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Family Cars

Saturday, 5 February 2005 | Tags: , ,

When it's time to give up the sports car to make room for a baby car seat, it can be a tricky decision finding a good family car. With safety and your bank account at stake, we find out what you need to know to make a good, long-term purchase.

The Basics

  • Do your homework. Read as much as you can about different car manufacturers and models from unbiased sources like car review sites, newspapers, magazines, and consumer reviews.

  • Look at safety ratings. Consider the number of air bags and the safety standards important to you and your family. www.safercar.gov is a good place to start.

  • When looking at price, remember to think about the cost of maintenance and gas.

  • There are three main styles of family cars to consider:

    • Station Wagon: new wagons are compact, easier to park, and drive more like cars. They also look a lot more stylish than the big old wood-paneled boat wagons you may remember as a kid. Some wagons come with all-wheel drive and full motion, making them a good alternative to the SUV.

    • Mini Van: available in two-wheel and four-wheel drive, mini vans are great for a big family, or if you’re often driving big groups around to soccer games, etc. With 7-seat configuration, sliding doors, and fold-down seats, there’s room to pack all the kids plus cargo space as well. Very versatile.

    • SUV: if you’re an outdoorsy family, need to tow something, and like going camping or off-roading, an SUV may be suitable for you.

  • Be prepared to do some test drives at multiple dealerships. Consider taking your whole family, car seats and all, to make sure the vehicle is comfortable and accessible to your needs.

    • Be sure to drive on the highway, in the city, and try to find a twisty road as well so you can see how well it handles. Don’t leave too much time between test drives, and write down your thoughts immediately after so that you can compare your notes once you’re done.

    • Climb into all of the seats and get a good feel for how much space you have. Some SUVs may look big on the outside, but their cargo space can be quite compact.

    • Are there enough cup-holders? (It may seem trivial, but you’ll notice they’re missing when you need them most.)

    • If you have a dog, another thing to consider is not only space, but height. If you have a medium-to-large dog, can it jump into the car easily? (Some SUVs can be a bit high for older dogs, who may need a boost to get in as they age.)

Other Considerations

  • Extras and accessories are tempting, but they can also be expensive. Be sure you really need all the bells and whistles before you add them to your order.

  • Leather seats are more expensive and require maintenance, but they’re also much easier to clean than cloth seats, which is great if you have small kids.

  • Buying a car towards the end of the year (the previous year’s model) can often get you a good deal, as dealers are trying to make room for the new year’s models.

TEST CRITERIA

We recruited a family to help out and test drove a few cars to see which we all liked best. To narrow down our choices, we first checked out safety ratings, read reviews, and compared prices to come up with the cream of the crop in each category of family vehicles.

(Note: this test was done for The Shopping Bags in 2005 with that same year’s car models.)

Vehicles we tested:

  • Honda Odyssey (mini van): $36,900, 7 passengers, front wheel drive, dual sliding doors.
  • Volkswagen Passat (station wagon): $38,355, all wheel drive.
  • Toyota Highlander (SUV): $36,940, mid sized, 4 wheel drive.

Family Test Drive

  • We asked the Mackenzie family – 2 working parents and 2 active sons – to try each car for a week.

    • They found the SUV was well made but it wasn’t as easy to get kids in and out of it.

    • The mini van was practical. Its sliding doors made it easy to get in and out. It was difficult to manoeuvre into narrow parking spots.

    • Their overall favourite was the station wagon. It had extra room, was easy to get kids in and out of, was easy to drive and park.

OUR TOP PICK

Since every family is different, we’ll leave the decision up to you. But make sure to do some test drives, as we said, and bring the whole family to get everyone’s opinion.

 

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