The ultimate guide to buying a family car – and snagging a bargain
It feels like everything was simpler just a few years ago. Buying a family car certainly was. Four doors, five seats, a petrol engine big enough to haul it along, and that was that. Off you went to the dealer, plonked down your hard-earned cash and came away with a smart saloon in which to carry your nearest and dearest.
Nowadays, though, it’s not quite that simple. What’s the most financially responsible way of doing it? Can you allow yourself the frisson of excitement a new car brings, or should you be sensible and perhaps buy used?
And what about SUVs? Their rise in popularity as family haulers has been unstoppable. But are they appropriate for our cleaner, greener times? Indeed, on that note, what should power your car? An old-school fossil fuel, or electricity – or a combination of both?
To help you answer these questions, we’ve produced our ultimate guide to buying a family car. We’ll take you through what to buy, how to buy it and where to buy it from – and we’ll show you our top five choices on the new car market today.
What makes a good family car?
Seems obvious, right? Space for the kids in the back and a big boot. And sure enough, if you go in with that in mind you probably won’t go far wrong. But there are some other important points to consider if you want a family car that really works for you.
For example: access. If you regularly have to load young children in and out of a car seat, it’s worth checking how wide the doors open, how big the apertures are and, of course, how high or low the seats themselves are. Higher seats with wider-opening doors and larger apertures will make your life easier – and could save you from back problems down the line.
Talking of child seats, is there enough room if you need to fit more than one at a time? Three child seats across one rear bench can be a squeeze, and most cars don’t come with Isofix mounting points on the middle seat, so make sure you find one that does if you want to use them.
If you have a family dog who’ll come on trips with you, you’ll need to think about space and restraints in the boot. Perhaps seek a car into which a dog cage or boot divider will fit, which will leave you with enough room to carry luggage without the risk of it falling over and injuring your pet.
It’s also worth considering how well your car will wear. A suede-effect fabric in a cream finish, for example, may not be the best option if you have young children. Leather is always useful for its wipe-clean properties, but don’t discount fabric; with a protective coating applied by a specialist valet, it can be just as easy to clean.
Finally, how many seats do you really need? You might not think you need a seven-seater, but if you are planning lots of days out with kids and grandparents you may find one of these proves more useful than you expect.
Conversely, if you can make do with five seats, you’ll widen the choice of cars available to you.
To SUV or not to SUV?
It’s a contentious question. As the SUV craze sweeps the country, many people are asking: do we really need them?
For families, it’s clear where the advantages lie. The raised seating positions of SUVs make it easier to buckle up child seats and give children a better view, which helps with avoiding car sickness.
Modern SUVs also tend to be replete with clever features such as sliding rear seats that make the space on offer inside more flexible, trading boot space for rear legroom.
An SUV isn’t the answer to everything, however. For one thing, they tend to use a little more fuel than the equivalent family car – especially if they’re equipped with more powerful engines and four-wheel drive, as many are.
While SUVs are practical, they tend not to offer quite as much outright boot space with the rear seats in place as conventional estate cars. What’s more, because their boot lips are higher, they can be harder for smaller or older dogs to climb into. So if you’ve got lots of clutter to carry, or a family pet, an estate may yet be a better bet.
The pros and cons of buying new and used aren’t quite the same as they once were. Chiefly, this is because new car production is currently being hit by a shortage of electronic components brought about by the pandemic.
As the first Covid-19 lockdowns kicked in, semiconductor and computer-chip suppliers switched supply away from cars, for which demand had dropped off completely, and over to electronics, for which demand shot up.
Now, though, demand for cars has returned, and manufacturers are struggling to source these components, which are still just as sought after in other industries. Consequently, new car production is being hampered, and that means an irregular supply of new cars and long waiting lists at dealers.
As a result, many who are coming to the end of their lease periods or finance terms are facing months without a replacement and are looking to buy used instead. That, in turn, is pushing up the value of used cars.
Nowadays, then, the choice as to whether to buy new or used isn’t just about cost – it’s also about how long you’re prepared to wait for your next car. If you own your current car outright, that might not be an issue – but if you need a car soon and can’t afford to sit on a waiting list for several months, you might have no choice but to buy used.
Where to buy a family car
Most people buying a car will head to their local dealer once they’ve decided what they want. But that might not be the way to get the best deal.
