In addition to test driving every vehicle, we looked at everything from performance and safety to special features that make life easier for families.
The Fatherly Family Car Awards is 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.
Our writer got behind the wheel of all of these vehicles, taking each on the road for extended rides over the course of several days. We looked at traditional specs like power, acceleration, handling, and general driveability. We made sure spacious vehicles didn’t drive like tanks and that smaller ones drove with confidence. We took notes and did one-to-one comparisons. The vehicles that made the final list all feel at home on the road.
Every car we’ve included has at least six airbags. In most cases, however, the count is closer to 10. They each also scored a Good or above IIHS crash test rating.
In addition, we made sure that most of the following tech is 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.
In terms of additional safety, we made sure to tell you which model to order based foremost on safety mitigation systems that keep you from having an accident. We also prioritized cars that scored a high IIHS rating, since the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is so trusted as an independent research agency they pretty much dictate R&D at carmakers worldwide. Any car that didn’t fall into their top tiers (Good through Top Safety Pick +) wasn’t considered.
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.
We kept efficiency in mind when determining our winners. Several electric vehicles and hybrids made the list and they have excellent MPG ratings because of course they do. Most of the 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 two Toyota Priuses. 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.
These lists were also created with one eye on both J.D. Power’s longer-term dependability study and also Consumer Reports’ surveys of its readers. Neither is perfect; both 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 those wider surveys gives us a reasonable idea of which vehicles rise to the top, in terms of quality.
Many, many additional features were considered when deciding these vehicles. Not all have these features, but most do. Here are some of the main ones.
- 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 seats: These days, almost every surface in a car has been exceptionally well-engineered for cleanup, but unfortunately they don’t research where all the Pirate Booty goes when your kid dumps the whole bag on the floor.
- 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 September, most carmakers are turning over to 2021 models, and that means dealers desperately want to unload 2020 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.
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