Choosing a car that will suit your family

Buying a car is a big purchase, so make sure you take into consideration family friendly features.

Buying a car is a big purchase, so make sure you take into consideration family friendly features.

If you’re a parent-to-be what are the features to look for when purchasing or upgrading your vehicle?

  • Space is clearly a priority for young families, so you really need a car with four doors.
  • Make sure you take everything you’ll need in a car with you to the dealership when you’re shopping around. That includes the pram, which is the bulkiest item parents are likely to carry. That way you make sure it’s all going to fit in the new car.
  • Also keep an eye on how high (or low) the car is and how easy it is to access the rear seats. A taller car can reduce strain on your back because you won’t have to lean as far down to strap your child in.
  • Above all that, though, safety should be a priority for any parents.

When you’re carrying around precious cargo, safety is clearly important. What are the key safety features worth considering?
There are many, and they’re split into two main categories – those that can help avoid a crash and those that will help save your life once you’re having a crash.

For me, crash avoidance is preferable, so I’d make sure you’ve at least got anti-lock brakes (ABS), which can reduce braking distances (particularly on a wet road) and help the driver maintain steering control in an emergency.

A more advanced crash avoidance technology is electronic stability control, or ESC (it’s also marketed as ESP, VSC, DSC and all manner of other acronyms!). ESC can help control a slide or skid and keep you on the road. It does that by using sensors and computers to determine if the car is losing control, then applying brake pressure to individual wheels (not even Michael Schumacher can do that!) to bring the car back under control. If it’s optional on the car you’re looking at then pay the extra money to get it – hopefully you’ll never use it, but if you do it could save your life.

In terms of occupant protection during a crash, a seatbelt is still one of the best things you can have. So one of the best things you can do is make sure your child is wearing their seatbelt. And make sure the seatbelts are proper lap-sash belts, not the ones that just go over your lap. Those lap-only belts can be deadly, and unfortunately they’re still being fitted to some family cars, including people-movers.

What about airbags?
Airbags can be a life saver in cushioning an impact and reducing severe injuries. There are four main types of airbags

  • front airbags (housed in the steering wheel and dashboard)
  • side airbags (usually in the front doors or sides of the seats)
  • side curtain airbags (in the roof to protect the head in a side impact)
  • knee airbags (not so much a life saver, but a way to reduce leg injuries)

Almost all new cars come with at least two front airbags, while most four-door cars over $30,000 now come with six airbags (dual front, front-side and side-curtain airbags). Then there are knee airbags, which are sometimes just on the driver’s side. 

If some of the airbags are only available as an option, I’d recommend paying extra – you can never have too much safety. Also, if you’re buying a car with three rows of seats, make sure the curtain airbags protect all three rows; in some cars those curtain airbags stop in the middle of the car, which could prove fatal if you’ve got kids in the back.

I’ve heard airbags can be dangerous for children. Is that true?
Generally no, but it depends where the airbags and where your child is. It’s worth noting that airbags aren’t the pillowy devices Hollywood may have you imagine. They’re fired in milliseconds using explosives, so commonly result in minor injuries such as broken noses and bruising. The upside is they can also save your life.

Almost every modern car comes with at least two airbags, one in the steering wheel and the other in the dashboard in front of the front seat passenger. The one in the front passenger’s seat is designed to be used with a person strapped into a seatbelt and facing forward. For that reason, it’s imperative you do NOT fit a rear-facing child seat in the front seat of any car. The force of the airbag exploding could do more injury to your child than the crash itself by sending the entire seat capsule backwards.

It’s also important that anyone – including children – doesn’t rest their feet on the dashboard, because they could suffer severe leg injuries if an airbag is deployed. Some cars also have airbags in the rear doors, to protect occupants in a side impact. If your car has these fitted (check your owner’s manual or ask your dealer) don’t let your children sleep against the door. Again, the force of the airbag exploding directly on to your child’s head could have fatal consequences.

Any other features you think will keep a family safe relating to cars?
Child locks on doors are obviously a great idea, and I’d definitely recommend enabling them on at least the traffic side of the car (the driver’s side) to stop kids diving out into the traffic.

A cargo barrier is also a valuable addition, not just for helping arrange things in the back of a wagon or 4WD, but also from a safety perspective. If you have a crash at 70km/h then whatever’s in the back of the car will try to keep going at 70km/h. That can be a pretty big smack in the back of your head.

Reversing cameras are also handy for seeing if there’s a little one lurking behind the car. But even if you have a camera you should still turn around to look and keep an eye on your mirrors.

I’ve heard about NCAP and its vehicle safety ratings. What is it and should I worry about it?
NCAP is also know as the New Car Assessment Program and is the only independent crash test authority in the world. It conducts crash tests on new vehicles in a laboratory using crash test dummies. While it’s not exactly real-world, the tests are formulated to simulate conditions you could encounter in a regular crash.

The good thing with the NCAP testing is that it doesn’t just look at how many airbags a car has. Instead it effectively evaluates the overall structure of the car in terms of its crash worthiness and how well it’s likely to look after the people inside.

