► Looking for a do-it-all family car? Here’s what to buy
► Everything from a budget SUV to V8-engined estate
► The best family cars of 2023 revealed
The remit for what a ‘family car’ actually is has changed significantly over the years, with manufacturers and customers alike struggling to work out what they actually need from a family wagon. The rise of the SUV has certainly changed things, with old favourites such as the Ford Mondeo now totally extinct in this new, everchanging climate. Read on for our guide to the best family cars – which make up some of the best cars on sale today.
Check the roads right now, and it’d be easy to come up with another list of the best SUVs in 2023, but instead we’ve given you a more varied list of the best-all-rounders on the roads right now. So there’s the dynamic BMW 3 Series Touring, the unpretentious Dacia Duster, the plush Volvo V90 Cross Country and the tyre-shredding Mercedes-AMG E63 S Estate. Our selection includes a couple of electric family cars, too.
The best family cars 2023
Keep reading for more details of each car and why we picked them, then click on the links for our full reviews. And if you fancy the old-school alternative, help is at hand. Ben Oliver’s review of the Mk5 Ford Cortina is here.
BMW 3 Series Touring
- Best for ticking every box
Here’s how to have your Black Forest gateau and eat it. The 3 Series Touring is comfortable, efficient, crammed with tech and wears the right badge. It’s also very practical, with 500 litres of luggage space, opening tailgate glass and ingenious active anti-slip rails on the boot floor. Best of all, it’s brilliant to drive: balanced and confidence-inspiring, with a ride pliant enough for British B-roads. That it doesn’t have BMW’s ghoulish new grille is surely the kirsche on the torte.
Most buyers won’t look beyond the 187bhp four-cylinder 320d, which is refined, decently quick (0-62mph in 7.1sec) and averaged nearly 50mpg in our hands. Want more? The creamy 282bhp six-cylinder 330d is one of the few diesels you’ll ache to own, even if your fleet manager favours the workmanlike 288bhp 330e plug-in hybrid. Alternatively, throw caution to the breeze with the first ever M3 Touring.
Read our BMW 3 Series Touring review
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Skoda Octavia Estate
- Best for out-Golfing a Golf
There’s a thin line between sensible and dull, and the Skoda Octavia teeters towards the latter. Still it’s hard to argue against what is effectively a Volkswagen Golf with more space and a lower price. The standard Octavia hatchback is already very practical, but the Estate ups the ante with a whopping 640-litre boot. Fold the rear seats and the resulting 1,700 litres is more than a BMW 5 Series Touring. Quality is excellent and your kids will love the widescreen infotainment, even if the dearth of physical buttons drives you – literally – to distraction.
The 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel is a stout all-rounder, particularly when mated to the dual-clutch DSG auto ‘box. And while the driving experience is short on surprise-and-delight, we’re big fans of Skoda’s ‘Simply Clever’ features – including waste bins in the doors, folding tables on the front seatbacks and a double-sided boot liner. You can dial up the excitement with the Octavia VRS, of course, which comes in petrol, diesel and plug-in hybrid varieties. We’d go for the flexible 242bhp petrol engine, also found in the Mk8 Golf GTI.
Read our Skoda Octavia Estate review
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- Best compact SUV
Back in 1972, one of CAR’s most controversial covers pictured a Volvo 144 on a packet of washing powder, above the headline ‘The automobile as a domestic appliance’. Now even the Swedish marque’s compact crossover – surely the most insipid class of car? – is brimful of premium appeal. It starts with chunky, hewn-from solid styling and a decluttered, Scandi-cool cabin. We’d spec the optional orange carpets, and to hell with the resale value. Clever stowage spaces, a useful 452-litre boot and an excellent Euro NCAP score further boost the XC40’s family car credentials.
The Volvo majors on easygoing comfort, rather than trying to be the four-wheeled equivalent of a hiking trainer. Nonetheless, the 154bhp three-cylinder T3 petrol feels a bit overwhelmed, so opt for the punchy 247bhp T5 if possible. There’s also a new, fully electric Recharge model with a 260-mile range and a hefty price tag (£60k for the fully loaded First Edition). Speaking of prices, the innovative Care by Volvo subscription service gets you an XC40 from £469 a month with servicing, tax and insurance included. It sounds as painless as owning, um, a domestic appliance.
Read our Volvo XC40 review
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Mercedes-AMG E63 S Estate
- Best estate car for making the labrador feel sick
There’s something deliciously wicked about a car that hits 62mph in 3.5 seconds, yet can carry 2.4 children, a chest of drawers and the family dog. Probably best you don’t attempt all that at the same time. Very few vehicles have such a breadth of ability as the E63 S Estate. You can start your day with some heavy-lifting at Ikea, then spend the afternoon smoking tyres at Silverstone. Did we mention Drift Mode? It’s what every family holdall needs.
