Aside from painting a nursery, expectant parents often face another critical task: Buying a new, typically roomier car. As those children get old enough to clamber into the back seat on their own, they're often not shy about expressing likes and dislikes regarding the family car—or exerting pint-sized influence when mom and dad are shopping for new wheels. In a U.K. survey of 1,000 parents of young children by AutoTrader, 37 percent said that their kids influenced their car-buying decision. Nearly eight in 10 said that simply having children forced them to buy a new car. (Shocking, we know).
Parents are always on the lookout for new-car features that will keep their charges happy, comfortable, and above all safe. As for staving off boredom, the latest family haulers pack in enough modern entertainment to make that old Eye Spy game seem impossibly quaint. Here are eight car features that you and your children are sure to love.
1. Driver Assistance Systems
Combining cameras, radar, microchips, and sonar sensors, these systems manage blind-spot, lane-departure, or rear cross-traffic monitors to wrap cars in a electronic cocoon of safety. Sophisticated adaptive cruise control lets your car pace traffic ahead, even in rush-hour snarls, without drivers having to touch the gas pedal or brake. The latest systems brake automatically to avoid or reduce frontal impacts with cars or pedestrians, or even steer themselves to keep your car centered in its lane. That technology is rapidly trickling down to affordable family cars. For one brand, Subaru's impressive EyeSight suite (available on its Outback, Forester, CrossTrek, Impreza, and Legacy and WRX models), combines automated emergency braking with adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warnings—ideal for potentially distracted parents, and their precious cargo in back.
2. Multimedia Entertainment
Today's cars are bringing more entertainment on board via WiFi connections for smartphones, tablets, and now subscription satellite programming. The Chrysler Pacifica's UConnect Theater mesmerizes children with a pair of 10-inch headrest screens, wireless headphones, and a vast range of video sources, including an HDMI connection for gaming. There are even nine built-in games, from checkers to Sudoku. To answer the eternal question, the animated "Are We There Yet?" lets children track the destination ahead. The Honda Odyssey's new Android-based infotainment system has its own built-in DVD, BluRay, and HDMI, and can stream subscription content from PBS Kids and other providers. Up to seven passengers can control video entertainment, rear climate and other functions via their smartphones—including an ingenious "Social Playlist" that lets multiple users queue up songs from their devices in a virtual jukebox.
3. Onboard Vacuum Cleaners
Cheetoh dust and cookie crumbs don't stand a chance against the Odyssey's built-in HondaVac, and parents went nuts over this groundbreaking feature. Now Chrysler has it for its new Pacifica, whose powerful, Ridgid-built vacuum gets 11.4 feet of hose to reach every nook and cranny. The only bummer? Like the Honda's Odyssey Elite, the Chrysler vacuum is only available on the top-of-the-line Limited Platinum model.
4. Hands-free Liftgate
Ford invented it, and now many SUV's and minivans are integrating liftgates that operate with a waggle of the foot below the rear bumper. Parents can hoist a small child in one hand and gear in the other, and open the tailgate without setting anything down. Ford's popular Escape, Edge, and Explorer SUV's, in respective small-medium-large sizes, all offer this, um, handy feature.
5. Built-in Tailgate Party
Mini's stylish Countryman is the biggest, most family-friendly Mini yet, a compact crossover with available AWD and enough back-seat space for even lanky teenagers. And while the British Mini brand might lean toward soccer matches, the Countryman's clever Picnic Bench is also ideal for football tailgaters and outdoor family adventure. Pop the hatch—or the "boot" in British parlance—and a padded bench and bumper protector fold out, creating a comfy perch that kids are sure to love.
6. Side window shades
My daughter, during her own child-seat days, would absolutely freak out if the sun shone in her eyes. Finally, affordable cars are beginning to adopt manual sunshades in rear door windows, with luxury models tending toward electric power shades. The Hyundai Sonata, among the best bang-for-the-buck family sedans, offers rear side window sunshades on its Limited model, boosting the odds of a peaceful family road trip.
7. Lounge Seats
Trust me: Children go bonkers over the Kia Sedona's optional "First Class" lounge seats. It's a feature typically found only on high-end luxury sedans, making it noteworthy for this mainstream minivan. A pair of second-row captain's chairs features a steep recline and a folding footrest, for the closest thing to airliner seating in an automobile.
8. Cool box for Beverages
Forget hauling ice in a drippy cooler, or sponging up melted chocolate bars: The Lincoln MKT, a three-row crossover SUV, offers a refrigerated console that can cool seven 12-ounce cans to a chilly 41 degrees. It's nestled in the second row between a pair of comfy bucket seats, clad in renowned Bridge of Weir leather from Scotland. As you sail past convenience stores, making great time, the only thing you'll worry about is whether your kids are being spoiled.
Lawrence Ulrich road tests more than 100 cars a year as a chief auto critic at TheDrive.com. He's the former chief auto critic of The New York Times and a contributing editor to Automobile magazine.