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Car buying tips

How to buy the best family car

By Martin Pratt

Article 8 of 11

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How to buy the best family car

After the best family car of 2017? Here's our expert guide to choosing the best family car, whether you're looking for a hatchback, estate, people carrier or SUV.

Finding the best family car can be tricky. Tracking down that elusive family car, capable of transporting a mixture of children, elderly parents, large dogs plus bulky luggage like pushchairs, can be stressful. Which is where we come in. 

To find the best family car for you and your family, read our top ten expert tips below.

Want to know which cars are the safest for your family, plus won't rack up your fuel costs? To see the family cars that excelled in the Which? test lab, see our round-up of the best cars. 

1. Which is the best family car - a hatchback, estate, people carrier or SUV?

The first decision to make is which type of car will suit you. Here are the main types of family car:

Hatchbacks 

A hatchback is a car with a boot lid that is the entire width of the car. Hinged at the roof, the lid swings upwards to give access to the boot. Technically, the boot lid is considered a door - which is why hatchbacks are typically sold as either 'three-door' or 'five-door'.

The wide-opening boot lid should make it easy to load up your shopping, luggage or the family dog. The rear seats can almost always be folded down. Large hatchbacks will let you transport long or bulky items, such as flatpack furniture, skis or bikes.

Hatchback cars come in a number of sizes. The most popular car in the UK, the Ford Fiesta, is a small hatchback. The Ford Focus is a medium-sized hatchback, and the Ford Mondeo is a large hatchback.

See our round-ups of the: 

Estates 

Have you looked at hatchbacks and found they didn't offer enough space? An estate car could be the answer. Essentially, it's a hatchback with an extended body to create more space in the boot, and possibly more space for passengers as well. 

More storage means more practicality. Although having a longer car naturally means it can be more challenging to manoeuvre. 

MPVs 

If an estate is still not big enough, an MPV (also called a people carrier) may be your best bet. While manufacturers are doing their best to restyle the boxy bodies that MPVs have, it's that boxlike shape and high roofline that give people carriers such an amazing amount of interior space. 

Our top tip here is don't be put off by its looks until you've had a chance to see inside the car; you may be impressed by what it has to offer.

Don't be put off by its looks until you've had a chance to see inside the car.

Some MPVs have a third row of seats that pull out from the boot floor and can be useful if you occasionally need to transport seven people. Bear in mind that you will have precious little boot space when all seven seats are in use, and most third-row seats aren't big enough to accommodate adults (at least comfortably). 

To make loading easier, some MPVs also have sliding rear doors and seats that can collapse into the floor, slide fore and aft to prioritise passenger or boot space, or can be removed completely. 

  • If an MPV sounds right for you, check out the best MPVs.

SUVs 

The world of SUVs (or 4x4s) has become more versatile than ever before, thanks to the unprecedented popularity of compact SUVs and crossovers. The high riding position that SUVs offer can make it easy to get children and other passengers in and out of seats, plus the boot can be relatively spacious. 

Some large SUVs, such as the Volvo XC90, come with seven seats. SUVs tend not to have the outright space of MPVs, but can offer a stylish alternative.

Four-wheel drive may sound rugged and fun, but will cost you extra at the fuel pump.

Many SUVs will come with four-wheel drive either as standard or as an option. This might sound fun and conjure up images of rugged, bush-whacking adventures, but ask yourself if you really need four-wheel drive. 

This is because it will cost you extra at the fuel pump. SUVs (or MPVs) tend not to be the most efficient of cars (some hybrid versions exist, such as the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV).

We'll help you compare the

2. The best family cars have 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 find it difficult to get into or out of a car. 

Sliding rear doors as found on some MPVs/people carriers (such as the Ford B-Max and Volkswagen Sharan) offer even more convenient access – especially in cramped car parks.

On your test drive, stop on an incline and open the doors.

If you get the chance on your test drive, stop the car on an incline and open the doors. Our tests have found that some doors won't stay open, which means the door trying to close on you while you load in your children or other passengers.

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 SUVs/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 that the rear-seat head restraints are still easy to remove – these may need to come off to fit a child car seat.

4. Take your pushchair car shopping

You'll want to make sure your pushchair fits easily in the boot. The boot might look spacious, but if the opening isn't big enough for you to get the pushchair in, it's of little use. 

You could, of course, buy a different pushchair. But with the range of cars available, you should be able to find one that accommodates the pushchair you already have.

In the market for a new pushchair? We test those as well. Here are the best pushchairs.

5. Can you switch off the passenger airbag?

If you need to fit a rear-facing child seat 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 is in a front-facing seat. 

6. Isofix is easier for a family car

When it comes to fitting a child car seat, 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.

7. Check Euro NCAP safety ratings

For each potential purchase, check the Euro NCAP scores for crash safety and child protection. If the worst does happen, you'll want to be sure the car you've chosen offers a high level of protection for you and your family. Some cars also have advanced safety systems, such as AEB (autonomous emergency braking). This system detects if you're about to crash and applies the brakes for you if you haven't already. Depending on the car's speed and the AEB system, it will either stop you before impact or slow the car to mitigate the worst of the crash. AEB systems are so effective that they can also reduce insurance costs.

You can find Euro NCAP's safety ratings on its website, or within our individual car reviews.

8. Good storage cuts clutter in a family car

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, as it can't safely stand on top of a hollow storage area. 

9. Sliding seats

Sliding rear seats, such as the ones in the Volkswagen Golf SV, can be a real boon. You can push them back to increase rear legroom, or slide them forwards to improve boot space. Sliding them forwards 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. Family cars and 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. For this reason, be sure to avoid cream or beige. Leather is actually a very practical choice, as you can wipe it down. 

Dark-coloured interiors hide stains. Avoid cream or beige!

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.

Find your perfect new family car with our impartial expert car reviews.

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