Top tips to choose your first family car
Buying your first family car doesn't have to be a scary prospect once you're aware of some important considerations. Andrea Mara offers some tips
Buying a family car for the first time can be a challenge - how big does it need to be, are there critical safety features, and what on earth does ISOFIX mean? If until now all that mattered was that your car ran reliably and looked reasonably good, starting the search for something more child-friendly can be daunting.
But actually, like most new parent purchases, if you do your research and ask the right questions, it's not so difficult. Here is everything you need to consider when buying a first family car.
Babies are small - they don't take up much room, but their car seats, buggies and changing bags do. If you're expecting your first child, be sure to buy your buggy first, so that you can try it out in the boot. Also, try to look ahead - when a first baby is due, it can be impossible to think beyond the impending birth, but someday, your baby may have siblings, and you'll need to fit more than one car seat. Ask the dealer how many car seats the car can take - generally saloons can't fit more than two. However, don't go out and buy the biggest car you can find either - remember, you will have to park it!
What type of car?
Letting go of your pre-baby self has its ups and downs, and lots of parents feel a little self-conscious about giving in to a people-carrier, or what one friend of mine affectionately calls the mammy-wagon. But realistically, if you want to fit three car seats across the back you'll need to consider buying an MPV (Multi Purpose Vehicle). For getting car seats and children in and out of cars, it's best to go for a four-door at least - leaning in from the front seat can be tricky. Sliding back doors can be very handy with small kids, especially in tight parking spots.
Do I need a seven-seater?
When you have just one baby, it's hard to imagine how you'd ever need a seven-seater, but when children start school, if you want to carpool for school-runs, invite friends on playdates or bring teammates to training, a car that can carry more than five people suddenly becomes necessary.
A seven-seater usually has two pop-up seats in a third row, so you use them as needed, and leave them flat when you don't. This means you have great boot space when they're not in use, but very little when they are - if you're looking at a seven-seater, check that your buggy fits even with the extra seats up.
Let's move on to safety - what is ISOFIX?
ISOFIX is the international standard for attachment points for child safety seats. In cars with ISOFIX, the car seat clicks into the attachment points, and there's no need to use a seatbelt. This is a safer option than holding a car seat in place with a seatbelt, and most cars that were produced after 2006 have ISOFIX points.
If you are buying a car and want to use ISOFIX, you'll need to then buy a compatible car seat, so it's critical that you check the car handbook. If you've already bought your ISOFIX car seat, bring it along when you're car hunting, and try it out to make sure it fits. If you've already bought a non-ISOFIX car seat, that's fine - you will install it in your new car using the seat belt.
What do I need to know about airbags?
Ask if there is a front passenger seat airbag. If using a rear-facing car seat in the front, never do so with an active airbag - it's dangerous and illegal. On the other hand, if you are using a forward-facing car seat in the front seat, the airbag can be active (with the adult seat rolled back as far away from the dashboard as possible). And of course, the safest place for children is always in an appropriate child restraint in the backseat.
Are there other safety features I should ask about?
Child locks are important - if you're buying a used car, check that they're in good working order. It's also handy to be able to lock the back windows from the front - small children love playing with window buttons - so check if the car you're considering has that option.
What is the Euro NCAP rating?
Euro NCAP is an overall safety rating for cars in Europe, based on four criteria, one of which is "Child Occupant". On the Euro NCAP website, you can check which cars are safest overall and you can drill down to see which ones scored particularly well on child safety.
What about the fun stuff?
For long journeys with kids, your car is a home away from home. Pockets at the back of the front seats are no longer for maps, but for colouring- and story-books. If you regularly do long journeys, you may want DVD screens for the kids, though this might also mean they want them for every trip! You can buy a separate frame for attaching a tablet to a headrest if you'd prefer in-car movies to remain an occasional treat. Check if the car you're looking at has more than one power socket, so that you can recharge phones, Sat Nav and tablets. And as for you in the front, as you listen to pleas for snacks and cries of "are we there yet?" (it's not a myth - they all say it) you could probably do with a cup-holder for that all-important coffee.
And where should I buy?
As with all car purchases, your options are to go to a dealer or buy from a private seller. But with a family car, safety is absolutely paramount, so make sure that if you buy from a private seller, you get a mechanic to check it out thoroughly before you purchase. There is a good checklist available on ConsumerHelp.ie with questions you should ask about the car you're buying. Above all, if in any doubt about the car, particularly the safety elements, it's best to walk away.
5 of the best family cars
Volkswagen Golf Trendline
The ever-popular VW Golf is a perpetual winner of the 'Best Car I Ever Owned' award from sentimental drivers the world over. The VW Golf Trendline is no softy when it comes to keeping your family safe. With plenty of power, precise handling and smoothbraking, the VW Golf Trendline promises to get you there in comfort and in one piece. Driver controls are refined and feel very natural while the choice of high quality materials ensure the trim is comfortable and comforting. Luggage space is generous and advanced safety features are available. Price: From €20,225. Available from: MSL Motor Group, Dublin. See www.msl.ie/volkswagen
BMW 2 Series Gran Tourer
It's all about winning hearts and minds and driving safely and in comfort. The newly introduced BMW 2 series Gran Tourer is ticking all those boxes and more. Hanger-sized storage in the rear can be converted into a third row of passengers while the second row passengers will be luxuriating in the space-efficient cabin. One of the better driving vehicles in the category, the Gran Tourer comes in a range of engine sizes and although seeing a BMW people carrier takes a bit of getting used to, the famous family heritage of a quiet, well-planted ride with a wealth of safety features means it certainly deserves consideration. Price: From: €38,740 Available from: Colm Quinn BMW Athlone and Galway. See colmquinnbmw.ie
Mitsubishi Outlander Passenger
The Japanese auto manufacturer Mitsubishi has been a firm favorite with Irish drivers for many decades. You won't need to ask twice to load up the stylish seven-seater Outlander with enthusiastic passengers.
While it looks like a million dollars, those sleek lines combined with other eco-friendly features contribute to the Outlander's low CO2 footprint. With lots of storage and legroom, while it turns heads and handles well, you can feel assured that this SUV has the ultimate 5-star safety rating from European authorities. Price: From €31,450 Available from: Bill Sheehan & Sons, Dublin. See mitsubishi-motors.ie/bill-sheehan
It seems as if Irish drivers have fallen in love with Hyundai in recent years and it's not surprising considering what you get for your money. The compact Hyundai Tucson SUV is an all-new model for 2016 and it's on everybody's short list. While it is a well-mannered car to drive, the all-new design looks great and the warranty deal is second-to-none. Passengers will find the neat interior is surprisingly roomy. Safety is a priority for this Hyundai Tucson and the range of optional extras available may well seal the deal. Price: From €25,745
Available from: Fitzpatricks Hyundai, Kildare, Naas and Tullamore. See www.fitzpatricksgarages.ie
A stylish, comfortable and good-to-drive family car, the Insignia is the latest in a long line of family favorites from Opel. The recently updated multimedia system draws praise for its ease-of-use and complements the stylish cabin. With a range of engine sizes to suit your preference, it has a spacious boot, handles exceptionally well, is economical to run and has great safety features.
Available from: Fitzpatricks Opel, Naas and Carlow. See www.fitzpatricksgarages.ie