The Best Car for Your Family

What to look for, from safety features to extras that make a difference.

Getting the Facts

So you're in the market for a car. Copious seating and lots of cupholders may be alluring, but they don't mean a vehicle is as family-friendly as it should be. Even crash tests -- by far the best way we have to gauge overall safety -- don't cover everything a parent needs to know. For instance, will the vehicle easily accommodate car seats? Is that third row wedged in so tightly that even an elf would be squeezed for space? Are there design features that could be hazardous to a curious toddler? Down to the day we roll the new car into the driveway, many of us parents still don't know the answers to these crucial questions, largely because we don't know what features to look for.

So what's a car-shopping parent to do? We've teamed up with car seat experts and the auto-safety gurus at Consumer Reports to help you make the safest choice for your family. Keep in mind that this is a wish list. Just because a car doesn't have everything we've pointed out, it doesn't mean you should skip it altogether. You have to weigh what features will matter most for your family and your lifestyle. For example, if you don't intend to move your car seats around, it may not be a big deal if a car's LATCH anchors are difficult to access. If you're a big carpooler, it might be. It's all about asking the right questions so you know what you're buying.

Car Seat Compatibility

Some vehicles can accommodate car seats more easily than others. Here are some features to look for:

1. Easy-to-use LATCH All new vehicles sold in the United States now come with LATCH, a system that allows you to "snap" car seats into place instead of strapping them in with a seat belt. Car seats now hook onto two metal loops that are located in the crack where the vehicle seat back and seat cushion meet. A strap coming off the top of the car seat hooks to a third metal anchor in the vehicle.

In some cars, these anchors are not easily accessible. "Deeply recessed lower anchors or very stiff seat-cushion fabric, for example, can make it difficult to hook in or detach your car seat," says Consumer Reports automotive test engineer Jennifer Stockburger.

2. Car seat-friendly center seating position. Technically, the safest position for a car seat is in the center of the second row. Many cars, however, have LATCH anchors only in the outside seating positions. Is this a deal breaker? No. But central LATCH anchors score safety and convenience points. Alternatively, some cars allow you to install a car seat in the center using the inside LATCH anchors from the two outside seating positions. Check the owner's manual to see if this option is a possibility. If it's not, you should be able to install the car seat in the center using the vehicle's seat belt. Check the seat itself, however, because the following features will make proper installation difficult: a hump-shaped seat cushion; seat belts that come out ahead of the crack (as opposed to in the crack) where the seat back and seat cushion meet; and seat belt anchors that are very close together (you can determine this last point if the car seat is wider than the space between the anchors). If a car seat does not fit properly in the center, or if you need to separate kids so they don't fight and distract you, "you'll be better off if you use the outside seating positions," says Patty Di Filippo, of the Essex County/Mountainside Hospital Car Seat Inspection Center in New Jersey.

3. Plenty of space between the second and first rows. Rear-facing seats can clash with the seat in front of them if there isn't adequate space between the two rows. Check by placing a rear-facing car seat in the second row, then have the tallest adult who will be riding in the car sit in the seat directly ahead of it. "You shouldn't have to move your seat too far forward -- you will be dangerously close to your airbag," says Di Filippo.

4. Long-enough second row for your needs. If you will need to place three car seats or a combination of car seats and booster seats in the second row of the car, bring them along and make sure they'll fit. Some straightforward sedans, like the Chevy Malibu, will do the job just fine. Some seemingly spacious family cars -- such as the Volvo station wagon or the Land Rover Discovery -- have surprisingly short rear benches that make for a very tight fit. "In this case, you might ask if built-in booster seats are an option since they'll buy you a few inches of space," suggests Di Filippo.

Crash Test Performance

Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conduct a wide array of tests. "Any car you're considering should do well on all of these," says Stockburger. For more information:

Consumer Reports Safety Assessments make sense of these disparate data by combining all available crash test information with on-road test results.

 

Car-safety.org distills crash test data and provides a list of vehicles that make the grade.

 

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provides extensive crash test data.

 

Can the Car Grow with Us?

At some point -- usually at around 40 pounds -- your child will outgrow her convertible car seat. Will that rear vehicle seat be suitable for her belt-positioning booster seat? Will there be enough safe seating for younger siblings and the gaggle of playmates that will undoubtedly come along with your crew?

There should be shoulder belts and head restraints for every passenger. These features provide the best protection. In addition, booster seats can't be used in a vehicle seat that has a lap belt only. Make sure the manufacturer hasn't cut corners by skipping one or both of these features in back -- it's common for them to do so in the center seats.

4 Safety Features to Look For

1. Side curtain air bags. A new kind of air bag is winning raves from safety experts and is becoming increasingly available in a wide variety of family cars. Called side curtain air bags, they unfurl along a vehicle's windows during a collision and provide a significantly higher degree of head protection for adults and children alike. Consider this a key feature to look for.

