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Best cars for kids & teens

Adult and child in Toyota Sienna minivan.
FAMILY FRIENDLY The Toyota Sienna minivan, at left, received top scores for overall performance and family-friendly features.
Is a family sedan the best vehicle for your family? What’s the safest car for your teenage driver? We asked those questions and more in Consumer Reports’ first investigation and Ratings based on how well 182 cars and trucks serve today’s family-travel needs.

We examined auto-safety studies and conducted our own analysis of the latest federal crash data to learn how well 25,853 children fared in accidents that involved a fatality in 2002. Although progress has been made in reducing the rate of highway death and injury of kids, automobile accidents are still a leading cause of death for children and young adults from birth to age 20, accounting for 8,710 deaths in 2002.

CR Quick Take

Our tests of 182 vehicle models and analysis of federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System data, which show how 25,853 children fared in recent serious crashes, indicate that your choice of a family vehicle is part, but not all, of the safety equation.

• The Toyota Sienna minivan leads our Ratings, available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers, having the most family-friendly features, plus being excellent overall in its class. For more top models in eight vehicle categories, see the Ratings.

• The government recommends that children under 12 ride in the back. But all riders are safer in the back, so consider making older kids sit there, too.

• Half of all children ages 3 to 8 ride with adult safety belts alone, rather than with booster seats. That’s a potentially deadly mistake.

• Protect your teenage drivers by
making sure they wear a safety belt, letting them drive the first six months only in daylight and under your supervision, limiting or prohibiting teenage passengers until the driver is 18, and choosing a vehicle from our list of best cars for teenage drivers in the Ratings.

We also rated vehicles on safety factors including crash-test results from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and on conveniences such as the availability of a rear-seat DVD player. Our findings include the following:

• When choosing a family vehicle, expect to make trade-offs. Cars, overall, are the most fuel-efficient, and their handling ability can help you avoid accidents. But they can’t compare with minivans and SUVs in certain family-friendly features--most notably seating capacity. On the other hand, minivans and SUVs can be gas guzzlers; SUVs as a class don’t handle as well and have a greater rollover risk. But if you need the room, our Ratings, available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers, include models with seven-passenger seating, top performance, and lots of conveniences. The best was the Toyota Sienna minivan.

• Minivans and larger SUVs seem to offer better protection in the rare event of a fatal crash. Of the two types, we favor minivans, which tend to inflict less damage on other vehicles. For both types, occupants had a much better chance of surviving fatal accidents than in cars, according to our analysis of the 37,000 accidents in 2002 in which a vehicle occupant died.

• Despite those findings, the best vehicles for teenage drivers are sedans because they provide better emergency handling to help avoid a crash in the first place. Although small SUVs as a class are more prone to rollover, four small, car-based models that we recommend for teenage drivers have a lower risk.


When kids are passengers

Lever car-window switches.
SAFER Lever switches, which we recommend, must be pulled up to raise a car window. That helps keep kids safe.

Family vehicles must, of course, combine top safety scores with the performance and reliability you’d want in any car. Those with the highest family-friendly scores in our Ratings, available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers, have additional safety features, plus conveniences for parents and kids. Thirty-nine cars, minivans, and SUVs--vehicles from virtually every category--made our final cut.

Minivans and mid- or full-size SUVs had the most family-friendly features. Consider seating capacity, for example. In the 1960s, parents piled a half-dozen children into a sedan or wagon without a thought given to safety belts. Today, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory-child-restraint laws.

That means that today’s family vehicle must at least provide enough seats and safety belts for everyone you carry. Consequently, we awarded points to vehicles with third-row seating capacity. If you prefer a wagon to a minivan or SUV, a few offer a rear-facing third-row seat suitable for children, including the Ford Taurus, Mercury Sable, Mercedes E-Class, and Volvo V70 and XC70. Those models didn’t make our Ratings, available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers, however, because their total family-friendly-features scores were lower than those of the listed vehicles. For the Mercedes, sub-par reliability kept it off our list.

We also assessed parent- and kid-friendly features whose importance rises or falls as children grow, such as the ease of installing infant and child car seats, the availability of an accident-alert system such as OnStar, ease of access for kids climbing in and out on their own, and features that make car travel more appealing, including rear-seat cup holders, video entertainment, 12-volt power outlets for CD players, and the like.

We looked for a roster of safety features, too. Larger vehicles tend to have larger-than-average rear blind spots. That increases the danger that a toddler playing in the driveway might be injured or killed when these vehicles are backing up. A rear backup camera can best help reduce that risk. But it’s available on only a few vehicles, including the Toyota Sienna, Lexus RX330, Acura MDX, and Lexus LS430. Rear backup sensors that flash and/or beep as obstacles approach were also awarded points, although they did not prove as effective as cameras in our tests last year. Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, recommends that federal regulators require backup warning devices on all vehicles with large rear blind spots.

Some types of power-window switches are also a threat to children. A child with his head out the window could close it and strangle himself by accidentally leaning on a rocker or toggle switch mounted horizontally near the door. Lever-type switches or those mounted vertically are much safer because they must be pulled up to close the window.

Most vehicles have the safer switches. Nevertheless, Consumers Union recommends that the unsafe switches be phased out quickly to make big-selling stragglers such as the Ford Taurus, Ford Explorer, and Dodge Neon safer for kids.


When kids are drivers

Lever car-window switches.
The Volkswagen Passat (V6), above, is among the best cars for teenage drivers.

