For most of us having a family results in a realignment of our priorities, particularly when it comes to finances and the family car.

With this in mind, here are some points to consider when selecting your next family car.

Safety

Safety should be important to all car buyers, but it becomes even more important when we have new and vulnerable members of the family to protect - a good reason to buy the safest car you can afford.

Generally, there are two aspects to consider. Features that prevent the crash and those that protect occupants in a crash.

Crash prevention equipment includes:

  • Autonomous Emergency Braking (in an emergency it applies the brakes if you don’t)
  • Brake Assist (applies maximum emergency braking effort even if you don’t)
  • Anti-lock brakes (assists in maintaining vehicle control in wet and slippery conditions)
  • Stability control (assists in keeping the car on its correct path)
  • Adaptive Cruise Control (maintains vehicle speed and a safe following distance)
  • Rear Cross Traffic Alert (alerts you to approaching traffic you may not be able to see)
  • Blind Spot Monitoring (alerts you to objects you may not be able to see in the mirrors)
  • Reverse Camera (provides vision directly behind to eliminate blind spots)
  • Parking / Reversing sensors (provides a warning you are approaching an object while parking)
  • Lane Keep Assist (assists in keeping within traffic lanes)
  • Lane departure warning (warns if you are drifting out of a traffic lane)
  • Speed Sign Recognition (removes uncertainty by displaying speed zones on the dash)

Occupant protection includes:

  • Structural integrity (provides a strong, safe passenger compartment to protect occupants in a crash)
  • Airbags (assist the seat belts to prevent occupants contacting the inside of the car in a crash)
  • Head restraints on all seats (helps reduce whiplash injuries)
  • Pre-crash mode (identifies the potential for a crash and prepares the car’s safety systems)
  • Seat belts with pretensioners (manages the crash forces the occupants are exposed to)

Tip: To find cars that have high safety ratings:

  • For used cars, look for their Used Car Safety Rating. UCSR ratings are shown as a star rating and are based on the outcomes of real-world crashes.
  • For newer cars, check their ANCAP score, which assesses many of the safety features mentioned above as well as how the car performs in a laboratory crash test.

Accessibility and Practicality

Think about the ease of entry and exit, not only for you, but also for your passengers.
  • If the seating position is too low or too high, fitting restraints and getting kids in and out could be difficult.
  • There is no single correct answer to this issue. The ideal seat height for a family car will be largely based on personal preference.

Consider cars that:

  • Suit your individual usage requirements.
  • You can get kids in and out of without excessive bending or stretching.

Tips:

  • Look at the range of small and mid-sized SUVs that are now very popular. Their more upright styling and higher seating position makes them easy to live with and they’ve proven to be firm favourites with buyers of all ages.
  • Dual cab utilities are also popular as a practical family vehicle but be aware that some can be difficult to fit certain types of child seats to. Also, their often high seating position can make them harder to use.
  • Don’t overlook the size of the door openings and how wide the doors open. Both can make a tremendous difference to how usable a car is, particularly when having to fit child restraints and put kids in them.
  • If you’re considering a hatch or wagon check, there is enough room in your garage to allow the tailgate to open without contacting anything.
  • Consider models that have provision to limit the tailgate opening height in such situations.
  • Power operated tailgates can make life a lot easier, particularly if you struggle to reach or pull down on a tailgate to close it.

Size matters

Think about how many children you have (or think you may have) and what you will need to take with you.

Tips:

  • Consider how you plan to use the car and what you will need it to do in the future.
  • You might want to purchase bigger from the outset if planning for more kids.
  • A seven-seater may be desirable if you need to carry more than just your immediate family.
  • Consider boot size. Even some bigger SUVs don’t have large boots and may not be suitable for carrying everything you need.
  • In some cases, a largish sedan may have more boot space but may be compromised in other ways.
  • A smaller car will generally be more economical to buy and run.
  • If you regularly do longer trips, a larger car might be a more comfortable option.

Visibility

All cars have blind spots, but some are worse than others; it’s important you factor this into your purchase decision. Blind spots can be a very personal issue and are often dependent on the driver’s height and seating position.

