So your first child is on the way, and that two-seat convertible just isn't going to cut it anymore. You gear up to make the inevitable trek to the car dealership, with only the most general idea of what you're going to need. When you arrive you'll be confronted with a variety of models, sizes, colors, and a myriad of options… and a salesperson who is more concerned with whether he can "get you into this new car today" than with your family's needs. How can you find the best car for your growing family?
Here are some tips to steer you in the right direction.
You're going to be carrying around the most precious cargo of all–your child. So naturally, safety should top your list. Although every car produced today must meet federal safety standards, not every car exceeds the minimum requirements.
Crash and rollover tests: The cars that hold up best during a crash are the ones most likely to keep you and your family safe. Every year, the National Highway Transportation Safety Association (NHTSA) crashes dozens of new cars, trucks, and SUVs. All that twisted metal has an important purpose: to determine how vehicles withstand both front and side impacts. In general, bigger and heavier cars tend to offer the most crash protection. The NHTSA also does some fast maneuvering to see whether vehicles will roll over while making tight turns. Cars that handle curves and withstand crashes the best earn the NHTSA's top rating, which is five stars.
Before you buy a car, find out how it fared in crash tests by visiting the NHTSA website. In addition to crash test results, the site features tire ratings, air bag safety information, and recall lists. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) website also rates vehicles based on its own crash tests.
Restraint systems: A car seat is an absolute safety necessity for kids under the age of eight. But trying to install a car seat with a seat belt can be a real struggle, as many parents have discovered. The relatively new LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system makes child car seats not only easier to install, but also safer.
LATCH is a standard feature of all cars, minivans, and light trucks made after September 1, 2000. LATCH hooks the car seat into the back seat with a set of anchors at the bottom and a tether at the top. Cars made after September 1, 1999 will at least come with a top tether, which works with the car's seatbelt to make the seat fit more securely. If you're in the market for a used car that was manufactured before LATCH was required, the dealer should be able to retrofit it with a top tether.
Air bags: All cars manufactured since 1998 come equipped with front and passenger side air bags. Although air bags indisputably save lives (they reduce an adult's risk of dying in a front-impact crash by about 30 percent), they can seriously injure or kill a young child. Children younger than 12 should always sit in the back seat. Today, most new cars come with a special safety device that automatically detects when a child is in the passenger seat and disables the passenger-side air bag. Other cars come with an air bag on/off switch, which can be disabled manually. If the car you've got your eye on doesn't have an air bag on/off switch, consider asking your dealer to install one. Also, check with the manufacturer to make sure that the car's rear seat side impact air bags meet safety standards for young children.
Seatbelts: Every seat in your new car should have a lap and shoulder belt–even the middle seat in the back. Children should never be restrained by a lap belt only because they can be seriously injured during an accident. Also, both lap and shoulder belts are needed to install any belt-positioning booster seat.
Anti-lock brakes: Regular brakes can lock up on slippery roads and cause a car to spin out of control. Most cars now come equipped with an Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS), which pumps the brakes automatically in a skid to keep the car under control.
Safety door and window locks: It's all too easy for little fingers to pull up a lock or press down on a window control as you're cruising on the interstate. Window override and safety door locks ensure that your kids (and all their body parts) are safely inside the car at all times.