A typical family car is as hard to define as a typical family, which can make finding your perfect set of wheels a tricky process.
We’re not here to condescend you by suggesting all families need seven seats and boring handling, but it’s fair to say some car characteristics are universally appreciated.
Things like an abundance of space, suspension that doesn’t make those in the back seats sick, and a soothing, easy to use cabin are likely to be priorities for those transporting children of any age.
Once you’ve defined the features that matter to you, you can check used prices on sites like Parkers, and narrow down the options that suit your budget.
Which body style?
Although for some families a Mazda MX-5 would provide the ultimate logistical solution, in all likelihood you’ll be looking at either a hatchback, SUV or estate car. People carriers and saloons have fallen out of fashion but shouldn’t be overlooked.
A simple five-door hatch is the best all-rounder – quite spacious, small enough to park without drama, often well-equipped for the money and with at least one engine offering low running costs (plus others offering high performance if that’s your desire).
An estate takes the hatchback blueprint and adds crucial litreage in the boot for even more capacity to carry large or awkward items. If you regularly go on driving holidays or have bulky hobbies this is a better bet.
Finally an SUV offers something from both of these worlds, with a more usable footprint than an estate but larger interior space than a hatchback. It also has an adventurous image, a raised driving position to help you spot potential hazards, and in turn a higher rear bench. This makes it less of a back-breaking job to fit child seats and ultimately children.
Don’t overlook a three-box-saloon-shaped car with a hatchback boot, like the five-door Audi A5 Sportback. This offers all the practicality of hatch with a sleeker silhouette. And of course a people carrier is an easy choice if you have three or more children thanks to the extra seats on offer and an all-round boost in passenger space.
Petrol, electrified or diesel?
Diesel gets a bad rep these days but if you’re a high mileage motorist and often travel with a full complement of passengers it’s still a sensible choice.
Petrol cars often cost more to run per mile but are cheaper to buy in the first place, so work well for people with low annual mileages.
Finally there’s the option of an electric or plug-in hybrid model. Making up more and more of the market these days, the silent, smooth and low per-mile cost of battery propulsion could be ideal for you and your family.
Safety, safety, safety – these days there’s an abundance of driver assistance tech that can reduce (or avoid entirely) the chance or result of a coming together with another vehicle, and this should be high up on your list of priorities.
Autonomous emergency braking gives you another pair of eyes at low speed, slowing or stopping the car if it spots a hazard you haven’t. On the motorway it’s possible to specify cruise control that maintains a safe gap from the car in front, and lane keeping aids that centre you in your lane.
Headline stuff aside though it’s worth paying attention to the standard specification of your car – often there will be an abundance of airbags for front seat drivers, while those in the rear or curtain bags for the windows are optional – optional to the manufacturer, but likely not to you.
Isofix childseat mounting points are now standard fit on all cars but it’s worth checking how many you need and which seats have them – usually it’s only the rear or middle outer pair in five- or seven-seaters. Some cars allow you spec this on the front seat, while seven seaters like the Audi Q7 and VW Touran have the option of Isofix on all six passenger chairs. Not all mounts are equal though – some are easily accessed via wide plastic tunnels, others tucked away under inches of upholstery, so it’s worth taking your seat and trying to fit it on the test drive.
With the essentials out of the way, you can now focus on some luxury items with value that may not be inherently obvious. Stuff like rear-door child-locks you can activate from the driver’s seat with the push of a button, or sunblinds that roll away into the rear windows.
A panoramic sunroof can bring welcome light into the cabin (particularly for rear seat passengers) but make sure it comes with an adequate cover – some are practically see-through and useless when trying to get a toddler to nap in the day time.
Finally consider tracking down a car with three-zone climate control, especially if it’s the kind you can control from the front seats. That way you can ensure everybody onboard is kept at a comfortable temperature.
Figures and stats to look out for
Euro NCAP rating – more important now than ever as the test takes things like standard driver assistance tech into account, revealing a gulf between poorly equipped base models and the bells-and-whistles top spec car.
MPG – Now tested under the more realistic WLTP standard, you can be pretty sure the number the manufacturer quotes is repeatable in real life.
Insurance group – Although not an exact science, this will give you a big clue as to how much the car will is to insure, which is one of the largest contributing running costs.
Warranty – Some manufacturers like Hyundair and Kia offer five or even seven year warranties – not a huge consideration if you’re on a three year PCP, but worth bearing in mind if you intend to purchase the vehicle outright.