Tips:

  • Don’t overlook the significance of blind spots and their relationship to driveway safety. On average one Australian child a week is runover in a driveway.
  • Choose a vehicle that provides all drivers with an adequate view to the front, sides, and back of the car.
  • Blind spots aren’t always to the rear. Some cars have very thick windscreen pillars or large rear-view mirrors that can produce their own blind spots.
  • Check rear view mirrors provide a good field of view.
  • Power mirrors are an easy way to ensure you always have optimum rear vision.
  • Consider too if the car has technology solutions such as reversing cameras, parking sensors, and blind spot monitoring etc to alleviate such deficiencies.
  • Ultimately, you won’t find a car with no blind spots so you need to spend some time finding one you can live with.

Make sure the vehicle suits your particular needs

Do you need to fit a pram or stroller in?

If so:

  • Make sure there is enough space and boot openings etc are big enough to allow easy loading and unloading of the item, as well as carrying whatever else you need.
  • Consider the height of the boot floor and any load lips that will have to be negotiated.
  • Don’t overlook other regular passengers, as the car needs to meet their needs as well.

Do you carry children that need to be seated in a child restraint?

If so:

  • Consider if the required number of child restraints will fit.
  • Is there enough room to carry other necessary items, such as prams?
  • Look at the size and shape of the rear seat.
  • Will the required number of restraints fit?
  • Will the shape of the seat allow the restraint to sit securely?
  • If using a rearward facing restraint, can it be fitted without touching the front seat?
  • If the passenger front seat needs to be moved to accommodate the restraint, will the front seat passenger still be comfortable?
  • Check the car has the required number of child restraint anchor points (many only have two), as well as their location and ease of use.
  • If in the floor or rear panel, they could interfere with any load you wish to carry.
  • If in the roof they can interfere with rear vision.

Do you need to tow a boat, caravan, or box trailer?

If so, consider if:

  • It has the necessary towing capacity for your needs.
  • It has features such as trailer sway control (if towing heavy trailers).
  • If the towbar tongue is easily removeable.

Technology

Many modern cars are packed with the latest technology – whether you want it or not.

Features such as Bluetooth to connect your phone or stream music to the car, and the range of safety and convenience features already mentioned will be found in most new offerings.

Tips:

  • Even if you don’t want the technology, or won’t use it, the car you buy will probably have it. Make sure the car meets your needs even if you choose not to use the equipment provided.
  • Lower spec models tend to have less equipment than more upmarket models, but just about everything will have some level of technology these days.

Interior

Interior comfort is important to your safety and enjoyment of the car.

Look for:

  • Comfortable seats with plenty of adjustability, support and adequate leg room.
  • Lumber support (preferably adjustable).
  • Low interior noise levels.
  • Smooth ride.
  • Easy to reach and use seatbelts.
  • Good ergonomics (the design of features to ensure ease of use and reduce operator fatigue and discomfort).

Affordability and service costs

Value for money and ongoing costs become even more important when you have a family, so when buying a car, you need to consider not only the purchase price, but also the ongoing costs of running and maintaining it.

Nice to have features

So far, we’ve talked about some essential attributes you should consider when buying a car. Now it’s time to talk about some of the little, often overlooked, things that can enhance the driving experience and make driving easier.

Tips:

  • Many drivers find steering wheel mounted controls to be convenient and easy to use.
  • Alternatively, consider models with voice activated controls. This completely removes the need to access some control switches.
  • Keyless entry and start allows you to enter and drive without having to take the key out of your pocket – great for those who have their hands full.
  • Remote boot releases offer a means of opening the boot or tailgate without having to put the key in the lock (this is particularly useful if combined with a power tailgate).
  • Tilt/ reach adjustable steering wheels make finding a comfortable driving position easier. (just about everything has tilt adjustment but some still don’t have reach)
  • Look for models with plenty of seat and steering wheel adjustment.
  • Consider the size and location of control knobs and switches. If they’re not readily accessible, small and fiddly or not intuitive to use when sitting still, it’s likely they’ll be frustrating to use when driving, and a potential source of distraction.
  • Consider the size of dials and displays and how easy they are to read.
  • Look for cars with height adjustable front seat belts that will provide the most comfortable fit.

A final word

Don’t just assume that your chosen car will accommodate your family. Before signing on the dotted line:

  • Take your child seats with you to the dealer and make sure they fit.
  • If you’re considering the prospect of putting three restrains on the back seat, be aware that not too many small and mid-sized models will accommodate this.
  • Some cars, and even SUVs, don’t have a very big boot so check the pram and whatever else you need to carry will fit.