Secondhand Gems: $20,000 Family-Sized Fun

By Christopher Smith

March 22, 2012

In these pages, we spend ample time rambling about machines that either explode with horsepower, or blitz corners like teenage girls scrambling for tickets to the next Twilight movie. We would love to spend our days wrapped in the world of exotic performance or tire-destroying torque, but a secondhand Ferrari 360 for $90,000 or even a tuned $80,000 Nissan GT-R aren’t exactly priced for the masses, never mind being family friendly.
That’s why we’re going to talk about family vehicles, and this time when we say family vehicles we’re not talking about overpowered SUVs that turn 12-second quarter-mile times, or sedans that set lap records at the Nordschleife. This time, we’re looking at what matters most to families--safety, space, economy, and price.
If that sounds like a list of supremely boring vehicles, well, you’re right. eBay Motors is full of humdrum sedans and minivans suitable for such family duties, but what about the passion for driving? That’s why you come to Winding Road, and we’re here to say that all hope needn’t be abandoned. Honestly, we even found a minivan with a manual transmission.
In our search for responsible, affordable family machines that aren’t completely mind numbing to drive we’ve rounded up a pair of crossovers and the aforementioned minivan.  They all rank well in terms of safety equipment and crash worthiness. They all offer three-row seating. They all achieve at least an EPA-highway rating of 24 miles per gallon. And at approximately $20,000, they’re affordable by the masses. Okay, so they won’t tingle the spine like a V-12 Aston. But even we have to admit that, sometimes, there are things more important than hooning and hooligan antics on back roads.
2009 Chevrolet Traverse LS FWD
The Traverse is a very popular vehicle. General Motors sold almost 100,000 in the Chevy’s inaugural year of 2009, and that’s not including figures from the clone-close GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave, and Saturn Outlook, all of which price out just a bit higher and come dressed in slightly more formal attire.
That’s not to say the Traverse is bargain basement; pleasantly contrasting colors and swooping trim borrowed from the Malibu accentuate even the base LS model, but cheap GM hard plastic surfaces persist throughout the cabin. Controls are also standard GM, with basic buttons and dials for the stereo and climate systems that are easy to operate, if a tad dated and boring. LS models receive basic power options for windows, locks, and mirrors, but seat adjustments are all manual and on the outside, the Traverse LS rides on seventeen-inch steel wheels. That’s pretty thin for a vehicle that stickered brand new for $30,000.
The trade off is that the Traverse is very spacious inside, and by that we mean flat-out huge. In a world where crossovers often claim three-row seating only to find the rearmost accommodations barely suitable for Cabbage Patch dolls, the Traverse can hold two adults in the back with reasonable comfort, or three adults if they’re on a first-name basis. As such, the Traverse is the only vehicle on this list to claim accommodations for eight people, which can have its advantages when the grandparents come to visit and everyone wants to go to dinner in a single car.
The seats are comfortable and there’s good legroom even for passengers in the very back. And with all the seats folded down the Traverse can haul just about anything short of another Traverse. For families who need beaucoup space for goods and/or daily shuttle service for the entire neighborhood, it’s hard to beat the Traverse.
Weighing almost 5000 pounds before the basketball team belts in, the Traverse’s 281 horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 has its work cut out for it. Horsepower addicts might say it’s not enough grunt, but it’s the meatiest engine on this list and while you won’t win any burnout contests, the vast majority of shoppers in this segment will be perfectly satisfied with the V-6’s pull. A six-speed automatic shuffles power to the front--all-wheel drive is available but not at $20,000--and though the transmission is smooth it can be a touch mushy at times. Still, with a tender foot the powertrain can deliver an EPA-rated 24 highway mpg, and for something of this size that’s not bad. Not bad at all.
What we like most about the Traverse, however, is its poise and balance. That might sound odd considering the dimensions of the subject vehicle, but the Chevy keeps its motions well sorted in all but the most extreme conditions. It’s certainly no autocross champion in sheep’s clothing--the tires will howl and the front will mercilessly plow forward with just moderate aggression, but before that happens the Traverse is reasonably communicative and composed in its actions. The trade off is a ride that can be a tad harsh at times, but only in extreme circumstances where the conditions would likely wreak havoc with the most isolated of underpinnings. The rest of the time, the Traverse simply holds the road, and once again, for something of this size that’s pretty darn admirable.
2009 Ford Flex SEL FWD
There's a cool factor to the Flex that's hard to describe. That is, unless you're part of the group that thinks it looks like a big ugly toaster on wheels. We’ll compromise and say the Flex’s boxy shape is more of an acquired taste, but for folks who are searching for an accommodating family vehicle and refuse to go quietly into the realm of average suburbia, this is your machine.
The stage presence of this seven-passenger-ode-to-straight-lines is undeniable, with its retro style attracting attention not unlike that which welcomed the PT Cruiser so many years ago. Even three years after the Flex hit the road it still grabs the eyes of onlookers, and with a styling refresh from Ford already scheduled for 2013, there’s no chance of the Flex’s look going stale.
The shape that polarizes so many people on the outside pays dividends on the inside, as in dividends of usable space and greenhouse-like visibility. Front and second-row passengers enjoy some of the best legroom outside of full-size SUVs or limousines. The third row is a bit more cramped than what you find in the Traverse and it only accommodates two, but it’s still comfortable for children and reasonably comfortable for adults, at least for short trips. And no matter where you sit there’s a clear view of life beyond the Flex thanks to large, broad windows that serve to open this expansive interior even further. It’s the best cure for motion sickness since Dramamine.
