Parents have a lot to consider when they shop for a vehicle, even more so if they'll be driving for a school carpool or have a large family. More than a third of the Edmunds editors have "been there, done that" — or are still doing it, so we know a thing or two about schlepping pint-size passengers, whether we're bringing them to day care, school, the mall or the soccer game.
The first rule of thumb for choosing any car is always the same: Separate what you want from what you truly need. And it's here where many parents fall into the trap of buying more car than they require. Below are what we consider the most important criteria for choosing the best vehicle for carpooling with kids. We're looking primarily at larger cars that can carry six or more people.
Any car you carry kids in ought to be super safe. Smaller cars, which won't have three rows of seats anyway, are likely to lose out any on-road battles with larger vehicles. Truck-based SUVs have a higher risk of rollover, the deadliest kind of crash; plus, they're not particularly fuel-efficient. We prefer crossovers (a.k.a. car-based SUVs) or the old, reliable minivan for the job of transporting kids.
Look for cars with comprehensive safety features and excellent crash test scores — particularly in side-impact crashes, the kind most likely to injure backseat passengers. Also look for rearview cameras, excellent visibility front and rear, and good stopping distances.
Note that all vehicles sold in the U.S. will be required to have electronic stability control — a critical safety feature — as standard equipment by 2012. Volvo, Mercedes and other luxury vehicles tend to be standouts for their safety technology, but high-tech safety features are trickling down to mainstream brands as well.
The Case for Space
There seems to be an unwritten rule that the smallest children require the biggest cars, if only because the sheer amount of gear required to sustain these tiny tots (play yards, strollers, etc.) fills the largest of cargo holds. Also, the myriad safety and comfort features built into today's child safety seats (car seats) have made them ginormous and cumbersome, requiring lots of second-row space. If you've ever had an elementary-school student with a rolling backpack try to get past a strapped-in toddler in the second row, you know just what we're talking about.
Look for plentiful cargo space, second-row legroom and sliding second-row seats. Minivans, such as the top-rated Honda Odyssey, are still the most practical choice here, but there are plenty of other options, particularly crossover vehicles. For those who want a smaller minivan that's fun to drive, less expensive and a cinch to park, the Mazda Mazda 5 is an alternative, but it doesn't yet have traction or stability control. Look at CarSeatData.org to make sure your car seats will be compatible with the car you're considering.
Convenience Is Key
Parenthood begins as an all-night marathon, progresses through weight-lifting (as the kids get bigger) and ends up a juggling act. So anything that makes daily commutes easier is a gift. Look for easy entry and exit (this is where midsize crossovers pale in comparison to minivans) and captain's chairs that allow you to access the third row. Flexible seat configurations, such as the Chrysler Town and Country's Stow 'n Go system or the Ford Flex's power flip-fold second row can dramatically smooth the daily carpool routine.
When carting kids, some of our favorite convenience features include the Flex's optional rear-seat refrigerator (great for after-school refreshments); the integrated center booster cushion in the Volvo XC90's second row that quickly reverts back to regular seating duty; cargo wells behind the third row for stashing packs and book bags; and conversation mirrors that let the driver keep an eye on rear passengers.
Anything that helps you avoid juggling keys while getting the herd home — power rear hatches, push-button and/or remote start — can be a huge help. Minivans' with powered sliding door options make them one of the best choices for their segment, as they make just about everything easier with younger children.
With calls of "Here, Mom," small children turn adults — and their cars — into garbage receptacles. Cheerios, food wrappers and crayons end up between the seats and ground into the floor mats. Not only is it thrilling to live with, it's pretty clear when a car's been badly trashed by kids, lowering its resale value. We're still waiting for automakers to build in somewhere convenient for all that garbage — and a box of tissues.
To keep your carpooling ride intact, look for darker, stain-resistant fabrics, or leather, which is easier to clean. Often optional, washable cargo areas and rubber floor mats can save your car's carpets, and you can never have enough cubbies to corral small items, such as in the Dodge Journey.
For Older Kids and Teens
If little kids need space fore and aft, those long, teenage limbs require more vertical and side-to-side space. Teenagers can also become picky about what car they'll be seen in and what they'll do when they're in it. If you still have the car you bought when they were in high chairs, you're probably ready for a change as well.
Look for third-row headroom, legroom, and hiproom (check the specs on Edmunds for measurements). Experience whether it's easy to climb into and out of the rear, and see if you'd be comfortable spending a long drive there.
Today's electronically oriented kids, with their tiny attention spans, have to be kept busy, or everyone suffers. Any rear entertainment system is good, but Chrysler's Video Entertainment System (VES) is the best rear-seat entertainment system hands-down, according to Edmunds Senior Technology Editor Doug Newcomb. "Rear passengers can listen to any audio source in the vehicle — CD/DVD, iPod, aux-in, music on a hard drive and AM, FM and satellite radio — on wireless headphones, as well as watch either a DVD or Sirius Backseat TV."
Also high on his list is the Family Entertainment DVD system in Ford vehicles. Chrysler's Town and Country/Dodge Grand Caravan features an optional table in the back that, while cramped, allows for gameplay inside the vehicle.