What car should I buy for a family of six?

Written by terrapass


*This week’s question comes from one of our own staff. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments below.*

Its time! My Ford Windstar has over 100,000 miles, the automatic doors do not work anymore, and it cost me a new transmission about three years ago. I never miss an oil change and believe cars should not be disposable items to be replaced every few years, but the time has come to “pimp a new ride.”

Here is the equation:

– Must fit six comfortably. (This means some crossovers are off the list; a six-year-old with his knees in his chest is not comfortable.)
– Affordable
– Fuel efficient
– And, yes, I would prefer to help our economy and buy American, if possible

Can all these factors = my new family car?

After extensive research, I am leaning towards the Honda Pilot, for reliability mostly. But I’m having trouble with it not being American, although I can be convinced because it is put together in the U.S. I am looking for feedback, especially if you own a car that fits this description.

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  1. Gmba927

    Have you looked into the large crossovers from GM? Saturn Outlook is my favorite with GMC Acadia a very close second. I’m sure you could buy them for basically the same price as the Pilot, feature for feature. You mentioned reliability, I have an 03 Pontiac Gran Prix with 115,000 miles on it and have had no problems with it – none. And it has a great, responsive engine. I’ve driven the Outlook and it too has a strong engine. Good luck.

  2. Mrs. B

    I have a Ford Freestyle (now Taurus X) and I like it a lot. The third row is a little snug for a big adult, but kids and teens fit back there. Plus it’s on the small side for a car that big, but that makes it easier to drive and park and allows for better gas mileage. I get around 20 city driving, and in the summer I get 30+ on the highway.

  3. Bike Commuter Dude

    Try a Mazda5 on for size. Fits six, gets about 20/28 mpg city/hwy, and rings up at less than $20,000. Eager 4 cylinder engine provides a nice drive. I know Mazda is not American, but Ford owns about 33% of Mazda, so it’s like the next best thing.
    For something larger, you should consider a Ford Flex. I don’t care for the looks, but it seems to fit the rest of your equation, and it gets about the same mileage as the Pilot.
    Hey, even if you buy the Pilot, you’re making a good choice.

  4. darooda

    I would 2nd the Flex. They are expansive inside, which should allow your family room to grow-up. Since I’m guessing your 6 year old will probably be 12 and still riding in the third row, since you wisely hold on to your cars.
    Initial quality looks good, and Ford quality on the whole has been on par with Honda and Toyota in recent years according to Consumer Reports.
    MPG isn’t amazing, but it is on the better end of the class, skip the AWD and drive responsibly and you’ll do pretty good.

  5. Rachel G

    Try the Chrysler Pacifica. It seats 6 (the middle row has nice spacious captains chairs and I have spent time in the third row (I am 5’7″ and not petite.) It has a nice smooth ride and gets the same gas mileage as the much smaller sedan I traded in when I bought it. I have an older model (2004), but the newer ones have tons of great features.

  6. Kevin Wright

    First off, let me preface this by saying that I do not blame the author for all of our world’s problems. I also have a lot of respect for you for TRYING to be greener. In MY opinion however (and this does not mean I am right at all) I think the idea of having four children in 2009 is completely and totally irresponsible ecologically. Here is a case where you and your family now need something much larger than the average one. With that said, your best bet is a minivan. I don’t think you want to hear that as it sounds to me like you want something more butch, but since you already drive one you can see that it fits your family better than anything else.
    I find it impossible that you could be getting above 30 miles per gallon in a Taurus X, a 4600 pound four wheel drive vehicle. If that is true, you have found the holy grail in vehicles.
    If you want fuel economy buy a 4 cylinder, don’t take the temptation to get a more powerful 6 which uses more fuel. A four cylinder will have a little less power, but probably more than your old Freestar.
    Take a look at the following:
    Chrysler/Dodge minivans (they are made by Chrysler so they will fall apart in a week, but they are domestic)
    Ford and GM no longer make a minivan so your other choices are only foreign.
    Mazda 5 (small and fuel efficient mini-minivan)
    Honda Odyssey (the best of the minivans)
    The Taurus X and Chevy Uplander are possibilities too, but they are not as roomy as a minivan and will not get as good mileage.

  7. Hernie

    Wow Kevin! Maybe they should selll a couple of kids? Perhaps, just perhaps have you wondered that they could be adopting? or taking care of someone else’s kids? There are other ways to have larger families besides making babies yourself…

  8. pickles

    The other posts have covered most of the cars that could work. I’d 2nd (3rd?) the Taurus X/Ford Freestyle. They’re almost cancelled, so they should be dirt cheap (the Flex is replacing it). For an American car, another, smallish option is the Dodge Journey. Chrysler is about out of biz, but if that doesn’t worry you, it has a lifetime warranty and should be cheap as a used sofa. The Mazda 5 is a GREAT little van. I’ve rented it and considered selling either our newish Saab wagon or our BMW wagon for it. It’s that good. If you get a Ford Freestyle used, it really is good for about 30 hwy, if you live in a flat region. I had a rental Freestyle for a month in Florida (flat) and loved it. Between the CVT transmission and good aerodynamics, it got impressive mpg. Last, you might consider the tiny Kia Rondo. Probably too small and Korean is probably the soup-to-nuts opposite of American, but it is well regarded in the reviews I’ve read of it.

