The automobile has always been a focal point in family life, and not just for vacation travel during the fleeting days between Memorial and Labor Day. As both cars and car technology have changed, so too have the needs of families when purchasing new cars.
Driving is a touchstone experience in modern American life, and a multigenerational one, at that. For instance, a universal coming-of-age moment for many American teens comes in buying their first car. Think of The Brady Bunch, when Greg Brady buys a fixer-upper of his dreams that becomes a project for the whole family. “It kind of reminds me of an old car my dad used to have,” says his father, thinking back to his own childhood and touching on the way cars are intimately related to the American mythos.
Accordingly, owning a car can trigger seriously nostalgic feelings, reminiscent of childhood experiences common to the American experience. Take a scene from a gee-golly show like Leave It to Beaver, where the kids complain about having to be driven everywhere, and you can easily imagine a similar scene today with a modern parent, working tirelessly toward inbox zero while still making it on time to soccer practice and ballet lessons.
The car itself has, of course, changed quite a bit from its previous incarnations with more new car options than ever. The ways families use them have evolved a well, and certain pastimes are no longer as ubiquitous. The drive-in movie theater, for instance, used to be a way for everyone in the family to enjoy a film together. At their peak popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, there were thousands of drive-in theaters around the U.S.; now, they’re more of a novelty. Similarly, the drive-in restaurant was a way for families to grab a quick bite to eat. Ever since the first In ‘n’ Out burger stand in 1948, though, drive-through windows have taken over as the ultimate in fast food convenience.
Unlike drive-through windows, drive-in theaters have been made obsolete by the popularity of headrest-mounted DVD players. And though we might miss the novelty of the drive-in theater, technology has arguably improved the automobile experience for everyone, providing increasingly more safety options for concerned parents. Consider new technology like the self-parking car or the ability to call for roadside assistance with a push of a button, for instance. The contemporary family car is no longer a one-size-fits-all solution for getting around and spending time together: Instead, families of different sizes and circumstances can choose the options that make sense for them and provide the kind of entertainment they like.
But no matter the fancy tech many of us enjoy, low-tech options for enjoying family time with the car will always exist, too. The tailgate party, for instance, isn’t going away anytime soon. This American tradition is alive and well, according to the Tailgating Industry Association, which clocks in the amount spent each year on tailgating supplies at around $20 billion. More than half of the people showing up to sporting events park their cars around 3 to 4 hours before the game starts, suggesting they’re more than ready to tailgate.
According to USA Today, tailgating is a “complex community-building exercise.” “The individual traditions that they are creating add to the larger tradition,” says John Sherry, an anthropologist. “They see it as participating in the team experience.” As tailgating becomes more popular for high school sports, it’s a way that families can find a new spin on an old tradition.
And of course, the iconic family road trip itself will always live on. According to Statistic Brain, 91% of people going on a summer vacation use their personal vehicles, making an average one-way trip of about 284 miles. And thankfully for today’s road-tripping families, GPS navigation removes a lot of the stress that comes with a car full of backseat drivers.
So, taken all together, what does this vision of the new Family Road Trip Vehicle look like in terms of an actual vehicle? For a sedan, experts point to the always-popular Honda Civic, which combines great mileage, safety features, and comfort for an everybody-wins family ride. Honda wins again with the HR-V as a top two-row SUV for families who want a vehicle with a bit more muscle than a sedan, while reviewers select Nissan’s Pathfinder —with a range of smart features, like the EX Flex & Glide system to allow simple access to the back seat and an All-Mode 4x4-i intelligent off-road system for all-wheel drive—as a great choice for a three-row SUV. And if your family considers the iconic minivan its go-to road trip vehicle, the Kia Sedona gets high marks for its easily reconfigurable interior and a camera view that lets the driver see all around the outside of the van to watch for dangers on the road.
In the end, the modern family might use our cars differently in some ways—pulling up to the window rather than parking at the drive-in—but the car is still a central piece of modern familial life. Without them, life wouldn’t seem quite so memorable—and we’ll no doubt soon have nostalgia for these days, too.
Every family is different—and that’s a beautiful thing. Wherever your family’s going, Kelley Blue Book has all the resources you need to find the best new car to get your family there and in style.