What to look for, from safety features to extras that make a difference.
The Best Car for Your Family
Credit: Soloviova Liudmyla/Shutterstock

So you're in the market for a family 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 one of the best ways 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? 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.

Car Seat Compatibility

Navigating all the ins and outs of car seats is often easier said than done. Some parents, especially new parents, find it difficult to decide what kind of car seat to buy and how to install it properly. But parents are not alone in this. Certified Child Passenger Safety Technicians (CPST) are available to help parents provide the best protection for their kids. Visit safekids.org to find a car seat technician or locate a car seat inspection station or checkup event in your community. Of course, not every parent can make it to a CPST.  So Safe Kids created another resource to help reach more parents with helpful tips to protect kids on the move. The Ultimate Car Seat Guide provides expert guidance to parents, particularly new parents, on the important decisions such as buying, installing and getting the right car seat or booster fit, and knowing when to move from one seat to the next they face when choosing and using a car seat.

“Developed with support from General Motors, the guide offers parent-friendly tips on everything from how to select the right car seat to knowing how to test a child to know when it is safe to move to the seat belt,” said Safe Kids Worldwide's Interim President and Chief Program Officer Torine Creppy. “We hope you will use it and share it with your friends and family. We want to protect kids on the move. Taking just a few minutes to make sure your car seat is installed and used correctly could be the first step to saving the life of your amazing child.”

  1. Easy-to-use LATCH. Nearly all new vehicles sold in the United States 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 called the top tether 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 installing a car seat is in the center of the second row. LATCH is a relatively new way to attach a car sea to the car but it is not in every seating position. But seat belts are. Many cars, have LATCH in two positions and they are usually in the outside seating positions. Is this a deal breaker? No. You can always use the seat belt in the middle instead. But if you really want to use LATCH in the center seat you have to check to be sure your car is equipped to do that. Some cars allow you to install a car seat in the center using the inside LATCH anchors from the two outside seating positions. Others do not. Don’t guess. Check the owner's manual to see if this option is a possibility. If it's not, install the car seat in the center using the vehicle's seat belt. If the car seat is forward facing remember to always use the top tether, it makes your child much safer.
  3. Check the vehicle seat itself too, because the following features can make proper installation difficult: a hump-shaped seat cushion; seat belts are in the cushion and are in front of the seat 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).  Some parents have dangerously made a seating position out of a console that has no seat belt. This is one time to stick to the rules and not get creative.
  4. 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. Test this by having the adult buckle their seat belt and then put their hands out in front of them. They should not touch the dash.
  5. 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, you may need to shift them around. Certified technicians are good at finding the right fit. Visit an inspection station if you need help with this. Some sedans will do the job just fine. Some seemingly spacious family cars have surprisingly short rear benches that make for a very tight fit. Some newer car seats are designed and advertised to fit three seats across.  Check this out, it might be advertised right on their box. 

Crash Test Performance

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

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provides extensive crash test data.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety—IIHS tests evaluate two aspects of safety: crashworthiness—how well a vehicle protects its occupants in a crash—and crash avoidance and mitigation—technology that can prevent a crash or lessen its severity.

Can the Car Grow with Us?

At the end of toddlerhood, your child will outgrow her rear-facing infant seat or a convertible car seat used rear-facing. 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 a lap/shoulder safety belt 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-only belt. (All vehicles manufactured after 2008 in the U.S. are required to have shoulder belts in every position. Older vehicles typically have just a lap belt in the center rear seat.)

Safety Features to Look For

Forward-Collision Warning (FCW) with Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB): These are two of the best safety advances since Electronic Stability Control (ESC) became standard equipment on all cars beginning with the 2012 model year. Both features can alert you and/or initiate automatic braking (AEB does this), if radar, laser (or some combination thereof) or cameras sense an imminent crash.

Blind-spot warning: When another vehicle is detected in the lane beside your vehicle’s blind-spot, a light will illuminate on an exterior side mirror. Many systems also include an audible warning as well to warn the driver if they are making a move to get into the already occupied lane. The system may provide an additional warning if you use your turn signal when there is a car next to you in another lane.

Anti-Pinch: The anti-entrapment or bounceback safety system uses an electrical circuit that monitors how much power the motor is using to close the window. Too much power indicates that something is obstructing the window’s movement which then causes it to shut the motor off and reverse its direction. Not every automaker offers this feature in their lineup but industry watchdogs predict that all windows, sunroofs, sliding doors, tail gates, lift gates, seats, and any power driven moving object will eventually be controlled by an anti-pinch system.

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.