  9. Keith

    We purchased a Mazda five for the occasions when we want grandparents in the car with children. It successfully fits six people and we have been getting 27 MPG in mixed city and mountain driving (we rarely use this vehicle on long trips).
    We really like the car. The new model fixed the complaints we have with the 2006 model.
    That said, with six full time passengers you should think about the Toyota Siena. It is assembled in Indiana. It has high build quality, and will be the most comfortable way to move your family — so much more practical than many of the SUVs and pseudo SUVs people choose to move people in.

  10. Rich

    US auto companies export a lot of the assembly to Canada, and Foreign cars are assembled here. And as much as I love this country, I’m sad to report that our unions are stronger than our vehicles. Thus, you pay almost the same price for a domestic vehicle that is less reliable and not nearly as well built. This is why the auto industry is in shambles.

  11. Tony

    I recently purchased an early 1980s model Buick Century Limimted, with 12,000 original miles, that fits the bill for our family of six, which includes four teenage boys (twins in the middle). I paid $3400 cash, so I have no payments, and by purchasing a used car I’m not increasing the demand on new production, with all of the environmental concern that brings. My car is not as spacious as a mini-van but still seats six comfortably and gets 30+ mpg highway/mid-20’s in town (actual usage, not estimates).
    BTW, the person who made the rude comment about having fewer children should take some sensitivity training. If there’s anything to be shocked about in 2009, it’s intolerance.

  12. AJ

    I agree with the person who suggested the Toyota Siena. We owned one for 9 years, 156,000 miles. Never a problem and very comfortable. Usually got 20-22 mpg, hopefully the new ones get a little better mileage. We traded it in for a new Ford Escape Hybrid which is fine for our family of four but miss the versatility of seating grandparents and additional kids.

  13. AJ

    I agree.

  14. AP

    We are about to be a four-child family who needs a bigger car. Only one of our children is biological, while the other three are adopted. I know several families of very large size with NO biological children–does that offend you also?

  15. Bob Meredith

    I am suprised that you need a new car at 100,000 miles. Cars these days seem to be just hitting their stride at 100,000. I have a taurus with 120,000 and it seems like new. gets 28 mpg and seats 7.

  16. JL

    Keep the Windstar. It has a newer transmission. Open and close the doors manually–you’ll build muscle and it works. Good job with the oil changes!

  17. JB

    I’ve been a Honda Odyssey owner for 14 years, since they first came out with the minivan. I kept the first one for 10 years and am on year 4 of the newly designed Odyssey. They are incredibly reliable, and the newer Odyssey (2005 Ex) has an interesting feature that makes it relatively fuel efficient for its size (4500 lbs) and 6 cylinders. Whenever it reaches cruising speed in a gear, or when you break or lift off the gas, it disengages 3 of the six cylinders and you can easily train your foot to use all six only when necessary. We get about 20/24 mileage. It also has a 5 star crash rating, and seats 7, 6 very comfortably. It costs a little more up front, but the oil change only reliability more than makes up for it. American car makers ignored the lessons of their foreign competitors for decades to the detriment of the environment and their own bottom line.

  18. Kevin Wright

    I agree that I may need sensitivity training, however as this is my opinion (as I strongly stated in my post) I stand by it. Every single environmental problem we have is due to overpopulation. Every single one. I know our Judeo-Christian upbringings say to “be fruitful and multiply” but you can’t do that in a world with almost seven billion people. The UN predicts 10 billion in 2030 and up to 20 billion in 2100. http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/longrange2/longrange2.htm
    There are simply too many people, and the only way I know how this happens is people having too many babies. Just to clarify further, I am married and have zero children, nor do I ever plan to have any.
    AP: I obviously think someone who adopts a child is doing good, and not contributing to the population problem, please don’t be obtuse.
    Now, to get back on topic, A wagon (like a used Taurus or Century or Mercedes) that has a rear facing seat is an option, but ask your kids if they want to ride around backwards for the next six years, those seats (and the entire car in the case of the Century) are nowhere near as safe as a proper forward facing seat. This also eliminates all the luggage space. If I am not mistaken the Taurus X and Mazda 5 have almost no luggage space while in 6 seat mode. You could however get a smaller van like the Mazda 5 for around town and then rent a larger vehicle when you go on trips but I assume you will want to take equipment to soccer practice or be able to bring groceries home so a regular minivan is the better buy.

