Best cars for kids & teens
Is a family sedan the best vehicle for your family? Whats 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 todays family-travel needs.
|FAMILY FRIENDLY The Toyota Sienna minivan, at left, received top scores for overall performance and family-friendly features.
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. Thats 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
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 cant 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 dont 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
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 youd 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 todays 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
didnt 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 its 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
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
|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,
dont include the sporty look thats every teenagers
idea of good value, but our Quick
Picks, available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers, may meet everyones 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, heres how you can better protect
Properly install child car seats. Parents almost always
secure infants and toddlers in child car seats. But studies have
found that many seats arent 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 dont use a booster
seat, according to Partners for Child Passenger Safety, a research
program of The Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia and State
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 Childrens
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
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
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 learners-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
Require your teenager to take a drivers-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 theyll be.
KEEP KIDS SAFE WHEN DRIVING WITH OTHERS
Parents go to great lengths to ensure the safety of their children when traveling in their own vehicles. But theyre often not so careful when they turn their kids over to other peoples 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 nations 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 reports 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 elses 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 drivers 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.