No parent wants to hear, "Are we there yet?" repeatedly. Yet making sure the kids are entertained can be easier said than done. Look for items such as a rear-seat entertainment system and MP3 players or adapters either as options or aftermarket accessories. Many cars now offer multiple headphone jacks and have systems that allow multiple entertainment options, such as the stereo and DVD player to be operated simultaneously, which is helpful if you need to suit different tastes.
Similarly, built-in convenience features, such as fold-out trays for snacking, playing games or coloring, as well as specially sized cup holders for juice boxes or built-in coolers for storing drinks are handy items for kid-friendly travel. While many of these things can be brought from home, bulky items like these can take up a lot of space when not in use. In addition, if they are not stored properly, they can injure occupants in a collision. The built-in versions are designed to stow easily and won't become projectiles in a crash.
Secure cargo space
No matter the age of your kids, they are bound to have a lot of gear. Whether that means diaper bags, school books or sports equipment, it all needs to be stowed securely in the cargo space. Items weighing more than 10 pounds or those that are oddly shaped can injure occupants in a collision if they are stored on a seat or the floor. Make sure all the gear you typically carry fits in the cargo space or trunk of your new car -- before you buy it. Look for built-in cargo nets, pop-up bins and grocery bag hooks or add the aftermarket versions to increase the flexibility of your space. Many vehicles also have built-in under-floor storage that is useful for stowing infrequently used items or things that need to remain out of sight.
Flexibility is one of the keys to good parenting, and having a flexible interior comes in handy in the family car so it can accommodate many different passenger and cargo situations. For the youngest kids, look for a second-row center seat that slides forward to bring baby closer to the parents upfront. For slightly older tykes, built-in booster seats are useful to give kids the extra elevation to properly position the seat belt, while helping them feel more like big kids. For "tweens" and teens, captain's chairs in the second row come in handy to keep quarreling siblings apart, giving them some much needed elbow room. Finally, if you need to transport additional passengers, such as your kids' friends, upon occasion, look for additional seating that stows or folds away when not in use, increasing the cargo capacity.
Car seat or booster seat compatibility
Not all car seats and boosters fit properly in all cars, and because your child will be using one for the first eight years of life, making sure your child's safety seat is compatible with your car is a necessity. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids remain in a car seat or booster until they are 4-feet, 9-inches tall -- age 8 on average -- because seat belts generally only fit correctly for people that height and taller. Test all your child seats for fit during the test drive and use the Car Seat Data website to learn about the compatibility of specific car seats in specific makes and models.
Auto reversing windows
More than 10 million children and adults have been injured by power windows in cars, according to a recent study by Harris Interactive for the nonprofit KidsAndCars.org. While cars manufactured after Oct. 1, 2010, are required to have window switches that must be pulled up to close the window, many 2010 model year cars (and some early 2011 models) still have the rocker-type design that could be bumped by a child, causing it to close and potentially injuring or killing him if part of his body becomes trapped. Even the pull-up style switches can pose a danger if another occupant closes the window without realizing a fellow occupant is in danger, such as the driver closing a rear window. Fortunately, combating this danger is easy: Look for auto-reversing windows (sometimes called "pinch-protection") which automatically open when they sense an obstruction, similar to modern garage doors.
Side air bags that protect kids
More than 90 percent of passenger vehicles have some type of side air bags, but many do not protect children because the design does not allow proper contact to the child's shorter body. Side air bags that are said to offer torso protection provide some protection for some children's heads and upper bodies, while head curtain air bags will only protect a child if they cover the full window and the child is tall enough to see out the window. To assess if your children are tall enough to be protected, look on the automaker's website or at the vehicle brochure for a picture of the air bags when deployed and compare it to where your children are seated in that car. Finding a car that offers some protection for your kids is worth the extra research -- statistics show that side air bags reduce deaths by 26 percent to 52 percent depending on the type of air bag and vehicle.
Automatic emergency services
Built-in emergency services such as OnStar can automatically call 911 and send rescue workers in the event your air bags deploy and you are unable to respond. Because they use a built-in cellular phone, these systems also offer peace-of-mind and convenience services such as unlocking the doors remotely -- a huge assist if you've accidentally locked your child in the car with the engine running -- and can contact a human to provide directions if you are lost in an unfamiliar area.
Backup cameras and similar warning systems alert drivers if an object, person or animal is behind the car, with the goal of stopping the driver before he backs into or over it. These systems can be life-saving, such as by warning the driver before backing over a child playing in the driveway. Backup cameras are most common on SUVs and pickups because their higher ride height means they have larger rear blind spots. Still, all vehicles, including passenger cars, have some blind spots when in reverse, so backing into or over something or someone is a possibility in any car. They can also be very useful for warning of possible collisions with low objects, such as short fences, poles or any other potential metal-crunching items.