Dear Umbra,

We have a six-year-old daughter, a three-year-old daughter, and — surprise! (well, not completely) — a new baby girl due in the next two months. Our fuel-efficient car cannot fit two car seats and a booster across the back seat, and according to Washington state law (“six-years-old and 60 pounds”), my petite six-year-old will remain in her booster for some time. I’ve been looking into minivans but am discouraged by their poor mileage.

Through much Internet research, I’ve determined that Toyota makes a hybrid minivan (Estima) and that it will be a cold day in a warm place when they market it over here where we love SUVs with big engines and single-digit mpg ratings. A few Brits import them, but the cost to bring one to the U.S. is prohibitive for me. My usual process for buying a car is to find the best repair record (through Consumer Reports) combined with the best fuel efficiency for whatever class of car I need. But none of the minivans or SUVs gets better mileage than the low 20s. What do you recommend?

Thanks for your help,

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Wenatchee, Wash.

Dearest Mike,

You’ve gotten yourself into a bit of a pollution fix with all those children you’ve been producing, but at least they’re girls. (Sorry; just trying to fill up the Letters to the Editor section.) Your car-buying habits are exemplary and you likely know as much or more than I do about what’s available — and what isn’t. I’m sorry to report that I have no high-mileage family wagon hidden up my sleeve. For the benefit of other, less knowledgeable readers who are trying to make similar car-buying decisions, I’d recommend (again) two good resources:, produced by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, and Environmental Defense’s Tailpipe Tally.

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Joining the minivan-guard.
Photo: NREL.

As for you, Dad, I’ll offer some tips you may already know. Buy the smallest car that will meet your current everyday needs, not the one you’ll need during the annual visit of your sister’s family. You can always rent a school bus that weekend. If your family owns two vehicles, be sure the non-van is super fuel-efficient and use it whenever possible to haul the partial family. If you are a one-car family (hooray!), rearrange your habits in the name of trip reduction: Try carpooling, bundling errands, biking, busing, and hitchhiking. (That’s a joke. Don’t hitchhike. And don’t let your six-year-old hitchhike just so the rest of you can fit in a smaller car.)

You will probably end up with an American-made minivan, assuming you refuse to succumb to the minivan’s latest incarnation, the sport utility vehicle. SUVs can get equal or better mileage than minivans, but gas guzzling is not their only sin. That GM Excruciation is less safe for occupants and other drivers than most other types of passenger vehicle. On the other hand, I’ve seen a study that ranks minivans as the safest of passenger cars. So I say: Reclaim the dorky minivan!

Buying an inefficient car is going to make you feel guilty, so channel that guilt into something positive. If trip-reduction strategies don’t work, give something back in another way — by working for transportation alternatives in Wenatchee, replacing old appliances, eating organic, something nice like that.


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