Station wagon. Minivan. SUV. Family cars have taken on many-a-shape over the years,and with today’s endless options (what the heck is a crossover, anyway?!) deciding on a family car can be an arduous task. With the average cost of a new car being over $30K, it’s also not one to take lightly. For a primer on the qualities to look for in a family car, how to shop the lot, and what brands are killing the family car game, we tapped Cars.com Editor in Chief Jennifer Newman for the inside scoop:
When it comes to what makes a great family car, “there are couple things to think about,” says Jen. “Of course, assessing the space in the backseat to ensure there’s enough room (for car seats) is important. But you’re also attempting to future-proof,” she adds. “With young children, you’re working with really bulky car seats, but the average person keeps their car for 11 years. It’s important to think about backseat leg room.” Yup. Little Johnny will eventually be a lanky 11 year old, and you’ll need to plan for him, too.
As for the car seat years, Jen encourages car shoppers to pay close attention to how wide to the rear doors open, as it directly relates to how easy it will be to get car seats in and out. Other must-haves on her list? “You want the back cargo floor to be flat. It’s just easier to get stuff in an out. And while backup mirrors are now federally mandated, if you’re looking at a used or older model, a backup mirror should be a must,” she explains. And those leather seats won’t be just a splurge in the name of luxury. “They’re so much easier to clean than cloth!”
Now that you’ve got the basics of what makes a great family car (here’s your cheatsheet: back seat space, leg room for future 11 year olds, a flat cargo area, wide-opening rear doors, leather seats, and a backup mirror) it’s time to prepare to shop. Jen suggests bringing your car seat and stroller—and ensures us a dealer eager to make a sale would hardly balk at the request. “Not all car interiors are as space efficient as others. You want to know what items are going to fit,” she says. If you’ve got a convertible seat, try it both forward and rear-facing, and take a look at the tether. “People don’t often think about it, but sometimes the tether can be the most difficult part of the install,” Jen says. As for the cargo area, bring your bulkiest stroller and be sure it can pop it in and out.
And, the age-old (ok, ok…twenty-first century) question: To third row, or not to third row? It’s more of a preference than a necessity, says Jen. There are plenty of cars that can fit 3 carseats across one row, so planning for future kids doesn’t have to be a factor. If the third row makes your must-have list, Jen recommends the 2018 Ford Expedition.
Any parent who has ever installed a car seat knows that not all LATCH anchors are created equal. Sometimes you really have to dig for them, and it can be confusing. This is part of the reason Jen created car seat checks for Cars.com. “I was installing my son’s car seat and I’m thinking, am I just grabbing at some sort of metal?,” she remembers. “Every car has their own idea of how LATCH should be.” She emphasizes that tethers are also an important part of the safety equation, and shouldn’t be overlooked. So, who is doing it best these days? “Audi does it really well. Mercedes does, too,” say Jen. She explains, “their LATCH anchors are out in the open in the seat bight (that’s where the back cushion and the bottom cushion meet), which is great,” she explains. Pull the covers off, and there they are—no digging around needed.
If you’re into the extras (um, who isn’t?!) Jen suggests a few to prioritize. Rear cross traffic alert ties to the camera, and Jen says it’s helpful if busy parking lots or backing out of the driveway and into the street are part of your daily life. Here’s how it works: “You’ve got the car in reverse, and it will beep if you’ve got a car driving perpendicular to you, (which is) great for backing out,” Jen explains. “Some models will even show you with arrows where the car is coming from.” So many heart attacks avoided.
Temperature control and plenty of rear vents will ensure air circulation for rear-facing car seats, and some SUVs (usually those with higher-level trim) are featuring built-in sunshades. “They’re great: perforated to see out the window, blocking out the sun,” she says. As for other tricked-out tech to keep your eye on, Jen is loving adaptive cruise control. “It’s a lifesaver on long road trips. Like cruise control, you set your speed. But, there’s a major difference: you also set the distance between you and the car in front of you. “As you’re zipping down the highway, and you come across a car going slower, your car automatically slows downs without the driver having to pump the brake,” Jen explains. “Just one less thing to think about.” Music to a mom’s ears.
We asked Jen what we top pick for a family car is this year, and she reminded us that there’s no clean answer. Instead, she urges shoppers to peruse Car.com’s Car Seat Check Honor Roll and Best 0f 2018 awards. Let’s just say tons of research goes into compiling these lists. “We do challenges, which are multi-car comparisons. We will test 7-8 compact SUVS at a time and then we’ll pick the winner. We are just getting started for this year,” she explains. But we pushed her to drop at least one name, and she gave us this: “Last year we named the Volkswagen Atlas the best 3-row SUV. It’s a larger SUV, but still a manuervabile for urban driving. The second row moves backward and forward 9 inches to create more or less leg room for the second row. Its so roomy–great for a bigger family.”
Thanks, Jen! Happy shopping.