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How to shop for a safe family car

These expert tips make choosing the right family car easier than ever.

Whether your expanding family means it's time for a new set of wheels or it's simply time for a change, here's what to look for in your next family car.

It's the second biggest purchase you're likely to make in your life, after your house, so choosing a car that suits your family, your budget and your general lifestyle can seem easier said than done. The choices on the market are wide-ranging, but those choices will be quickly narrowed once you start looking more closely: this one doesn't have the safety features important to you, this one's impractical for your lifestyle, and that one isn't large enough. The good news is there's definitely an option out there for you. Let's find out what the experts think about shopping for a family car.

What practical features should look for?

Practicality rules the day when it comes to choosing your next family car, and anything that makes life that little bit easier is a winner. Juliet Potter, founder of family-friendly car website AutoChic, says that aside from safety (we'll get to that soon!), the most important things to consider when buying a family car are:

  • Running costs.

"From petrol to the cost of maintaining the vehicle, this kind of information is just a Google search away," says Juliet. "Forums really help, as owners can often post their real-life experiences of the car they own."

  • Resale value.

Start lurking around second-hand car sales sites to get an idea of how well various makes and models sell. A car that has a high resale value makes the investment sting a little less.

  • Your lifestyle and how many children you have.

Juliet laughingly says that although she'd love a sporty little car, "as I paddle board and have three children, it just isn't a realistic choice!" Maybe one day, but for the moment you need to look at how many car seats will fit safely across the backseat and what else you need to carry in the car.

  • Storage.

The size of the boot and its ability to fit prams, bikes, bags for weekend trips away and grocery shopping is a huge deciding factor when it comes to which car to buy. Space is always at a premium for families: "No matter how big your car is, it will never be big enough," says Juliet.

  • Cleanable surfaces.

Juliet advises looking for dark-coloured interiors in a family car, to hide those marks that look suspiciously like children's fingerprints, and surfaces you can wipe down easily. "Try not to let your kids eat in the car if you can help it," she adds. "Also, invest in a hand-held vacuum cleaner - they're invaluable for parents when it comes to keeping a car clean and tidy."

Other niceties could make all the difference when you're getting around with little kids in tow. "A sensor boot, a low-riding car and raised seating make life easier for mums," Juliet says. UV protection is also a worthy consideration, with tinted windows a great addition to whichever car you decide on. If you're doing long trips or just want some help keeping the kids amused after a million games of I Spy, think about entertainment options, too. "Inbuilt DVD players are the best invention ever," raves Juliet, "and look out for inbuilt 12-volt power sockets for plugging in electronic devices to keep the kids amused on those long-haul trips."

How about safety?

Checking the ANCAP (Australasian New Car Assessment Program) safety rating of a vehicle is a vital step to buying a new car, or one that's new-to-you, helping you know how safe it is for you and your family. This rating is based on the car's structural integrity, seatbelt and airbag systems, and safety assist technologies such as electronic stability control (ESC) and emergency brake assist (EBA).

The word from the safety assessor is: "ANCAP recommends five-star rated cars. Accept nothing less." Vehicles should have an ANCAP safety rating logo in view when being sold, but if in doubt you can look up the rating at www.ancap.com.au or www.howsafeisyourcar.com.au.

Although modern technologies such as reversing cameras and blind-spot motion sensors can provide additional safety, this doesn't rule out buying a safe second-hand car if that's more suited to your budget or lifestyle either. According to ANCAP, "the first vehicle to achieve a five-star ANCAP safety rating was back in 2001 and... from 2008 onwards, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of cars which have achieved a five-star rating."

As a family car, you'll also need to look at the car-seat anchor points. "Top tether anchorages are mandatory for all passenger cars," ANCAP says, which means the car seat is held back in a way that restricts your child's head movement during a crash. This isn't the case in some twin-cab utes or older vehicles, so double check the anchorage points before you buy.

With all the safety and practical considerations taken care of, we hope you enjoy shopping for the car that's going to get your family out and about for the years to come. And don't forget to use those haggling skills to get the best deal that you can!

Seat safety

When buying a child restraint, the Child Restraint Evaluation Program (CREP) explains you'll need a rear-facing restraint with an inbuilt harness for babies younger than six months (which can be used up to 12 months old, depending on your bub's size), and a forward-facing restraint with an inbuilt harness from six months to four years.

For kids four to seven years of age, you'll need a forward-facing restraint or booster seat, depending upon each child's size. All children under four years must never be in the front row of a car that has two or more rows, while kids from four to seven years of age can only sit in the front, in their car seat, when all seats in the back row are occupied by younger children.

It's important that all restraints be fitted securely and properly, so when in doubt, go to a local fitting station to have them installed by an expert. Importantly, it's also a good idea to look at CREP's website before choosing a car seat, which will allow you to check the star ratings of all models on the market, and compare ones you're considering buying.

"All of the restraints tested meet the Australian Standard, however the evaluation program found that some restraints performed better than others in simulated crash tests," says Melinda Spiteri, from the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria (RACV). You'll want to be sure that the seat holding your littlie is as safe as possible.