Finding the Perfect Family Car

From restraint systems and anti-lock brakes, to size, cost, and comfort considerations, here are the facts to help you match your family’s transportation needs with the perfect car.

So your first child is on the way, and that two-seat convertible just isn’t going to cut it anymore. You gear up to make the inevitable trek to the car dealership, with only the most general idea of what you’re going to need. When you arrive you’ll be confronted with a variety of models, sizes, colors, and a myriad of options…and a salesperson who is more concerned with whether he can “get you into this new car today” than with your family’s needs. How can you find the best car for your growing family?

Here are some tips to steer you in the right direction.

Safety First

You’re going to be carrying around the most precious cargo of all–your child. So naturally, safety should top your list. Although every car produced today must meet federal safety standards, not every car exceeds the minimum requirements.

Crash and rollover tests: The cars that hold up best during a crash are the ones most likely to keep you and your family safe. Every year, the National Highway Transportation Safety Association (NHTSA) crashes dozens of new cars, trucks, and SUVs. All that twisted metal has an important purpose: to determine how vehicles withstand both front and side impacts. In general, bigger and heavier cars tend to offer the most crash protection. The NHTSA also does some fast maneuvering to see whether vehicles will roll over while making tight turns. Cars that handle curves and withstand crashes the best earn the NHTSA’s top rating, which is five stars.

Before you buy a car, find out how it fared in crash tests by visiting the NHTSA website. In addition to crash test results, the site features tire ratings, air bag safety information, and recall lists. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) website also rates vehicles based on its own crash tests.

Restraint systems: A car seat is an absolute safety necessity for kids under the age of eight. But trying to install a car seat with a seat belt can be a real struggle, as many parents have discovered. The relatively new LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system makes child car seats not only easier to install, but also safer.

LATCH is a standard feature of all cars, minivans, and light trucks made after September 1, 2000. LATCH hooks the car seat into the back seat with a set of anchors at the bottom and a tether at the top. Cars made after September 1, 1999 will at least come with a top tether, which works with the car’s seatbelt to make the seat fit more securely. If you’re in the market for a used car that was manufactured before LATCH was required, the dealer should be able to retrofit it with a top tether.

Air bags: All cars manufactured since 1998 come equipped with front and passenger side air bags. Although air bags indisputably save lives (they reduce an adult’s risk of dying in a front-impact crash by about 30 percent), they can seriously injure or kill a young child. Children younger than 12 should always sit in the back seat. Today, most new cars come with a special safety device that automatically detects when a child is in the passenger seat and disables the passenger-side air bag. Other cars come with an air bag on/off switch, which can be disabled manually. If the car you’ve got your eye on doesn’t have an air bag on/off switch, consider asking your dealer to install one. Also, check with the manufacturer to make sure that the car’s rear seat side impact air bags meet safety standards for young children.

Seatbelts: Every seat in your new car should have a lap and shoulder belt–even the middle seat in the back. Children should never be restrained by a lap belt only because they can be seriously injured during an accident. Also, both lap and shoulder belts are needed to install any belt-positioning booster seat.

Anti-lock brakes: Regular brakes can lock up on slippery roads and cause a car to spin out of control. Most cars now come equipped with an Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS), which pumps the brakes automatically in a skid to keep the car under control.

Safety door and window locks: It’s all too easy for little fingers to pull up a lock or press down on a window control as you’re cruising on the interstate. Window override and safety door locks ensure that your kids (and all their body parts) are safely inside the car at all times.

What Kind of Car Do You Need?

Here’s the fun part: Now that you’ve checked off the most important safety features, consider what other options you’re going to need—and want—in your new car.

Size: If you’re getting ready to welcome your first child, a family sedan should provide you with ample room. But if you have more than two children, or if you like to cart around a lot of gear, get comfortable with the image of yourself as a minivan (or SUV) driver!

Location: Where do you live? For city driving, where you have to parallel park and maneuver through crowded streets, a smaller car is ideal. But if you live in the country, and especially if you have to traverse rough terrain, a four-wheel-drive SUV or truck might suit your needs better. Also remember to factor in your area’s climate. In an especially rainy area, a four-wheel-drive vehicle will handle better on slick roads. In a warm climate, air conditioning is essential. A heated driver’s seat is a nice luxury when the weather turns chilly!

Comfort: Consider how much you’ll be driving your car, and outfit it accordingly. Little touches can make a huge difference. For example, one-touch up/down front windows can get you through toll booths and drive-through bank tellers with a lot less effort than manual cranks. Carting the kids around for long stretches of drive time? An in-dash CD changer will let you switch from your CD to your child’s favorite Disney songs with the touch of a button. Keyless entry and automatic doors can be lifesaving features when your hands are full. And rear seat cup holders can help prevent messy spills when your tot insists on drinking his apple juice in the car.

Cost: The reality is that sticker price is often the biggest consideration for families. When considering the cost of your new car, you need to budget for more than what you’ll have to spend to get it home from the dealership. Also factor in the following expenses:

  • What kind of gas mileage does the car get? Ask your car dealer. Obviously, the more fuel-efficient the car, the less you’ll spend on gas. For research purposes, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compares gas mileage for several cars on its website.
  • How much will you pay each year for maintenance? Your dealership may offer a maintenance plan, which could save you money on regular tune-ups. You’ll also save money if you can handle some or all of the repairs yourself.
  • How much will you pay for car insurance? Remember that car insurance premiums are based (in part) on the sticker price of the car.
  • How much tax will you have to pay? In addition to the tax the government zings you with when you purchase your vehicle, some states charge an ad valorem tax–a yearly fee that is based on the value of the car.

Take it for a Test Drive!

When you’ve test-driven vehicles in the past, you’ve probably focused on things like handling, the sound system, and interior comfort. But with children in the picture, your evaluation takes on a whole new dimension. First and foremost, your considerations need to be safety and accessibility.

If you already have children, resist the urge to leave them with their grandma and grandpa. Bring them along for the test drive and see how having kids in tow affects your experience with a vehicle. Install your car seat to see how snugly it fits. Can your kids get in and out of the seats easily? Can you get them into and out of the car without slipping a disk? Are they comfortable? Can they see out of the windows (don’t underestimate how crucial this factor can be on long trips!)? Will the interior fabric be able to withstand repeated spills and scratches, or can the dealer treat it to enhance its durability?

Take your time and try out every feature of the car to make sure it fits your needs. Roll the windows up and down, move the seats back and forth, and lock and unlock the doors to make sure they won’t drive you nuts when you’re in a rush.

If you find that you’re still overwhelmed by the sheer number of cars and features available, just remember, there’s a car out there for you! Take your time, do your homework, and you’re sure to find the perfect car for your new family.

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