Well, there are a lot of things to consider before buying a family car.
And the reason we want to consider all that we can is because we want to get it right.
After all, buying a family car is a big investment.
Not just in money but in time.
If you’re a typical family, then you’ll be spending over 280 hours a year in a vehicle.
You don’t want to be spending that time thinking about how you wish you had a different car or different SUV or different minivan.
Doing your homework is probably the best way to ensure you make the best decision.
I’m not talking about educating yourself on all the family cars that are available for sale.
That will be way too time-consuming since there are so many family cars on the market.
No, what I mean by homework is understanding what you’re looking for in a family vehicle first.
And then, you use that understanding to drive your research and educate yourself on just the relevant vehicles.
So, let’s get started…below you will find our comprehensive list of things to consider before you buy a family car.
- Buying an American Made Family Car?
- Head Count
- Gas Mileage
- Vehicle Features
- Trunk Space
- Cup Holders
- Sound System
- Driver and Passenger Comfort
- More “Extras”
- Roof Rails
- Trailer Hitch
- Safety Features
- Hybrid and Electric
Buying an American Made Family Car?
The first thing to narrowing down your choices is to figure out which brand you want to own.
If you’re like most people, you already have some sort of brand preference already formulated.
Automakers collectively spend over $10B in advertising every year to ensure that we have a positive view of their vehicles.
Our brand choices though are not strictly based on advertisements.
After all, every car manufacturer typically has a brand that fits our personalities or lifestyles.
That’s their goal.
No, perhaps more than advertisements, we are influenced by own experiences and the experiences of our family and friends.
For example, my first car was a 1990 Ford Escort, which served me well.
But toward the end of its life, I spent more money than I wanted to repair that car and had such anxieties whenever I drove it wondering if it was going to break down on me that to this day I have an aversion to Ford vehicles now.
Even though I know from industry reviews that the Fords made today are vastly more reliable.
In short, we all have our opinions already when we’re thinking about buying a car.
And I doubt that this guide will sway many people from those opinions.
However, I do think it’s useful to consider the nationality of the car manufacturers in your purchasing decision.
Why Buy American Cars?
When US car manufacturers were losing market share to Japanese manufacturers back in the ’70s and ‘80s, there was this nationalistic call to arms for Americans to buy American cars.
This notion was grounded on preserving American jobs and appealed to American patriotism.
Unfortunately, the cars being produced by the Big 3 American car manufacturers were not only of less quality than their Japanese counterparts but also were more expensive.
And without that value, the Big 3 continued to lose market share.
Now that history lesson is to make the point that this concept still lingers in a lot of American’s minds whenever they consider a new car.
Of course, it exists to varying degrees depending on their age and how much their family embraces that concept.
However, in this day and age of globalization, it’s tricky to talk about wanting to buy American and still consider Ford, General Motors and Chrysler as the only options.
According to the 2016 Cars.com American-made Index survey, there are only 8 vehicles that pass their American-made test and 5 of them are from Japanese manufacturers.
That’s right – if you’re interested in family cars that are doing the most for Americans, then you’re looking at the Toyota Sienna, the Honda Odyssey and the Honda Pilot.
Now General Motors has 3 vehicles on this list – the Chevrolet Traverse, the GMC Arcadia and the Buick Enclave.
Speaking of Chrysler, can they even be considered American anymore now that they’re owned by Fiat – an Italian company?
My point though is that it’s tricky nowadays to be nationalistic in our car buying choices.
And it’s quite possible that most Americans have already realized this based on a Cars.com survey that found only 13% would only consider an American manufacturer when buying a car.
Still, even knowing that, the Big 3 do maintain 25 of the 42 assembly plants in the United States.
And they still account for two-thirds of all U.S. auto workers, according to the American Automotive Policy Council.
So yes, from that perspective, if you want to support America, then it still does make sense to buy a Ford or Chevy or Chrysler.
Just know that buying a Japanese, Korean or German car doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not buying American…
Why Buy Foreign Cars?
So, what if you’re in the 87% of Americans that is open to buying a foreign car?
Why would you buy from a Japanese or Korean or German manufacturer?
How about reliability?
The foreign carmakers have held the honor for decades as producing more reliable automobiles than our domestic companies here in the United States.
This gap, however, is closing.
Domestic auto companies have absolutely been making strides in manufacturing reliable automobiles.
Still, despite these improvements, the consensus of auto experts remains the same, foreign made cars, trucks, SUV’s, and vans continue to rank above domestic in overall reliability.
Now, when it comes to craftsmanship, European made autos stand alone.
The Germans are well known to produce cars that have superior suspension, steering, and handling.
The drawback though is if repairs are needed for any foreign made autos, the expenses are typically higher than domestic.
So, one trade-off then when considering a foreign made car is a little better on reliability but more expensive on maintenance and repair.
