Jody DeVere has six grandkids, and after an hour on Los Angeles freeways with them in her car, the beach sand and smashed Cheerios are everywhere. "It's a disaster," says DeVere, who keeps a handheld vacuum around for clean-ups.
If DeVere drove a 2015 Honda Odyssey, she could tidy up with the minivan's built-in HondaVac, which operates on the vehicle's electrical system and comes with a removable container, disposable waste bags and a hose the automaker says reaches every corner of the vehicle. It's one of a host of family-friendly features automakers are introducing on 2015 vehicles.
You won't find a lot of whiz-bang technological breakthroughs in the latest crop of new car features that carmakers are marketing to families. But you will see upgrades that once graced high-end luxury vehicles turning up in the minivans, SUVs, crossovers and sedans moms and dads use to cart the kids around town, including some economy models.
Like Honda's built-in vacuum, which was introduced for 2014 and can be found on the top-of-the-line Honda Odyssey Touring Elite trim level (MSRP $44,600), many family-friendly features are creature comforts that make road trips easier on drivers and passengers, including interactive speakers, refrigerated compartments to keep drinks chilling for thirsty travelers and built-in child booster seats.
Other new features amp up cars' connectivity, including WiFi hotspots and faster Internet access. Back-up cameras, blind-spot monitors, lane keeping assist and other advanced driver assistance systems provide extra protections to keep driver and passengers safer on the road.
Whether you're a carpool veteran or expecting baby number one this year, here are some new car updates offered with families in mind.
Comfort and Convenience
Drivers of minivans and SUVs know it's virtually impossible to carry on a conversation with a kid buckled into the back row without raising your voice. The optional Driver Easy Speak feature on the 2015 Toyota Sienna uses a built-in microphone to amplify the driver's voice into speakers in the car's second and third rows. Say good-bye to Dad having to yell, "Peter, stop dumping your drink on your sister!" from the front seat. Edmunds editors test-drove this feature on their long-term 2014 Toyota Highlander.
Popping the trunk has never been easier either. Ford pioneered the motion-activated liftgate that opens with a swipe of your foot under the bumper on the 2013 Ford Escape crossover SUV, and now offers it on the C-Max hybrid, too. Volkswagen and BMW have added hands-free trunks to select models, including the BMW 3 Series Gran Turismo. Other automakers are upping the stakes. Walk within a couple feet of select 2015 Hyundai Genesis and 2015 Hyundai Sonata models and, if you have the car's key fob in your pocket, the trunk opens automatically. The feature could be one reason that both models landed on the short list for 2015 North American Car and Truck of the Year awards.
The hands-free trunk is a winner for DeVere, who runs the Web site AskPatty.com for women car buyers. "These features come as a result of really good listening skills on the part of the design engineering team and feedback from consumers about what they'd like to see," DeVere says.
Other creature comforts found on 2015 cars include:
- Advanced parking assistance: Automakers are improving the parking assist systems they have offered for some time. In some cases they are adding semi-autonomous features that work even when the driver isn't in the car, a first taste of what owning a self-driving car might be like. Ford is rolling out Enhanced Active Park Assist, an upgraded parking assist feature that helps a driver parallel park or back into a perpendicular parking spot at the grocery store or mall. It works even when the driver is out of the car. Active Park Assist comes on a number of Ford and Lincoln models, including the 2015 Lincoln MKC crossover, as part of an optional technology package. The feature also will be an option on the redesigned midsize 2015 Ford Edge SUV, which is due in early 2015. "We continue to make parking easier and easier," says Michelle Moody, Ford's cross-vehicle marketing manager. "We're adding onto features that use sensors and cameras to make moving a vehicle very safe, and help prevent low-speed collisions."
- Cooler: Keeping orange slices chilling for halftime at the soccer game no longer means stashing a cooler in the trunk. A handful of minivans and other family cars have built-in cold storage compartments as standard or optional equipment, including the 2015 Ford Flex Limited (where it is a $795 option), the upper trim levels of the Honda Odyssey, the Lincoln MKT and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
- Built-in child booster seats: Volvo and Dodge sell select models with one or more child booster seats in the middle bench seat. These flip up when they're needed and tuck away when they're not. Volvo offers two height-adjustable middle seat boosters as a $500 option on the 2015 V60 wagon and one on the XC70 wagon and XC90. Dodge sells an integrated booster seat on the SUV and SXT trim levels of the 2015 Journey crossover as a $225 option. The seat is offered on all other trim levels as part of a $1,500 Flexible Seating package.
In connectivity, the big news is built-in WiFi hotspots and faster Internet speeds. Having a hotspot means the kids can watch streaming videos on their iPads in the back while Mom drives to tunes on a Pandora station and Dad texts the office. A number of 2015 models have hotspots that can accommodate up to seven or eight devices simultaneously. One of these is the Audi A3 with the optional Premium Plus package. It has a hotspot capable of handling up to eight phones, tablets and other Internet gadgets.
Some automakers offer hotspots with 4G LTE wireless connections, which are the fastest Internet speeds available. But connectivity and speed come with a price. Families who want hotspots have to connect through their regular wireless carrier's data plan or a connected car service such as OnStar.
