If you've got kids, there are many things to think about. Child seats, practicality and safety are three big things to consider. And that's before you've even thought about what kind of car you like, let alone how much you can spend on one.
But it gets more complicated - the family car segment is arguably the most saturated part of the market in the UK. And it's made even more daunting by the plethora of small SUVs and crossovers entering the mainstream.
Of course, there's no precise definition of what makes a family car. To some, it's a big saloon; to others, it’s an estate, an SUV, or a hatchback.
While we can't list every car on offer, we can give you a good idea of what to look for and suggest a few motors that you might want to check out.
Of course, the safety of your children should be your utmost priority. Fortunately, Euro NCAP crash-tests most cars to see how well they cope in the event of an accident.
It is worth checking out the ratings online for any car you consider buying. While most models today will score four or five stars, a few only manage three, two or even one.
The wonders of modern technology mean the days of driverless cars may not be all that far away. Indeed, today, many things in vehicles already offer some form of autonomous assistance. This tech can include displaying the current speed limit to automatic emergency braking, which detects an imminent collision and puts the anchors on quicker than you can react.
It is worth looking carefully at the safety assists in all cars to assess what's right for you. For example, lane-keeping assistance is excellent if you use dual-carriageways and motorways. But it may have limited value if you mainly use your motor to go on the school run or drive into town.
Also, you might not know that, by law, children must use child seats until they are 12 years of age or 135cm tall.
Unfortunately, installing a child seat isn’t always easy, as the fixings and seat belt positions can vary from model to model. One thing that’s good to factor in are Isofix points in the car, making fitting child seats less of a hassle. But it's always worth checking to make sure they're included in the vehicle you're buying or leasing. Furthermore, there are 'universal', 'semi-universal' and 'vehicle-specific' Isofix seats to complicate matters.
Nevertheless, Isofix reduces the chances of you installing seats incorrectly. Studies show around 80 per cent of parents incorrectly fit child seats, so it’s worth doing your research and learning how to do it properly.
If you have small children, you’ll find you’re taking a lot more than just the kids with you on a trip. So, it's vital to ensure you can fit bags in for all their stuff.
While a small child’s rucksack might fit in just about every car, you might need to factor in prams. And, if you're test driving a car, most dealerships won't mind you taking the pushchair along to make sure you can fit it in.
You are unlikely to want a boot under 350-litres. However, most small hatchbacks should be fine (such as the Volkswagen Golf, which has a 380-litre cargo capacity).
Another thing to think about is the number of doors. If you’re going to be regularly carrying children and putting them in their seats yourself, a four or five-door will be much easier than a two or three-door car.
And, in this world of smartphones and tablets, if you're regularly going on long road trips, then ensuring your offspring can store their tablets in the pockets at the back of the front seats might be worth considering. Of course, if you can find a car that allows them to charge their devices on the go from the back seats, then that's a bonus, too.
What car should I buy?
Even if you're looking for a family car, not everyone needs to factor in Isofix seats and pushchairs. Therefore, check each vehicle’s specifications first to make sure it meets your individual needs.
We have already mentioned the Volkswagen Golf, so that seems an obvious place to start. It is spacious, practical, well built, and, although you won’t get the luxuries you get in more premium-focused cars, you’ll still get a decent quality cabin.
Its looks are a bit divisive, and, given its historical reputation, it isn't the cheapest, so a SEAT Leon might be a good alternative. Volkswagen owns SEAT these days, so the cars share many similarities, but the SEAT is more affordable.
Those wishing to go all-electric might want to look at the Volkswagen ID.3, which is slightly more spacious inside.
On the other hand, a Ford Focus might appeal even more, with its more attractive looks and excellent drivability. It is well-equipped in terms of technology, too. It isn’t all-electric, although it comes in hybrid form these days.
If you're after a premium hatchback, you will struggle to go wrong with the Mercedes-Benz A-Class or BMW 1-Series. Both have sharp looks, are very well-equipped and have a (comparatively) luxurious interior.
Next up, we’re getting into the realms of crossovers and SUVs. If you’re not familiar with crossovers, they are usually hatchbacks that have been raised slightly. They are also often given rugged, off-road styling to make them look like small SUVs.
The Ford Puma is one of the best examples. It is roomy inside and comes with a big storage area that Ford calls the ‘MegaBox’. It offers an extra 80-litres of storage space underneath the boot floor - perfect for the kids’ rucksacks or muddy sportswear.
The Nissan Qashqai is another excellent example. It provides good value for money, a decent level of equipment, a high-up driving position, a good choice of economical engines, and over 400-litres of boot space.
