If you’ve got a family, you need a family car. Fortunately, there is no lack of options out there, many of them interesting, versatile and even fun. Forged from the refrigerator box school of design, the funky Ford Flex proves it’s hip to be square. A cross between an SUV, a station wagon and a minivan, the Flex offers comfortable seating for six or seven passengers, plus cargo room.

    The heated front-row seats are roomy and comfortable. The pedals can be adjusted electrically and the steering wheel manually tilts, so finding a comfortable driving position is easy. Dual automatic climate control and an AM/FM/CD/Sirius radio work well and are easy to use. Second-row passengers sit in two bucket seats with a handy console or a three-person bench. With the two-seat second row, there’s plenty of room in all directions, and the seats slide to adjust leg room between the second- and third-row passengers.

    Rear seat passengers get their own air vents and ventilation controls, along with a power point and a household 110 volt plug. Getting to the third row requires flipping and folding the second-row seat and then climbing in back, but there’s plenty of room for kids and enough for adults (if they don’t have long legs). The second-row seats can also be folded to provide even more cargo carrying capacity. The roof-hinged tailgate opens and closes at the touch of a button. A three-part sunroof, with big glass panels over the first and third rows and two smaller panels over the outboard second-row passengers, adds a real sense of airiness.

    The Flex is a heavy vehicle, but the 262 horsepower 3.5 liter V-6 engine mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission engine does a fine job propelling it. Mileage is 16 city, 22 highway with all-wheel-drive. Handling was good for a relatively large vehicle, and its most impressive feature was a firm steering feel, not overboosted like in most vehicles of this type. Brakes are also good, and the reverse sensing system is a great feature in a big vehicle like this. Six airbags combine with ABS brakes and stability control to enhance safety.

    Kirk Latta, new car sales manager at Suntrup Ford Westport, likes the Flex’s versatility. “With three rows of seats it’s very family friendly, with its up to seven-passenger seating and front or all-wheel-drive.” Prices for the Ford Flex range from $30,000 to $40,000.

    Speaking of family cars, one of my pet peeves is when people say Chrysler invented the minivan in 1982. No, it didn’t. Volkswagen did when it built the ‘bus’ from 1950 through the eighties. Now in 2009, VW is re-entering the minivan market with the Routan, a Chrysler-based minivan with a good measure of German engineering and VW styling. It is a very attractive and versatile family vehicle.

    Like most minivans, the Routan’s raison d’être is functionality. There’s no better way to haul around six or seven people than a minivan. The ability to get to the third row without having to move or flip forward a second-row seat is huge. Add its flexible and copious cargo-carrying capacity, and the lowly minivan shines as the most versatile family vehicle available in today’s market. The Routan takes the best of Chrysler’s minivan features and adds VW’s sporty and stylish touch. Though by necessity it retains a somewhat boxy shape, the Routan has distinctive VW headlights, a sloped grill and sharp character lines in the hood, making it pretty good looking.

    Inside, the Routan offers all the features minivan owners seek. Heated leather front- and second-row seats and tri-zone automatic climate control ensure passenger comfort. An easy-to-use audio system set high in the center console and an available DVD player for the rear seats keep all passengers entertained. Navigation is also available. Electrically adjustable pedals, power sliding doors with windows that can be lowered, and optional, power-folding third-row seats are nice convenience features. A power liftgate and power sunroof are also attractive options.

    Big second-row captain’s chairs are most comfortable, and the third-row seat can fit three children. Behind the third row is a deep cargo area, and additional cargo can be stowed in large storage bins beneath the floor in front of the second-row seats. The third-row seats fold into the floor for maximum cargo carrying flexibility.

    The Routan is powered by either a 197 horsepower, 3.8 liter, V-6 or a 251 horsepower, 4.0 liter, V-6. Mileage is 17 city, 25 highway with the 4.0 liter. The gear selector for the six-speed automatic transmission is on the dash next to the gauge cluster and has a manual mode. ABS and electronic stability control combine to keep the Routan headed in the right direction. Dual front and side curtain airbags protect occupants in case of a collision. The Routan has a nice ride with good, firm suspension, plenty of power and good brakes. It’s a pleasure to drive, except for the overboosted power steering.

    Gary Eickel, sales manager at Bommarito Volkswagen in Hazelwood, really likes the Routan. “Its European elegance sets it apart; its well engineered seats are more ergonomic than most second-row minivan seats. It also offers German mechanical engineering, particularly in the suspension, which really reduces body roll.” Prices range from $25,300 to $40,000, which includes free maintenance for the first three years or 36,000 miles. 

Robert W. Paster is also an attorney in private practice, concentrating in estate planning and probate.