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The 2021 Family Car Awards: How We Chose Our Winners

This is the criteria we looked at when considering the family cars that made our final list.

The Fatherly Family Car Awards are a celebration of the best vehicles for families. To determine our winners (you can see the entire list here), we looked at not only safety and performance features but also those big and small considerations that make life on the road a bit easier for parents. Here are some of the criteria that went into our decision.

Before we get started, it’s important to point out that we try our hardest to get behind the wheel of every car that debuts each year. That can be tricky, especially in a year with a combined pandemic as well as supply chain issues by manufacturers. But even so, we’ve done our darnedest, and with few exceptions, noted in the guide, what you’re reading about is based on first-hand knowledge and over two decades of automotive testing experience. Still, here’s what matters to us specifically, and we think to you as well:

Performance

Our writer got behind the wheel of all of these vehicles — or, when necessary, the equivalent prior year model, since right about now 2022 models are coming in and 2021s are going out. We take each on the road for extended rides over the course of several days. We study traditional specs like power, acceleration, handling, and general drivability, but we also care about available power at slower speeds — aka, torque. Nobody needs 400hp, but having torque from 40mph to 60mph allows you to merge more safety with traffic. Vehicles that make our cut can do that readily and confidently.

Safety

Every car included in the Fatherly Family Car Awards has at least six airbags. In most cases, however, the count is closer to 10 or more. More than that, we rely on the ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which rates every car sold in America. (Look up what you drive right now, right here.) If it’s not getting at least a Top Safety Pick, the runner up to Top Safety Pick +, truly, right now, consider trading in your car. We mean it. Crash test data is a massive predictor of vulnerability to injury and death. That’s why, while we test almost every family-friendly model that debuts each year, and we fell in love with a few from the likes of BMW and Chevy, for instance, they’re not winners in our book because they don’t pass muster with the IIHS. P.S. We also backstop by looking at how NHTSA rates cars for crash tests, too.

Note, that a few models on our list are so new that we still don’t have information on crash testing. We’ve noted that in our review, too, but just be aware.

In addition, we made sure that most of the following tech is either standard or available on most of our picks, as it saves lives. We highly recommend narrowing your choices, then digging into the weeds on whether the car you want offers all or at least most of the following.

  • Lane-keeping: This technology uses cameras and other sensors to read the perimeter of the lane. Sometimes it includes steering assistance to guide you back into the lane.
  • Lane departure warning: Frequently these monitors beep, buzz, or vibrate the steering wheel or the seat to alert you that you’ve strayed outside the painted lines.
  • Blind-spot warning: Prevents you from merging into a lane in the path of another car.
  • Rear cross-traffic alert: Prevents you from backing out into the path of another car, especially when backing out of a driveway.
  • Advanced cruise control: Maintains distance to the car ahead; in some cases can brake the car to a complete stop and allow you to resume following once traffic clears.
  • Automatic emergency braking: Various versions include warning the driver of an impending impact and/or also braking the car if the driver fails to initiate braking.
  • Child reminder: Sensors in the second and third row remind you if there’s still a child in the car. It’s possible this technology will become mandatory under federal law, as both children and pets still die each year when left too long in hot cars.

Storage Space

Parenting comes with a lot of cargo. So we prioritized cars that have excellent space as well as features that make accessing that space even easier like seats that fold down to expose more storage room, clever cubbies, flip-up hatches, and stow-away spots located throughout.

Efficiency

We kept efficiency in mind when determining our winners. You’ve had kids; they need to inherit a planet that’s viable for the next century, and that starts with stalling climate change, at least to the extent possible.

Several electric vehicles and hybrids made the list for that reason, and they have excellent mileage ratings because of course they do. Most of the largest vehicles, however, don’t get extraordinary fuel economy. That’s a matter of utility. Bigger vehicles that can fit a family and then some require more gas. One way to think about the equation, however, is that a seven-passenger SUV is trying to haul the equivalent number of human beings and gear as you can pile into, say, two Priuses Considering that Ford’s new Lightning electric pickup could form the chassis of a full-sized electric family SUV (and this is hardly the only solution that would work), you will see a lot of electric people movers very soon. They’re just not in production quite yet.  That Prius gets an average of 52 MPG, but if you had to drive two everywhere you’d be halving that fuel economy, so 26 MPG is a closer logical target for a very large vehicle.

Dependability

Our selections were created with one eye on Consumer Reports’ surveys of its readers. Such surveys aren’t perfect; they rely on consumer participation and you’re more likely to take that time if you’ve either had a problem with a product or love it. However, using our own experience with all the cars here and wider surveys gives us a reasonable idea of which vehicles rise to the top, in terms of quality.

Additional Features

Many, many additional features were considered when deciding these vehicles. Why? Because they make a family’s life easier. Not all vehicles on our list have these features, but most do. Here are some of the main ones we looked for.

  • Second-row seat height: You’ll notice our winners are dominated by crossovers because those are what Americans are buying. But we’re careful to avoid really tall-riding vehicles because getting a child in or out of a car seat from a vehicle that sits a mile high is a major chore, even if you’re tall — and especially if you or your spouse are short.
  • Instrumentation: We focused on instrumentation that’s less distracting, with vehicles that have hard buttons rather than those with screens that hide all functions.
  • Apple CarPlay/Android Auto Integration: In addition to being practical, these systems mirror the screen you know best —  that of your phone — and allow you to talk to Siri/Google Assistant to get to some functions quickly, like teeing up navigation. All keep your eyes where they should be: on the road.
  • Easier-to-clean: These days, almost every surface in a car has been exceptionally well-engineered for cleanup, but small details like the way a floor matt might cover (or not cover) for the footwells entirely, or the materials used become crud traps are part of our focus. Like you, we want a new car to remain reasonably tidy for longer, and manufacturers that keep an eye on these facets get up-voted.
  • Cup holders and USB ports: A small thing, sure. But cup holders are something you don’t realize you need until they’re not around. We looked for vehicles that had enough to stow the various beverages adults and kids carry. And as for USB ports? Modern families need to charge. So we looked for cars that kept this in mind and made ports available in both front and rear seats to ensure tablets don’t run out of juice before you reach your destination.

Why Buy a Car Now?

A good question to ask. Because it’s fall, most carmakers are turning over to 2022 models, and that means dealers desperately want to unload 2021 cars. You’re in a great negotiating position as a result.

Our favorite, unbiased shopping tool for determining the correct price to pay for a vehicle is TrueCar.com, which looks at the transaction price of new and used cars nationwide to give you an accurate window into what to pay locally. TrueCar is also the backend tool for car purchasers who do their transactions via American Express or Sam’s Club to rack up extra points. Also, veterans can get a shopping discount. Good luck.