If you're about to become a parent or are adding to your existing family, you might be eyeing your beloved sport coupe or convertible and thinking, "I should probably get something more practical." The next thought might be, "Do I have to go straight to a minivan?"
12 Useful Car Features That Parents Shouldn't Overlook
Well, minivans are indeed great. But if you simply focus on finding the right mix of kid-friendly features, you'll have a wider variety of vehicles to choose from. The key is identifying those important features, many of which tend to get overlooked by family-car shoppers. We've assembled 12 of our favorites here, with an example vehicle for each.
Availability varies across brands and models, of course, but these are great features to keep in mind as you go about your shopping. Be sure to visit our Incentives and Rebates page to learn about current offers before you buy.
This politely named "overhead convex mirror" allows you to see what's going on in every seating position. Without turning around and looking away from the road, you can check on your sleeping (forward-facing) toddler or discover exactly who is instigating border warfare in the third row. It may be difficult to determine the precise details of what's happening, as the mirrors tend to be pretty small. But no self-respecting NSA operative (a.k.a. parent) should go without, although availability is limited and generally restricted to crossover SUVs and minivans.
Have you ever had a kid barf all over the backseat of your car while you're driving? When this eventually happens, you'll be happy you picked a car with either leather or simulated leather (aka leatherette) upholstery. These materials are typically more resistant to liquid spills, and leather or leatherette is easier to wipe clean than cloth seats. Dark upholstery is better than light: Dark doesn't show as much dirt. But note the tradeoff: The darker it is, the hotter it gets in the sun.
As handy as three-row seating sounds, it can be a challenge to get to that rearmost seat, particularly if you've got child safety seats strapped down in the second row. That's because a safety seat generally limits the seatback's tilt-and-slide movement mechanism for third-row access. Some crossover SUVs provide second-row "captain's chairs" that give you a clear walk-through to the third row. The new Mazda CX-9 has a different approach: a nifty second-row bench that's designed to slide forward easily, even with a safety seat installed.
Whether you're finishing up a shopping run or packing for a picnic, your hands are often full of stuff (or kids) when you approach your vehicle. That can make unlocking the doors and accessing the cargo area a real hassle. Fortunately, a growing number of vehicles can help you out by automatically opening their liftgates or trunks. Some activate when you wave your foot underneath the rear bumper. Others work just by monitoring your proximity to the vehicle.
Some vehicles have front seatbacks that are made of hard plastic instead of cloth or vinyl. You'll find that removing the dirt that came off your toddler's Crocs is much easier with plastic than fabric. The plastic also protects against abrasions and punctures more effectively. The downside is the sweet sound of your kids kicking the back of your seat gets amplified considerably.
These dark-tinted rear windows serve two functions: They make it harder for other people to see your kids sitting in the back of your vehicle, and they reduce the amount of direct sunshine on your children's faces. It's a common feature in luxury cars, crossovers and SUVs. Sometimes a vehicle will offer it, but not on the lowest, least expensive trim level. If you do buy a vehicle without it, a visit to an aftermarket tint shop can achieve similar results.
A fair number of vehicles come with dedicated air vents or registers for rear occupants. Truth be told, though, many of these seem like design afterthoughts. They can be hard to position for satisfactory air flow, and they often blow out meager amounts of air that won't cool off your sweaty baby in her safety seat. During your test-drive, check to see if you're satisfied with the way the rear air vents perform. We've found that overhead vents, which are commonly included in larger crossover SUVs as well as minivans, work best for babies in rear-facing safety seats.
After dark-tinted windows, rear door sunshades are the next line of defense against strong sunlight and prying eyes. Rear sunshades are typically made from a mesh fabric and are housed in the door. They manually slide up from the window sill and slot into place via hooks or clips. When you're done, the shades easily retract into the door. You'll like these a lot more than those cheesy aftermarket sunshades with suction cups, since they fit the windows perfectly and can't be lost. They're useful for pets, too.
Looking for a way to jumpstart the cooling of your baby's sunbaked safety seat or minimize your toddler's inevitable "I'm hot!" or "I'm cold!" decrees"? This feature allows you to start your car from a distance prior to getting in, providing extra time to warm up the engine (and thereby the car's heater) on cold days. It also gets the air-conditioning cranking on hot days. Many of these systems can automatically detect the temperature inside the car and set the climate controls accordingly.
When you're shopping for your new kid-hauler, pay attention to whether you can fully remove the rear-seat head restraints. These can prevent proper fitment of a front-facing child safety seat (for a toddler) or a high-back booster seat (for older kids). If you can adjust a rear-seat head restraint for height, it's usually removable. But some are easier to wrestle with than others.
You can make your parenting duties a bit easier if you get a vehicle with a sliding second-row seat. You can move the seat closer to the front seats (to make it easier to check on your kids or pass them things) or slide it farther away (to avert the seat-kicking mentioned previously). You also can use a sliding second-row seat to increase the amount of available cargo space for that bulky double stroller you just had to buy. Crossover SUVs commonly offer this feature.
The government mandates the LATCH connectors that serve as a universal system for securing child safety seats. But (surprise) the government doesn't mandate that the LATCH anchors actually be easy to find and use. Notably, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently introduced a LATCH evaluation rating, with a "Good" score indicating the best ease of use. If a vehicle's LATCH anchors are user-friendly, there's less hassle and less risk of improper installation. We recommend conducting your own LATCH evaluation at the dealership before purchasing your new family car.