Got a few tykes to tool around town? No need to get behind the wheel of a minivan. Shop wisely, and you'll see it's possible to drive a more stylish car with luxurious leather seats, a superior sound system — and plenty of holders for your children's sippie cups.
That's what you'll find in the three-row Volvo XC 90. It also features a unique second-row seat with a 40-20-40 three-way split that offers flexible seating combinations and cargo space for strollers and groceries when needed. All safety belt systems in the XC 90 include "pretensioners," which cut rear seatbelt slack in the event of a collision, a feature typically reserved for front-seat passengers. There's third-row air conditioning and an interior air quality system that alerts passengers to toxic substances in the incoming air stream.
The Volvo XC90 leads our list of the industry's most kid-friendly luxury cars. The Acura MDX, Saab 9-3 Sport Combi, Mercedes M Class and BMW X5 round out the top five. All are examples of how an increasing number of luxury automakers are recognizing that luxury isn't just for adults. With that in mind, they are equipping vehicles with safety features and amenities designed to protect and accommodate infants, children and adults.
But why not just go for a typical family hauler like a minivan or SUV? "Some families have disposable income and look to luxury [autos] for the image and amenities," says Jeannine Fallon, a spokesperson for Edmunds.com, a consumer automotive Web site. "But [they] still want the vehicle to accommodate children in the rear.”
It makes sense. For generations, luxury makes have been owned primarily by affluent car buyers. But in the mid-1990s, buyers of other socioeconomic classes began investing in entry-level Infiniti, Lexus, BMW and Mercedes lines. Between 1997 and 2006, luxury brand sales in the U.S. grew 82 percent, according to Experian Group Ltd., a market research firm.
For some, producing kid-friendly luxury autos isn't new territory. Volvo has been a favorite among families for years. The Swedish automaker is a leader in vehicle safety technology, which ranks high on the list of features sought after by drivers traveling with children.
To find others, we canvassed the industry for cars with certain features. Standard on all luxury vehicles on our list are power windows and locks, rear power lift gates and integrated safety features that will sense an errant hand or foot and stop accordingly.
In addition, all vehicles offer driver comforts and perks, such as flexible and comfortable seating, easy-to-reach climate and audio controls and reading lights, and storage amenities like door holders and floor consoles. These cars also stand up to the kid challenge by offering at least three child-appropriate rear-seat features, such as ample and sturdy cup holders, entertainment options for DVDs and electronic games, and rear heating and air conditioning.
While luxury makes are often top in performance, many don't make the grade in safety tests. To measure safety, we used the results of the National Insurance Institute for Highway side, frontal and rear-impact crash tests. Side impact crash ratings were included because they are the second most common fatal crash type after frontal crashes and because national child safety advocates recommend that children age 12 and under sit in the rear seats. To make the list, vehicles had to earn "Good,” the highest rating, in all three categories.
Cargo space is critical for families toting strollers, soccer balls and bags of groceries. Though minivans offer anywhere from 70 to 140 cubic feet of space, luxury-car buyers are sometimes willing to sacrifice cargo space for comfort, style and other luxury amenities, so we used a minimum measure of 60 cubic feet.
Some cars met the kid-friendly challenge particularly well. The Acura MDX offers second- and third-row passengers unique theater seating. It gives most small children a better view of the cabin and boosts some enough to see outside the window.
Back seat passengers enjoy the feel of sitting in their own first-class seat in the Saab 9-3 Sport Combi, which provides rear vents so second- and third-row passengers don't have to wait for heat or cool air to drift from the front to the rear. Each rear-seat passenger also has a reading light and cup holder for personal comfort.
The Mercedes Benz ML 350 has an eye to safety and entertainment with DVD screens mounted to the rear of the front head rests. This design means that drivers are not obstructed by roof-mounted DVD screens or a rear passenger reaching up to adjust the screen.
All three provide what Alexander Edwards, president of the automotive division for Strategic Vision, an international consulting firm, calls "functional luxury."
"It is has to be luxurious," he says, "but also meet the needs I have with whatever capability issue I have."
And not in the form of a minivan.
"There is a level of expectation that a car that is well equipped for a family should have certain amenities for children.” says Fallon. "They want some minivan amenities, but don't want to remove themselves from a level of comfort, style and prestige they are accustomed to.”