For decades, if you'd asked any Australian what a 'family car' was you would get a very clear definition; a big Australian-made six-cylinder sedan or wagon. Now that we're well into the 21st century, that answer has fractured into several pieces. The decline of local manufacturing and creation of several new market segments means that families are increasingly turning to smaller, more space-efficient vehicles to ferry around their families.
These days the most popular categories for families are small cars, which have grown considerably in size, and medium SUVs which are starting to include seven-seat options. Dual-cab utes have also become a lot more civilised, safe and sophisticated and they too are increasingly becoming a first-car choice for families. We will focus on them another time. Here, in no particular order, are our top ten family cars. All entrants have a five-star ANCAP safety rating.
We’re really talking comfortable accommodation only for four here, especially on longer trips. Mazda3 will manage two adults up front and two child seats in the rear, and the luggage space is adequate for a small family. It’s ideal for younger families with just one or two small children. Full suite of Mazda’s SKYACTIV engine technology means the Mazda3 is among the most economical choices you can make in this class of car. The Mazda3 comes with a three-year warranty for unlimited kilometres.
Dollar-for-dollar, the i30 beats the Mazda3. The latest model comes in five-door hatch form only, while the diesel is the one to go for. It’s much stronger in the mid-range. An exception here is the i30 SR, which features a sweet 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine, and suspension specially tuned for Australian conditions. Like all Hyundais, the i30 comes with a five-year warranty for unlimited kilometres
Elantra is really the sedan version of the i30. The range is; Active, Elite, and Premium, and a sporty SR Turbo. The SR Turbo is the pick for younger families, offering genuine sportiness and performance for around $30k. All models look the part with Hyundai’s modern design language, and all come extensively packaged with all the goodies a modern family could need.
Many families buy an SUV when the Mazda 6 would make more sense. Mazda6 comes as a sedan or a wagon, and the range kicks off at $32,490 and stretches all the way to $49,540, plus on-road costs. In defence of the range-topping Mazda6 Atenza diesel, which is an expensive Japanese car, it would seriously compete with the base model Audi A4, and on objective criteria the Mazda would win. The Mazda6 uses the same SKYACTIV powertrain as the CX-5, with a 2.5-litre petrol four-cylinder engine or 2.2-litre diesel.
The Optima is a large car with exceptional equipment levels and plenty of legroom front and rear. Kia offers a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, and the Optima range is simple; $30,990 to $40,490 plus on-road costs, with three models; Si and GT. These are split with a 2.4i petrol and a 2.0-litre turbo-petrol producing a meaty 180kW in the GT. The Si offers all the normal gadgets, a rear-vision camera, 17-inch alloys, Bluetooth for phone and music, and steering wheel-mounted controls. GT adds 18-inch alloys, leather, xenon headlamps and a multimedia system. Both come with satellite navigation and five-star ANCAP safety.
The Mazda CX-5 is the best of the medium SUVs. It’s a five-seater. It’s a very safe, well thought out SUV, and it’s also the best-selling SUV in Australia outright (for 2015). The 2.5-litre petrol four and the 2.2-litre diesel are both great. Prices range from $28,690 to $49,990, plus on-road costs. The 2.5-litre Mazda CX-5 Maxx for $32,880 is a good value entry point. Inside, the cabin is spacious and user-friendly, with good visibility and cargo space. It’s no wonder it’s a top seller.
The Kia Sportage is a very family friendly SUV. It offers an adequate petrol engine and an outstanding diesel. There are four model grades: Si, SLi and GT-Line, and prices range from $28,990 to $45,990, plus on-road costs. The diesel is the pick here. Like many of the latest South Korean vehicles it’s hard to see how Kia can package all that they do into Sportage at the price.
Hyundai Santa Fe
The Santa Fe is not cheap, but it is very good value. Prices range from $39,350 to $64,250 for the sporty SR, plus on-road costs. Two engines are available; a 2.4-litre petrol and a superior 2.2-litre diesel. The 2.4 is really a boy doing a man’s job in the Santa Fe, so the diesel is the pick of the range, as it is for many of the vehicles in this list. Seats number six and seven fold brilliantly into the floor, leaving a dead-flat cargo space, which is a real plus for versatility.
Big family? Need to transport half a soccer team? The Kia Carnival is certainly in the running here. It’s got seating for eight, and substantial versatility. Pricing from $41,490 to $61,290, plus on-road costs, means this vehicle is about the same cost as an SUV – and it offers more seating. Big sliding doors on both sides make access very easy, with lots of space in all seats. The range goes from S, Si, SLi and Platinum. And here, SLi and Platinum are quite civilised, offering leather, alloy wheels and electric sliding side doors.
The iMax is an eight-seat people mover adapted from the iLoad commercial van. Prices range from $44,290 to $47,290, both equipped with a 2.5 turbo-diesel with either manual or automatic. Seating capacity is eight but compared with the Carnival the iMax is more van-like to drive. It’s also higher but it offers copious luggage capacity even with all eight seats occupied. All-round vision is excellent – for both driver and passengers. When you’re driving it, it doesn’t feel nearly as big as a large, all-terrain SUV like a LandCruiser.