  19. Steven Larky

    We purchased a 2008 Toyota Highlander HYBRID in January 2008. It is a fantastic car. We have averaged 23.3 MPG for the first 28,000 miles (yes, we drive a lot). Highway mileage can easily hit 27 – 28 MPG on a long trip.
    The car is very comfortable, especially the back seat (and the 3rd row).
    And if you’ve never owned a hybrid – you are in for a (positive) surprise. Most people that buy them quickly think “now why aren’t ALL cars hybrids? It just makes so much sense…”
    Ok, it is a bit pricey, but if you want to encourage the auto companies to move down the cost curve on hybrids, someone has to buy them NOW.

  20. Ryan

    You may want to also check out a rebadged Chrysler van (i.e. VW Routan), if you want a little more style than what Chrysler offers. And you can have peace of mind that it was made by an American company.

  21. Albert

    I like the recommendation from Bike Commuter Dude (I’m also a bike commuter dude), Keith and JB. Mazda 5 makes a lot of sense although Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna are better in their repair record. None of them, however, is an American brand. I had a Toyota van for 20 years with very little problems (25-26 mpg). It was cheap and reliable to own. If I had to trade my bicycle in someday and start a family of 6, any of the above would be my choice.

  22. Judge

    Mr. Wright, I applaud your decision not to procreate, because, judging by your opinions, you shouldn’t. Every one of our environmental problems is caused by overpopulation? seriously? Environmental problems are not caused by overpopulation, but by poor stewardship. I’ll bet your family of 2 has a larger per-person carbon footprint than my family of 5.
    Oh, and bike commuters rule!

  23. Jason

    Kevin, I agree with you 100%. Everything else absolutely needs to be done, but is also just a band-aid unless we somehow alter population growth.

  24. Rob

    Overpopulation is the only problem…?
    The US is not a largely populated country (humans/sq. mile) yet we are energy hogs!
    How about irresponsible use of natural resources? How about choosing a four-wheel drive vehicle when in this day and age, almost no one in the continental US needs one? How about the incessant desire for many Americans to have-it-all and have-it-now?
    I’ve compared my family’s (six of us, plus dog) usage of resources (electric, water, etc.) to national per-capita averages and many times we beat them hands-down.
    ps. I like the Honda Odyssey. Now if they could only make it in an electric model.

  25. Kevin Wright

    OK, a quick explanation. We can have it all and we can be wasteful while doing it if there are less of us. Not to oversimplify, but most wars have been fought over land need to increase the space a society needed to spread out its population growth. The disease outbreaks of the last few centuries were due mostly to too many people living on top of each other in cities. The tiny amount of pollution that your car makes can be easily absorbed into the atmosphere if there are only a few cars on the roads (this is why the country has cleaner air than the city). Water and crop shortages are not a system of the environment, they are caused by too many people needing that water and those crops. There is enough oil and gas still around to last millions of years if there were only a few million people using it. Mountaintop removal for mining would not be necessary if there were less people to heat and keep in air conditioned houses. I can go on…
    We can live and we can live extremely well if we live under a billion people worldwide.

  26. nick

    Nice try, but sorry – the facts don’t support it. The major labor cost of U.S.-produced vehicles comes from our exorbitant health care costs, not union wages – and even these health care costs only add up to $1000 or so per vehicle. Yes, it’s a lot, but it’s not enough to explain the demise of the Big 3. That story has a lot more to do with their refusal to shift production away from profitable-but-obsolete fuel-guzzling SUVs to more efficient and reliable 21st-century cars that consumers want.

  27. lee flanders

    Ford flex is a good option. Most GM products are marginal according to Consumer reports(a good source of auto info.)

  28. Michael Weyer

    Depending on the year of the Ford Windstar, you might want to keep it. You can get a car review on Edmunds.com for the Windstar and any of the other options people suggested. A lot of cars go farther than 100,000 miles. I have a 88 Diesel F250 with 250,000 on it (being Diesel rated to 400,000) and a 99 Subaru wagon with 160,000 on it.
    Also I reviewed a 97 Windstar on Edmunds.com and I think if you buy a new Minivan you might be impressed by the functions and performance. They have come a long way and have better fuel economy . The foriegn cars will last longer unless you are really lucky or you find something diesel.
    As far as Kevin’s comments, it was rude and insensitive. But you are the really the minority and I applaud you. Overpopulation is destroying this world. I believe that it is the duty of educated people to limit there child bearing, but more so educate the general public. We have so many hurdles to overcome in the next centuries, overpopulation is something we can control individually.
    I hope your old/new car works out. Sorry if your post turned into “how to save the world”. I think that’s on everyone mind right now.

  29. jamfhall

    The idea of “buying American” is almost moot. Many American cars are actually manufactured in Canada and Mexico while there are Toyota and Mazda plants here in the U.S. Besides, with a family of six, can you really afford a car payment? Do you want that payment dogging you for the next 5 or 6 years? A greener and more affordable choice would be a used fuel-efficient vehicle. P.S. If you’re looking for a “pimp-mobile”, forget it. You have 4 kids who probably eat and drink in the car. Don’t blame them for the mess because you eat in there too and you’re the one that gives them the food. Let’s not forget the carseats, diaper bags (with dirty diapers), and whatever else you don’t feel like hauling into the house. Have you consulted with the other adult in the house who is also sharing the parenting duties? Do they want to “pimp a new ride” like you or would they be satisfied with just a decent running vehicle that fits everyone?

