Buying a car Top 10 family car buying tips
Family cars need to be great at multi-tasking, so there is a lot to consider when choosing the right one. Transporting children, elderly parents, large dogs or bulky luggage like sports equipment can be stressful, so make sure you buy the best car for your needs.
Our top 10 tips for buying a family car will show you the main things to consider, and our best medium cars, best large cars and best MPVs guides then give you the lowdown on the specific models we recommend.
1. Hatchback vs. saloon?
Hatchbacks tend to have bigger boots than saloons
Saloon cars often look deceptively bigger than hatchbacks with a tailgate, and their sheer load-space in the boot can be bigger, but the reality is they are not as flexible. Narrow openings and high boot lips mean that loading pushchairs into many saloons can be tricky.
If you don't want to go for a full-sized estate car, hatchbacks also allow you to transport dogs and other pets in the boot, as well as larger items - useful, if you regularly need to get large amounts of shopping and other lugagge into the boot. With the rear seats down, some are big enough to be able to squeeze in long or large objects like flatpack furniture, skis or bikes.
2. Wide-opening doors
Opting for five doors instead of three is a given. However, make sure that the back doors open wide enough for you to install a child car seat and get younger children in and out of the car. This is especially important if you suffer from a bad back or are more than six feet tall. Wide-opening doors are also practical if you regularly transport adult family members, especially those who are elderly or mobility-impaired.
Sliding rear doors as found on some MPVs (such as the Ford B-Max and Volkswagen Sharan) offer even more convenient access - especially in cramped car parks.
Wide door apertures make fitting child seats easier
3. Stadium seating
As well as wide rear door apertures, it’s also worth looking out for raised rear seating. So-called 'stadium seating' – where the rear seats are higher-set than those up front – is a feature usually limited to MPVs and 4x4s. This makes it easier to fit child car seats, and it also gives children a better view to the front, which is claimed to reduce travel sickness.
If you buy a car with stadium seating, ensure the rear seat head restraints are still easy to remove – these may need to come off to fit a child car seat.
4. You may need an MPV
Forget any perceptions you might have about MPVs/people carriers – if you have three young children, all needing to be in child car seats, a people carrier or larger 4x4s is probably the only viable option.
Five-seater cars with two fold-up seats in the boot can also be useful if you occasionally need to transport seven people. Bear in mind though that you will have precious little boot space when all seven seats are occupied.
Can you switch the passenger airbag off?
5. Can you switch off the passenger airbag?
If you need to fit a rear-facing child seat (for babies) to the front passenger seat, you must choose a car that allows you to deactivate the front airbag.
We don't recommend fitting child seats in the front, but if the need arises it should be easy to turn off the airbag yourself ; read the instructions in the owner's manual to locate the airbag 'off' switch (often in the glovebox). However, don't forget to reactivate it when you have an adult front-seat passenger - or once your child has grown larger.
6. Isofix is easier
When it comes to fitting , clip-in Isofix mounting points make the process easier, quicker and safer. Check that these mounting points are easy to access, and take your child car seat along when you view a car to see how easy it is to fit.
Aim for a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating
7. Check Euro NCAP safety ratings
For each potential purchase, check the Euro NCAP scores for crash safety and child protection. You can find these within our individual car reviews or on the Euro NCAP website.
It’s also worth taking into account the Euro NCAP ratings for pedestrian protection. If this is a car you're likely to use on the school run, do you really want a 2.5-tonne SUV with a poor rating for the risk it poses?
8. Good storage cuts clutter
Find a car with lots of storage space to house children’s toys, food, drinks, mobile phones and all the other detritus of family life.
Beware of underfloor storage compartments in the rear footwells of some cars. These might seem useful, but not if you’re using an Isofix-mounted child car seat with a support leg, which cannot safely stand on top of a hollow storage area.
In-car DVD players will help keep kids occupied
9. Sliding seats
Sliding rear seats, like the ones in the Golf SV (2014-) MPV, can be a real boon. You can push them back to increase rear legroom, or slide them forwards to improve boot space. Sliding them forward can also bring children closer to the front seats – making it easier for front passengers to pass them drinks, for example.
Some cars also offer a small degree of recline on the rear seats, a good feature to stop kids’ heads lolling forwards if they fall asleep.
10. Child-friendly features
There are lots of other child-friendly features you may want to shop around for, such as integrated sunblinds or UV-filtering tinted rear windows to limit sun exposure on long journeys.
Dark-coloured interiors are much better at hiding the inevitable spills and stains you'll get with young kids. Avoid cream or beige! Leather is actually a very practical choice, as you can wipe it down.
Many parents swear by seat-back or roof-mounted DVD screens. If these weren't fitted new (or offered as an option), you can get plenty of cheapish aftermarket systems that simply plug into the car's 12v power supply.
With that in mind, the more 12v power sockets in the car, the better. You might want one for your own phone charger or sat nav, and it's handy to have two for older children to plug in their own DVD players or handheld games consoles.