Vehicle telematic:. The usually paid subscription-based, all-encompassing wireless telecommunications/informatics system provides a smörgåsbord of features that run the gamut from turn-by-turn navigation, control of vehicle speed, emergency calling, remote access to a vehicle, vehicle location by GPS and vehicle diagnostics and maintenance notifications. Many of these functions can actually run automatically without input from the driver. General Motors’ OnStar debuted as the prototype for the first passenger car telematics system back in 1995 and its most touted feature was automatic crash notifications where emergency personnel was dispatched to a vehicle involved in a crash whose driver was unresponsive after the airbags deployed.

Fast forward to present day, there are about two dozen telematics systems and they have become so sophisticated that communication does not always have to be a two-way street, as many of the system’s prompts can be coordinated by a mere connected smartphone. Other similar telematics systems: Ford SYNC, Chrysler Uconnect, Toyota Safety Connect, Kia UVO, Mercedes-Benz mbrace.

Park Assist: Uses strategically located proximity sensors on the front and rear bumpers that alert the driver via sound warnings to any obstacles that are too close to their vehicle.

Lane-Keeping Assist: When a driver drifts across a lane marking, the system works proactively to keep the vehicle within their detected lane by gently steering the driver back on course.

Lane-Centering Assist: In an effort to put a stop to driver inattentiveness, this latest system provides continuous active steering to keep the vehicle centered in its current lane. It works as long as the car ‘s sensors can detect the driver’s hands on the steering wheel.

Adaptive Cruise Control: It is a form of cruise control that uses lasers, radar, cameras or a combination of these systems that work to keep a safe following distance between your vehicle and the one ahead.

Remember, vehicle technological safety systems may be effective in keeping your family relatively safe on the road but there is no proper replacement for solid concentration, a good set of eyeballs and keen spatial awareness!

Third Row Safety

Neither the government nor the IIHS conduct crash tests that gauge how third-row passengers would be affected in a rear collision. According to the IIHS, relatively few deaths involve occupants seated in the third row and less than a quarter of those result from rear-end impacts. In three-row vehicles, the safest place to put a child would be in the second row. The third row should only be used when there are more children than seating positions in the second row. 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 Chevrolet Suburban’s third row is about 31.6 inches away from the rear glass while the Acura MDX stands at around a foot.

Investigate safety features. Vehicles that have a third row of seats are often cheated of the safety features afforded to passengers in other parts of the car. Make sure that side-curtain air bags extend all the way back to protect third-row passengers. Every third-row seating position should have a three-point retractable seat belt and head restraint (although some vehicles do not have a headrest in the middle seating position of the back rows) 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 are tested to be used in forward-facing vehicle seats. Don’t be tempted to use them with a car seat. In a sudden stop or crash one side of the child’s body takes the full crash load. It’s just not safe!

Backing-Up Blind Zones

In 2016, 59 children were killed when drivers backed over them because they didn't see them, according to Janette E. Fennell, founder of KidsAndCars.org. The number of such incidents has decreased in recent years, thanks in part to vehicles equipped with rear-view cameras—a feature that will be required on all vehicles with the 2018 model year.

Still, "some vehicles make it harder to see what's directly behind you," says Stockburger. So look for a rear-view camera for any vehicle where rear-visibility is poor.

A less pricey (though not as effective), relatively easy-to-install alternative is an aftermarket 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 up to $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 excessively tilted.

Aftermarket retrofit rearview cameras will work on a car that was produced in the last 12 years because there is a display screen in the dash used for at least audio functions. The screens are compatible with camera retrofit kits and pricing can range from $120 to as high as $600. The kits come with a lens, camera module and all the necessary wiring/connections. Non-DIY’ers need not apply for the install but can look to local auto shops to lend a hand.

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 after September 2002 have the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system which helps to make car seats easier to install. Seat belts are a well-proven safety tool for car seats and adults.  Check to be sure you have locked the seat belt so the lap belt is a fixed length of webbing.  You may have to use a special lock off feature that is built onto your car seat or a locking clip that pinches the shoulder belt and lap belt together at the buckle site.  Read the instructions in your car manual if you use a locking clip.  Using one gets easier each time you do it.
  • Illuminated trunk release. Kids have died after crawling into a car's trunk and becoming trapped there. But now, all vehicles 2002 and newer come with an illuminated internal trunk release lever as standard equipment which opens the compartment from the inside in the event of an emergency.  If the vehicle doesn't have a trunk release, you can purchase an inexpensive aftermarket kit at KidsAndCars.org.
  • Brake Transmission Shift Interlock Device (BTSI) mechanism. This important safety feature requires that the driver push down on 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.