The best family cars for some really specific circumstances | Top Gear
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BBC TopGear

The best family cars for some really specific circumstances

No two families are the same. So why should your cars be?

  • If your significant other insists on an SUV: the Subaru Outback

    It looks like an SUV, it has the ride height and all-wheel-drive of an SUV, but it’s a secret wagon. Ssshh. Don’t let the cat out of the bag. Actually, don’t put cats in bags in the first place. Surely the RSPCA has something to say about that practice.

    The Outback even fulfils most of the general SUV tenets, like the fact that it accelerates about as quickly as a sloth dragging a sleigh, has pretty rubbish fuel economy and gives the general impression that on-the-limit handling was never mentioned in a single planning meeting. 

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  • If your significant other still digs in their heels and insists on a ‘premium’ SUV, like the Q5 the neighbours have: Audi A4 Allroad

    If your spouse sees through the Subaru ruse, or just turns up their nose at anything without soft plastics and a badge that denotes you’re up and coming in the world, you might think the game is up.

    Not so. In fact, Audi has even taken pity on the SUV resistance movement and continued production of its excellent high-riding estate, which is as comfortable as an heiress and about as family-ready as a just-married 40-year-old. And, like the Subaru, it’s actually four-wheel-drive, something that the majority of SUVs can’t even claim these days. Our mind still boggles at these things. It’s like having to drink a kale smoothie because you’re told it’s good for you, then being told it isn’t and continuing to drink the awful crap because you’ve gotten used to the taste. But before we get the soapbox out for another round, let’s press on.

  • If your idea of a holiday is always ‘the beach’, regardless of season, temperature or marine wind warnings: VW Type 2 bus

    Well, you may as well embrace the stereotype completely, no? Cling to those dreams you’ve nurtured from before your hairline started receding and your waistline started expanding, from before the kids turned up and the boozy nights at the pub drifted into the aether where memories would have been created but for, well, the booze, naturally.

    Make sure to cover your van in stickers from the beaches you’ve been to, like in Cornwall, and... Cornwall! And that time you stopped off for a pie in Devon but didn’t actually surf. And then look at the paucity of stickers and send away for stickers from Bells Beach and Teahupo'o. There. Much better. Be sure to leave at least one board strapped to the roof, a wetsuit hanging from the ceiling and at least one pair of ugg boots floating around the cargo bay at all times.

    Now you’re ready to clog the roads from London to – where else? – Cornwall, even though it’s early February and the sun hasn’t shone through the gloom since November. Drown on the whimpers of your long-suffering family with the ever-present thrum of an air-cooled flat four. Aren’t holidays the best?

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  • If it turns out that you've been Australian this whole time: a Holden Calais V V8 estate

    In Australia, cars are generally ridiculously overpriced. Case in point: a 997 Carrera S manual, a £25,000 purchase in Blighty, is at least $65,000. Even at a generous conversion rate, someone is still asking for far too many dollarydoos, both new and second-hand.

    And that extends to our long-held ‘if it were our money’ pick, the C63 AMG estate. That’s a £15,000 proposition in the United Queendom (surely Lizzy deserves that title by now), but the wrong side of $40,000 without trying in the land of melanoma and sharks.

    The thin sliver of good news in this scenario is that the Australians have an answer. For the equivalent of about £12,000, we bought a 6.0-litre V8 estate, with a lazy 350bhp and about the same in torque. Sure, it’s pretty well shy of the motorsport-derived 6.2 of the Merc-AMG, but this is a lazy pushrod job from GM that’ll routinely do 200,000 miles without drama and has been known to do three and even four hundred thousand without much faff.

    Yes, kids, we’re talking about the LS. No need for an LS swapped wagon when the Australians were building them right on the factory floor. And yes, we did say bought. We have one. Now, the question is, should we leave it stock or throw a hotter camshaft in it (yep, just the one cam for eight cylinders, because God Bless America) and liberate another 100bhp just like that? Really, what we’ve bought ourselves is more temptation than a family man can resist. Or at least that’s what the divorce papers will say.