OnStar, which is owned by GM, offers 4G LTE on select new GM models, including the 2015 Buick Regal, 2015 Chevrolet Equinox, 2015 Chevrolet Spark, 2015 GMC Terrain and 2015 GMC Yukon SUVs and 2015 GMC Sierra truck models. Whether you choose OnStar or a wireless carrier's plan, it's important to pay attention to which family members are streaming what. Otherwise, your data usage could go through the roof.
Some automakers offer free trial subscriptions to nudge families to upgrade to 4G. GM, for example, offers a three-month or 3GB free trial of OnStar with 4G LTE on multiple Buick, Chevy and GMC models, after which fees start at $5 a month.
Others are teaming up with wireless carriers to offer usage bundles that essentially put your car on your family's smartphone plan. AT&T offers owners of 2015 Audi A3, S3 and Q3 models the option of connecting their cars to their AT&T Mobile Share Value Plan for $10 a month. That's the same price as adding a tablet computer to an existing smartphone plan. Audi drivers who aren't AT&T customers can pay $20 a month for a stand-alone data package of up to 1GB. Audi cars have to have the company's Audi Connect feature for the AT&T service to work.
In addition to faster Internet connections, some automakers are adding strategically placed USB ports and electrical outlets so families can keep phones, tablets and other electronic devices charged as they go. The 2015 Lincoln MKC has a media hub with two USB ports, an SD card reader and an audio input jack, so a passenger can listen to music from the car's infotainment system without disturbing the driver.
If you can't wait to get home to order pizza, you're in luck, provided you have the 2015 Ford Mustang or other Ford model with the automaker's Sync AppLink connected car system and Domino's mobile app on your phone. With the setup, you can use voice commands to schedule a pepperoni pie to be delivered as you roll into your driveway. It takes a little planning, however. Hungry drivers first have to create a Pizza Profile on the Domino's app, then use the app's Easy Order feature and AppLink's voice commands option to call in a to-go order — all hands-free.
Hands-free calling is great for ordering dinner, but watch out how much you talk and drive. A new study from the University of Utah, sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, found that voice-activated systems flustered drivers to the point of confusion. Researchers, however, found that some were less distracting than others, in particular Toyota's Entune system and Hyundai's Blue Link system.
Advanced driver assistance systems previously available only on high-end vehicles are showing up on models and trim levels popular with families. In addition to helping with parallel-parking, the systems use ultrasonic, radar, laser and other sensors to activate blind spot monitors, or keep you from front-end collisions or unintentionally swerving out of your lane. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that 40 percent of 2014 models had forward collision warning, one of the most basic driver assistance safety features. The percentage may well tick up for the 2015 model year.
Because many driver assistance sensors work together, automakers often price the systems in bundles. Chrysler sells a SafetyTec package on the redesigned 2015 Chrysler 200 midsize sedan that adds $1,295 to the $25,995 sticker price for a package with a blind-spot monitor, adaptive cruise control, front-end collision warning, lane departure warning, automated parking and rain-sensing windshield wipers.
Denise Schipani, author of the Mean Moms Rule blog and mother of sons ages 10 and 12, says that of all the new safety features available, it's the rear-motion sensor and back-up camera that appeal the most to her.
"I'm terrified of hitting a child," she says. "Anything I can do to prevent that and that doesn't cross over to make me feel too self-confident" is a plus.
Companies are adding back-up cameras to all trim levels in advance of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulations. To prevent back-over accidents, the agency requires that rearview monitoring technology be standard on new 2018 model-year vehicles sold in the United States.
If you're in the market for a new car, though, you probably won't have to wait that long to get the camera: 46 percent of 2014 model-year cars had some type of back-up camera as standard equipment, according to separate estimates from Edmunds.com and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The percent is up for the 2015 model year, according to Edmunds data: As of early November, 47.5 percent of 2015 model year cars had standard back-up cameras on some trim level.
As they've become more widespread, back-up cameras prices have dropped, and systems are showing up on more mid-price and even low-end models. Even the economical 2015 Mitsubishi Mirage ES, with a starting sticker price of $15,395, offers a back-up camera as part of a $900 Navigation package.
Some automakers are adding safety features inside their vehicles. Ford first offered inflatable seatbelts, which are thicker than a conventional seatbelt and deploy in milliseconds in a crash, on the 2011 Explorer. Though the devices have been somewhat controversial, Ford added them to new model Flex and Fusion cars and will feature them on the redesigned 2015 Ford F-150 truck.
Some new features signal the types of safety systems drivers could expect to see more of in the future. Parents concerned about the purity of the air their families breathe inside the car could consider the 2015 Hyundai Genesis, which has an optional upgrade package that includes a one-of-a-kind carbon dioxide sensor. If CO2 from recirculated air inside the car reaches a certain level, the sensor automatically switches the vents to bring in fresh air. Hyundai spokesman Phil Floraday says a Hyundai engineer had the idea for the sensor after becoming drowsy while driving. The sensor is part of the Genesis Ultimate package, which requires both the Signature and Tech packages, adding approximately $7,000 to the $38,000 sticker price. But that also gets you front and rear parking assistance, lane keeping assistance, lane departure warning and a head-up display, among other features.
While many new family-friendly convenience and safety features come with hefty price tags, costs are coming down. Jody DeVere appreciates that and adds, "Anything that adds to safety is a good thing." Many parents would agree.