No matter what age your children are, it's pretty much a guarantee that you spend a lot of time in the car. Whether it's shuttling to and from day care or school, or play dates or after-school activities, today's kids are busy and that means a lot of seat time in the car. Here are the top five must-have features to look for in your next set of family wheels.1. Compatibility With Your Car Seat Or Booster
With kids needing a car seat or booster seat for at least the first 8 years of their lives, making sure the child seat is compatible with your car is essential.
Yes, that's right, eight years. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids remain in a car seat or booster until they are 4'9" -- which is about age 8 and possibly older. Why so long? Because seat belts generally only fit correctly for people 4'9" and taller.
Bring all your child seats with you on test drives and check the fit in the car before you decide to purchase it. Some dealerships have a certified child passenger safety technician on staff who can confirm the seat can be installed correctly. Another good source is Car Seat Data, a searchable database listing the compatibility of specific car seats in specific cars.
While you may choose to buy a vehicle that the seat does not fit in anyway, at least you'll know that in advance and can shop for a new child seat as soon as you take ownership.2. Flexible Seating
Whether your kids are in diapers or school, flexible seating is a key feature in a family car. For little ones, look for a second row center seat that pulls forward, so you can get your baby closer to Mom and Dad up front. For preschool and elementary tykes, look for built-in booster seats, which provide the extra height that kids need while not looking "baby-ish." For older kids, captain's chair are often helpful to keep kids separated, while features such as fold-out lap trays and tables can offer kids more flexibility to play games or draw on longer trips.
If you’re a family whose kids want to bring their friends along, then having extra seating that disappears when it's not needed is helpful. Look for third row seats that fold flat into the floor, while a split-bench design offers the flexibility of additional seating without compromising cargo space as much. Similarly second rows with a center section that stows or transforms into storage also offer more options to meet different family situations.3. Easily Accessible Interior Storage
Keeping your mind on the road is hard enough with kids in the car that no one needs the added distraction of trying to reach something they need. As you test drive the vehicles you are considering, assess the accessibility of the interior storage space.
In general, separate spaces that keep different items confined are more useful than one large space that is the equivalent of a bottomless pit. While open storage can mean easy accessibility, keep in mind that it also means items can be launched and become projectiles in a crash. A mixture of open and lidded storage is the best bet.
If your kids are young, then look for storage spaces easily within reach of the driver or front passenger that will hold key items securely. For older kids, look for storage pockets or cubbies that are within their easy reach while seat-belted.4. Secure Cargo Space
Whether it's baby gear, school books or sports equipment, kids come with a lot of cargo and parents need the proper cargo space to stow it securely otherwise it could become a dangerous projectile in a crash. Yet to meet a wide variety of family situations, the cargo space needs to remain flexible.
Any large objects or those weighing over 10 pounds should always be stowed in the cargo space (not on the floor of the passenger compartment or a seat) to ensure they don't injure occupants in a crash, so look for a trunk or cargo area that will accommodate the gear you typically carry -- even bring it with you to the dealership to check to make sure it fits. Devices such as grocery bag hooks, cargo nets, pop-up bins and under-floor storage are all useful to keep items separated and prevent them from being damaged, while can be moved out of the way to accommodate larger items.
Keep in mind that items in the cargo space of an SUV or wagon should not be stacked higher than the seats or they could slide into the passenger compartment, injuring the occupants. Use the cargo cover to help prevent items from moving and to provide added security against theft.5. Comfort And Convenience Gadgets
The only way to prevent the "Are we there yet?" syndrome is to keep kids occupied, especially on a long highway trip. To ease the journey, look for comfort and convenience gadgets such as a rear seat entertainment system and MP3 players or adaptors. If you've got a family that just can't agree on its entertainment (or Mom and Dad can't bear listening to Hannah Montana again), look for multiple headphone jacks and the ability to access multiple entertainment options at once, such as the DVD entertainment and stereo system.Also consider items such as built-in coolers for easy-access to drinks without stopping and fold-out trays for snacking, playing games or coloring. While parents could bring along a small cooler or lap desks from home, these bulky items can get unwieldy when they are not in use and can injure occupants in a crash. Built-in items stow away easily and won't move significantly during an accident.