2. Lever-style power window controls. Over the past decade, 25 children have died from injuries that involved power-window switches, according to safety advocacy group Kids and Cars. Typically, a child sticks her head out of the car window, then accidentally leans on a control that closes the window around her neck. Rocker-style and toggle-style switches, which both pose a risk, are still used in many car models. Opt instead for lever-style switches, which must be pulled up in order to operate them.

3. Cover or net for cargo area. "If you stop suddenly or are in a collision, anything stored in the cargo area of a wagon or SUV can come flying forward and injure whomever it slams into," says Stockburger. A vertical net or horizontal cover will reduce the risk.

4. OnStar If it's available in the car you're considering, it may be worth paying for OnStar's satellite safety service. It can make almost any problem better -- from providing help unlocking your vehicle to alerting emergency personnel if your air bag is deployed. After an initial year of free service, there's a $17 monthly fee.

Third Row Safety

Very little is known about the safety of third-row seats because neither the government nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducts crash tests that gauge how third-row passengers would be affected in a rear collision. This doesn't necessarily mean you should avoid a third row, but keep the following points in mind:

  • Distance from the rear glass
    While there are no official guidelines as to how far a third row should be from the rear glass, "it's safe to say that the closer vehicle occupants are to the crush zone, the more likely they are to be injured in a crash," says auto-safety consultant Paul Sheridan. For some context, the Ford Explorer's third bench is about 13 inches from the back glass, while the Buick Rendezvous' is just 8 inches from the back.
  • Investigate safety features
    Third rows are often cheated of the safety features afforded to passengers in other parts of the car. Make sure that side curtain air bags and also rollover canopies (if available) extend all the way back to protect third-row passengers. It's crucial that every third-row seating position have a shoulder belt and head restraint -- in the event of a crash the latter will prevent heads from snapping back and crashing through the rear glass.
  • Rethink rear-facing or side-facing benches
    Car seats and boosters can only be used in forward-facing vehicle seats. That means that these handy little jump seats can't be used until your child is ready for an adult belt -- usually at about age 8. By that point, he may be too big to squeeze in the back comfortably.

Backing-Up Blind Spots

In 2003, at least 72 children were killed when drivers backed over them because they didn't see them, according to Janette E. Fennell, founder of Kids and Cars. The number of such incidents has increased in recent years, partly due to the growing popularity of vans, pickups, and SUVs. "These large vehicles make it harder to see what's directly behind you," says Stockburger. Besides exercising your own caution as a driver, here's what to look for in a car you're considering:

  • Minimal blind spots
    "In many vehicles, blind spots are about 6 feet wide and stretch 20 feet back," says Fennell. It's not just vehicle size but design that comes into play. "The sloped design we're seeing on some new cars also decreases rear visibility for the driver," Stockburger says.

Check out Consumer Reports' recent story on blind spots, then take the car you're considering for a test drive. Try backing up and parallel parking. Shorter drivers especially should make sure to test out the car since blind spots are generally worse for those who sit lower in the vehicle.

 

  • Backup assistance mechanisms
    If it's offered as an option, it may be worth it to pay extra for a rear-mounted video camera that shows drivers what is behind their car. A less pricey (though not as effective) alternative is a backup sensor, which beeps when you come too close to an obstacle behind the car. Least costly and quite effective are special rearview safety lenses, which can be purchased for about $20 and attached to the rear glass. Their "Fresnel" technology gives the driver visibility directly behind the car -- but only if there isn't a trunk and the rear glass isn't curved.

 

Used Car Buying Tips

A car just a few years old may or may not have features that are considered standard today -- it all depends on when a manufacturer decided to make them available. Pay close attention to the following:

Car seat installation Most vehicles manufactured before September 2002 do not have LATCH, so you will need to install car seats with the vehicle seat belt. You'll have a much easier time if the seat belts have a built-in locking mechanism (check the manual for guidance). If they don't, you will have to use a separate metal locking clip that is difficult to use correctly.

Illuminated trunk release Kids have suffocated after crawling into a car's trunk and becoming trapped there. If the vehicle doesn't have a trunk release, ask if the manufacturer will provide you with a retrofit kit.

Brakeshift interlock mechanism This important safety feature requires that the driver push down the brake pedal in order to take it out of park. Before it became standard, numerous people were run over and killed when running cars were accidentally and all too easily put into gear -- often by an unattended child.

Cars That Have It All

Just in case you're curious, some vehicles that fit the bill particularly well are:

Minivans: Toyota Sienna; Honda Odyssey; Chrysler Town & Country; Dodge Grand Caravan

SUVS: Honda Pilot; Acura MDX; Volvo XC90

Family Sedans: Toyota Avalon; Honda Accord; VW Passat; Nissan Altima

Wagons: Volvo V70 or XC70; VW Passat Wagon

Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2004.

 

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