Like Lucy and Ethel or America and apple pie, summertime and family road trips have always gone together. The car journeys from our childhood were often frugal expeditions where nobody put too much thought into creature comforts. We'd drive in the heat of summer without any air conditioning, windows rolled down, our legs sticking to the vinyl seats. Come to think of it, safety was never a high priority back then, either. Carseats? Seatbelts? Forget about it.
Thankfully, road travel has changed a lot since then. A look at this year's crop of new cars reveals a mind-boggling array of parent- and kid-friendly features. Renting one of the newest car models on your next family road trip can be a great way to test drive some of the most fun bells and whistles coming out of the auto industry. Here's a look at some of the gadgets that could shorten your family drives this summer.
Satellite radio and TV: Tired of listening to those same old Raffi CDs over and over? Sirius XM (www.siriusxm.com/siriusxmcom/) features kids' programming such as Radio Disney and Kids Place Live, while older kids will go nuts for the vast array of pop music, sports, and comedy channels. (Be careful to avoid the blue ones, unless you want George Carlin to posthumously brief your kids on the seven words once not allowed on television.) Even more tempting, perhaps, is Sirius Backseat TV (www.sirius.com/backseattv), a trio of satellite TV channels that carry shows from Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and the Disney Channel. So far Sirius Backseat TV is available pre-installed in only a handful of models, including the Dodge Grand Caravan (www.edmunds.com/dodge/grandcaravan/2009/review.html), Chrysler Town & Country (www.edmunds.com/chrysler/townandcountry/2009/review.html), and Jeep Grand Cherokee (www.edmunds.com/jeep/grandcherokee/2009/index.html).
Rear seat DVD/gaming: In-car DVD entertainment systems are now a commonplace feature of many family vehicles, but they have become much better over time. Some vehicles now feature multi-screen systems with individual video inputs, allowing one kid to watch a video on one screen while another child connects a video game system to the other. The most convenient layouts no longer require using a power adapter in the cigarette lighter, so look for vehicles like the 2009 Dodge Journey crossover (www.edmunds.com/dodge/journey/2009/review.html) that offer power outlets in the backseat.
Refrigerator: The 2009 Ford Flex family hauler (www.edmunds.com/ford/flex/2009/review.html) offers an optional food cooler and heater in the second-row console. The device can chill drinks or preserve food, or it can heat up and keep hot food steaming and ready to eat hours later. And presto! -- the possibilities for roadside picnics are now officially endless.
Storable Table: In the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country, a table can be installed in the floor between the second and third rows of seats. The second row's Swivel 'n Go seats can be turned to face backward, and you can turn the rearmost video screens so they can be seen from the backward-facing seats. The table becomes a social scene for sharing snacks, books, and video games, as well as providing an eating surface and, at least theoretically, a forum for kids to play board games together.
GPS Navigation Systems: Getting lost on road trips was once an annual ritual that always ended with Dad refusing to stop to ask for directions. A navigation system can not only prevent such destination-delaying headaches, it can also point perplexed parents to the nearest source of fast food when the back seat hunger meltdown reaches critical mass. Need to find a nearby hotel, picnic spot, or gas station? An on-board navigation system can answer all your questions as quickly as a Magic 8-Ball, but more reliably.
Telematics Services: Communications services such as General Motors's OnStar (www.onstar.com/us_english/jsp/index.jsp), Toyota's Safety Connect (http://pressroom.toyota.com/pr/tms/toyota/toyota-telematics-programs.aspx) and Mercedes-Benz's Tele-Aid (www.teleaid.com) provide peace of mind that, in the event of a crash, your car will automatically send out an SOS. But OnStar has an edge in that it also offers a concierge service, which can help locate gas stations, restaurants, hotels, repair shops, and other necessities, and can automatically transmit directions to the car's navigation system. The advantage here is that OnStar does the research for you while you keep driving, saving you from having to stop and scroll through all the various options in the nav system.
Rear Cameras: Vehicles with back-up cameras are safer because they help you avoid backing into people or objects. But on a car trip, when your view out the back window may be obscured by heaps of luggage and you are on unfamiliar turf, a back-up camera may prove the difference between a non-event and catastrophe.
Swanky Seats: Nothing puts a damper on the collective family mood like a driver immobilized by back pain after a couple of eight-hour days in the saddle. Adjustable seats with lumbar support and seat heaters and coolers can go a long way to ensuring that grown-ups reach the destination able to keep up with the kids. The new Ford Taurus (www.edmunds.com/ford/taurus/review.html) family car adds a feature that is unusual even among high-end luxury cars: a massaging seat that continuously adjusts its settings, like a business-class airline seat or the pedicure chair at Mom's favorite nail salon.
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