For example, if you’re buying new or leasing, you may find there are better deals to be had with brokers or with specialist leasing companies, whose economies of scale might mean they can beat dealers on price.
On the used market, meanwhile, traditional dealers are now finding themselves competing against car supermarkets and online dealers, which will deliver a car to your door for no extra cost, complete with a no-quibble money-back guarantee period. Of course, going down this latter route does mean you have to be satisfied with buying the car and paying for it sight unseen.
Auctions can still yield bargains, too. But if you’re looking to buy here, do your research first – and make sure you know what you’re doing. Some of the cars will have been unloved, some may have patchy histories, while your only chance to see and hear the car running will be as it is driven into the auction room – and you won’t be able to drive it until you’ve bought it.
Financing vs buying outright
Chances are you probably don’t plan on buying your family car outright – after all, about nine in 10 British buyers now use some sort of finance to obtain their new car.
Financing a new or used car these days is usually done using a personal contract purchase, or PCP, deal. Here’s how it works: you pay an initial payment on the car, followed by a series of monthly payments for an agreed term – usually two, three or four years. During this period, you don’t own the car.
At the end of the term, you have the option to pay a balloon payment to buy the car, which is usually slightly less than what it’s worth; alternatively, you can give the car back with no strings, while in some cases you can use any equity you might have built up to put towards the deposit for your next car.
The great thing about using a PCP to buy your car is that it makes paying for it much easier, with a downpayment that’s a fraction of the full price of your car, and relatively affordable monthly repayments after that.
The downside, of course, is that interest rates on these deals are usually hefty, so the amount you repay – especially if you pay the balloon payment to keep the car – can often be vastly in excess of the car’s original list price.
Buying outright, on the other hand, gives you greater flexibility – you own the car from the word go, so you can keep it as long as you need and sell it whenever you want to.
You can always finance all or part of the purchase of your car with a bank loan, too. This will result in higher monthly repayments than a PCP – but because the interest rates are usually much lower, you end up paying far less in the long run. And, of course, you get all the flexibility benefits of owning a car outright.
What about leasing?
As its name suggests, leasing is essentially a long-term rental. It might look like a PCP deal on the surface – again, you pay a sum upfront, this time called an initial rental, which is followed by a series of monthly repayments over a fixed term – but there’s no balloon payment at the end.
Monthly lease payments are often cheaper than PCP repayments, but for your lower price you’re getting less flexibility. Once the contract is up, you have to return the car, no ifs and no buts – usually, there’s no option to buy the car even if you want to.
What’s more, a lease contract is more difficult to get out of if you hit financial difficulty. PCP deals include a clause by which, if you’ve paid at least half of what you owe (or you can make up the difference), you can give the car back and pay nothing more. By contrast, lease contracts tend to incur severe penalties for early repayment, which means you’re pretty much tied into them until the end.
That means they’re great if you’re financially secure and want to save yourself some cash compared with financing a car – but might be less than ideal otherwise.
Petrol versus diesel versus hybrid versus electric
But what to power your family car? Below a certain budget, you’ve only got two real options: petrol or diesel. And if that’s the case, you might feel the need to veer away from the latter; diesel has been dragged through the mud in recent years, after all. But contrary to popular belief, it can still make sense – prices have fallen relative to petrol equivalents and diesel cars are still more economical, so should cost less to run.
What’s more, with the latest Euro 6 emissions regulations-compliant diesels emitting barely any more smog than their petrol counterparts, and in some cases even less, while also kicking out less CO2, they can in fact – believe it or not – be a more environmentally sound option.
But what if you can afford a hybrid? Or even an electric car (EV)? Well, “hybrid” is not the dirty word it once was – today’s hybrids are actually rather good to drive, as well as being remarkably efficient and low on emissions.
Choose a traditional (also known as “self-charging”) hybrid, and you get this benefit without having to plug in and charge it. Or opt for a plug-in hybrid (or PHEV for short) instead if you have somewhere to plug it in, and gain 20-30 miles of electric range for shorter journeys.
Fully electric cars can make brilliant family transport these days, too. There are plenty of long-range options that can travel 250-300 miles on a full charge, which is more than enough for a family day out.
They tend to work far better if you’ve got somewhere to plug in and charge at home, though. Britain’s public charging infrastructure is not quite good enough to rely on solely, and duff chargers can mean using it can be stressful at the best of times, let alone when you’ve got a couple of screaming kids in tow.