  30. Anonymous

    In re the mileage on a Ford Freestyle–drove it from Southern Ohio to northern Michigan last summer and tracked the mileage–1600 miles rt at 32 mpg. Not saying you could replicate that in all terrains, but I was impressed.

  31. john kurmann

    Of the vehicles that are marketed as seating at least 6 passengers, the previously mentioned Highlander Hybrid is the hands-down fuel economy champ at 26 mpg combined city/highway. It is more expensive than other 6-passenger vehicles, though, and Consumer Reports says the 3rd row is tight. Given that 6-year-old is probably only going to get bigger, it might not be a long-term solution even if it would work for the short-term.
    Of the vehicles that have ample 3rd row seating, it looks to me like the Honda Odyssey when equipped with Variable Cylinder Management has the highest combined fuel economy at 20 mpg, and it’s assembled in Lincoln, Alabama.
    I’m sure the Honda Pilot would be a very reliable car, but it has a bit lower fuel economy rating than the Odyssey (19 mpg combined) and (apparently) a tighter 3rd row.
    If you really want a U.S., UAW-built car, the previously-mentioned Taurus X (which was originally called the Freestyle) has an ample 3rd row, the front-wheel drive version is rated at 19 mpg combined, Consumer Reports recommends it and says it’s had average reliability, it’s built in Chicago, and it will be discontinued after this model year, so you can probably get a great deal on one given the state of the economy. You might be able to find an even better deal on a lightly-used Taurus X/Freestyle. The Freestyle version didn’t come with electronic stability control, however, and Consumer Reports says the Taurus X version equipped with ESC handles much better during avoidance maneuvers.
    It comes down to what your highest priorities are, of course, because there are always trade-offs.

  32. Natalie

    How audacious of you to pass judgment upon regarding how many children they have. Whether or not they’re adopted or biological is not the issue, the fact is it’s none of your business and certainly not your place to decide how many kids is too many. The person asked for advice, not a lecture…but since you went there, I felt like I needed to, too.

  33. Tabitha Moore

    Another unsolicited comment about family size, amazing. Believe me, there’s a lot more destroying the world than overpopulation. As far as Kevin’s comments being rude and insensitive, yes they were. But how were yours any different? Surely you and Kevin are perfect since you feel so free to pass judgment upon others.

  34. Natalie

    There are MANY different ways to look at issues, Kevin. No matter how strongly you feel about what you’re saying, remember that yours is but one opinion and the problems we’re referring to are multi-faceted. You don’t have all the answers any more so than the rest of us do. That’s why it irks me when you, or anyone else, acts as if they do. Like Tony said, such intolerance is disturbing.

  35. Jason

    More people = more energy usage. Period.

  36. Kevin Wright

    I would like to apologize for offending you folks. I spoke out of emotion and I should have kept my opinion to myself, this was not the place to bring it up. I am sorry.
    Natalie, I never said I had all the answers, I merely stated (and backed my statement up with reference) that there are too many people in this world and that careless procreation is the cause. As you will note in both of my previous posts I was expressing my opinion. You may not agree with my opinion, but it is valid.
    Judge, by your handle I assume you know better than the rest of us and this may fall upon deaf ears, but your per-capita carbon footprint is probably not less than that of my 2 person family. And even if it is I would like you to contact me in a few years when your children have reached adulthood, with a fleet of vehicles and separate residences for all. Remember, children grow up and have more children. Have you ever seen the George H.W. Bush family tree? It starts with 2 people at the top and ends up with 120 people by the end. That is not the world I want to live in.

  37. Don

    Quoting from above:
    “The UN predicts 10 billion in 2030 and up to 20 billion in 2100. http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/longrange2/longrange2.htm
    This quote is misleading – it gives the highest-growth (worst case) scenario. Follow the link and look at the document. The medium population growth forecast is 9 billion, and that’s what most long-term planners are trying to plan for. The low population growth forecast is even less than that.
    And anyway, both sides of this perennial argument are half-right: our footprint on the planet is the population multiplied by average resource use of each person. So we definitely need to reduce both factors, not just one or the other. As has been pointed out, part of our problem is population growth, and part of it is the huge expansion in the resources each one of those people wants to be able to use.

  38. Jane

    Seeing as some of the worst predictions for climate change models have already been reached 50 years ahead of schedule, why could the same not occur for population growth estimates? And doesn’t the average European can now get 40+ mpg? No wonder the US car industry is in the trouble it’s in.