With all seats folded down, the Flex can tote roughly the same amount of cargo as the Traverse, but Ford has the Chevy handily trumped when it comes to interior ambiance and overall pizzazz. Even in base SE trim the Flex treats passengers to friendlier surfaces that create a higher quality feel on the inside. Outside, it rides on pretty decent eighteen-inch aluminum wheels.  
This is all great news for a vehicle that checks in a bit under $20,000. That’s why we’d spend a hair over our price point and upgrade to the SEL model, which builds on the luxurious feel with wood grain trim, heated leather seats, multi-zone climate controls and a six-disc CD changer with satellite radio.
We gave the nod to an all-wheel drive EcoBoost powered 2010 Flex back in Issue 69, calling it a cool $35,000 crossover. The extra power and suspension tweaks gave that 4500-pound machine a very welcome performance edge, but the front-wheel-drive, naturally aspirated version isn’t quite as exciting. Rated at 262 horsepower, the 3.5-liter V-6 works hard through a smooth, quick shifting six-speed automatic to give the Flex respectable if limited thrust, but the Traverse will still inch steadily away in a drag race. It’ll match the Chevy for highway fuel economy, and though the softly sprung independent suspension restrains body roll enough to enjoy PG-rated cornering, hefty amounts of isolation deliver a quiet, smooth ride that’s also mostly devoid of feedback. The Flex is still more engaging to drive than a traditional SUV or minivan, but only in the same way a clip-on tie outclasses a tuxedo T-shirt.
2010 Mazda5 Sport
So, after doing everything in our power to avoid minivans, now we offer one as a gem. What gives? Well, it starts with the availability of a third pedal and a vertical stalk that's used to select five forward gears by hand. By default, such an archaic device requires a higher level of situational awareness and driver involvement in vehicle operation, and coincidently, that's exactly what driving enthusiasts crave. They crave it so much they'll often sacrifice horsepower or optional equipment just to have that interface, all in the name of physically manipulating internal moving parts to induce forward motion. Fascinating.
Having spent an entire paragraph talking about the philosophy of shifting gears, you might expect there isn't much else to like about the Mazda5. It’s true that to get the manual in the Mazda one must opt for the base Sport model, and that means living with the bare minimums--power windows, locks, cruise control, auto climate control, CD player, traction and dynamic stability control, anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, front, side and head airbags, electroluminescent gauges, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and sexy seventeen-inch alloy wheels.
Look a little further and you can probably find this base model with the optional DVD entertainment system, in-dash CD changer, and fog lights. In fact, the only notable differences between the Sport and top-of-the-line Grand Touring are some paint and trim enhancements, Xenon headlamps, heated leather seats, an available moonroof, and that’s about it. Base model, indeed.
Since it’s not necessarily wanting for features, the Sport must get the crap engine then. Actually, it gets the only engine available for the entire line--a 2.3-liter four cylinder making all of 153 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. If that doesn’t sound like much of a mill to power a family vehicle, you’re right. It’s not fast, but it’s also not as dinky as one might expect. Compared to the considerably larger Traverse, the Mazda5 has 1300 less pounds to deal with.
It’s only available with front-wheel drive, and with the manual gearbox it doesn’t suffer as much parasitic power loss through the driveline. As a result, the Mazda isn’t much slower than the Flex, and it’s rated for 28 miles per gallon on the highway.
But it still looks like a minivan, right? Well, perhaps a minivan that does the Insanity workout every morning. Its edgy lines and lack of chrome give it a leaner, more sculpted look. The narrowing of the side glass as the roof and beltline meet in the back adds to the 5’s sleekness, but that also presents a problem.
Passengers in the first two rows have cushioned backsides and legroom to spare, allowing them to enjoy the smartly arranged, handsome interior. But the Mazda closes in around the pair of seats in back, which are a snug fit even for children. It doesn’t help that the 5 is smaller than the average minivan, but even the clever interior packaging can’t magically create space where none exists. Occasional trips with six passengers (the Mazda’s maximum headcount, since a middle-row bench isn’t available) and minimal cargo are plausible, but long-distance rear seat occupants taller than Prince are not recommended.
Minivan though it might be, beneath the distinctive sheet metal and three-row seating lives the spirit of a Mazda3. That car provides the basis for the 5’s underpinnings and we can appreciate that lineage in the way this people mover carries itself. We don't smile when driving minivans, but blipping the 5’s throttle to execute a slick 4-3 downshift in preparation to accelerate through a long, sweeping 40 mile-per-hour right hander, leaning left as the g-load and tire noise builds, feeling the suspension squat and settle without excessive body roll as the engine (eventually) pulls man and machine past the apex--only then do we look in the rearview mirror. Are there really four additional seats and two sliding doors back there? Doesn’t matter, we’re still smiling.
And that’s not even the best part, because the 2010 Mazda 5 Sport was $20,000 brand new. Today, the same machine can be had for as little as $15,000. It comes up a little short on space and power, but for a family of five with a driver who yearns for something more from the journey, this could be the best-kept secret on the market.

The Mazda5 is head and shoulders above the Flex and Traverse in the fun-to-drive department. For usable passenger space and comfort with appreciable power and some cornering composure, the Traverse is the vehicle of choice. Distinctive styling with rich accommodations, supreme comfort, and just enough poise to be interesting is the exclusive domain of the Flex. Three family oriented machines with three different approaches to one very important job, and though we’d all like to get rowdy with something naughty and Italian, in the end it’s family that matters most.