For drivers ages 16 to 20, we zeroed in on vehicles with the best emergency-handling scores, crash-test data, and test-track results, as measured by our CR Safety Assessment (see Which cars are safer?, available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers). We eliminated vehicles with 0-to-60-mph acceleration times faster than 8 seconds or slower than 11 seconds because of the potential twin dangers of too much power for raging hormones and too little for merging into traffic.

Most of the best models for teenage drivers are sedans. They earned better emergency-handling scores and also tend to be more affordable. Four small, car-based SUVs also made our list in part because of their better emergency-handling scores. Our Ratings, available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers, don’t include the sporty look that’s every teenager’s idea of good value, but our Quick Picks, available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers, may meet everyone’s standards.

Our recommendations cover current-year models. The first car for most teenagers, however, is a used one. The older the vehicle, the less likely it will come equipped with important safety options. When shopping for a used car, look for those that have an antilock braking system, traction control, stability control, front and side air bags, and safety-belt pretensioners.


WHAT YOU CAN DO

No matter what you drive, here’s how you can better protect your children:

Properly install child car seats. Parents almost always secure infants and toddlers in child car seats. But studies have found that many seats aren’t installed properly. Consider having your installed child car seat inspected by a trained and certified technician free of charge by contacting SeatCheck, a program sponsored by DaimlerChrysler, toll-free at 866-732-8243 or at www.seatcheck.org.

Use booster seats. Almost 32 percent of children 4 to 8 were not wearing any restraint when they were in a fatal accident in 2002. Furthermore, half of children 3 to 8 don’t use a booster seat, according to Partners for Child Passenger Safety, a research program of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm Insurance.

A booster seat elevates and positions the child properly into the buckled adult lap-and-shoulder safety belt. “In a crash without a booster seat, most of these kids slide under the belt or jackknife around the lap portion, which puts tremendous pressure on the back and spine,” causing typically permanent injury, including paraplegia, said Dr. Dennis Durbin, an emergency-room physician at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

In a 2003 study of more than 4,200 children in accidents, booster seats prevented abdominal, neck, back, and spinal injuries, Durbin said. Only 16 states currently require booster seats. Consumers Union recommends that all states require the use of booster seats for kids under age 8 who are shorter than 4 feet 9 inches.

Keep kids in rear seats. Safety experts advise parents to keep children age 12 and younger out of the front seats to protect them from air bags, which are calibrated for sturdier adult bodies. But because all passengers do better in the backseat in frontal crashes, the most common type, consider having older kids ride in the rear when possible. When a child must ride in front, push the seat as far back as it can go. No matter where your child sits, make sure the safety belt is positioned correctly across his or her chest by using adjustable belt anchors and comfort guides, when available.

Choose a safe vehicle. Start by consulting the CR Safety Assessment in Which cars are safer? (available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers). Survival rates in fatal accidents are generally highest for passengers in large SUVs, pickups, and minivans. But their accident-avoidance and emergency-handling ability is often lower than that of sedans and small SUVs.

Accident data have also shown that SUVs have a greater propensity to roll over than other vehicle types. This problem is exacerbated as you add passengers and cargo. Also, research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has shown that bigger SUVs tend to inflict more damage on smaller cars and their occupants because of their greater mass and more-rigid frames. These factors lead us to recommend that you consider a minivan over an SUV.

Our study found that survival rates in fatal accidents were lower in cars than in light trucks as a class, but children in midsized to larger cars had a much better survival rate than those in compacts and subcompacts.

Protect teenage drivers. The best way to keep your young driver safe is to lay down the law:

• Require that they wear safety belts.

• Even if your state has no law phasing in driving privileges, set your own limits: No driving during the learner’s-permit stage without you in the car for at least the first six months and first 30 to 50 hours at the wheel. Until age 18, no recreational driving from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., and limit teenage passengers without adult supervision.

• Require your teenager to take a driver’s-education course that includes time behind the wheel, not just class work, while learning to drive.

• Encourage your teenager to drive you on errands whenever possible. The more supervised road experience teenagers have, the better drivers they’ll be.

KEEP KIDS SAFE WHEN DRIVING WITH OTHERS

Adult putting children in car.

Parents go to great lengths to ensure the safety of their children when traveling in their own vehicles. But they’re often not so careful when they turn their kids over to other people’s care, according to a report released last year by the National Safe Kids Campaign, a nonprofit group focused on preventing childhood injuries.

The report focused on the nation’s 20 million children age 12 and under whose working parents entrust them to some form of day-care facility, preschools, or individual caregivers. Half of the 555 parents surveyed said that child-care workers transported their children in motor vehicles once or more each week, picking them up or dropping them off at home or taking them on errands or to entertainment or educational pursuits.

The report’s most alarming finding: Caregivers transported 46 percent of infants to 8-year-olds in adult safety belts, when they should have been in child car seats or booster seats.

Before your child rides in someone else’s vehicle, whether with a child-care worker, baby sitter, neighbor, or relative, take the following precautions:

• If you can, assess the condition of the car for wear, care, ride, load, and up-to-date registration and inspection stickers.

• Ride with your caregiver the first time to size up the driver’s operating skills and attention to road safety.

• Let the person load your child and child restraint into the vehicle without instructions from you. Observe how the person uses safety belts, then correct any errors and explain your safety requirements.

• When possible, ask other drivers to use a car seat or booster seat that you provide and install in the rear center seat, which is safest. If the driver provides the child car seat or booster, examine its condition, be sure it fits properly when installed, and ask what the weight capacity is.

• If you have doubts based on the above assessment, make other arrangements.

 

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