Jackie Langenecker, 44
Elmhurst, Ill.
Graphic artist
Commute: Works from home
What she wants: A family vehicle that isn't a minivan
Budget: $35,000 to $45,000

Most car shoppers are focused on things like fuel economy, reliability and those sorts of things. But Jackie Langenecker has a higher calling: Finding a family car that makes it easy to have fun.

She's looking for a vehicle to replace her 2007 Ford Freestyle (which she nicknamed "Goldie") and her requirements are simple: She needs to be able to seat six people, and to have room for a cooler.

Oh, and most importantly – it can't be a minivan.

"I hate minivans. Hate hate hate minivans," she said, certainly not shying away from her true feelings. "I do not want a minivan. I had one, and I hated it."

But as the mother of two active young girls, Langenecker needs room for them and their friends so she can carpool to and from swim practice and other activities. So the car needs three rows – she's got passengers in all three rows at least once a week, Langenecker said.

And, of course, there's the fun factor. The car needs room for a cooler for those hot summer days when the family heads out to the beach. They also go camping a couple of times a summer, and take frequent trips north to Wisconsin to visit family and friends. Langenecker said her husband, Scott, sometimes harbors fantasies of getting a boat he can tow around, so having a car that can haul the imaginary vessel to and from water would also be nice (but it's not a requirement.)

Unlike a lot of car buyers out there, Langenecker isn't so concerned with fuel economy. This vehicle is more about function than fuel economy, and given it's mostly used driving around town and Langenecker works from home, she'sgot some wiggle room on what she can shop for.

Possible no-brainer: 2013 Ford Explorer
Sticker price: $29,100 to $41,789
Invoice price: $27,427 to $38,027
MPG: 17 city/24 highway
Why it's a good choice for Langenecker: As a graphic artist, Langenecker has an eye for beautiful things. And the Explorer is a stylish SUV, inside and out.

The combination of angular rear windows and strong side lines on the SUV make it visually striking on the outside. Inside, the sleek dashboard and My FordTouch infotainment system – which Ford promises is much less buggy than previous versions – makes the car feel modern and cool.

And it can town up to 5,000 pounds, which isn't a huge amount of towing capacity. But Ford says that 99 percent of its buyers don't need anything more than that.

It comes with optional bucket seats in the second row, which make accessing the third row easier for kids – no more muddy sneakers leaving marks on the second row from kids clamoring into the back. And the second row has one of my other favorite optional features – inflatable seatbelts. These wacky contraptions sound like something the family might use at the beach, but they're actually a safety feature that turns the seatbelt into an airbag in case of an accident. That helps disperse the force of the seatbelt across a wider part of the body, helping prevent common fatal internal injuries in children from serious crashes.

Another solid option: 2013 Mazda CX-9
Sticker price: $29,785 to $36,375
Invoice price: $28,183 to $34,413
MPG: 17 city/24 highway
Why it's a good choice for Langenecker: This is the biggest vehicle Mazda offers, and will easily handle everything the Langeneckers are looking for in terms of space. And it's also got that zoom-zoom that Mazda promises, despite its size.

When she's heading to the beach on sunny summer days, with the windows down and sun on her face, Langenecker might have so much fun driving this car she might even forget she's someone's mom. Until the kids start asking her to turn the radio up or start fighting over juice boxes.

The Langeneckers love music, and the Mazda comes with a great sound system: an 11-speaker system made by Bose. It also comes with an optional rear entertainment system, which could makes those trips to Wisconsin a little easier. And the third row folds down for those times the family heads out camping.

The downside? It's a big car, and Langenecker said the one thing she hated the most about minivans was how big they were. So she might not find this one to feel any more nimble around town.

Another possibility: 2013 Buick Enclave
Sticker price: $38,445 to $47,625
Invoice price: $36,523 to $45,244
MPG: 17 city, 24 higway
Why it could be a good choice: As a good Midwestern family, the Langeneckers tend to favor the domestic automakers (although they weren't ruling out other options.) The Enclave is one of the best large SUVs coming out of Detroit right now, so it could be a nice addition to their shopping list.

Recently given a refresh, the Enclave's interior feels like a luxury vehicle, but is durable enough to handle the pounding that comes from daily family use. It also comes with the optional bucket seats so rear-row passengers can walk through a pass-through instead of climbing over chairs. (Yes, I know most second row seats fold down to let people in the back, but no one really uses their car that way.)

And it's super, super quiet, making conversations with little ones in the back seat feel more like they're happening around the kitchen table than in the car.

* * * * *

There were a couple of other options I considered for the Langeneckers, but ultimately discard. The Cadillac CTS-V wagon is one of my favorite cars, but it would be too tight inside to handle the family's needs. I also thought the Volvo CX-90 might be another good option, but also ultimately decided it was too small.

The family went out last week and decided to take AOL Auto's advice and buy a Ford Explorer, in blue. It should be arriving in the next month and a half. What do you think of the options we gave them?

If you'd like some help narrowing down your car shopping list, email Sharon Carty at sharon.carty@teamaol.com.

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