Volvo
Volvo’s integrated child booster seats can be positioned at two heights for different-sized kids.
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updated 10/3/2007 11:40:09 AM ET 2007-10-03T15:40:09

Choosing the right features for a vehicle can spare parents headaches and save children’s lives. Minivans used to be the best — sometimes only — choice for families. But a spate of new and improved features makes the latest cars and SUVs top contenders, too.

We’ve compiled a list of ten features parents should consider when purchasing a new vehicle. Some are designed for comfort and convenience, like power doors and DVD systems, while others, such as advanced airbags and back-up cameras, enhance safety.

A study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that side airbags that provide torso protection reduced deaths by 26 percent in side-impact crashes. The same study also found that deaths were reduced by up to 37 percent when the vehicle was also equipped with side airbags that protect the head.

A recent report on emerging technology by research firm J.D. Power and Associates found that new-car buyers were most interested in two-stage “smart” airbags, which initially inflate with less pressure to better cushion passenger impact. After these advanced airbags, consumers showed considerable interest in rearview cameras that provide assistance while backing up.

Back up cameras and sonar sensors that alert drivers of obstructions behind a vehicle add a measure of safety and convenience — especially with larger SUVs and minivans. Nearly half (49.5 percent) of children younger than 15 years old killed in the U.S. each year in non-traffic-related incidents with motor vehicles are backed over, often by a parent or family member, according to Kids and Cars, a non-profit that tracks incidents that occur on private property, as opposed to in traffic. Non-traffic-related fatalities involving motor vehicles and children younger than 15 have more than doubled in the past six years, from 92 in 2000 to 219 in 2006, according to Kids and Cars. As of early September there have been 170 such fatalities, the organization says.

Besides safety features, spaciousness, load capacity, convenience features and comfort features are attributes that car buyers with three children per household consistently rank as most important for cars, minivans and SUVs, according to CNW Marketing Research of Bandon, Ore.

“We take the kids to hockey games all over the state,” says Matthew Ehrhard, father of three and owner of Hewitt Horn, Inc., a high-end residential builder in Chicago, who drives a 2007 Land Rover Range Rover HSE. “There’s plenty of room in the back seat, plenty of room for storing hockey gear in the back. In terms of size and scale, it’s a great vehicle.”

To make the best use of space once passengers are secured and comfortable, flexible seating options should be available and easy to use. Susan Morales, chief engineer of the GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook and Buick Enclave, which blend characteristics of minivans, cars and SUVs, designed GM’s “Smart Slide” feature, which allows second-row seats to fold and move forward for access to the third row.

The goal was to make the feature easy enough for a five-year old to operate. While the vehicle was under development, Morales brought a prototype Acadia home and tried it out on her nephew. “We asked him how you would get to the back seat,” Morales says. “With a Batman toy in one hand, he reached in and pulled the seat forward with the other.”

Becky Blanchard, brand manger for the Chrysler Town & Country minivan, which was significantly revamped for 2008, says power doors, dual-zone climate control and rear-seat DVD entertainment systems with wireless headphones are among the features that first appeared on minivans that are now found on other types of vehicles.
Rear-seat entertainment systems are growing in importance, according to the J.D. Power report on emerging technology. Ehrhard says his Range Rover’s entertainment system lets his kids “do what they need to do on a road trip to stay occupied.”

Other family-oriented vehicle innovations have evolved from accessories consumers buy and install themselves. Volvo’s integrated child booster seat saves a family the cost of purchasing a standalone booster and removes the potential problem of improperly installing it. The system, which is a $495 option on the Volvo V70 and XC70, includes a first: two height settings for different sized children. The system also incorporates a better-fitting seat belt that automatically alters tensioning when a child is using it.

“Volvo believes a comfortable child, able to see outside above the beltline, results in less driver distraction and better child protection,” says Volvo spokesman Dan Johnston. Chrysler offers its own integrated, rear child seats in the 2008 Chrysler Town & Country, 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan and the upcoming 2009 Dodge Journey.

We’ve compiled a list of ten family friendly features worthy of top consideration based on market data, safety statistics and our own subjective reviews of vehicles we test drive every week. Click on the “slide show” link above to see what they are.

© 2007 ForbesAutos.com

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