Five Best Compact Cars for Family Needs

Does your family really need a minivan?

Typically, families tend to choose larger sedans, minivans and crossovers, but we picked the five best compact cars for families because we recognize that not every family wants or needs a big vehicle.

We let the Environmental Protection Agency define "compact" for us as any car with 100 to 109 cubic feet of combined passenger and cargo room. We also included the EPA's "small wagons," defined as those having less than 130 cubic feet of passenger and cargo room.

Every car on this list delivers at least an EPA-estimated 21 mpg in city driving and 27 mpg on the highway. All prices include automatic transmissions, whether standard or optional.

As for space, we thought the cargo area needed to hold at least two large suitcases and still have room for a smaller soft bag or two, making 11 cubic feet our minimum standard.

A passenger-suitable backseat for families requires enough legroom for teenagers. We established 34.5 inches as the minimum for rear-seat legroom.

All of our picks earned Consumer Reports' "recommended" rating and achieved the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's highest score of "good" in three kinds of crash tests.

2012 Audi A4 2.0T Premium

Price: $32,500 Gas Mileage: 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway

As the only luxury-brand entry on our list of compact cars, the 2012 Audi A4 2.0T Premium is also the priciest. For the cost, you don't just get safe and practical family transportation. You get an athletic performer that is a blast to drive.

A 2-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine hustles 211 horsepower to the front wheels via a continuously variable automatic transmission, or CVT. It will reach 60 miles per hour from a standing stop in just over six seconds.

Audi has built a reputation for some of the best car interiors. As a compact car, the A4 follows that tradition. Displaying fastidious fit and finish, the cabin is neatly styled. Well-bolstered front bucket seats wrap their occupants in leather. At 35.2 inches, the rear seat offers the least amount of legroom of our picks. However, anyone shorter than 6 feet tall should be quite comfortable. Cargo room of 12.4 cubic feet is midway between our five compacts.

Standard equipment includes full power accessories, remote keyless entry, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, automatic climate control, automatic wipers, six air bags, and a 10-speaker audio system with CD player, satellite radio and auxiliary input jack.

2012 Hyundai Elantra Touring GLS

Price: $17,195 Gas Mileage: 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway

With "practical" written all over it, the 2012 Hyundai Elantra Touring GLS offers gobs of passenger and cargo space. It's an ideal compact car for transporting a family around town or across the country.

With 36.4 inches of rear-seat legroom and 24.3 cubic feet of cargo space, it ranks second on our list of compact cars in both categories. That's significantly more cargo room than the midsize Ford Fusion and a half inch more rear-seat legroom than the Lexus ES 350.

Folding down the 60/40 split rear-seat backs opens cargo space to a whopping 65.3 cubic feet.

Powering around all of the people and stuff that the Elantra Touring GLS can hold depends on a 138-horsepower, 2-liter, four-cylinder engine. The posted price includes a four-speed automatic transmission.

"Cutting edge" isn't a term we would use to describe the exterior or interior styling, but both are pleasing and functional.

Included among the standard features are full power accessories, remote keyless entry, a tilt steering wheel, air conditioning, cruise control, six air bags, and a six-speaker audio system with CD player, satellite radio and USB connectivity.

2012 Scion xB

Price: $17,250 Gas Mileage: 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway

We included the trendy 2012 Scion xB, targeting young, urban kids as a family compact car because it provides a remarkable 38 inches of rear-seat legroom -- the most among our five compacts and 2 inches more than the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. That qualifies xB as an ideal people mover.

Still, some of that rear-seat legroom comes at the expense of cargo capacity. At 11.6 cubic feet, the xB is at the bottom of this list of compact cars. With the rear seat folded flat, cargo space expands to 70 cubic feet.

Giving xB its giddyap is a 158-horsepower, 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine. We've included the optional four-speed, automatic transmission in the posted price.

Granted, the styling inside and out may be too quirky for some tastes, but we think xB's functionality overcomes the styling. It earns high marks for comfort and standard content, too.

Standard on every xB are full power accessories, trip computer, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity, six air bags, and a six-speaker, Pioneer-infused audio system with CD player and iPod interface.

2012 Toyota Corolla LE

Price: $17,910 Gas Mileage: 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway

If the 2012 Toyota Corolla seems as familiar as your favorite pair of sneakers, it's because it's been around for nearly half a century. It's the best-selling car in the world.

Bland styling inside and out doesn't make this Toyota any less suited for family use. Although its cargo room at 12.3 cubic feet ranks it next to the bottom on this list of compact cars, at 36.3 inches, its rear-seat legroom is near the top.

Its roomy cabin is comfortable with nicely sculpted front seats. All of the controls and switches are easy to operate.

A 132-horsepower, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine pushes its production to the front wheels by way of a four-speed automatic transmission.

Standard on every Corolla are full power accessories, remote keyless entry, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, trip computer, air conditioning, six air bags, and a four-speaker audio system with a CD player and auxiliary input jack.

We chose to step up to the LE because the automatic tranny is included in its price and the additional price premium buys a lot of upgrades such as cruise control, intermittent wipers, heated mirrors and a better audio system with six speakers and auxiliary audio jack.

2012 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI

Price: $26,640 Gas Mileage: 29 mpg city/39 mpg highway

The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI runs on diesel fuel rather than gasoline. That's the reason for its impressive fuel economy -- the best on this list of compact cars.

As a station wagon, it also boasts the largest cargo capacity with 32.8 cubic feet. Folding down the split rear seat grows the cargo space to 67 cubic feet. At 35.5 inches, rear-seat legroom is about average in the compact segment.

Despite the popularity of minivans and crossovers, station wagons remain a viable mode of family transport. The SportWagen spices up the experience. The engine is a 140-horsepower, 2-liter turbo-diesel. Included in the posted price is a six-speed, driver-shiftable, automatic transmission. The ride is smooth and the handling sharp.

Interior styling is modern, tidy and functional. Passenger comfort is very good for a compact car.

Among the standard features are full power accessories, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, cruise control, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, heated outside mirrors, windshield washer nozzles, trip computer, Bluetooth connectivity, and a 10-speaker audio system with in-dash, six-disc CD changer, satellite radio auxiliary audio input.