-- Last Updated: Oct-22-12 1:32 PM EST --
There are trade offs with every vehicle out there. If it is great at hauling a lot of gear and boats it will typically not be as great as a daily driver (mpg). What is good mpg for one person is not for someone else, relative.
My 98 TDI Jetta got 41 around town and 48-50 on trips. 2000 rpm was the sweet spot. Had roof racks and hauled okay but limited on rack placement. Engine torque and power is excellent. Trunk was pretty big too. That was my daily till it gave in to rust.
We have 2 Outbacks, a 2000 with a 4 cylinder which we would load with 4 people (adult size), gear for a weak at the beach, kayak and cargo box on top. Typically saw about 26-29 mpg. It is great on power except emergency merging when loaded like that. Great car.
Our 2006 is the 3.0 6 cylinder and gets in the high teens to mid to high 20's on trips. Have not had it loaded much but the 3.0 is a strong engine. The roof racks on these Outbacks of both these generations is excellent for loading with gear. They are both fun and nimble to drive around town and as a daily.
My 94 Land Cruiser consumes much fuel. 15 mpg is the best I have gotten. But, it will hold an absolute ton of gear. Put what we usually put in the Outbacks and not even half full. Love to drive it but gets 10-11 mpg around town. But, this gets us to those hard to reach sites and with ease.
We had a mini van which was great on trips but a fun factor of 0. Do not like as a daily driver, not as easy to park as the autos or wagons. Longer wheelbase makes daily driving that much worse or can depending on what you do each day. MPG in the mid low to mid 20's, it was a 2000 Grand Caravan.
My 86 Subaru GL 4x4 wagon will haul a few boats but limited in power and size for sure but can certainly beat around in the backwoods to get you there. Mid 20's on mpg, carburated does not help this as the fuel injected flavor of these did much better.
Basically what works best for me is to have multiple older vehicles for more specific purposes. Depends on what you want to do. Technically the 06 Outback is my wifes, the others are mine. If you are comfortable with older vehicles you can have several for less money than a newer one. Keep them well maintained and you can drive them anywhere. Repairs as needed and still way less than a new vehicle.
Just an option that works for me. Keep the beloved van for what you love it for. By an older TDI for daily driving. Taxes are way less than a newer car. Save on insurance as you can just do liability if paid for in full and not out a huge loss if totaled.
Safety is a concern as well and many of the vehicles in the 2000's got great scores. The TDI's have great scores and the Outbacks do too I believe.
Good luck to you in whatever you decide.