Renault's Kadjar is similarly priced, offering greater interior space and a bigger boot than the Qashqai. At the same time, the Hyundai Tucson is cheaper than both, has an even bigger boot, is well-equipped, excellently built and very spacious inside.
Skoda is on a roll nowadays, producing first-rate cars, and the Karoq may well appeal. Admittedly, it isn't the most fun to drive, and the interior isn't inspiring, but it has good reliability, is very well-equipped and similarly priced to the Renault.
If you want personality, then Volvo’s XC40 is worth bearing in mind. It does cost a bit more, but Volvo has an excellent reputation for safety, and there are larger variants, such as the XC60, which might suit those with bigger budgets.
The Volkswagen Tiguan is admirable, too, offering a civilised interior and a 520-litre boot, which is bigger than both Volvos. However, it isn't quite as nice and is similarly priced to the XC40.
Volvo also does an XC90 SUV if you require a seven-seater, but people carriers might be a better fit. The Ford S-Max is a likely contender, thanks to its practicality, excellent ride comfort, good drivability, and the offering of an automatic gearbox. However, a lot of its safety features are optional extras, and, like many seven-seaters, the cargo capacity is limited if all the seats are in use.
The recently discontinued Volkswagen Sharan has automatic sliding rear doors, as does the virtually identical (and still available) SEAT Alhambra, which is also cheaper than the VW. The boot room with all seven seats in place is slightly bigger than the S-Max at 300-litres in both cars. If you only need six chairs, you can fold down one of the two rear seats in nearly all seven seaters to create some extra room.
You could also look at an estate car. The Skoda Octavia isn't the best for having fun behind the wheel, but it’s an impressive combination of practicality, excellent build quality, technology and equipment. Plus, it's cheaper than some of its competitors and has a good choice of engines, while if you need something slightly bigger, the Skoda Superb Estate very much lives up to its name.
In truth, most estate cars are likely to tick all the boxes. For example, the Peugeot 308 SW is good and has a big boot and attractive looks. However, it is a bit expensive for what it is, so the cheaper but highly practical Ford Focus Estate would be a good alternative. However, it isn't as comfortable unless you opt for optional adaptive dampers.
At the other end of the market, a BMW 3 Series Touring, Audi A4 Avant, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class Estate are all excellent but command a premium price tag. If you’re in this market, you might want to consider the safety-conscious and handsome Volvo V60, too.
There are so many family cars on the market nowadays that we can't cover every one of them, but the models we've listed here should be a good starting point.
All the motors we've mentioned were awarded a maximum of five stars by Euro NCAP, except for the Volkswagen Sharan and SEAT Alhambra, which scored four stars.
It is worth looking at these ratings in more detail, though. Why? Because they also provide individual percentage scores for adults, children, vulnerable road users (such as pedestrians and cyclists) and safety equipment. Furthermore, any car tested since 2020 is subject to more stringent criteria. So, in theory, a new four-star car could score a higher child safety percentage than a five-star vehicle.
It would help if you also considered what your specific needs are. For example, do you need something easy to get out of because you'll be parking in tight car parks? Do you need something extra safe because you’ll be driving a lot on fast but narrow country lanes? Do you have three teenage children, so you need to ensure there's plenty of width in the back? Do you have twins and need to accommodate a double pushchair in the boot?
If you need a bit more boot space, you’ll also want to consider the ‘split’ of the rear seats. In many cars, they fold down in two sections, with one of the outer seats folding individually and the middle seat and the other outer seat folding down together. This is known as a ‘60/40’ split, but may not be as useful as ones where all three seats fold down individually (known as 40/20/40). This likely won't matter for most, but little things like this could be dealbreakers, depending on your circumstances.
Draw up a shortlist based on your needs, and then research your cars. There are plenty of places online to find dimensions and boot space figures for individual vehicles. However, beware that hybrids and all-electric vehicles often have reduced boot capacity due to the batteries located beneath the boot floor - so be sure to check.
Once you’ve got your shortlist, test-drive each one before you commit to a purchase – and don’t be afraid to take prams and tape measures along. Demonstrating that you’ve done your homework and are buying based on a strict criteria will indicate to a dealer that they’ll need to work harder to get a sale, so they’ll be more inclined to negotiate with you.
On that note, make sure you ask about the level of safety equipment. While some manufacturers will offer all the safety trimmings at entry-level, some will require you to buy or lease a higher-spec car to get some of the best features. At the same time, some may be outright optional extras. So, if you want a particular safety feature, but it's only available on a higher spec car which pushes it outside your budget, it might even be that you can twist the dealer’s arm into throwing it in to secure a sale.
Even if negotiating with car dealers isn't your strong point, remember these are your children we're talking about. And you shouldn’t be afraid to make it clear that it’s the one thing you’re not prepared to compromise on.