  • If you want to have it all – a classic car that still nails family duties: a Mercedes W123 230TE

    Classic cars are excellent. Except for when they break down, need spares that just don’t exist anymore, cook you with their lack of air-conditioning or just become slightly rusty things that sit outside your house because practicality came a-knockin’ one day (usually at about the same time as fatherhood; ASK US HOW WE KNOW).

    The W123 230TE (or, if you’re really lucky, the 280TE) solves these problems. Because it’s a W123, it kind of doesn’t break down, like, ever. When things do eventually wear out, parts are an easy find, because Mercedes has parts for every single car it’s ever made. It came with air-conditioning from the factory and is about as practical as a spreadsheet, because it’s an estate. A seven-seat one, if you can find one with the right options ticked back in the 1980s.

    Now, many other people have cottoned on to this confluence of brilliance, classic cool and practicality – just take a look at prices of the things on the internet and you’ll see what we mean – but that just means it won’t depreciate like a second-hand timeshare.

    And if that money is a little too strong for you, the good news is that the newer W124 is just as unkillable and excellent. Vintage Mercedes estate cars: just the gift that keeps on giving.

    Image: Lebubu93

  • If your children are quite sporty, outdoorsy or play large musical instruments: a Volkswagen Multivan

    One of the many unpleasant and unavoidable facts of life, like death and entropy and the invincibility of reality television, is that children, while small, tend to choose the largest possible thing as their hobby. It’s getting to the point in some families where the only thing left for Muggins to ask for is blimp piloting lessons and a quick go at elephant husbandry.

    But even within the realms of regular life, there are manifold pastimes that require seemingly gargantuan appurtenances. Or, in regular-strength English, hobbies tend to require massive things. Like we said earlier. We’re talking about guitar amplifiers, drum kits, lacrosse sticks, stand-up paddle boards and mountain bikes. But even if your family doesn’t look like the front of a Volkswagen brochure, chances are that you’ll end up loving the fact you went and bought one. And why? Well, because the Multivan, as many people with functioning eyes will be able to tell you (and the name might possibly give away), is a tarted-up van. And vans, as we understand it, tend to have excellent interior space.

  • If you’re in the same boat as the previous family, but Alastair plays chukkas on a Saturday morning and Arabella has cello recital right afterwards: a Range Rover

    Oh dear. You can’t possibly park something as common as a Volkswagen by the side of a chukkas match. How could you hold your head up at the Hurlington Club that evening? And a van? It’s too much. It’s really a case of packing your gilets and Hunter wellies and relocating entirely at that point.

    Really, only the Range Rover will do in this scenario. And that goes double when you need the space to head straight from a field in Surrey to Wigmore Hall without time to swing by home in South Kensington. It really is a dilemma that only a Range Rover can solve.

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  • If you have a... let’s say ‘Catholic-sized’ family: Honda Odyssey tuned by Bisimoto

    Normally, we would have suggested a 1990s Previa, given its mid-engine layout, rear-wheel-drive spaceship-style dashboard and the very real (if increasingly slim) chance of finding the weirdly excellent supercharged one with a manual gearbox.

    But the thing about families is that you tend to care for them a bit. It’s one of those quirks of biology. And when you discover, as we did, that a mid-Nineties Previa stands up to impact about as well as a quail egg, you naturally start to consider other options. Something like a modern Honda Odyssey, perhaps.

    One option that you may not have considered, however, is the fact that some generous folks have decided to bestow their tuning talents on more... quotidian metal, including the Odyssey. Well, at least one generous... er, folk has. His name is Bisi Ezerioha, and he runs Bisimoto. He has also transformed a Honda Odyssey into a 1,000bhp people mover. Yes, that’s right, 1,000bhp, a six-speed-manual gearbox and... erm, front-wheel drive. But hey, should you ever find traction, it’s probably more than enough to get the kids to youth group on time.

