Make Your Life Easier

The 13 Best Family-Friendly Car Features on the Market


September 27, 2018 Buying Guides By Photo by Toyota

As you enter the phase of your life known as adulting, you might also encounter a thing called parenting. When that happens, every shred of automotive enthusiasm you still possess will be redirected towards anything and everything that will somehow make that phase easier. That means family-friendly car features, of which there are — mercifully — plenty. Many of which are familiar, some are surprising, and some require just a twist of the imagination to realize that they actually are family-friendly features. Not only will all of these make your life easier, but they’ll also make the lives of the little sprouts you spawned better, too. That’s a good thing for everyone.

Voice Enhancement

Toyota Driver Easy Speak
Honda Cabin Talk

Photo: Toyota

Some manufacturers have decided to help reduce the incidences of yelling from the front to the back of the car. Toyota’s Driver Easy Speak, available on its Sienna van and Highlander SUV, and the Cabin Talk feature Honda built into its Odyssey minivan both use microphones and speakers to help you communicate with third-row residents without raising your voice. A microphone near the driver’s seat amplifies your voice through speakers in the third row. So no more shouting to be heard. Fortunately, it doesn’t work the other way around. Of course, you could also just buy this and mount it in the back of the car.

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Versatile Seats

Nissan EZ Flex
Chrysler Stow ‘n’ Go

Photo: Nissan

Most minivans now have seats that can fold fairly flat or even be removed entirely — the better for loading up the rear with gear for a camping trip or beach weekend, if you don’t need the third row. Others make third-row access a snap, with a quick and easy shifting of the second-row seats. The EZ Flex system in the Nissan Pathfinder is one of the best examples. Then there’s the Stow ‘n Go seats in the Chrysler Pacifica, which collapse completely into the cabin floor to open up space in the car. Bonus: when the seats aren’t actually tucked away, the space becomes storage for all your kids’ stuff.

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In-Car Wi-Fi

Netgear Unite Explore
Harman Spark

Photo: Netgear

Not only will pre-installed Wi-Fi let your kids connect their laptops and tablets to the ether, but the data connection they run off will also give you navigational, traffic and streaming-audio services built right into your car — at an additional cost, of course. In a pinch you can always activate your own smartphone’s hotspot capability, if offered, to do the same thing, but the vehicle’s antenna tends to be more robust and reliable, especially as signal strength varies while driving in more remote areas. Just be sure to check your service plan options to confirm where and when the fastest data speeds are available, and when your speeds will be throttled if you and the gang gobble up your monthly allotment too soon.

If neither of these options work for you, you can also just buy a Wi-Fi USB stick that you can plug into your car or a stand-alone hotspot, either from your cell provider or through an unlocked device that can take a SIM card from any provider. The $150 Netgear Unite Explore is a great, highly rated option. In that case, you would simply pick from any number of services that fit your data needs and budget. Additionally, the newly introduced Harman Spark OBD II LTE plug ($80 and $5 per month) works on any car from 1996 or newer. It fits in the OBD II outlet and brings your car up to date with features like emergency services, 4G LTE hotspot WiFi, theft alert and location tracking. AT&T says you can make parking reservations and keep an eye on your car’s maintenance through the app as well.

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Apple CarPlay and Android Auto

Having either of these in your car means anyone in can play DJ since it’s easy to switch between connected devices. It’s a nice way to share music with the whole clan, and it also shows you’re being conscientious about not using your own phone while driving. Safety first.

Built-In Vacuum

HondaVAC
Chrysler Stow ‘n Vac

Photo: Honda

Do we really need to explain why this is a good thing? Props to Honda and Chrysler for tucking this bit of housekeeping genius into their Odyssey and Pacifica vans, respectively.

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Hands-Free Liftgates

Photo: Ford

This is terrific for when you’re approaching the vehicle with your hands full of gear, groceries, or actual kids. Most systems activate when you swing your foot under the bumper. The car will open the rear door, assuming you have your key on you.

Check out this long list of vehicles that currently offer this feature, courtesy of Cars.com.

