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What to Look for in a Family Car

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author photo by Jaime Grimes February 2009

Whether you're on your way to soccer practice, cheerleading tryouts or a family vacation, there's no doubt you and yours spend a lot of time on the road.

Make sure your family travels safely and comfortably by choosing the right car. Family vehicle body styles include minivans, sport utility vehicles (SUVs), wagons or mid- to large-sized sedans, but there's much more to consider when you choose the best car to fit your family's needs. You should also note safety, reliability, handling, economy and personal preferences — such as size of the cargo area, ease of car seat installation and possibly a few nifty extras — for each type.

Sport Utility Vehicles
SUVs seem to be the "hip" mom choice in recent years. These trendy vehicles are attractive, roomy, sturdy, powerful and responsive. If your family needs involve towing, the heavy frames and tough engineering of SUVs make hauling trailers, recreational vehicles or even other cars a breeze. SUVs often sit up higher, an ideal feature for shorter drivers and improved all-around visibility. Plus, SUVs are often equipped with four-wheel or all-wheel drive to handle a multitude of terrains.

SUVs are usually equipped with family-friendly bonuses, such as rear-seat DVD players, enough cup holders for your entire family, rear air conditioning and rear headphone jacks. Discover the latest vehicle trends in our Trend Watch lifestyle center.

However, SUVs can be gas guzzlers. They're also more prone to rollovers, and may be difficult for little ones to get in and out of. And when it comes to cargo, even grown-ups may have trouble loading groceries and other necessities into some SUVs because of high thresholds.

While they're strong, SUVs also may not be the safest transportation option for your family. Behind minivans, SUVs are the second most popular way to transport children, yet are twice as deadly for children as minivans, since that aforementioned heavier body weight makes them more prone to rollovers.

If you're going to choose an SUV for your family car, look for responsive, mid-size SUVs with excellent crash test ratings, or consider a crossover, which combines the safety of minivans with the sleek features of a traditional SUV. Compare SUVs and crossovers side by side on AutoTrader.com.

If budget allows, add a third-row seat for extra space — many late-model SUVs have that option.

When they first appeared on the scene and before SUVs took the stage, minivans were the ultimate family vehicle choice, giving families an excellent alternative to station wagons in terms of expanded seating and storage.

But as the exterior attractiveness of SUVs became more popular, the once-appealing minivans were all but abandoned. In fact, several U.S. auto makers have discontinued their minivan lines in recent years. However, minivans are poised to make a comeback as vehicle designers attempt to combine the "cool" factor of SUVs with the safety and convenience features of minivans.

What makes minivans worth revisiting? For starters, they're relatively safe. Because they have a lower center of gravity than SUVs, minivans are less likely to roll over in a crash. If a minivan is involved in a crash, built-in crumple zones help to absorb the impact and protect passengers.

Minivans are also roomy, accommodating up to six people comfortably, and eight snugly. Designers responded to the need for storing those passengers' stuff when they designed the spacious cargo areas of minivans. And speaking of spacious, minivans feature the benefit of walk-through seating — you can actually walk through the cabin without stepping outside the vehicle.

Minivans are often equipped with automatic sliding doors — sometimes on both sides — that lessen the stress of putting items into your car while holding on to a child. The low threshold of minivans makes it easier to install or remove car seats, load groceries, and guide little ones in and out.

However, if you don't want a minivan for the long haul, keep in mind that it will generally have a lower resale value than an SUV.

Family Sedans and Wagons
As gas prices rise, so do the attractiveness and sales of sedans — especially smaller, more gas-friendly ones. The appeal of sedans goes beyond the gas money saved, however, and includes perks like affordability, nimble handling, and large trunk space. Because sedans are smaller than SUVs and minivans, family members can be within reach of the driver, which comes in handy with children in the backseat.

On that note, some cars include interesting features to help you keep a virtual eye on your children. Among them are new, rear-seat viewing mechanisms, which enable you to have eyes in the back of your head — at least in the functional sense.

Station wagons are basically sedan-style vehicles with a cargo area over the normal trunk space, extended to the rear window. They were especially popular from the late 1970s through the late 1980s, when minivans became the family vehicle of choice. But newly designed wagons are making their way back to the mainstream, as they offer the visual appeal and gas mileage of a sedan with the storage space of an SUV.

If you're going to choose a sedan or wagon, get the biggest one you can afford — your family's safety depends on it. On the whole, occupants of small cars are more likely to die or suffer serious injuries in crashes than those in bigger, heavier vehicles are, according to data from the government, the insurance industry and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

Which car is right for my family?
The size and activity level of your family will help determine which car is best for you. Are your family members involved in extracurricular activities or sports with equipment that requires more storage space, or do you use your car primarily as a means to get from Point A to Point B? Do you need a large car to fit everyone and everything inside, or can you get by with a more economical sedan?

You should also consider your family's growth potential — literally. Your children may be small now, but as they get older they'll need more space — and not just as an occasional buffer between siblings. As they become more involved in school and in their respective activities, you'll need more storage space for books, athletic equipment, musical instruments, and the like.

If you still can't decide which family car is best for you, look for family cars by body type in the Research & Compare section of our website. You can also visit the New Model Showcase to see the latest new vehicles, some that might even change the very definition of "family car."

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
What to Look for in a Family Car - Autotrader