  39. Kerry

    Might I suggest an option few people have suggested here? My feeling is that the best way to preserve resources and be environmentally responsible is to Recycle- Reuse-Repair AND to invest in the most well-made products with a long life cycle that stay out of the waste stream. Therefore, I stick with buying well-maintained used Volvos. In 2001 I bought a 1992 740 wagon with 83,000 miles on it. I drove it 110,000 additional miles, mostly highway at 26 mpg, during which time it required minimal maintenance and few repairs. I sold it 6 months ago, still running beautifully to a family who plans to maintain and keep it for years. That model has been known to run as much as 500,000 miles with its original drive train. In its place I bought another well-maintained Volvo wagon, a ’95 850 with 115,000 miles on it. So far it has averaged 23 mpg highway and comfortably sits 6 adults, with room for 2 more in a pinch (it has the rear seat.) I can also haul two or three 17′ sea kayaks in it, camp in the back with the seats stashed and have hauled all the cabinets and counter tops for my kitchen remodel from IKEA in it. And, of course, Volvo’s are among the safest cars on the road.
    To me, avoiding “disposable” products, especially those which consume a large quantity of resources to produce and result in substantial residue in the waste-stream when they wear out, is something we should all strive for. What has a greater impact on the environment: maintaining one well-constructed vehicle for 300,000 to 400,000 miles or buying and disposing of 3 or 4 more shoddily built units, no matter how “energy efficient” they are?
    Of course, some will argue that consumer turnover of goods drives the economy but that is another principle we need to get beyond to increase sustainability. Planned obsolescence and the Wal-Mart ethic of cheap and disposable goods is no longer a realistic approach. If we are all willing to pay a little more for stuff that lasts and that can be realistically maintained, we can shift the economics of production to a more sustainable model.
    My latest car cost me less than $4,000, even less if you deduct the $1,500 I sold the previous car for, which is also likely to stay out of the waste stream indefinitely. We should not only be demanding vehicles that run efficiently but that hold up better, so that their parts and carcasses don’t pile up and need to be replaced more often (not to mention the environmental costs of mining the raw materials, energy expenditures in manufacturing and transport, etc.) Building stuff that lasts can be done. But we all have to be willing to give up our culturally engrained “need” for constantly getting something new and shiny.
    Speaking of the Honda Pilot — my brother bought one 2 years ago but finds it cramped on trips with two adults, two kids and a dog. All of them, plus myself and my mother, fit comfortably in the Volvo.

  40. john kurmann

    The Honda Pilot was redesigned for the 2009 model year, and the current generation is roomier than the one your brother bought.
    Volvos do tend to be reliable, but they’re not particularly fuel-efficient and any car from 10 or more years ago is going to emit significantly more toxic air pollutants than even a conventional car from the last few years, and far more than most hybrids. The damaging health effects of air pollution from autos gets far too little attention. Check out Terry Tamminen’s book Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction for a good overview.
    Also, older used cars–even Volvos–have less effective safety features than those available in recent years, including improved crumple-zone engineering, side-curtain airbags, better seatbelts, and electronic stability control systems. \
    Moreover, Toyota’s hybrids have proven to be extremely reliable according to Consumer Reports.
    Of course, deciding the best ecological use for one’s own money is always a challenge. One can certainly save a lot of money upfront by buying a reasonably fuel-efficient used car versus buying a new or lightly-used Prius. If one uses that saved money to weatherize one’s home and install a ground-source heat pump, one may well produce greater ecological benefits overall. Everyone has to make those kinds of calculations on their own.
    Whatever auto one drives (if any), it’s important from an eco-perspective to buy one with the passenger and cargo capacity one uses frequently, not with capacity one uses a few times a year. In those circumstances, it’s better to borrow or rent for those instances rather than haul excess metal and plastic around for the great majority of the year.

  41. Kerry

    I completely agree with the “buy for most frequent use” principle the previous poster brings up. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve known who justified their purchase of a gas-guzzling, polluting truck or SUV and use it daily “because we need the horsepower to haul our trailer/boat/snowmobile” a few times a year. Frankly, I see no justification for any 4-wheel drive vehicle unless one lives far up a dirt road. They are inefficient and more prone to serious accidents. They also give people a false sense of security in driving in bad conditions — they are, in fact, less controllable on dry and wet pavement. I learned how to drive properly in ice and snow and can negotiate better with a normal 2-wheel drive car than most people in their 4WD’s who have no clue how to operate them. Plus, we need to bring back the manual transmission. I prefer them, they are more energy efficient, improve performance in all conditions and are simpler to repair. Also they demand more consistent driver attention, a good thing in this era of distracted driver multi-tasking.
    And honestly, to return to the original question, how much “space” do you really need in a transport device? Our family of five survived (including 1,100 mile drives to Grandma’s) driving a VW beetle for many years. Maybe if the quarters are cramped, you’ll think twice about whether a trip is all that necessary and how often you use the car. Our car wasn’t a luxury extension of our playroom. We learned to sit quietly and share the limited elbow room with our siblings graciously, watching the passing world outside as we travelled instead of fussing with toys, food and other clutter for which there was no room in our Beetle. We viewed it as sort of a space capsule. How often do you really need to haul all 6 members of the family? Would having 2 smaller cars, or even just one, be more practical and, in the long run, less polluting if most of your mileage is one adult commuting? Every family’s situation is different but we should all think hard and out-of-th-box about how we can use our vehicles more efficiently rather than automatically getting some big honking thing that meets the rare worst-case scenario with maximum comfort. In our city we even have a car-sharing program where people can use vehicles from the fleet on an “as-needed” basis.
    Point taken that an older car may be “more polluting” than a newer one. But in my PA county we have annual emission inspection, which mine always pass (I keep the systems maintained). And as for safety, few cars can match the Swedish-era Volvos in any severe crash due to the structural integrity of their steel roll-cage design. Check the NHTSA ratings if you have any doubt.
    Overall, the best thing I’ve done personally to reduce my vehicular “footprint” is to arrange to live within 3 miles of my workplace (with the option to take public transport or bike to work) and to minimize my driving. Currently I drive less than 2,500 miles per year, 75% less than the US average.