The AMG’s rear-driven chutzpah is what wins it our vote over the more clinical Audi RS6. But the E63 S also plays the everyday estate car very well. Its cabin is beautifully crafted and more connected than a 5G mast. Many active safety acronyms do their best to rein in that riotous 603bhp 4.0-litre V8. And it has a 670-litre boot (1,820 litres with the rear seats folded) – beaten only by the Defender here. We’ll have ours in German taxi beige, for maximum Q-car points.
Read our Mercedes-AMG E63 S review
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Ford Focus Estate
- Best estate car for ticking every box…but cheaper than the BMW
If you can’t stretch to a 3 Series, the Focus Estate offers practicality and dynamic sparkle for a much lower price. The wagon costs £1,400 more than the hatchback and boosts luggage space from 375 to 608 litres. Rear-seat passengers also benefit from additional headroom, thanks to the elongated roof. Its interior looks built to a budget, but Ford’s Sync media system, which includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, is more intuitive than the Volkswagen Group’s latest efforts. We’d also splash out £550 on the brilliant B&O Play audio system.
Unless you go for the ST – available in 276bhp petrol and 187bhp diesel formats – the Focus won’t serve up much excitement. However, while lowlier versions of the hatch use a twist-beam axle, all Focus Estates have independent rear suspension. This, combined with sharp steering and well-weighted controls, makes even the school run more fun. Go for the 123bhp 1.0 Ecoboost petrol engine, or the 118bhp 1.5 diesel if you cover lots of motorway miles.
Read our Ford Focus Estate review
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Land Rover Defender
- Best for off-roading and social mountaineering
Are you one of those annoyingly active families from a car brochure? You know, windsurfing one minute, extreme skiing the next? If so, here’s the perfect complement to your Lifestyle (with a capital ‘L’). Previously, the Discovery might have occupied this slot, reserved for the ultimate, go-anywhere family car. But the Defender offers the same space, luxury and all-terrain talent, then ladles a rich layer of style and heritage on top. Whatever you think about large SUVs – or indeed ladder frame chassis and hose-out interiors – to drive a Defender is to want one. It’s definitely one of the best family cars on sale today.
The short-wheelbase 90 has three doors, so you’ll need the full-size 110. This provides up to eight seats across three rows, plus boot space from 231 litres to a van-like 2,233 litres. The 246bhp D250 diesel musters all the grunt you realistically need, while a low-range transfer ‘box, locking differentials and Terrain Response software mean you don’t need skis to venture off-piste. Unlike its venerable ancestor, this Defender also impresses on the road, with direct steering and excellent body control. Against the odds, Land Rover has successfully reinvented an icon.
Read our Land Rover Defender review
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Tesla Model 3
- Best for showing your family the future
The establishment is catching up fast, but Tesla still has the edge if you want an electric family car. The Model 3 recently overtook the Nissan Leaf to become the best-selling EV ever – and it overtakes almost everything else, too. Even the basic car hits 60mph in 5.8sec, while the dual-motor Performance needs just 3.1sec. Few supercars are safe. Perhaps more importantly, the Model 3’s range is also class-leading, at up to 374 miles. And you get to use Tesla’s well-established Supercharger network for longer trips.
Forget all the hype about Autopilot, because this is a rewarding driver’s car. Its steering is quick and pointy, while a firmly damped chassis proffers the agility to match. The Model 3 has a roomy 425-litre boot, but being a saloon does limit its practicality. Fit and finish could also be more substantial, and that swooping roofline eats into rear-seat headroom. Thankfully, your children will be far too distracted by Beach Buggy Racing on the giant 15-inch touchscreen to care. Show them how to activate Emissions Testing Mode (yep, ‘fart mode’) at your peril…
Read our Tesla Model 3 review
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Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo
- Best for being the ultimate EV all-rounder
Taycan or Panamera? There aren’t many EVs we’d choose over the ICE alternative, but this one’s a no-brainer. The all-electric Taycan is a proper Porsche – fast, fluid and flattering to drive – and in Cross Turismo guise it’s also one of the best family cars going. Adjustable air suspension offers up to 30mm more ground clearance than the saloon, while four-wheel drive and a Gravel mode further boost all-weather ability. The optional Off-Road Design Package helps shrug off car park scrapes, too.
Inside, you’re cocooned in a low-slung seat, surrounded by an array of haptic touchscreens. It feels futuristic and beautifully built. The boot holds an unremarkable 446 litres, but swells to 1,212 litres with the rear seats folded. Range varies from 260-283 miles and the flagship 751bhp Turbo S rockets to 62mph in a brutal 2.9sec. Still, it’s how the 2.5-tonne Taycan goes around corners that leaves your head spinning. No electric car monsters a country road quite like it. Maybe 2030 won’t be so bad after all.
Read our Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo review
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