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The Backseat Drive
a new column
By Michele Brooke

The Backseat Drive (Introduction)

As an auto writer, I’ve always enjoyed exploring the ins and outs of cars that come my way. Horsepower, torque, hardtop convertible…have all been highly sought-after traits. That was until I became an auto writer mom.

How a vehicle performs during stoplight starts and cornering has given way to how easy is it to use the LATCH system and does the upholstery show apple juice stains? Novelties like rear window shades have become wonderful features (especially during the summer months) and cargo volume is no longer a statistic. It now translates into “do you have to fold up an umbrella stroller to actually fit it in the trunk?”—an important question when your arms are filled with baby, diaper bag and groceries.

The Backseat Drive is a whole new approach to auto reviews. It focuses on kid- and parent-friendly features. Plus, they’re short, which makes them quick reads in between naptimes.

Happy motoring and diapering,
Michele Brooke, Auto writer mom

See the Back Seat Drive review for :

2006 Dodge Charger

Your spouse is nostalgic for a 1960s muscle car, you like the idea of a 2006 new, roomy sedan. Where in the middle to meet? Take a look at the Dodge Charger.

Its got the muscle car sneer, lines and personality. And yes, it even has a HEMI. Its a buff muscle car, with a twist: it works well for families on the go and its a '06 model.

First, the rear seat is roomy (seats three) and is available with a great rear seat entertainment system. Unlike other systems that fold down from the ceiling, the Chargers DVD screen is stored and raised from inside the center console. Backseaters get a good view of the movie while drivers have the convenience of a good view of the rear window.

When transporting one to two passengers, the backseaters can fold down the center armrest, which opens to reveal a dual cup holder. Power outlets are located in the instrument panel and front center console. And, the trunk generously swallows all kinds of gear. We were able to fit several bags of garden soil and plants back there during our week with the Charger.

Other perks include power adjustable pedals and the fact that the driver and passenger sit two-inches higher than previous Dodge sedans. The Dodge Charger has the brawns and brains.

2006Dodge Dakota

Admittedly, Ive never been one to want to go out and buy a truck. Ive driven several. Ive been spoiled by opulent interiors (like the Ford F150 King Ranch); plus, down here in the Lone Star State pickups blend in very well. However, I always found themdue to their size hard to maneuver. Tight parking spaces were tricky. I would often choose the park far and hike in method. And I could forget about fitting cab and cargo bed inside my garage.

I appreciated their utility factor, but my preference stayed with sedans. That was until last week. The Dodge Dakota SLT Quad Cab has changed my mind and even had me build and price my own at Dodges web site.

Inspired by warmer than average temperatures, the planting bug bit early this year and I found myself, along with our 1-year old, visiting nursery after nursery admiring and mentally selecting an array of flowers and trees. It was a sunny, mid-70s, afternoon when the silver Dakota, with its great empty bed arrived. Time to go shopping.

The Dakota was great. As a mid-size truck, it provided enough room to haul around foliage, shrubs, trees and mulch along with easy maneuverability. And, as a Quad Cab, the interior offered plenty of room for my sons car seat, folded umbrella stroller, books, sippy cups and lots of juice boxes. Heres what I liked about it: the rear bench seats three, the LATCH system was easy to use and the passengers sit high. The rear seaters also have access to a sturdy cup holder and an optional rear-sliding window. And with a base MSRP of $22,055 for the SL Quad Cab, the Dakota works nicely with family budgets.

From a kids perspective, it could use a couple of rear ventsespecially if we have a warmer-than-usual summer, and an optional DVD entertainment center would be great, as the Dakota can easily double as a workhorse and a family vehicle.

The Dodge Dakota works well as a compromise for spouses when one is in favor of a truck and the other isnt so sure. For the truck lover, it has a rugged appearance, two optional V8 engines, and lots of towing and utility capability. Its the kind of truck that would make Tim the Tool Man proud. For the other spouse, the Dakota is driver friendly, offers convenient adjustable front cupholders, which do a nice job of keeping your morning Starbucks in place, and it fits inside the garageeven with the door closed. Its big enough, without being too big. On top of that, it makes those trips to the nursery a lot of fun.

2006 Ford Explorer

For 15 years, the Ford Explorer has been a quintessential family vehicle. An alternative to the minivan, the Explorer seats half a little league team, offers an extensive selection of kid-friendly items and looks good to boot.

Our thoughts: Putting the '06 Explorer through the punches, we decided to take a mini-road trip to a cornfield maze outside of Houston, Texas. In back: two very active 1-year olds out for a 2-hour (one-way) trip.

We were off for an adventure.

Kid Pros: When it comes to size, the Explorer is very mom-friendly. Go ahead and pack in the kids, diaper bags, books, DVDs, strollers, you name it, the Explorer can accommodate. One of our favorite features was the rear center console. Dividing the second row captain’s chair is a deep console (perfect for holding all kinds of kid stuff) with a top that flips over to reveal two deep cupholders. So regardless if the console is open or close, the backseaters have a sturdy cup holder. Speaking of cupholders, the 2006 Explorer features 10.

