What really matters when buying a new vehicle? Performance? Price? A center console that can hold your handbag?
We recently asked 26 women to test-drive 11 cars over three days and tell us what matters most. Here’s what they loved, what they learned and what they’ll be demanding the next time they go car shopping.
Space, Space, Space
This was the top response from the group. Of the cars they test-drove—the Toyota RAV4,Toyota Corolla, Toyota Sienna, Lexus RX 450h, Acura RDX, Acura MDX, Mercedes-Benz GLC 300, Honda Passport, Ram 1500 pickup truck, Porsche Cayenne and Porsche 911—the top thing that our group found valuable was ample space.
It helps that car designers have figured out how to carve out more space for passengers and stuff while keeping the car’s size about the same: “I was so impressed by the interior room in the RAV4. I always thought of this as a small SUV, but really, the RAV4 has evolved.”
Even the compact Toyota Corolla hybrid surprised: “It’s more spacious than I imagined. The trunk space is larger than most compact cars. It could hold all of my kids’ sports gear and lots of shopping bags.”
Regarding center-row chairs, which make getting in and out of the third row easier than a bench: “I loved the Acura MDX’s third row and captain’s chairs in the second row.”
But a third row isn’t always necessary to ensure lots of space. The Honda Passport was a shocker to one tester we met with: “I can’t believe how roomy this two-row SUV is. The back seat is huge. It can easily fit an adult in the middle seat with infant seats on both sides. That I might not need a third row for three kids? Brilliant!”
On the Honda Passport: “I liked the added storage compartments under the cargo floor to hide valuables. I often travel with a camera and laptop, but I don’t always want to lug them around.”
And of course, the Toyota Sienna minivan is the definition of space: “It’s really comfortable for long rides as a passenger. You can recline your seats, and there is plenty of legroom.”
But the one that surprised everyone the most? The Ram 1500 pickup truck. Not only is the back seat amply sized for three adult passengers, but “everywhere you look there’s another cubby, box or compartment.” The rear seats flip up if you need to haul large things in the cab, and there are storage cubbies in the rear floor under the carpets and in the walls of the truck bed.
Space to Install Kids’ Car Seats
Yes, all cars are required to accommodate child car seats. But getting them into the car, being able to climb in and install them, and fitting an adult in the seat next to a car seat can be a challenge, even in some SUVs. The group installed two Britax car seats in each of the cars and smushed an adult in the center seat to see which cars made this easiest.
The winners? Of course, the Toyota Sienna, which can hold five or six child car seats and has a clever “jump seat” in the middle of the second row that can be removed to create two captain’s chairs (it is not adequate for a child’s car seat, however). The other favorites included the Toyota RAV4, the Honda Passport, the Acura MDX and the Ram 1500, all because they had enough room to climb into the car to install the car seat and a passenger could sit in the center seat and buckle up.
A Place to Put Your Purse
This might seem like an obvious challenge—to some of us. But to auto designers, not always. The cars that stood out on this challenge scored high. “I learned that the center console in the Honda Passport has been specifically designed to allow for a handbag so it doesn’t fly around the cabin,” one tester said. A lip on the back of the center console and armrests on the front seats create a sort of bin for a bag. The lip on the console means a bag placed there stays put.
Other cars that fared really well were the Ram 1500, which has a center console big enough to hold a large handbag or tote, and the Toyota Sienna, which has space in front of or inside the center console that can hold a large bag. Also worth mentioning is the Acura RDX: Its push-button gear selector frees up space in the center console that is perfect for a smaller crossbody bag, large wallet or evening clutch. Bigger bags will have to find someplace else to sit.
Places to Charge Your Devices
Charge ports are the new cupholders, and car designers are now focused on providing enough USB or charge ports for each passenger. Many cars—mostly SUVs and trucks—also have a household plug: “This is what I look at as a mom who is in the car a lot with her kids. Keeping everyone plugged in and connected is a big deal.”
Among the cars that provided the most places to plug in were the 2020 Lexus RX 450h, which includes more USB ports, six in all, in response to customer feedback.
The Acura MDX also has a good number of USB ports, two for each row. Probably the most charge ports, including a household plug, are in the Ram 1500: “This blew my mind! The perfect family truck for work, play and errands. It has enough charging outlets!”
The Mercedes-Benz GLC is a bit advanced in this area, featuring four micro USB ports compatible with some phones but not others. You may need to bring an adapter now, but this will be the standard on all devices in the future.
Driver Assist and Automatic Safety Features
Technology that actually helps you drive better and prevent an accident is something car buyers are seeing in more and more cars. But it can be confusing and even alarming when such safety features kick in unexpectedly.
Toyota, Lexus, Honda and Acura have a selection of these features standard on all models; generally, these include adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning or assist, adaptive high beam headlights and pre-emergency braking.
The biggest surprise was the Mercedes-Benz GLC 300’s semi-autonomous features, such as the auto lane change. With adaptive cruise engaged, just hit the turn signal and the car will change lanes for you when it’s safe to do so.
New Ways to Use the Infotainment System
The entire group loved that they could plug in their phones and immediately connect to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, which mirrors your phone on the infotainment screen.
Plus, several cars now have a rotary dial or touchpad system instead of or in addition to a touch screen. This tester loved the touchpad on the Acura RDX, Lexus RX and Mercedes-Benz GLC as a convenient way to navigate a smart screen: “Just swipe and tap as you glance at the screen, or tap the home button. So easy!”
The other feature that delighted the group was “Hey Mercedes,” the voice-activated assistant in the Mercedes-Benz GLC: “Simply say ‘Hey Mercedes’ and the system comes to life to set navigation, change the radio station or turn on the heated seats.”
Something like 90 percent of drivers of cars with all-wheel or four-wheel drive never actually take their car off-road. However, once you see what your car can do, you might change your mind.
“My stepmom has no idea her Cayenne can do this,” one tester told us in amazement as the SUV climbed a 70 percent grade and descended an even steeper hill.
All-wheel drive systems are so advanced they can do almost anything a traditional four-wheel drive can do. The Ram 1500 with 4WD is known for being able to climb rocks and sand dunes, but the Toyota RAV4 and Honda Passport are gaining a reputation as adventure vehicles. And Acura and Lexus are capable in many off-road situations too.
Fun to Drive
We didn’t let the group forget why they came here: to drive. And despite the variety of price points and levels of luxury, everyone was happily surprised by how much they enjoyed each car. “I loved the more responsive steering features that made me feel more comfortable as a driver,” Autumn Murray said about the Lexus RX 450h.
“I really loved the Acura MDX. The pickup was amazing and it was such a smooth ride,” Monica Siembieda added.
“The Toyota Corolla reminded me of driving a budget-friendly sports car,” said another.
And the most fun of the group? The Porsche 911 Carrera’s braking system was second to none, and it’s clear that those huge red calipers aren’t just for show: “After pushing the Porsche to the max, it was fascinating how you could trust the car to do its job. I’ve never felt so safe the way I did in this car!”