year. Oh, or live somewhere that would allow us to have one big truck/SUV and then travel mostly by scooter. That would work for me. :)

    March 11th, 2011 at 11:19 am
    Comment by Allie
  7. Courtney – It was a cheap car to begin with, and I have totally learned my lesson. This time around, I want to get a quality car with a reputation for lasting a long time and keep it for it’s lifespan. The Crapmobile has 80K miles on it. My first car was a Mercury Sable (total old lady boat car). I got it with 70K miles on it, and drove it for about another 70K and when I sold it, it was still in better shape than the Crapmobile is now. So crazy. And so maddening.

    March 11th, 2011 at 11:23 am
    Comment by Allie
  8. I don’t have a dog, so I’m not sure why two large German Shepherds need so much space. They’re no bigger than a person, right? So what’s the problem with a backseat designed for two to three people? And then you have the trunk for all the gear. That’s how cars are supposed to work, right?

    I’ve often thought about my car needs and if I could get along without a truck. I certainly have used the capacity of my truck bed on many, many occasions, but the vast majority of the time it’s empty. It feels like the times I’ve had my truck stuffed full (many moves across the country and back), I couldn’t do without it. But the reality is, if I’d been stuck instead with a sedan, I would have made it work. I would have just taken less stuff out of necessity.

    Kind of like a house, I feel like we grow into whatever car space we’re given. If you have a big car, you’ll never be able to imagine going smaller. But if you have a smaller car, you’ll make it work.

    March 11th, 2011 at 2:02 pm
    Comment by mickey
  9. We like to put the dogs in the way back of The Crapmobile and use a barrier grate for their safety and ours – so they don’t interfere with our ability to drive, and are more secure in case of an accident. So that limits cargo space. I don’t drive much at all – usually only about 25 miles a week, some weeks not at all. So I’m still not using much gas anyway. I’ve been looking at wagons too, but since the SUV craze, there aren’t as many options that still have everything I’m looking for in a car. I’m really hoping that changes in the next few years.

    March 11th, 2011 at 2:25 pm
    Comment by Allie
  10. That actually makes sense, about the barrier and all. Some friends of ours have a Subaru (Forester, I think?) that’s a wagon, but being a Subaru also has all-wheel-drive (I assume, and that would be good for upstate winters.) And they have two dogs plus a kid. Seems like a good fit.

    March 11th, 2011 at 2:37 pm
    Comment by mickey
  11. An Outback and a RAV4 have the exact same carbon footprint and energy impact score, and the Forrester and the CRV are identical by those ratings, which I wouldn’t have thought in a million years by looking at the size and stature of all the vehicles. is a really great resource and lets you compare cars side by side.

    I drove a Forrester and really liked it, but a friend of ours had to do some really expensive repairs on his recently and it’s made me think a little harder about what I want to do. I’ve also always bought used cars, so availability is a factor.

    March 11th, 2011 at 5:18 pm
    Comment by Allie
  12. May I recommend a Subaru of some flavor or other? I’m driving a 13-year-old Legacy wagon that STILL gets close to 27 mpg as long as I maintain it properly. We bought it seven years ago, as the best car we could find that met my commuting needs (at the time, I was driving 45 miles each way to work — won’t do THAT again!) and my husband’s and my hauling-but-not-in-a-truck needs (we’re medieval re-enactors; when we DO have to haul gear, we have to haul a LOT). We have no kids, alas, but the dogs have never complained. :)

    I also like the fact that, despite the name, they’re built here, and that the plant where they’re built is run along such green principles.

    March 11th, 2011 at 5:53 pm
    Comment by Stefka

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