"We're expecting a baby, and we need to buy a car. What should we get?"
Whether you're about to welcome your first child into the world or just became a family of five, this question is bound to come up at one time or another. Safety features are certainly important to keep in mind when shopping for a family car, as are crash test scores. However, you should also think about getting a car that fits your kids — and their car seats. While we can't magically predict the exact car that's perfect for your particular situation, we can help you narrow your choices and identify which cars are better for child safety seat installation.
What To Look for in a Car-Seat-Friendly Car
It probably won't come as a surprise that wagons, crossovers and SUVs can be some of the most kid-friendly vehicles you can buy, though they're not all created equal when it comes to hauling the munchkins around. Likewise, coupes and economy sedans might be a tight fit for a giant car seat, but that doesn't necessarily mean you have to cross them all off your list, if you're on a tighter budget or don't like to drive a large car. There's more to being a car-seat-friendly car than just overall interior space. Whether it's a sedan, crossover, wagon or coupe, these are the key characteristics to look for in a car-seat-friendly vehicle.
Wide, flat seat-bottom cushions: The flatter the seat bottom, the easier it is to get a child's car seat to sit level and securely fastened to the seat. The heavily contoured seats in many sport sedans, coupes and wagons can make the installation process harder. Look for a seat bottom that's closer to parallel with the ground, too. The less rake a seat has, the better. Also take note of the center seating position, which is the safest spot for your child. If the car you're considering has a "hump" in that center position, it's not the best choice for a kid car.
LATCH point placement: Look for easily accessible lower anchors and top tether anchors that make up the Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system and determine how many sets of LATCH attachments the backseat has. Most will have two. Some things to note: Are the lower anchor bars hidden behind little doors, slits or flaps in upholstery or are they jutting out, and therefore easier to get to? Find the top tether anchors, too, and see how easy or hard they are to get to and use when a car seat faces forward. Are the tethers on the backs of the backseats or on the rear parcel shelf? Some SUVs have the top tether anchors on the ceiling of the cargo area, and their use can partially obstruct the driver's view through the rear window. A note on LATCH rules: Starting in 2014, the convenient LATCH system has weight limits that include both your child's weight and the weight of the car seat.
Seatbelt placement: For installation of the car seat using the seatbelt (often required in the center seating position, where dedicated LATCH points are rare), take note of the placement and angle of the seatbelt hitches and receivers. Their positioning can greatly affect your ability to get a car seat tightly cinched down to the seat. And the only way to know if a particular seatbelt is going to be a problem is to try it out with your child's car seat — or seats.
The angle of the seatback cushion: All minivans, and many crossovers and SUVs, offer a recline feature for the second-row seats, allowing you to adjust the seatback to a position that helps you get a tight fit between a forward-facing safety seat and the car's seatback: a must for a safe installation. If you're going to buy a car that doesn't offer this feature, make sure that the angle of the seatback lets you get that tight fit between the back of the child seat and the car's seatback. The goal is to get the back of the car seat to sit flush against the seatback, which is ideal for a secure safety seat installation.
Ease of access: Wide door openings allow you to maneuver bulky car seats in and out of the car with a minimum of twisting and turning, which is great for installation. On a daily basis, they also make it easier to get your child in and out of the car, except in crowded parking lots, where a wide door can make it harder to avoid dinging the car next to yours. This is where the sliding doors of a minivan shine. Additionally, the few inches of extra ground clearance offered by minivans, car-based SUVs and tall wagons can reduce the back strain that parents experience when repeatedly bending over to place, buckle in and retrieve little ones.
Distance between the rear seats and front seats: If you have a very small child (i.e., infants) then you'll almost certainly need to install a rear-facing safety seat. Installing a seat this way takes up more space, so you'll want to look for a car that has plenty of rear legroom, or the distance from the rear seatback to the back of the front seats. Some carmakers also offer rear seats with fore-and-aft adjustment, allowing you to slide the seat back when you need to climb in to tend to a child and slide it forward when you need to make room for a double stroller in the cargo bay.
Availability of automatic locking retractor (ALR) seatbelts: Most newer cars have automatic locking retractor seatbelts in the backseat, so that when you pull the belt all the way out, it locks as it retracts. For proper installation with a seatbelt, some children's car seats require the use of ALR seatbelts. Other car-seat manufacturers use a special mechanism in the seat itself that locks only the lap portion of the belt. Either way, ALR seatbelts ensure a much tighter, safer fit for car seats.
After you've done the research and narrowed down the cars that interest you and fit your budget, it's time to test-drive and apply what you've just learned. (If you need a place to start your research, check out our Car Buying Guides, where our editors pick the best cars in each body style.) If you can swing it, bring along the car seats (and ideally, the kids) for the test-drives. It might seem like a huge hassle (and let's be honest, it is), but installing those seats and getting the kids in and out is really the only way to know if a particular vehicle is going to work for your family. You don't want to go through the whole process of falling in love with and buying a car and then discover there's a significant mismatch after you've gotten it home. If your baby hasn't arrived yet in time for test-drives, see if you can borrow one from a friend.
Once you get to the dealership, weed out cars that aren't good candidates with just a visual inspection, keeping the characteristics of car-seat-friendly cars in mind. When you find a vehicle that seems to fill the bill, grab your child safety seats and give them a try. Also read and understand the owner's manuals (from both the car seat and the cars) to ensure that you are installing and using the car seat properly in each car. Cars' owner's manuals may not be available at the dealerships during your test-drive, but you may be able to find the car owner's manual online before you head to the dealership.
Now see what it's like to get your little one (or more than one) into and out of the car seat. Repeat with each of your candidate vehicles, and you should be able to identify those cars that will be the easiest to live with.
Special Case: Seating Three Kids Across
Let's say a new baby (or two, or three) turns yours into a family of five. If your current car only seats five, the question of how to fit three car seats across one backseat often arises. If you can't, or don't want to make the move to a larger vehicle right now, it's worth a shot to see if you can make your current vehicle work with three car seats. Lucky for you, there is a whole slew of more narrow car seats on the market today that are designed with just this scenario in mind. And while you might initially balk at adding yet another new purchase for baby, keep in mind that, while child safety seats can be pricey, it's still far less expensive to buy three new car seats than it is to buy a whole new car.
To get started, a quick Google search will reveal plenty of forums and Web sites for parents of triplets or three singleton kids of varying ages who make the three-across conundrum work. They're happy to show you how they did it and with which car seats. This family added a third child to its ranks and kept both of its Honda Civics in duty, thanks to some smart car-seat configurations.
As always when shopping for a new car, remember to check the pages of both your car's owner's manual and the car seats' manuals to make sure you're following their installation guidelines to keep your kids safe. With some smart research, you'll have your growing family happily strapped into their car seats and on the road in no time.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.