The family-hauler has shifted forms over the years, from old station wagons to today's apparent favorite, the SUV. And what's not to like? Today's SUVs can handle everything from child-safety seats to long-legged teens, not to mention family road trips and carpool duty.
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Whether families opt for a two- or three-row SUV, there are a few must-have features that make life easier for both parents and kids. Here are five things you should look for in an SUV:
Maneuverable second- and third-row seats
When dealing with kids and child-safety seats, your car needs to be flexible. In a two-row SUV, a sliding backseat like the 2014 Jeep Cherokee has allows you to move the seat forward when more cargo room is needed, or set it in the most rearward position to create more space for rear-facing infant seats or gangly teens. In three-row SUVs, such as the 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe, a sliding second row is essential because it lets generous second-row passengers slide their seat forward a little to create more legroom for grateful third-row occupants.
Reclining seatbacks, like those found in the 2015 Lexus RX 350, can make life a little more comfortable for passengers, but that's not all they do. If you're dealing with child-safety seats, reclining seatbacks can make it easier to access those difficult-to-find Latch anchors, and they help forward-facing car seats fit better, too.
Low step-in height and easy third-row access
Part of what's appealing about SUVs is a higher seating position that gives drivers a more commanding view of the road, but that same height can make it difficult for younger kids to climb inside. Look for a low step-in height, which refers to the distance between the ground and the bottom of the door opening. When it's low, parents won't have to lift their kids into and out of the SUV on every trip.
Some SUVs, like the 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe, ride high but come with standard running boards, which provide a step to help kids and less mobile adults navigate their way into the cabin, said Mike Hanley, senior editor and father of two. Luxury models with air suspensions have settings that lower the SUV to make entry and exit easier.
When considering a three-row SUV, shoppers should also consider how they or their kids will get into the third row. Third-row access can be problematic if you have a second-row bench seat with car seats installed on it. The easiest way to access the third row is by opting for captain's chairs for the second row. Yes, you lose a seating position, but were you really going to make someone sit in that pint-size middle seat anyway?
If captain's chairs aren't your thing, look for a second row that can slide or tumble forward to create a pathway to the third row. The redesigned 2014 Toyota Highlander does this well, with lightweight seats that fold and slide forward to create enough space for a child to get in the way back; adults might find it tight, though.
Low cargo floor
In addition to a low step-in height, parents should also be on the lookout for a low load floor in the cargo area. The 2014 Ford Escape has a low load height that makes it easier to lift bulky strollers or large, sports-gear-filled equipment bags into the cargo area. The low floor also means "kids can hop up there and watch their brother or sister play soccer," said David Thomas, managing editor and father of two.
Rear air vents
Rear air vents are a must, but air vents with controls for rear passengers are even better, said Kristin Varela, Cars.com chief mom and mother of three. This allows passengers to control not only the temperature in the second and third row, but also airflow, which can help keep carsickness at bay.
Considering how many years your child will sit in a car seat, it's worth making sure your family car works well with them. Be on the lookout for easy-to-find lower Latch anchors; in our Car Seat Checks, Jennifer Geiger and I — both certified child-passenger safety technicians — prefer anchors that are exposed, allowing parents to easily connect their car seats to them.
While all cars with a backseat are federally mandated to have two sets of lower Latch anchors in the backseat, some automakers go above that and offer three or more sets. In the Honda Pilot, there are three sets of lower Latch anchors across the second-row bench as well as a set of lower anchors in the third row.
Cars.com photos by Evan Sears and Kristin Varela