Does one side out-weigh the other?
How long will you own the car?
If you own it past the warranty, then maintenance and repair will definitely come into play.
Okay – now let’s consider seating capacity.
How many people are in your family currently (I know, silly question right?).
But remember, it’s not just the humans.
If your pet(s) ride shotgun then you need to factor them in too – even if it’s only from time to time.
But wait there’s more… Your kid(s), how many of their friends tag along?
Do they play, or will they be playing sports?
How much gear will be hauled from home to field, and back?
See where we are going with this?
Not only should you take into consideration your current circumstances, you need to also peer into your crystal ball and “predict” the future.
By doing this you can better estimate your automobile capacity needs.
Let’s get a little personal here.
Are you kind of parent that likes to be the one who chauffeurs the other kids around?
Or are you the kind that would prefer the dirty little rugrats ride in someone else’s car?
Pro Tip: If the latter, then keeping your car to just the right size for your immediate family will definitely give you a polite reason to keep the other kids out.
If you know there will be no more kids (or pets) added to the family, go with what you have bearing in mind the need to carry gear and possibly friends.
Here is a suggestion on 4-8 passenger vehicles:
- Couple with 1 kid = 4 passenger car
- Anything over 1 kid = go with a minivan as one of the vehicles in the family
From a practical standpoint, if you will be “carrying” 5 or more people, it is wise to consider a minivan.
I know some folks just don’t even want to consider it but for the head count, storage capacity and gas mileage, the minivan makes a lot of sense.
I’m not knocking SUV’s.
However, they often don’t have the interior space for a comfortable trip for a similar number of passengers.
And SUVs with 3 rows for seating have very little trunk space leftover.
There is one important exception to the favored minivan…climate.
Where you live adds a kink to the decision-making process.
While it may seem obvious to you, it is not so obvious to many.
Let’s break it down into two distinct regions, snow belt and tropical.
If your family resides in a winter weather climate which brings with it snow, 4-wheel drive can be your best friend.
If you have ever tried to head to the grocery store after a couple inches of snow in a 2-wheel drive truck or car, you know how treacherous it can be.
This is where an SUV should be considered, thanks to all the 4-wheel drive options available.
There are a select few minivans on the market that offer 4-wheel drive.
We wish there were more, yet the SUV market has this cornered, and rightfully so.
With the low ground clearance of a minivan, if you head out after a snowstorm it could be troublesome, if not dangerous.
Unless it is 4-wheel drive.
The ground clearance of SUV’s, coupled with all the 4-wheel drive options, make it the safest, best option for buying a family car for the northern climates.
Are you asking yourself what the reason is for having a tropical climate section?
Well, for the family vehicle the climate controls that are found in many minivans rival the SUV’s.
Anyone that resides in a hot region, such as the southwest or southeast knows the value in a good air conditioning system.
Be certain, those of you who live in tropical climates, to check the air conditioning system before you buy, and not just for the front row but for each row.
Unintendedly yet inevitably, it seems we’ve stumbled into a debate between minivans and SUVs so I’ll wrap it up with a final thought to consider.
As ground clearance was brought up just a few paragraphs prior… for those who will be carrying kids to and from, SUV’s have a higher ground clearance than minivans.
Why is this important to note?
The difficulty in loading and unloading small children in and out of an SUV, which has a high ground clearance, is more difficult than a minivan with a low ground clearance.
This difficulty also presents itself with groceries, athletic gear, and plain “stuff”.
Consider doing these activities multiple times a day to determine if you’re okay with a higher ground clearance or not.
I know it’s obvious but I do want to cover off on gas mileage.
As with any vehicle, and family vehicles are no exception, you’re going to consider how often you’ll be filling the tank.
For the most part, the heavier the car, the more gas it will take to move it.
4-cylinder engines use less gas than 6-cylinder engines but conversely there’s less power with less cylinders.
If you’re driving where there are hills and mountains, or if you need some oomph for getting on highways or around slow pokes, you’ll want those extra cylinders.
Most SUVs and minivans will get between twenty and thirty miles per gallon nowadays.
It’s more a matter of whether it’ll be the higher or the lower twenties.
You should be able to find better options than anything with less than 20 mpg.
The “bells and whistles” get us every time, don’t they?
Now, let’s look at the features that come with all types of automobiles; cars, trucks, SUV’s, minivans, and the like.
Not every vehicle comes with every one of the features we will cover, yet these should get your attention focused mainly on what you want, expect, and need when buying a family car.
For the family looking for a car, one of the first areas that you should ask the salesperson to show you is the trunk.
Is there enough room in there for a weekly trip to the grocery store?
If your son or daughter is active in sports, will their gear fit?
Often overlooked is this – when a family vacation comes, will all the luggage fit in the trunk?
