Cathryn Sprynczynatyk
A midsize SUV, like the Nissan Pathfinder, has a higher entry than a car, making getting in and out easier. (Submitted photo)

Bucket seats make getting in and out of a third-row of seating easier. (Megan Milbradt)

Proper installation of car seats is essential. (Megan Milbradt)

Maybe you're a first-time parent, and you just know an infant car seat isn't going to fit in the back of your sporty little car. Or perhaps you're an experienced mom, accustomed to hauling around multiple kids and piles of groceries while keeping your sanity in tact. Whether avoiding or embracing the mom-mobile, parents are faced with a host of choices when purchasing a family vehicle.

"The trend tends to be on the sport utility side," said Chris Schneider, general manager of Bismarck Motor Company. A sport utility offers ample storage space in the rear and often four-wheel or all-wheel drive capability. "I think a lot of security comes from having the all-wheel drive. If you tend to be traveling, there's a lot of feeling of security when you have that."

Monte Pfenning, general sales manager of Stan Puklich Chevrolet, said crossover vehicles -- a cross between a van and a truck -- have also been popular with "the handling of a car or a van and not so much the big truck feeling."

Small family

For a small family, smaller vehicles -- such as sedans and small SUVs -- can be money-savers with good fuel economy.

When it comes to avoiding the mom-mobile stigma, Pfenning recommends the Chevrolet Malibu. Similar to a hybrid, it has a four-cylinder engine with electrical assist, which engages on the highway and when taking off from a stop.

"The new Malibu is really nice," Pfenning said. "The redesigned Malibu is coming out. It comes in an eco-version, which would give you up to 37 MPG on the highway."

Jason Schneider, sales manager for Cedric Theel Toyota, recommends a Toyota Camry or Prius as possible sedans for a small family. The Camry, he said, is a good, fuel efficient sedan for a family with one or two kids.

"For a green family, if they only have one or two kids, a lot of people opt for a Prius," Jason Schneider said. "If they're environmentally conscious and want to do their part to save the world, it's a great option."

Medium family

As a family grows beyond a sedan or small SUV, Jason Schneider recommends something like a Toyota Highlander SUV.

"My wife and I drive a Highlander basically for the all-wheel drive capability plus the ability to use that third row in the rear," Jason Schneider said. "When we're going on a road trip just the four of us, we have the adaptability to put cooler and luggage in the back."

A third row of seating increases the vehicle capacity to seven passengers. When more hauling space is needed, the third row can be folded down into the floor. A rear lift gate allows for easy loading and unloading in the storage area.

"If you're going to load the groceries in the back of the vehicle, it's a lot easier to load them into that than lift them up over the bumper of a car," Jason Schneider said. "It's just an all-around great drive and affordable lease payment, too. And who isn't budget conscience? That's not an ad, that's just human common sense."

For a midsize SUV, Chris Schneider suggests the Nissan Pathfinder, Nissan Rogue or Hyundai Santa Fe.

"When you're looking at sport utilities, the all-wheel drive is especially handy in the winter time." Chris Schneider said. "Entry is higher than a car, so getting in and out is a little bit easier."

He describes the Pathfinder as a "great, midsized sport utility all redesigned for 2013. It's midsized, so you're getting good MPG."

Large family

For a large family, a full-size SUV or a minivan should do the trick. Pfenning recommends a Chevrolet Tahoe or Suburban.

"(For a large family), you get into the Suburbans," Pfenning said. "Seating capacity of the Suburban is you can have seven or eight. The vehicle is bigger for families that have grown. You get more leg room, more head room, shoulder room. You have more (hauling capacity). Properly equipped you can pull up to 8,200 lbs with the Suburban."

In SUVs across the board, customers often have the option to add an entertainment package. The Chevrolet entertainment package includes DVD players for the backseat passengers that load in the front.

"If you have small kids, they load in the front," Pfenning said. "Then, you don't have kids unbuckling themselves to put in a DVD. It comes with a remote control just like at home."

Even though the trend appears to be more toward SUVs, Chris Schneider said the minivan market is still very active. For a growing family, one of the major benefits of a minivan is the sliding doors.

"No. 1 is the seating arrangement," Chris Schneider said. "Even if you only have a couple of kids, when you're running to sporting events or schools, it seems like you're always hauling more than just yourself.

"This year they actually put a vacuum cleaner in the Honda Odyssey, and that's pretty handy for keeping the vehicle clean. You would think they would have thought of that before."

Ultimately, if a family is undecided between a minivan versus and SUV with a third row of seating, Chris Schneider said the answer is simple: "Drive them both. You drive the one and pick the one you're most comfortable with."

Car seat conundrum

For brand new parents, one of the time-honored, nerve-wracking experiences is that first drive home from the hospital. Do we have the safest route planned out? Is baby safe in the car seat? Is the car seat securely in the car? How slow can we go?

With 5-point harnesses and shoulder seatbelt compatibility, baby should be secure, right? Not so fast, according to Dawn Mayer of the Bismarck-Mandan Safety Council, which coordinates child car seat check-ups.

"The goal of the (car seat) check up is to help parents learn how to use their car seats, because five out of six car seats are misused," said Mayer, director of the Child Passenger Safety Program for the North Dakota Department of Health.

The Bismarck-Mandan Safety Council, a coalition of public and private agencies concerned with safety issues, offers free car seat check-ups throughout the year at various auto dealerships. Mayer said their volunteers go through a 32-hour certification in order to help parents ensure car seats are working properly. Volunteers assess whether the car seat is correct for the child's age, weight, height and maturity level; check models for recall; examine how the child is installed in the car seat; and look at how the car seat is installed in the vehicle. Parents are asked to bring the car seat instructions and vehicle owner's manual.

"We don't do the installations," Mayer said. "We have the parents learn how to do the installations."

In addition, the Bismarck-Mandan Safety Council offers a car seat round-up three to four times per year. Families are invited to exchange unsafe car seats for $5 gift certificates to local businesses. The safety council then recycles the plastic from the old car seats. Unsafe car seats can include those that are older than six years, are in poor condition, have been in a crash, have been recalled, are missing labels or parts or are of unknown history.

For more information on child car seat check-ups and round-ups, call the North Dakota Department of Health at 701-328-4533.

Cathryn Sprynczynatyk is a lifelong resident of Bismarck, a proud Ukranian and a news junkie. She is wife to Jason and mother to Sigurdor and Henrik.