  42. john kurmann

    Simply because your Volvo passes the Pennsylvania emissions test does not mean that your emissions are as low as those of current autos, and certainly not as low as Advanced Technology-Partial Zero-Emission Vehicles like the Prius, Camry and Highlander Hybrids and the Honda Insight and Civic Hybrids. Surely you don’t think the Pennsylvania emissions requirement is stringent enough to genuinely protect people from petroleum pollution, do you?
    The oldest Volvo wagon I can find an EPA Air Pollution Score for is the 2001 V70, which rates a 2 or a 3 depending on the engine and transmission combination. In comparison, the Prius rates an 8 or a 9.5 depending on which state you buy it in (California and certain other states require better emissions controls). Even the entry-level Toyota Yaris rates a 6 or 7, again depending on where you buy it.
    The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration New Car Assessment Program’s crash test ratings for the ’95 Volvo 850 (at SaferCar.gov) are only for a frontal impact test. NHTSA didn’t do side impact tests that long ago, and the side and side-curtain airbags that have only recently become common make a huge difference in side impact crashes–the t-bone crashes that typically happen at intersectinons. In particular, the side-curtain type reduce the severity of head injuries dramatically.
    The ’95 850 wasn’t available with electronic stability control, either, which helps prevent loss of control during avoidance maneuvers or when going too fast around a corner.
    Moreover, the NHTSA tests do not emulate real-world crash conditions well. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s frontal-offset and side impact crash tests are more similar to real-world crashes. The IIHS explains the multiple ways cars have become safer in recent years overall at http://www.iihs.org/brochures/pdf/sfsc.pdf.

  43. Kerry

    One statistic I have not yet seen (though I imagine it must exist somewhere) is this: what is the pollution/environmental cost “footprint” in the initial production of an entirely new vehicle, regardless of its ultimate functional emissions? I work in electrical design and this “payback” period is something we always calculate in recommending energy-saving upgrades. I find myself often disturbed by the current marketing trends of “save the earth by buying some new stuff”. That “stuff”, whatever it is, generally has some environmental cost in production. I cringe when I see home renovation shows where people rip out perfectly functional kitchens, baths, flooring, whatever, dumping the debris in a landfill and replacing them with new “sustainably produced” or “recycled” materials. I realize cars are different in that they constantly generate pollutants over their lifetime, but isn’t striving to reduce usage, period, of private existing vehicles at least as efficacious to the environment as scrapping old cars and replacing them with new ones whose production consumed/polluted a large amount of resources?
    Where is the “break-even” point in a new car in terms of overall environmental cost (of mining/refining/smeltering/casting/machining the metals, plastics, hardware, chemicals that make up the new car and the transport and waste stream expenditures that are necessary to deliver another 1500 to 4000 pound hunk of “stuff” onto the giant pile of collective junk humans generate. How many gallons of fuel and tons of emmissions must one save in using the new car (compared to the old one) to offset this cost of production?

