This year, a record wave of recession-struck families are expected to drive, rather than fly, on their summer vacation. But they won’t be in the wagons of yore or even the minivans and SUVs of the gas-guzzling era.

Instead, crossovers, a broad class of vehicles that are generally sleeker and sportier (and less of a soccer-parent stigma) than their family-car brethren, are taking over the road. Many come loaded with kid-friendly options – like third-row seating and fancy entertainment and safety systems – and get slightly better mileage. And because they’re built more like cars, with a lighter, road-hugging “unibody” construction, says Edmunds.com analyst Jessica Caldwell, their handling and stability are superior to most SUVs and vans.

The shift for the Game-Boy-and-gummy-bear set is fairly new but growing. According to J.D. Power & Associates, minivans and large SUVs each comprise less than 5 percent of the overall car market, with the former down from a peak of 8 percent in 2000. Crossovers, with 60-plus contenders in the field, have risen to more than 20 percent. Nonetheless, times are bleak in auto land, and even crossovers face a rough road. While most start under $30,000, the tab can quickly escalate beyond $40,000 with a few extra features. While bargains and incentives have dominated the market thus far this year, those deals will become more scarce as the leaner, meaner automakers produce fewer cars for the 2010 model year.

We didn’t have time to take a full-fledged driving vacation (blame our editor), but we did take our toddler out for weekend spins in three different kinds of crossovers: a luxury “tourer,” a classic sporty model and a uniquely designed new version.

We start by securing our daughter’s car seat into one of the ritziest family shuttles: the Mercedes-Benz R-Class, a mix of wagon, crossover and minivan that has been marketed as a “Grand Sports Tourer.” Sure, we’re seduced by the understated interior (leather-and-wood trim, elegant curved armrests), and extras like the rear-seat DVD system and “heat-reflecting” panorama sunroof. Plus, its low center of gravity – and German engineering – gives it the most precise, carlike feel of any crossover we drive.

But we can’t help thinking that, with a starting price over $48,000, we want more. Like many  crossovers, its sloping roofline steals interior cabin space; the third row, in particular, has virtually no legroom for adults. And although the diesel edition we drive proves both responsive and powerful (after a short initial lag), it’s rated at only 20 mpg – 25 percent better than the conventional R-Class, but that’s not saying much, since the diesel option costs an additional $1,500. Overall, a tough sell in this market.

Like many parents under-whelmed with the milquetoast driving manners of minivans, we’re anxious to try a more performance-oriented crossover like the Mazda CX-9. We especially like how its peppy six-cylinder engine, linked to an automatic transmission, can also be shifted manually; it’s a rare and welcome tinge of Jeff Gordon in a car that also boasts generous legroom, cargo space ample enough for a portable crib, stroller and suitcases – and a backseat video game docking station. (Note to gamers: The $1,400 add-on works only with Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance.)

With our own precious cargo in tow, we appreciate that all that perkiness comes with advanced air bags and electronic controls to help prevent rollovers. However, the blind-spot warning system, which beeps and flashes an alert in the side mirrors when it detects a car, is available only in the pricey Grand Touring edition. And it didn’t work for us in heavy rain; a Mazda spokesperson acknowledges it has some weather limitations.

But when it comes to roominess and comfort, the retro-looking Ford Flex wins hands down, as our weekend run to Wal-Mart soon confirms. While its grooved side panels and boxy design strike some as goofy, its stretched profile creates plenty of interior legroom and headroom – an effect enhanced by the four-panel glass roof ($1,495 extra). Folding down the back seat is a snap, giving us even more space for all our bags and boxes.

The plush cabin also features a bevy of toys: a voice-activated phone and media-player system, a “smart” navigation unit that pinpoints nearby gas stations with the cheapest fuel, and a DVD player mounted in the front headrests (available only in the pricier editions). Perhaps the Flex’s most unique option? A top-loading mini-fridge tucked between the middle-row seats. Granted, the ability to chill snacks has never been high on our automotive wish list, but we happily store our ice cream for the ride home and imagine the refreshing possibilities for the summer vacation ahead.

3 FAMILY HAULERS

Ford Flex SEL

Base price: $36,445

This rolling den comes with a middle-row fridge, but pickup can be sluggish.

Mercedes-Benz R320 Bluetec

Base price: $55,375

A diesel engine gives it a slight mileage edge, but third row is tight.

Mazda CX-9 Touring AWD

Base price: $35,745

Performance feels sporty, but fuel economy is on the low side.

2009 Copyright The New York Times Syndicate