Other favorite features include the tinted rear windows, the easy-to-reach LATCH system (read: no digging your hands between the seat cushions), and air vents in rear for the second and third row. The vents are located on the ceiling, which means they work equally well for both rear- and forward-facing car seats.

We always like a car to have front and rear power outlets. The front ones are well located for cell phone chargers while the rear outlets work great for portable DVD players. Our Explorer did not have the optional rear seat entertainment center (which we highly recommend); however, we were able to plug our portable system into the rear outlet and then set the player on the front center console where both 1-year olds could take in showings of Baby Einstein.

Another pro is the third row. Roomy, this row features power up/down. You simply fold the headrests; press a button and the seats fold flat. Convenient, if for example, your toddler spent the day running around a dusty cornfield maze and you need a place to change him/her into cleaner clothes.

Environmental Plus: As a mom, I always like to applaud manufacturers for revisions and innovations that help make the air a little better for the next generation…so kudos to Ford for their latest improvements:

Details: According to Ford, by employing new engine calibrations and an improved emission controls, the Explorer’s standard V6-engine cuts smog-forming emissions by 74 percent compared to previous models. This more emission-friendly 4-liter V6 is rated at 210 horsepower at 5,100 rpm and 254 ft-lbs. at 3,700 rpm. Need a little more heft in your engine? The Explorer’s all-new 4.6-liter three-valve V8 engine is also available. And, because it’s paired with a new six-speed transmission, the V8 is expected to increase fuel economy by 10 percent (approximately two miles per gallon), while delivering 53 more horsepower for a total of 292 horsepower. This engine also produces 300 ft-lbs of torque.

Kid Cons: Yoga skills are required to make it to the third row. We had a six-year old test it out without any problems; however, if your kiddos are teenagers, they’ll probably be calling shotgun before you open the doors.

Another glitch, which happens to be pretty much a given with most large vehicles, is the fact that regular fill ups could cut into Junior’s college savings fund. The '06 Explorer with a V6 engine averages 15 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway. If gas mileage is a big concern, you may want to check out Ford’s new Escape hybrid—it offers room for three kids and gear, while averaging 36 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway.

Ford Mustang GT

Let’s face it, when it comes to the “” segment, the Ford Mustang GT isn’t likely to be the first vehicle to pop into your mind. Even though this muscle car seats four and comes equipped with the LATCH system, there are just so many kid gadgets that one can cram into 13.1 cubic feet of trunk space.

However, should you not be able to resist its bold style and retro good looks, you’ll be happy to know that escorting backseaters around town is doable (provided your kiddo isn’t a linebacker for the local high school varsity squad, then it might be a tight squeeze in the backseat).

Our thoughts: The Mustang GT was a great lesson in learning what we actually needed to bring with us and what’s just nice to have. Our diaper bag, umbrella stroller and forward-facing child seat all fit. The jogging stroller stayed home.

Kid Pros No doubt, your kiddo will earn kudos at school for having one of the coolest moms around. While all the minivans and SUVs wedge their way through the after school pick up line, you’ll enjoy the maneuverability of this zippy pony. And with a starting price of $19,810 (for the V6) it’s budget-friendly.

Kid Cons No rear vents, though with such a small cabin, the front vents should keep the rear passengers cool. No optional DVD entertainment center. While one child in a forward-facing car seat fits just fine, you’ll have a snug fit if you add another. No rear cup or juice box holders

Kid friendliness:   (out of five)
Most likely to fit in at soccer practice:
Cool Mom factor:

Saturn Ion

When your grocery list includes boxes of Pampers, cartons of milk and cases of rice cereal, the last thing your bank account needs is a high monthly car note. Enter the Saturn Ion Quad Coupe. With a starting price of $13,490 and a sleek two-door look this Saturn is easy on the wallet and eyes.

Our thoughts: Two doors are cool, but they have their place. That place is typically in the days preceding dependents. Logistically, coupes require yoga skills in placing kids in and out of child seats. There’s the obligatory flip and slide of the front seat, which typically opens a cave-like space for baby and parents to fit through. That is unless you happen to own the Saturn Ion Quad Coupe.

Not your typical two-door, this quad design eases entry and exit by having a “hidden” door. Open each main door and you’ll find another one. This second door is actually hinged on the hind side with a handle that’s tucked into the door jam and can only be opened once the main door has been opened—it’s the look of a two-door and the functionality of a four door.

And that’s not the only surprise the Ion has in store for parents, take a look at some of its other kid-friendly features:

Kid Pros Front passenger and rear seats fold flat for carrying extra long items A new acoustic cover on the engine to reduce at least the mechanical noise in the cabin Air conditioner features dust & pollen filters as standard on some trims Two 12-volt power outlets—one located in center console, close to backseaters Rear center console with dual cupholders & storage area Cool exterior colors…how many kids have a mom or dad who drives a dragonfly green Saturn Ion?

Kid Cons Small quarters—seating capacity is two up front and two in the back. No optional DVD entertainment system Small rear windows

More to come...

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