Who does not relish the occasional cup of coffee on the run, or, an occasional trip through a fast food drive through?
If you have a kid(s), it will probably be more than an occasional trip.
Check for cup holders, not just in the front either.
Will your passengers in the back have a place to put their beverages?
This sounds silly but having one cup holder per occupant should be the absolute minimum available.
More often than not, you need 2 per person.
Another area that, as a consumer, you should be certain to test is the automobile’s sound system.
Try the radio out, both FM and AM. If SiriusXM is part of the package, try it out as well.
(The downside to SiriusXM, if you don’t want satellite radio, is you’ll be stuck with phone calls and emails and junk mail from them for the rest of your life thanks to that ‘free’ trial with your new car purchase. But I digress…)
Can the system hook up to your phone via Bluetooth?
Even better, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are coming equipped in more and more vehicles.
Having that connectivity to you cell phone is really nice.
Driver and Passenger Comfort
If you live in a cold weather climate, are the seats heated?
Is the vehicle equipped with power seats?
How do the front, and back, seats feel when you sit in them? Lumbar support? Arm rests?
Is there plenty of legroom for your passengers in the back? Third row legroom?
How far does the middle row seats recline?
Considering how much time your family will spend in a car, it’s critical that everyone can be comfortable.
Some can be must-haves while most will be nice-to-haves.
If you find one neat feature that you like a lot, it can bring years of quiet satisfaction every time you use it.
Sometimes called moonroofs (same thing), sunroofs are a common feature.
After my initial enthusiasm for my sunroof, I found I rarely used it.
When sunny, it was too hot to have the sun beating down on my head.
When cloudy, never felt the need for it.
At night, I can’t look up while driving so again, didn’t use.
Now when the kids were between toddlers and tweens, the sunroof had a really high entertainment value if we had to wait in the van for someone.
Just open it up and let the rugrat explore and stick their head out.
If you’re okay with them climbing on the front passenger seats, the sunroof was great for distracting them.
Hands free lift gate
Love the idea.
Seems like it would be super convenient.
However, I’ve observed that the operation can be tricky – often you’re left balancing awkwardly on one foot while the other one is waving futilely under the back bumper.
Definitely test this feature out thoroughly beforehand so you’re satisfied.
An example is the 2017 Kia Sedona.
Reconfigurable Second Row Seats
Whether it’s just being able to move the seats sideways or forward and back, having some flexibility to your second row is a great feature.
Even better if that flexibility is easy to accomplish.
Can either give easier access to the 3rd row when seats a slid together to one side or some welcome separation for your passengers when you split the seats.
Second Row Storage
Some vehicles (minivans) have the ability to fold down the second-row seats into the floor.
When the seats are up, the space in the floor can be used as storage.
Extra storage for a family is always welcome.
And if you need the minivan to turn into a moving van, having fold-down second row seats beats having to muscle them out.
An example is the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica.
Center folding storage tray
Whether you need to separate your second-row passengers or just need some more cup holders and resting place for a bag of food, having a folding tray is very handy.
The folding aspect is the key so that you can get it out of the way easily when you need to.
The drawback is that it does get pretty filthy, collecting dropped food and dripped drinks.
And sometimes it’s hard to remember to clean it or vacuum behind it when it’s folded up.
Rear windows that open
Great feature to give some air to your rear passengers.
Especially when said rear passengers pass some air from their rear, if you know what I mean.
Having front windows that roll down just isn’t enough.
Plus, most kids go through a sweaty phase and getting them some air quickly through the rear windows prevents you from having to hear complaints for too long.
Third row folding seats
Most family vehicles have some form of folding 3rd row seats.
Test them out thoroughly as you’ll find yourself using this feature more often than you’d think.
I think the kind that fold flat into the trunk is a must have.
An example is the 2017 Honda Odyssey.
Whether it’s a family road trip or a long drive for some regional kid’s event, most likely you’ll be logging some highway miles.
Most vehicles have cruise control standard nowadays but test them out because the usability is always different.
Best be satisfied that the controls won’t drive you crazy.
Even better, some vehicles are equipped with adaptive cruise control, which allows your car to adjust its speed according to the car in front.
On-board Entertainment Systems
Essentially, we’re talking about a DVD player with a screen for the rear passengers.
With today’s tablets and cell phones being ubiquitous, I don’t think these systems are as necessary anymore.
More of a nice to have and you might find that you rarely use it.
With that said, many a past family road trip was measured in the number of movies (the drive to the beach was usually a two-movie trip).
Also known as parental spy mirrors.
This useful feature is perfect for parents that need to see everything that’s going on behind them.
These mirrors can be purchased aftermarket so definitely not a deal breaker if unavailable.
Still, it’s nice to have one built-in that can slide down from the front ceiling panel.
