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I'm hoping you can help us out With baby No...

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Dear Tom and Ray:



I'm hoping you can help us out. With baby No. 4 in the oven, I've suddenly become aware that the family station wagon is a dying breed, and almost no car manufacturers are making bench front seats anymore. What happened? Will we be forced into a mammoth, gas-guzzling SUV or van because of a moment's indiscretion? What is the smallest, greenest and safest option for folks who crave just one more seat than the five that Detroit allows us? Why is it that all cars big enough to seat four little cuties get 7 miles per gallon and have stinky safety records? We live in Hawaii, where gas is atrociously expensive and parking spaces were designed for VW Beetles (the old ones). I would love to have your advice! -- Anna

RAY: Yeah, this is a problem, isn't it, Anna?

TOM: The "family station wagon" was effectively replaced by the SUV in the 1990s. Men didn't think it was cool to drive their families around in station wagons. But the car makers discovered that if you raised them up a little higher, put big, fat tires on them and slapped 4x4 decals on the back, men would fall all over themselves to drive them.

RAY: So what's left for those of us who don't want to drive SUVs? Well, there are still a few traditional station wagons out there that can seat seven, with an optional rear-facing third seat for kids. There's the Ford Taurus (aka Mercury Sable), the Volvo V70 and the Mercedes E320 wagon.

TOM: Keep in mind, though, that this third seat is not for kids who get carsick easily, and we can't vouch for their safety in rear-end crashes. Plus, the third seat is definitely designed for tiny people. Once your kids get bigger, they might stage a mutiny. Your husband might find you back there one day, tied up with seat belts and a wad of moist wipes stuffed in your mouth.

RAY: So the next-larger option is the good ol' minivan. Minivans have advantages over SUVs in that they aren't trucks. So they don't handle terribly, aren't as likely to tip over, get better gas mileage, aren't as dangerous to other vehicles in accidents, are easier to get in and out of and are easier to park. Plus, they can handle your kids for years to come, since all seven seats can hold adults. Our favorite minivan these days is the Honda Odyssey. But Dodge, Chrysler, Ford, Toyota, Mazda and Kia also make good ones.

TOM: And in the near future, you might have some other good options available to you. As you might imagine, people are starting to get sick of truck-based SUVs, for all the reasons we mentioned above. And manufacturers are responding by building "sport wagons," SUV-style vehicles that are really variations of -- you guessed it -- the family station wagon. So you should see more station-wagon-like options in the next few years.

RAY: We know of two six-passenger (three rows of two) wagonlike vehicles that are on the way. There's the Chrysler Pacifica and the Mercedes Vision GST, both due next year.

TOM: And by the way, because so many people have been asking us about alternatives to SUVs lately, we've set up a new area of our Web site with a list of alternatives -- depending on what aspects of an SUV you want (all-wheel drive, looks, ground clearance, passenger capacity, cargo room). You can find it at www.cartalk.cars.com/info/suv/.

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