  44. john kurmann

    Hi, Kerry. The best answer I know of to your question is the post below from the Union of Concerned Scientists Hybrid Center blog (this post is online at http://hybridblog.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/08/hybridcenter_qa.html). More info about automobile lifecycle environmental assessment can be found in the post at this address: http://hybridblog.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/08/about_that_cnw_.html.
    HybridCenter Q&A: To Trade or Not to Trade?
    Interesting question that I thought might be more widely informative:
    Q: A friend of mine drives a 25-year-old gas guzzler. His mileage is terrible, but he thinks he’s probably doing the ecologically right thing by holding on to his old car, given the resources and energy required to make a new car. I had never considered this angle, which seems crucial to acting in an environmentally responsible way.
    I wonder if either of you have ideas about this or know of a resource to consult to help one assess the full impact of one’s consumption. Trading your old station wagon for a Prius, or recycling your old air conditioner and buying a newer, more efficient model, is it really saving energy?
    A: A variety of reputable investigators have concluded that 85-90 percent of energy use and global warming emissions attributable to an average vehicle over its entire lifecycle come from operation. Only 10-15 percent is production and disposal. This is true for both hybrids and conventional vehicles.
    In order to achieve a net reduction in per-mile global warming emissions, (i.e. to offset the additional emissions from manufacturing and disposing of another vehicle) the new vehicle will have to get 10-20 percent better fuel economy than the old vehicle, assuming the vehicle will be driven in a typical way (i.e. that it will be used for its full useful life – usually around 170,000 miles).
    Or, to look at it a different way, how long would it take to offset the manufacturing and disposal energy associated with the new car?
    Assuming 15 percent of lifetime energy use for the new car is manufacturing and disposal, and a lifetime of 170,000 miles, you can calculate the miles which you need to drive in order to make up for the manufacturing and disposal of the new car, using the following formula:
    Miles = 25,500 / (MPG_new / MPG_old – 1)
    For example, suppose his old vehicle gets 15 mpg and he’s considering replacing it with one that gets 35 mpg. As soon as he’s driven 25,500 / (35 / 15 – 1) = 19,100 miles, he will have already made up for the energy and global warming emissions that went into producing that vehicle. For the remaining 150,000 miles of the new vehicle’s life, the reductions in global warming pollution are all “profit.”
    That’s not to say he should drive his old car another 19,000 miles. Not at all. So long as he replaces the old car with one that gets at least 10-20 percent better fuel economy, he should make the replacement right away. In certain situations, it may take longer for fuel savings to make up for the manufacturing emissions. For example, if the driver does very little driving, it will take longer to offset the manufacturing emissions, and it may be worth discounting future emissions – something that’s beyond the scope of the current discussion.

  45. john kurmann

    Kevin and all:
    1st, let me make clear I agree with you that we need to reduce the global average number of children per woman if we’re going to avoid catastrophe. I think we need to bring it down to replacement level, at least (which would lead to population stabilization some years in the future), and probably below, for a while, to actually reduce our civilization’s claim on global biocapacity and free up some for the other species in the community of life. If we don’t stop population growth by choice, through smaller families, I’m convinced it will be stopped by catastrophe. Instead of the number of children coming down by our voluntary choices, deaths will rise from hunger, disease, war, and so on.
    The central problem, however, is not population growth but growth, period. It doesn’t really matter what portion of the total growth in our claim on the planet’s biocapacity comes from the growing size of our population and what portion comes from rising per capita consumption levels. In fact, in recent years, the global population growth rate has declined significantly (though the Census Bureau still estimates the yearly addition to the Earth’s population to be around 80 million people a year because the base population is ~6.8 billion people) while per capita consumption has been rising dramatically due to the increasing industrialization of countries like China, India, and Brazil and continued growth in some industrialized countries, including the U.S. (though the economic crisis has interrupted that trend). The U.S. doesn’t have a very high population density, so most people don’t consider it to be overpopulated. At ~306 million people, however, the U.S. is the 3rd most populous nation in the world which, coupled with its very high per capita consumption rates, makes it arguably the most overpopulated nation in the world, as Paul Ehrlich pointed out years ago.
    Even so, I think your approach to this issue has been clumsy, presumptuous, and even counterproductive. 1st of all, you wrote your 1st reply as if the 6-member family described in the original post was made up of a mother, father, and 4 biological children–an awfully big assumption in today’s U.S. of divorce, remarriage, and merged families plus common adoption. At least one person who responded to you, AP (who may’ve been the author of the original post), has 1 biological child and 3 adopted children. Did you even consider that possiblity? If so (and if you were still determined to make your point), it would’ve been best to acknowledge that possibility before going on to make your argument that we need to have fewer children in addition to buying the most fuel-efficient vehicles our families will fit in and offsetting the emissions with TerraPasses.
    Moreover, plain text is a terrible medium for dealing with emotionally-charged subjects (and I can think of few more emotionally-charged than the choices people make about how many children to have) because all the nonverbal elements of communication (tone of voice, expression, body language, and so on) are absent. If we’re going to address the subject of population growth in plain text, we need to take all of this into account and be very careful how we approach it–unless what we care about is being “right” rather than reaching other people and making a positive impact.

  46. Robert Russell

    Thanks for the info but next time don’t be a jerk about having 4 kids. Sometimes there is quite a bit of fate involved (I have twins).

  47. Dan S

    We’re a big fan of the Chrysler minivans for a large family and/or lots of stuff. The new ones (4.0L V6) claim to get 25 mpg hwy (We see about about 19 for city driving in ours, with a different engine).
    We have one at home and I drive one in a vanpool to and from work. They are roomy, relatively cheap to buy and maintain, and you can get parts and repairs anywhere. We bought our home one at 2/3 of sticker price last year.
    Chrysler is domestic, although ours was assembled in Windsor, Ontario. I am not too concerned because Windsor is only 25 miles away but I think some vans are also made in the USA.
    I was slightly concerned about Chrysler’s viability, but since they are still the largest sellers of minvans (Dodge/Chrysler combined, Honda Odyssey and Toyota Siena are #2 and #3) the minivan will still stick around.
    By the way, the Chrysler Pacifica mentioned earlier is no longer being maufactured, and only available in the used market.