Seat Position Memory
Whether you’re the type of family that switches drivers a lot or not, having seat position memory is a slick feature.
Having to re-adjust your seat is annoying when you just want to get going and the more frequently you have to do it, the more tiresome it gets.
Consider your family driving habits and whether it’s worth hunting for this feature.
An example is the 2018 Ford Expedition.
Roof rails are great for a family mainly for the flexibility they provide.
As a parent, you may already be into biking or kayaking or skiing.
These outdoor sports almost require you to have a roof rack.
But even if you’re not, you never know what your kids may get into.
Having the roof rails would future-proof the activities your kids get into.
And even if you’re not into those outdoor sports, having the roof rails adds flexibility to what you can haul, as in, the ability to add roof storage.
Sometimes you’ll need extra space for all the stuff you’re bringing to the beach or all the sleeping bags for the camp ground or all the presents to bring to grandma’s house.
If your vehicle of choice does not have roof rails, ask if there’s an option to add it and whether it can be installed at the dealership.
Another way to add flexibility to your family vehicle is the trailer hitch.
Instead of putting stuff on your roof, haul it behind you.
A trailer hitch can even be considered a more flexible option than the roof rails since you can pull more stuff behind you than you can put on the roof of your car.
Keep in mind thought that it gets a little trickier to drive if you are pulling something behind you depending on its size.
There are a handful of classes of trailer hitches that are available. They are categorized by class. The most common classes:
- Class 1 – up to 2,000 pounds
- Class 2 – up to 3,500 pounds
- Class 3 – up to 5,000 pounds
- Class 4 – up to 10,000 pounds
- Class 5 – up to 17,000 pounds
The chances of the family shopping for a new vehicle needing a Class 5 trailer hitch are slim, however, they are good for Class 1 through Class 4.
Class 1 and 2, obviously, are for lighter loads.
If you are considering a boat or a pull-along camper, you will most likely need at least a Class 3.
The good news here is that many trucks and SUV’s come off the assembly line with a trailer hitch.
If you think you’ll want one, check it out before you purchase, especially paying attention to what class the hitch the vehicle comes with.
Because safety is such a critical issue for anyone with kids, most vehicles designed for families are really good at it.
And just about anything they can put in a car to better protect your family should be open for consideration if they haven’t already provided it as a standard feature.
- Airbags: more is better; front, rear, side, everywhere
- Anti-lock braking: ability to steer and brake at the same time
- Electronic stability control (ESC): keeps your car from slipping
- Tire pressure monitor: convenient reminder to add air
- Car sensors: whether just in the rear or surrounding the whole vehicle, it’s like having an extra set of eyes watching the parts of the car you can’t see yourself
- Back-up Cameras: a must have, perfect to see what’s behind you
- Blind spot warning: helpful even if you like turning your head to look
- Lane departure warning: could be helpful on a long trip or if you’re frequently driving tired
- Forward collision warning (and auto-braking): can see this becoming standard in a few years; worth it if it works just one time
- Seat belts: On top of these relatively new safety features, you should take some time to review the classic one – the seat belt. See how they’re situated in the car. Especially with the second and third row seats having the ability to move around or fold down, make sure you’re comfortable with where the seats belts are situated and how easy the buckle can be accessed.
- Seat anchors: Also, if your kids are at the age where they’ll need car seats, checking out the accessibility of the car seat anchors is a must.
For most folks, this is an important consideration but not necessarily the primary one.
Know that for new vehicles, you’re looking at between $30-$40K minimum.
Depending on the size, brand and features, it can climb from there.
Of course, used cars are less expensive but you have to be comfortable with the wear and tear.
Speaking of wear and tear…
What about owning vs leasing?
As a general rule, you should own your family car until it can’t run anymore.
No matter how careful you are, your kids will trash it.
There will be stains and gunk in the back seat that just can’t be removed.
And it’s always better to give your teenager an older vehicle than a brand new one.
There’s a good chance that at least one fender bender will happen in the first couple years of driving.
Hopefully nothing more serious or frequent.
And when you think about the cost of your family car, keep in mind the gas costs, insurance costs, and the maintenance and repair costs… essentially, the whole cost-to-own of your vehicle.
Hybrid and Electric
As electric engine technology gets better, you’ll see more availability in the family car category.
Most hybrids and electric vehicles today are in the compact and sedan range.
If you’re looking purely at value, the money you can save on gas with a hybrid or pure electric car doesn’t offset the price premium that’s put in the upfront cost.
Maybe if gas prices rise to $5 per gallon, it’ll start to make monetary sense but until then this is more of personal statement consideration.
Weigh your family’s needs and wants first.
Once you’ve prioritized what’s important for you, then you’re ready to start looking at the available vehicles on the market.
Whenever the choices get a bit overwhelming, then go back to your priorities and reset yourself.