While the NCAP tests are not perfect – critics don’t like the fact each car gets only one chance and the tests don’t take into account every crash scenario – they provide the only comparative data when it comes to vehicle safety. Cars are rated out of five stars, and I’d recommend looking for a car that achieves at least a four-star rating.

Should you look for a car with child restraint anchor points?
Fortunately it’s mandatory for all cars with rear seats sold in Australia to come with child seat anchor points. But it’s worth looking at where those anchor points are in the vehicle.

Most sedans have the anchor points on the rear parcel shelf, near where the speakers for the stereo are. But wagons, hatchbacks and 4WDs typically have space behind the seats, so the anchor points will likely be in one of three places: in the roof, on the seatbacks, or on the floor towards the back of the car.

The worst option of those three is with the anchor points on the floor at the back of the car, because it obstructs the vehicle’s load space. Once you have the straps in place securing the child seat they will cut directly through the load area, so you may not even be able to pop the pram in the boot. It’s very restrictive and annoying. So look
for a car with the anchor points either in the roof (although, again, be mindful of where the straps will run) or on the backs of the seats.

Why don’t car makers put seatbelt warnings in the back seats?
Good question. Most new cars will beep at you if the driver or front passenger doesn’t put their seatbelt on, but it seems superfluous given those in the front are usually adults who will probably put their seatbelts on anyway. Unfortunately in most cars, the only way to check whether a kid has their seatbelt on is to turn around and look – it’s not exactly a practical solution. Thankfully, some cars now have seatbelt warning systems for the back seats, and they’re on surprisingly affordable cars, such as the Honda Accord Euro and Mazda3. They’re a great idea and provide peace of mind that your child is actually wearing what is the most important safety feature in the car.

Is the seating position important for children?
Absolutely. It’s critical kids can see out the windows, mainly for their comfort – and yours! Some cars, particularly sports models, can have high windows, so make sure your child joins you when you’re car shopping. That way you can plonk them in the back to get an idea of what they’ll be looking at and whether they’ll be comfortable.

Many modern family cars, including the Ford Territory, also have stadium-style seating, where each row of seats is slightly higher than the one in front! It’s great for helping with forward vision, which can go a long way to reducing car sickness and generally making for a happy family. Some cars, mainly Volvos, also have built-in booster seats, which give the child a better view and also ensure the seatbelt sits in the optimum position across their chest.

What are the others features we should be looking for – the ones that that will make day to day life easier?
Rear air vents are great for making kids more comfortable and potentially fending off car sickness. Many large cars and people-movers have air vents to the back seats. But if you’re buying a vehicle with three rows of seats check whether there are vents in the third row. If not, you at least want to make sure you can open the rear-most windows.

One really handy item that’s started popping up on some people movers (such as the Kia Grand Carnival and Citroen Picasso) is a child-minding rear vision mirror. They’re a small convex mirror just above the regular rear vision mirror that allows you to keep an eye on what’s happening behind you.

Another great addition is a DVD player with screens in the back for the kids. They’re standard in some cars or you can pick up aftermarket ones pretty cheap at electrical retailers. But try to make sure the screens are fitted above the heads of the children, because looking down can be a recipe for motion sickness.

Leather seats can also be a bonus. Let’s face it, kids can be pretty messy, and many are prone to motion sickness. But I’ll guarantee it’s a lot easier to wipe gunk off leather than try to sponge it out of fabric.

Sliding doors are also a plus because they’ll stop kids opening doors into adjacent cars when you’re in a car park. Be careful, though, because some can be really heavy to open and close if you’re parked on a hill. Some cars, like the Chrysler Grand Voyager and Kia Grand Carnival have electric opening doors available, so you can control them from the front seat at the push of a button.

Cupholders and storage boxes are also handy, whether it’s for keeping drink bottles upright or giving kids somewhere to store their toys. Some cars even have covered binnacles, which are a great idea. Perhaps not surprisingly it’s American brands like Chrysler that excel with these sorts of features. If you’re planning a long drive, it’s worth looking at a window shade or blind so the kids don’t spend the whole trip sheltering from the sun. Oh yeah, and keep some empty plastic bags in the car; they’re great for rubbish and can double as sick bags!

Once you’ve bought the car, what can you do to ensure it’s as safe as possible?
Number one is to have it serviced regularly. Modern cars are pretty much run by computers and most will self diagnose a problem, so if something is wrong the service centre should be able to find it quickly and rectify the issue before it becomes a bigger issue. That can also obviously help with ensuring your journey doesn’t have an unexpected interruption.

Also keep an eye on all warning lights and consult the owner’s manual – or a dealer – if there’s a problem. Another really basic but essential thing to keep an eye on is your car’s tyres – and don’t forget the spare! Tyres provide the only contact between your car and the road, so it’s essential you make sure they’re in good order.

First and foremost make sure there’s enough tread. All tyres come with wear indicators; they’re little triangles on the side of the tyre pointing to a raised section within the tread. If the raised section is at the same level as the rest of the tread, then you’re tyres are illegal and won’t get rid of water effectively on a wet road.

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