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Typically, off-road vehicles are for bachelors - for the camping and adventuring with friends that come before settling down, having kids, and getting something practical and family-friendly like a Honda Odyssey. But what if it didn't have to be that way? What if off-road vehicles were the next family car? New wisdom and changing trends may be encouraging a shift in this area.

Off-Roading 101

Off-road vehicles aren't just ATVs and Jeeps with the doors taken off, though those certainly fit the bill. No, according to Kelly Blue Book, off-road vehicles are actually any vehicle with four-wheel drive, larger tires, and a high ground clearance, allowing them to drive on unusual surfaces. If your car can handle dirt roads, gravel, mud, and sand with ease, it qualifies as an off-road vehicle.

The KBB definition may be surprising to some, but it makes sense; while most soccer moms driving smaller SUVs don't think of themselves as ready to head off-road, they absolutely could. The fact is that the vehicles many buy to ensure safety while driving in snow or heavy rain are equally well equipped to explore uncharted terrain.

Where Safety Meets Adventure

The beauty of off-road vehicles for families is that they were made to navigate imperfect terrain, and while you may spend most of your time driving down the streets of your suburban development, having an off-road vehicle opens up your options while providing an added measure of safety. After all, if you can drive a Jeep along the beaches and volcanoes of Oahu, it can certainly handle your local campgrounds or the next snow storm.

Families should be careful when assessing the safety features offered by off-road vehicles, however, as they vary widely. Some are remarkably safe, like the 2017 Honda Ridgeline, which earned a superior rating in crash avoidance and mitigation, as well as an A for the ease of use of its child seat LATCH system. On the other hand, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, which seems unusually popular with families, performs poorly in in side crashes because it lacks appropriate airbags, putting kids at risk.

A Question Of Capacity

Another factor in the rise of off-road vehicles as family cars is that of capacity. Minivans are historically popular because they are perfect for hauling groceries, sports equipment (and half the sports team), or all the gear for vacation or college. But why drive a minivan when a truck can do the same thing with better optics?

The Ford F-150 is a perfect example of the pickup turned family car. It's an ideal option for several reasons, including the fact that it fits three safety seats across the back with plenty of legroom for adults and older kids, has a huge cargo area since it's a pickup, and offers extraordinary comfort for a workhorse. This new model is also a top safety pick according to Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

An Expanded Repertoire

It's easier than ever for families to adopt off-road vehicles as their primary cars because so many more cars are equipped to take on unusual terrain. The affordable Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland, for example, has the sleek SUV look popular with families right now but can conquer just about any terrain with ease. The combination of a comfortable interior and sturdy exterior is hard to beat.

Downsides Remain

Of course, there are still notable difficulties for families with off-road vehicles, for example entry height. Cars that are meant to clear rocks and glide through snow and sand are typically high off the ground, making them difficult for kids to climb in and out of independently. They can also be hard for elderly family members to navigate.

Another difficulty with off-road vehicles is width. Although some, like the Chevrolet Colorado, have slimmed down cabs, these vehicles are typically wider, making it harder to navigate narrow streets, parking lots, and driveways.

As with any car, it's important to do your research before investing in an off-road vehicle for your family. Read reviews, take a test drive, sit in the back, and get a feel for how these vehicles operate in your daily life. It's great that you can take a Jeep or pickup truck anywhere and don't need to work about snow and flooding, but for most of us, that isn't the day-to-day.

Safety, comfort, and ease should be your top concerns for a primary family vehicle - off-roading comes second.

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