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What to look for in a family car

Comfort, safety, space, technology and more - here are the key characteristics that make a car ideal for families

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Are you on the lookout for your next family car? With the wide array of options of all shapes and sizes available, finding the best new or used car for your needs can pose quite the challenge.

There are plenty of capable family cars in the hatchback, saloon, estate, SUV and people carrier categories, but before you choose a body style there are some important things to consider first.

This article navigates you through the essential aspects that make a car ideal for families, including interior space and comfort, safety features, running costs and on-board entertainment.

Space and comfort

Opting for a car that is spacious enough for you and your family is the most immediate and obvious consideration. Ensure that your chosen car has ample headroom and legroom so that passengers can sit comfortably without feeling cramped on long journeys.

It’s not just about stretching out – cabin storage space, including cup and bottle holders, storage nets and compartments for gadgets, waste bins and interior hooks, help you stay organised while on the move, and other in-built practical features like sun blinds and ice scrapers can make day-to-day driving more convenient.

When considering if the boot space is enough for you, you should judge whether your family gear like prams, sports equipment, and suitcases can comfortably fit.

The more boot space, the merrier. A generous boot means less compromise between what you want to take with you and what you can. Also consider how versatile the rear seats are – flexible seating configurations, such as foldable rear seats or sliding middle rows, allow families to balance passenger and cargo space based on their specific needs at any time.

Comfort features are also important, with climate control systems allowing separate temperature zones for the driver and passengers avoiding any disputes over it being too hot or too cold. Seats that provide good back support and adjustable settings are a lifesaver on long journeys, reducing the chances of aches and pains.

When on a test drive, pay attention to road noise. A continuous droning from the engine could get pretty annoying, particularly on road trips. Good soundproofing reduces noise so that the engine can’t interrupt conversation or music.

Safety features

Modern family cars come packed with safety features designed to keep passengers safe during their travels. Airbags are an absolute must, but multiple airbag systems that provide protection in frontal impacts and side swipes are almost certain to be included as standard.

All new cars also come with autonomous emergency braking (AEB) as standard – a system that can detect a potential collision before it occurs and automatically apply the brakes if the driver has not reacted in time.

If your family commute often takes you on to the motorway, it’s also a good idea to check if the car has lane-keeping assistance technology, which nudges the car back into its lane if it begins to drift without signalling, acting as a gentle reminder to stay between the lines.

Many new family cars also come with blind spot monitoring, traffic sign recognition and a drowsy driver alert, which can all improve safety and convenience. Adaptive cruise control is also a handy consideration – a system that helps vehicles maintain a safe following distance and stay within the speed limit.

Hill start assist gives you a second or two off the brakes to take off on an incline, adaptive headlights automatically turn on when needed and switch between high and low beam depending on how dark the road is ahead, and parking sensors and cameras can be really helpful when it comes to parking large cars.

Finally, some new cars can be specced with a rear occupant alert, which sounds when it detects breathing or motion in the rear of the cabin when you park up and open the driver door, making sure that you don’t leave anyone important on the back seats.

If you aren’t too sure which safety features your chosen family car has as standard, the Euro NCAP website can tell you more. The organisation’s safety rating identifies how safe a vehicle really is, and can be viewed on our Expert Rating pages, depending on whether the model has been assessed.

Fuel efficiency and running costs

The best family car options blend space and safety with impressive miles per gallon (mpg) figures or an excellent electric range and efficiency.

When it comes to combustion-powered cars, hybrids and plug-in hybrids generally offer the best fuel efficiency while lowering CO2 emissions. Owners typically enjoy reduced tax rates, as well as saving a few pounds a year on fuel costs.

Miles per gallon (mpg) comparison

Hyundai Kona petrol

Average consumption: 46mpg

Hyundai Kona Hybrid

Average consumption: 60mpg

Hyundai Kona Electric

Average consumption: up to 300 miles on a single charge

Opting instead for an electric car (EV) can lead to substantial running cost savings, depending on how you run the vehicle. One of buyers’ biggest concerns about electric cars is the battery range – how far you can go on a full battery before you need to stop and charge.

The car’s battery range should be able to comfortably accommodate your daily commute from full charge. Keep in mind that, due to traffic and weather conditions, the car’s real-world battery range is likely to be less than the official range given by the manufacturer.

Like hybrids, electric cars also have reduced tax rates when compared to your average petrol car, and generally have lower servicing and maintenance costs long term.

Don’t forget to check your chosen car’s insurance bracket too. Opting for a more economical vehicle to save on fuel costs doesn’t make much financial sense if the new car has significantly higher insurance premiums.

Thanks to our commercial partner Clear Vehicle Data, our Expert Rating Index provides a full breakdown of a car’s running costs – fuel consumption, CO2 emissions, insurance group rating and servicing costs for the first five years – so you can make a more informed decision about your next family car purchase.

Technology and entertainment

In-car technology and entertainment rank high on the list of priorities for family car buyers. Smartphone compatibility certainly makes any family car proposition more appealing, particularly for those who take long family road trips or handle the daily school run.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto both allow for easy access to music, maps, contacts, and apps without the need to divert much attention from the road.

In recent years, infotainment touchscreens have become a standard tech addition on the dashboard – multi-functional hubs that serve as the control centre for navigation, media playback, and other driver settings. The ability to connect multiple devices simultaneously ensures no family member is left out, allowing both front and rear passengers to play DJ or navigate the journey.

Rear-seat entertainment systems take on new importance when it comes to keeping peace in the backseat. Though these are on the pricier end of any spec sheet, drop-down screens or headrest monitors allow passengers to watch films, play games, or stream content without disturbing the driver.

Voice recognition technology is increasingly becoming a standard tech feature, which can change the music, set a destination in the navigation system, or make a phone call through voice commands.

Some brands also offer WiFi hotspots, which are usually an optional extra. With a vehicle-based WiFi hotspot, passengers can connect their own devices to the internet, which aids any media streaming or search engine browsing.

With smartphones and tablets in mind, it is also a good idea to check the number of USB ports your chosen car has, and the type of connection. Most modern cars come with multiple USB ports, and some come with fast-charging USB-C options spread throughout the cabin. A USB port isn’t always necessary to charge your phone though – some models come with a wireless smartphone charging pad as standard.

Other practical considerations include head-up displays that can project driving information onto the windscreen, child safety locks for the doors and windows and motorised tailgates that can open the boot lid from a single touch or kick, improving boot access.

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Sean Rees
Sean Rees
Sean is the Deputy Editor at The Car Expert. A enthusiastic fan of motorsport and all things automotive, he is accredited by the Professional Publishers Association, and is now focused on helping those in car-buying need with independent and impartial advice.