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Green family cars

Across the nation, active families are buying green cars and putting the brakes on their long-distance travel plans because of the skyrocketing cost of gasoline. While fuel-hogging machines are heading into storage, there are many new models that provide renewed hope for the family vacation. With assistance from Kristin Varela, Chief Mother and Senior Editor at MotherProof.com, and some automotive-expert input from the editors at Car and Driver magazine, Kelley Blue Book and HybridCars.com expert Michael Coates, we’ve put together a list of some of the most fuel-efficient, family-friendly vehicles on the market today.

Toyota Prius (Combined Ave. 46 mpg / Base price: $22,175 msrp)          

By most accounts, the Prius is the original hybrid (although the Honda Insight actually came first). The second-generation Prius has the most original appearance of any hybrid and stands out in the parking lot. MotherProof.com reports that the Prius’ bigger-than-expected rear passenger area is a pleasant surprise and the cargo space is large enough to fit a pair of child-sized bikes.

Honda Civic Hybrid (42 mpg / $22,600 msrp)

For those who’d rather blend in than stand out, the Civic Hybrid is designed to look the same as the gas version. In fact, with a real-world mileage of 42 miles per gallon, the hybrid manages only about 7-10 mpg more than the conventional Civic with a base price of $7,000 more. The interior of the Civic Hybrid garnered a bit of a concern from the MotherProof experts: “I could use a plumbing snake to get to the top-tether anchors (for child seats), and the light-colored cloth armrests in the doors will be covered with gross banana gunk in short order.”

Nissan Altima Hybrid (34 mpg / $25,480)

 Available in just eight states (California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont), this car uses the same technology as the Toyota hybrids, although with a different engine. Like the Toyota, it can switch from electric to straight gas or a combination of both. The automotive experts at CarandDriver.com point out that the Altima’s hybrid system is nearly identical to that of Toyota Camry. If the name “Camry” makes your inner rebel cringe, you’d do well to consider the Altima hybrid.

Toyota Camry Hybrid  (33 mpg / $25,200)

 The Camry has been one of the best-selling mid-size sedans over the years, so you’d expect the hybrid version to be even more popular, right? Not so fast. The hybrid comes in a 6-cylinder model only, which offers plenty of power, but lower fuel mileage than might be expected from a Toyota hybrid. For busy families, the batteries for the Camry hybrid take away critical cargo space. “The trunk doesn’t have much room, it can handle about one errand at a time due to the space the batteries take up,” says Varela. “I can fold the rear seats down, but only get a small hole to perhaps pass things through, or use for skis or something. The trunk does fine for a regular grocery store trip, but an outing to my local membership warehouse would require some rope and space on the roof.”

Mercury Mariner Hybrid / Ford Escape / Mazda Tribute hybrids (32 mpg / $25,310-26,300)

This year’s 3-for-1 award goes to the Ford Motor Company, which is pumping up its hybrid lineup by building three nameplates out of one award-winning model: the Ford Escape. Launched in 2004 as the nation’s first hybrid sport utility vehicle, the Ford Escape was named the North American Truck of the Year in 2005. With an average fuel mileage (32) that many small sedans would envy, the Escape — as well as the Mariner and Tribute hybrids — quietly keeps the emissions low and mileage high without much external fanfare. “The cargo area is plentiful and is not reduced in any way by the presence of the battery,” says Varela. “I could easily lift up the cargo area carpet and see the battery there, but I could place all of my gear on top of it with no worries. My kids were able to put their bikes in the back for a quick trip down to the bike trail — success.”

Mini Cooper Clubman  (32 mpg / $19,900)

 This is not your standard family hauler, that’s for sure. But a look at the Mini Cooper Clubman reminds us somewhat of the old Ford Club Wagon that our parents (or grandparents) used to drive. A spinoff on the popular Mini Cooper, which is owned by BMW, the Clubman adds critical family-friendly leg room and cargo space in a hip design that is sure to get second glances from the neighbors.     

Mercedes E320 BlueTec (clean diesel / 31 mpg / $52,300)

 People tend to shudder when they hear the words “Mercedes” and “diesel” spoken in the same sentence. But, rest assured, the diesel engine has come a long way from that smelly sedan of yesteryear. The E320 BlueTec system is leaner (27-36 mpg), meaner (V6 turbo) and cleaner than ever before. Thanks to an extensive system of filters and converters that somewhat resemble your kid’s LEGO set, the BlueTec system cleans tailpipe emissions dramatically. And the price is right. For just $1,000 more, you get a high-mileage luxury sedan that is clean and quiet. Unfortunately, it’s available in just 42 states, because it doesn’t meet certain strict emissions standards in those states. However in 2009, the automaker will start selling three new clean diesel SUVs that will meet air quality criteria in all 50 states.

Kia Rio (29 mpg /$11,515)

 The Kia Rio sedan and Rio5 five-door made an award-winning splash soon after being redesigned in 2006. They were deemed “Most Fun to Drive” by the Wall Street Journal and “Most Wanted” by Edmunds.com. The automaker as well has been honored with “Highest Ranking” awards by J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Study in ’06 and ’07.

Ford Focus (29 mpg / $15,425)

With a starting sticker price under $15,000, the Ford Focus gets great gas mileage with an average of up to 35 mpg in steady freeway driving. Varlela was less than thrilled at the lack of head restraints in the back seats.  “Children in backless boosters and teenagers (not to mention adults) would probably experience some serious head whipping if the car were hit from behind,” she reports. “I was really in a quandary with my very tall but very light 8-year-old — her head was a good foot above the back of the seat when she sat in the booster, but the seat belt cut across her neck without it.”

Toyota Matrix (29 mpg / $15,510)

One of the lowest-priced vehicles on our list is also the first wagon.  The Matrix and the Pontiac Vibe are basically the same vehicles and both deliver good fuel economy for a low starting price.  However, the Matrix is being redesigned for 2009, with more room for family at a slightly greater starting price ($18,620) and same expected fuel mileage. Here’s what Michael Coates at HybridCars.com has to say about the new Matrix model: “The Matrix seats up to five adults comfortably. The rear seat, especially, has been expanded to make more passenger room. The compromise has been a slight loss of cargo space, but not enough to notice. Overall, its functionality is still top-notch for those who like to throw in their stuff and hit the road.”

So, don’t pack away your vacation plans just yet. There’s hope on the horizon for families who wish to get out and go without being frustrated. It’s all about being green.