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9 things to consider when buying a family car

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By Jez Spinks

Being a parent is an incredibly rewarding experience. However, that sporty coupe or convertible you’ve enjoyed for years just isn’t going to cut it as a family car.

It’s time for performance and styling to take a back seat to other priorities, like safety features. 

To help you out, we’ve put together a handy guide of things to consider when looking for a family car.

1. Your budget

How much do you realistically have to spend on a new family car? While it’s tempting to splurge on a certain model that’s caught your fancy, the mortgage still needs to be paid.

Once you’ve established your maximum affordable outlay, you’re all set to start the research process of finding a car that best meets your needs.

2. Vehicle type

Family cars come in all shapes, sizes and costs. Choosing the best option comes down to:

  • how many children or family members you need to accommodate
  • what type of driving you want to do
  • your budget.

SUVs – sports utility vehicles – are now the favoured vehicle style among families, though car makers continue to offer hatchbacks, sedans and wagons that can still be a perfect fit for parents.

Dual-cab utes are also now hugely popular in Australia (though still flawed in the way they accommodate child seats).

If you need to fit more than five people on a regular basis, you will need a seven-seater SUV (either the purpose-built style such as the Kia Carnival or an official van conversion such as the Volkswagen Multivan).

3. Seating flexibility

If you have three young children, choices can be more complicated if you want to have them all in the middle row. Only a select number of vehicles have sufficient cabin width to comfortably accommodate three child seats. 

Most vehicles also offer ISOFIX anchor points in the outer middle-row seats, though all three middle-row/second-row seats typically feature top-tether points.

4. Boot space and cabin storage

First things first, parents need to be able to fit a pram in the boot. Of course, it’s no help if the boot fits the pram but little else. 

Also consider smaller-item storage. The more places there are to put things, the tidier your vehicle cabin will be. Kids have an amazing knack of messing up your car’s interior within a matter of minutes.

For parents, front cupholders are essential for those coffees keeping you alert after the inevitable poor night’s sleep!

Seatback pockets are great for storing drawing pads, iPads or the Etch-a-Sketch (because who uses physical map books these days?!).

5. Safety

Most vehicles are crash-tested by independent body ANCAP – the Australasian New Car Assessment Program – and given a percentage score for adult occupant protection, child occupant protection, vulnerable road-user protection and safety assist systems, then an overall rating out of five stars.

Naturally, it’s recommended to choose vehicles with the highest, five-star rating.

That said, there may be the occasional instance where a vehicle performs well in crash-testing but may just miss out on the maximum score owing to a technicality, such as missing cyclist detection on an autonomous emergency braking system.

On the other hand, a five-star crash-rated vehicle might not offer all the protection you want – such as curtain airbags that cover all three rows of a multi-seater vehicle rather than just the front and second rows.

There’s also a lot of driver aids to choose from these days, it can be hard to know what you really need. Helpful driver aids can include:

  • radar/adaptive cruise control (some of which include stop and go functionality)
  • blind-spot monitoring
  • driver drowsiness alert
  • speed-limit notification
  • partial-autonomous steering (mainly for freeway driving)
  • and even semi-automatic parking systems that will steer your vehicle into a space (and back out again).

6. Fuel economy

The lower a vehicle’s fuel consumption, the better it is for your hip pocket and the environment (lower emissions).

Fuel consumption figures can be found on car manufacturer websites.

7. Towing

If your family owns a boat or caravan, you will need to consider a vehicle suitable for towing. And the larger/heavier the trailer or caravan, the fewer your choices … and the more expensive they’re likely to be. 

It’s important to leave a generous margin between a vehicle’s towing capacity and the total weight it is pulling – for both safety and legal reasons. Add durability if you’re towing regularly, too, as pulling a heavy load can put a big strain on a vehicle. 

Allowing such a good margin means you can have more people and more cargo on board the vehicle without exceeding the gross combined mass (GCM). This is the maximum allowable accumulated weight of the vehicle with occupants and gear plus the trailer/caravan.

8. In-car entertainment

A game of I Spy or singing along to the PlaySchool album won’t keep everyone occupied on longer journeys. 

Rear-seat DVD players have been one solution for some parents. They’re still available on some models, either on higher-grade variants or as an accessory. However, a cheaper and better bet these days is tablet holders that fix to the headrests of the front seats. 

You’ll want to invest in wireless headphones, though!

Ideally, your car will feature at least one USB port in the rear seat for charging.

9. Take shortlisted cards for a test drive

Don’t order a car from a dealer without having first tried it.

Aim to create a shortlist of about three cars that fit your budget and priorities, then head to the respective showrooms.

Sit inside the cabin, open the boot, explore the storage options, and then take the car for a drive to ensure you’re happy with areas such as ride comfort, steering, and how the engine and gearbox perform.

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