The polling at familyroadtrippers.com indicated that SUV edged out station wagons and "children pulling buggy" and all of them beat mini-vans. But the real choice is a little more complicated.
When we were looking for a new roadtrip vehicle, it was an interesting choice. There are many choices available, station wagons, mini-vans, SUVs, compact SUVs, cross-over vehicles, and stuff like used vanagons and PT Cruisers.
Mini vans let you split up the kids
Mini vans have a few advantages over other vehicles: tons of cargo room, three rows of seats so that you can either carry many people or split up a couple of kids. (This is something they like as much as something we like).
We've used a Dodge Caravan at length because the company I work for has a small fleet of them for us to use on photo shoots and other trips. The Caravan is a wonderful roadtrip vehicle -- comfy, zippy, and there's tons of cargo space. Even a big dog like Wookie would fit quite well for extended trips. We rented a Ford Aerostar for a trip a few years ago and it felt like a hunk of junk. A couple of years ago we rented a Chevy mini van which we liked quite well.
We were looking at a Caravan and a Toyota Sienna.
Crossovers are zippier but still with lots of room
We took a trip from Nashville to New Orleans and back recently in a rented Kia Rondo, a crossover vehicle I guess, but it really felt like a mini mini-van. We liked the ride and the inside setup quite a bit, and there was plenty of cargo room. The gas mileage was OK, a little better than a mini van, but still in the lower 20s. I think this type of vehicle could be a great choice. The Kia's main drawback was that when one of the windows (especially the rear ones) were opened (partially or fully), a horrible pulsing pressurization would overcome the car. Like your ears would explode if subjected to it much more. Other than that, we liked it.
Mazda's and Toyota's mini mini-vans look really good, and we'd like to check them out. Maybe the next time I rent a car, I'll try to get one. Mazda has one with three rows of seats so you can split the kids, boost gas mileage, and maintain quite a bit of cargo room.
Compact SUVs have lots of vertical storage
There's more cargo room in the Subaru Forester than in either the Outback or the Legacy. But the cargo room is vertical -- you need to pack stuff on top of stuff, and long stuff is either out of the question or on the roof. Despite their higher center of gravity and larger shape, the Subaru sales man said that all three models get about the same mileage -- because they have identical power trains, the body shape, he said, was pretty much irrelevant. I suspect he's mostly right, but if so, why do Olympic athletes get so anal about friction and drag?
PT Cruisers are in a class by themselves (so to speak).
I've also rented PT Cruisers a couple of times on photo shoots. I don't know how to classify them. Maybe crossover vehicle? But crossover between what? They're almost like small Chevy Suburbans. There seems to be a lot of space, they're sporty, and they do very well over speed bumps (hey, it was a rental, I owe it to readers to find these things out). The window controls, though are no where near where you would expect them to be: they're in the center of the dashboard. Not on the door or the center console. In the dark, things like this are a pain in the neck.
Station wagons use less gas and have a lot of space.
In the end, we chose a Subaru Legacy. The mileage was purported to be 28 highway, but on our maiden voyage, we got 30 or better (hiper miler techniques employed). The cargo space is plenty sufficient (we were able to bring all of our camping gear). And the cup holders are fine. The look is super sporty. We had a roof racjk added so that we can boost cargo room when needed, but at a gas mileage price. But we figure, Why take the hit on mileage with a mini-van every day of the year when you can only take the hit when you need the extra cargo room?
Cup holders matter more than some might think
The Subaru guy was amazed at the fact that he was about to lose a sale because the '98 Outback (only 68,000 miles!) had cruddy cup holders. I didn't see them on my test drive, and when I returned to the lot, I parked it, walked up to Tinsley, tossed him the keys and said to her "There are no cup holders." Tinsley shook her head, Trevor scrambled to the car to look, and found them: a dinky, rickety little tray the slips in to the dashboard. Tinsley and I rolled our eyes.
What's your road trip vehicle of choice?