  48. Kerry

    Thank you, John Kurmann, for the information from the Hybrid Center Q & A. Based on that calculation, with my annual driving distance of around 2,500 miles, it would take over 15 years for me to “break even” off-set the environmental cost of production of a new 35 mpg vehicle to replace my 20 mpg 1995 Volvo. Seems better for me to continue my efforts to drive less than buy a new car before this one wears out.
    While I appreciate your concern for my safety (in pointing out the lack of stability control and other technological “safety” updates on my older Volvo) my feeling is that becoming a safe, defensive and skilled driver is more effective than any “feature” in protecting oneself on the highway. I’ve taken several high-speed driving courses which included hands-on practice in rapid maneuvering, evasion, effective braking and skid control in severe conditions. I’m also a focused and alert driver at all times. I figure I’ve driven at least half a million miles in 40 years behind the wheel of vehicles ranging from a VW Beetle to a Saab Sonett to a full-sized Dodge van and have NEVER been involved in a collision other than being rear-ended when I was at a full stop (my Volvo’s frame was out of line but intact, with superficial body damage — the Toyota that hit me crushed to the windshield and was totalled.) And that includes over 100,000 miles in Michigan, whose highways full of largely unregulated vehicles essentially constitute a publicly-maintained Demo Derby.
    Again, I restate that making the effort to constructively change our behaviors and lifestyles can have as much or more of a positive impact on outcomes, for ourselves and our environment, than does simply throwing money at a new product that allows us to maintain our existing “comfortable and careless” consumption habits with a little less environmental cost.

  49. Anonymous

    It’s absolutely true that learning to be the safest driver one can be makes a big difference; it’s also true that, once you’ve learned to be the safest driver you can be, you’ll be even safer in a car with modern safety features for the simple reason that not all collisions are avoidable.
    I also want to make clear that I’m not trying to tell you that you should buy a new hybrid, or any other new vehicle. If you’re satisfied with the safety features your Volvo has and its ecological performance (given that you drive much less than the average American), by all means keep it. My point has simply been that, for many people, the safety and ecological benefits of buying a new hybrid or a more fuel-efficient new vehicle can be a worthwhile investment. I don’t presume to know what the wisest choice for any specific individual will be.

  50. onlooker

    The tired argument that the world is overpopulated so we should stop having kids is not well though out.
    If the original poster is looking for a new car, obviously he is a wise steward of his own resources. His ceasing to have children will not stop the real overpopulation problems in third-world countries.

  51. kerry

    I have to ask: what is “tired” about the argument that the world is overpopulated? Sorry, but that fact is a given. Being “tired” of hearing it in no way renders it irrelevant. Among the statistics: one in six people is starving at any given time; over 40% of previously arable land is no longer productive; 75% of fisheries are damaged or collapsing — I should not need to go on.
    But what is “not well thought out” is the premise that an American is a “wise steward of his own resources” because he feels he needs a new car, a large 4-wheel drive one, to boot. Each American on average consumes SIX TIMES the global per capita average and nearly TWENTY TIMES more energy than the average resident of developing nations like India, not to mention vastly more water and cropland due to higher consumption of meat and processed foods. The calculations I have seen are that the birth of a middle class American child will have between 40 and 100 times the negative impact on planetary resources that the birth of a rural third world child will have over the course of their life.
    I’m not passing moral judgment on people’s personal imperative to reproduce. But, let’s be honest here: whose birth rate truly has a greater impact on consumption of global resources?

  52. 4 kids

    We have two girls, wanted a boy, then my wife got pregnant with twin girls.
    Sorry for the environment, but honestly, we’re all doomed. Read the latest book from Lovelock, the only independent scientific in North America: we have triggered something irreversible and 7/8 of Earth’s population will not survive within 100 years because of unbearable heat. His thesis is that this would have happened anyways, we only accelerated it with our immense stupidity.
    Some will call this apocalyptic, but Ren

  53. john kurmann

    Lovelock might be right, but I think we still understand the interactions of the biosphere too poorly to say for sure that he is and acting as if he’s right–that is, resigning ourselves to catastrophe and living as if what we do won’t matter–makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I prefer to think that our actions can make a positive difference, though it’s already too late to have a clean and painless transition because people are already suffering and dying.

  54. Anonymous

    how rude, I have four kids as well. They were not all planned either. God has a plan for all of us. Now we need a bigger car. I wanted to know this same question that is why I am on this website. Why are you? I actually have a ford explorer with a third row seat. It saves more gas than my old suburban.I am young and personally hate minivans. There is no reason why they can’t make more vehicles with larger capacities. Also carpooling is better for enviroment. We used to take my husbands mom and sisters with us to the lake or beach. Suburban was good. explorer ok, not enough trunk space.