Electric Coolers

Knox Gear 34 Quart Electric Cooler/Warmer
Wagan 12-Volt Cooler/Warmer

Photo: Amazon

Not many cars offer this feature, even as an option. On a long summer road trip, you’ll probably want some cool refreshments handy. Many cars, from the decidedly upmarket Mercedes-Benz S-Class to the go-to minivan Honda Odyssey, offer built-in drink coolers as options. Going with an aftermarket strategy will be easiest. Tossing ice into a cooler never lasts quite as long as you want, but an electric cooler can keep its chill throughout your trip if you use it wisely. The Knox Gear 34 Quart Electric Cooler/Warmer comes with both DC and AC plugs, so you can power it off your car while on the road and plug it into a battery pack or standard outlet when the car’s turned off, such as overnight on road trips. It can chill down to 40 degrees. The Wagan 12v Cooler/Warmer does even better, maintaining a very cool 36 degrees.

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Retractable Sunshade

Veneev Car Sun Shade

Photo: Veneev

Families with infants and toddlers might look for retractable sunshades in their cars. They’re typically found in luxury brands—BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, some even with motorized controls so you can open and close them from the driver’s seat—but there are also plenty of aftermarket options. The best is the Veneev Car Sun Shade, which clings to the window rather than needing an unsightly suction cup.

USB Charging Ports

Amazon Basics 4-Port USB Car Adapter

Photo: Amazon

When you have kids, you also have portable electronic devices. Tons of them. Carmakers are starting to get the message and are including more USB ports inside the vehicle, but none do it quite as well as Subaru. The new Ascent three-row SUV has eight of the little buggers, making it our new hero. Failing that, a few of these will do the trick.

Rear-Seat Entertainment

Photo: Toyota

Sure, kids are on their own devices all the time in those back seats, but many parents like their children to be watching the same thing sometimes. It’s less isolating and allows them to bond, banter, and create memories of road trip goofiness much easier than being constantly plugged into their own screens. A pair of headrest-mounted displays or a ceiling-mounted screen will allow you to play the audio through the car’s stereo system, but it will add some bucks to your bill. Honda’s Odyssey and Chrysler’s Pacifica minivans — honestly, if you have a family, just buy either — have the most original systems. Honda’s has a built-in DVD and BluRay system, HDMI inputs, and the ability to stream subscription content from PBS Kids and HappyKids TV, while Chrysler’s Uconnect Theater throws in nine different games. A cheaper alternative, of course: Just prop a tablet up between the seats and plug it into an external speaker. Dunzo.

Heated Rear Seats

Photo: Audi

It’s hard to believe, but at one point in history, there were cars that were sold with only one airbag: the driver’s. Meaning everyone else in the car was SOL. Similarly, though it seems quaint, carmakers once only supplied seat heaters to the front passengers. On cold mornings, children love them as much as grown-ups do. Just remember to shut them off in the spring, since kids tend to forget that sort of thing until they suddenly realize mid-July why their butts are baking. Many cars, from the Buick Enclave to the Mazda CX-5, but especially premium models from Mercedes, BMW, and Audi, offer this as an option.

Conversation Mirrors and Baby Mirrors

Pikibu 180-Degree Mirror
Baby Backseat Mirror (For Rear-Facing Car Seats)

Photo: Pikibu

Ostensibly a tool for maintaining eye contact with your little ones during thoughtful, life-affirming conversation while driving between birthday parties, these handy convex mirrors are also effective policing tools, letting you keep tabs on which one’s throwing popcorn at the other. Some cars, such as the Honda CR-V, include flip-down versions of these, but you can also easily find aftermarket options, including the ones that you’ll need for babyies in rear-facing seats.

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Air Suspension

Photo: Mercedes

Many a night I took my crying infant out at night to lull her to sleep with the soothing motion of a twisty drive. Worked every time. Air suspensions, dialed to their max comfort settings, will create a soft cushion of air to help with these struggles, but they also more adeptly transition to sportier modes for when they want a little bit of excitement during the waking — or witching — hours. Also, any car with a smooth, responsive suspension that can dial out road bumps will be a godsend when it comes to everyone’s comfort, something that’s particularly clutch on long road trips. Fortunately, the list of equipped cars is long, including models from Ford, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Land Rover, Audi, Subaru, Volkswagen, Tesla, and Ford.

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