  • If you have the aforementioned Catholic-sized family and your significant other does what significant others do and insist on an SUV: a Ford Flex

    Look at this thing! Tell us it doesn’t put you in mind of a lowered Range Rover that’s had a brief but fulfilling fling with a Smeg fridge. “It was the summer of 2014,” says the Flex, “and the world hadn’t gone entirely to hell yet. I knew my time was coming to an end soon, so I took a chance and had a fling with that charming Italian fridge while I was on sabbatical in Tuscany.” Er, just us?

    Anywho, the Flex could just be a case of forbidden fruit for us non-Americans, who never seemed to go for them in any great number. We travelled the length of the eastern seaboard in 2018 and saw just three Flexes in 1200 miles. On the same journey, we lost count of the number of so-called ‘full-size’ SUVs (full-size to who? Paul Bunyan?) on the I-95, so maybe the ruse of estate-car-posing-as-SUV didn’t fool anyone.

    But it could for you, non-American person! Spec the right (i.e. the most expensive) one and 365bhp of turbocharged V6, all-wheel-drive and a 0-60 sprint of 6.2 seconds are all yours for the taking. And because it’s not jacked up in the air like a regular SUV, handling won’t be anywhere near as ghastly as you might expect, especially given that the Flex weighs about 2.7 tonnes and can carry seven American-sized people.

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  • If you wear fawn-coloured chinos and commute by folding bicycle: a Nissan Leaf

    Because you’re alarmed at the carbon footprint of having children, you’ve elected to have just one. And because you commute on a Brompton bike, you only need one car. And besides, you bake your own sourdough, grow your own rainbow chard, pickle your own Kimchi and brew your own Kombucha, so all that’s left to get from Whole Foods is some artisanal lentil crisps. And perhaps a saddle for that high horse.

  • If neither you, nor your spouse is taller than six feet, you don’t go camping and you prefer to use a Baby Bjorn rather than a gigantic pram: the Golf GTI

    “Wait a minute,” you might be thinking, “I’m taller than six feet and I fit fine in a GTI.” And congratulations to you, expectant parent! Clearly, you do not have a child, and have not yet fitted any baby capsules to the back seat, which range in size from your average Shropshire sow to an actual Portakabin.

    We fitted a popular baby capsule (unpopular baby capsules are available) to a full-sized estate and then tried to sit in the front seat ahead of the damn thing, only to realise that we couldn’t adjust the runners far back enough to actually fit. So it’s unlikely, if you’ve ever been told that you’re looming over someone, that you’ll fit both the semi-trailer-sized infant contraption and yourself in the otherwise fairly unimpeachable GTI.

    The good news for you more average-sized mums and dads is that this won’t be an issue. Making comments about the tall being tall is, unfortunately, something you’ll be doomed to do every time you come across someone who is.

  • If you actually have some leeway in the purchasing decisions and who are we kidding when does that ever happen: the W204 Mercedes C63 AMG estate

    Yes, it’s the perennial favourite around these parts. But how can you go past a race-derived (and race-proven) 6.2-litre, hand-built AMG V8? Quick answer: you just can’t. It’s a logical impossibility.

    The only thing that might stand in your way is cost. If you’re from one of the countries that has ‘United’ in the title (regardless of how accurate that title might be at the moment), C63 estates are relatively plentiful and not ferociously expensive to buy.

    But if you’re from the Upside Down (also known as the Antipodes, for those among you who haven’t experienced the cultural phenomenon that is Stranger Things), it can be more than a mite harder to find one – and everything up to and including impoverishing to buy one. But it’s what we really wanted when we were doing this exact same buying decision ourselves. We went another way, as we said, but the C63 estate is still the dream pick. To paraphrase Wayne Campbell (from Wayne’s World, in a worryingly dated reference), it will be ours. Oh yes. It will be ours.

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