October 5, 2012

Fitting Three Children on Your Car's Back Seat

"I hate to give up my hatchback, but with the third baby coming, we need to buy a minivan." You hear this a lot. Even if you have two young children, you can't offer a ride to a friend because the extra child seat won't fit in the back row.

Do manufacturers of child seats get a kickback from manufacturers of minivans?

What if a minivan is not your cup of tea? Maybe your driveway is extremely narrow. Maybe your city parking garage doesn't accept vehicles as tall as minivans. Maybe you're just not into looking like the proverbial soccer mom, even if you are one.

What are your options?

Seven-seat gas sippers.
It's galling that the choices are so very limited for families of five. So I've gathered a collection of seven-seat vehicles that do 30 - 45mpg. The list includes the 7-seat Toyota Prius V (44mpg), and a few other cars with on-demand third-row seating. Some are crossovers. Some are minivans.

(I've nothing against minivans, actually: I used to drive a Vanagon, the last Volkswagen minibus that had its engine in the back. My family of four shared its use with my parents, who lived a few streets away: a private car-share scheme. And it carried all six of us comfortably.)

There's only one catch: most of these seven-seaters are not available in the US market (yet). I don't know why. I mean, if you can afford a Prius V, and you have a family of five, wouldn't you jump at the seven-seat option?

It may be a while before those gas-sipping seven seaters make it stateside, and meanwhile the baby is on its way, so we need a solution now.

Narrower car seats
Take heart, there are actually some options out there. A baby's hips are what, eight inches across? There is no reason why the baby's car seat should be 21 inches wide.

When my eldest was a baby, we went to Holland and were met by my cousin at the airport; he had thoughtfully brought a baby seat, which was a marvel of slenderness and light weight. Carrying it was much easier on my back than the bulky, heavy baby seat we had left in the US.

I settled the baby in the seat, and we were on our way. I didn't question the safety of the slender baby seat, which had passed Europe's stringent tests - after all, Europeans love their children too. The seat was made by Maxi Cosi, a Dutch manufacturer who understands space limitations.

Narrower seats are now available in the US: there are several brands that offer child seats with modest widths of 17 inches of less. Just check out the useful list at Carseat Measurements and Data. Three car seats, each 17 inches wide, would fit on my VW Golf's back seat, which has 52 inches clearance between the doors. If your car is wider than mine, you can afford wider car seats, and your choice is - no pun intended - widened.


But the best solution I've seen so far asks you to approach child car seats in a completely new way: check out multimac. Based in the UK, multimac offers a complete system that can house three, or even four, children on the back seat, by seating them all in one continuous car seat that has three (or four) bays.

The whole thing is anchored to the seat belt hooks that normally accept the adult seat belts. Multimac claims its car seats significantly exceed the European crash test requirements. Available with bespoke upholstery. In the long run, this is probably cheaper than buying a string of individual car seats. It's certainly cheaper than buying a new and larger car.

Accessories are available that can accomodate babies in rear-facing seats, to toddlers, to children tall enough to need an extra head rest, all with height-adjustable 5-point harness. Their website shows a three-seater in the back of a Fiat 500.

The multimac comes with legs that rest on the floor of the car. We in the US are not used to seeing child seats with legs, apparently because, according to an article at shopautoweek.com, “The bench seat that is used in car-seat testing in the U.S. is from a 1970s model vehicle [1974 Chevrolet Impala, according to NHTSA] and is only the bench seat--there’s no floor to rest a support leg on.”

The same article confirms what many globetrotting parents have found: that many countries don't honour each other's child-seat safety tests: “The primary roadblock remains the opinions of those in charge of car-seat safety regulations. Whether one system is safer than the other is still being debated.”

So don't try to import a multimac on your own.

But I do hope that this sensible solution to a vexing problem will make its way to the US eventually.

Your other option? Ditch the car. Move yourself and your offspring by bike. Beats buying a new car and having your kids breathe new car smell. One intrepid mom moves her six children by bike exclusively. None of them brought a cello. But I could only dream of having lungs and leg muscles like hers!



You may also like:
1. So you want a seven-seat car that does better than 30 mpg
2. Narrow booster seat
3. A Transportation Growth Chart for Your Family
4. Licence To Spill



  1. The multimac is GENIUS! Thank you so much...I am getting one immediately! I don't know what happened to station wagons (they seemed a lot easier than 7 seaters in terms of getting the kids in and out). I agree w/ you on everything...and minivan companies MUST get some kind of kickback. Taht or car designers have never had kids.

    1. Writing from Great Britain, are you? You're so LUCKY to be able to "get one immediately"!!! If it ever comes to the US a whole bunch of us would jump on it.


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