Tom Langford from London needs a second car with high seats to make putting children into their kiddie seats easier. Parking is an issue so it should be no longer than the family's current BMW 318i. Power steering, automatic gearbox, air conditioning and economy are all essential as is the ability to fit three adults and two children. The budget is £5,000.

The only type of vehicle that answers this brief is the compact people carrier. The seating is usually higher and the increased headroom also makes fitting child seats easier. The majority of these cars have individual rear seats, which makes fitting different-sized people and child seats less fraught.

Automatic gearboxes can be more problematic, especially on models with smaller engines. They're not always a popular choice with families on a budget and mostly are not available on frugal diesel engines. Air conditioning, like power steering, was rarer on the older cars that Tom will have to look at to keep within his budget. As ever, Tom should take the whole family along with him on used-car shopping trips to make sure that they all fit in comfortably.

A car for the head

When it comes to compact people carriers, the 14-foot long Nissan Almera Tino is an excellent, if underrated, vehicle. It handles like a normal hatchback and the rear is able to take up to three adults. In terms of storage space, the Tino scores quite highly with removable baskets fitted into the floor. The SE model has air conditioning as standard. For an automatic gearbox, it has to be the 2.0-litre engine, which returns about 30mpg.

There is a downside for automatic drivers with the CVT transmission. The constantly variable transmission effectively uses one long gear that adjusts to the prevailing driving conditions. Some drivers find it a little bit indecisive, but Tom will have to drive one to find out. A 70,000-mile model at a dealer with a warranty should be just within his buying budget. Reassuringly, the Almera range constantly excels in reliability surveys, so a highish mileage should not put Howard off, provided there is a full service history.

A car for the heart

The first, and arguably still the best, of the compact people carriers is the Renault Scenic at 13' 7". Where it matters, inside, the Scenic could not be more versatile; it may accomodate only five but it does so in real comfort, style and with room to spare because of its lift-out seats. There is a double floor, which raises the cabin, and provides lots of underfloor storage compartments. It is those five seats, though, that are the key to the Scenic's appeal. Take out the middle one, set the other one back and suddenly the Langfords have a luxury car environment, but estate car practicality.

Getting the right specification will be a challenge. The original 1997 car came with an automatic gearbox on the 1.6e RT and 2.0 RXE models. The RXE has air conditioning as standard; the only downside is fuel consumption at 33mpg. The revised Scenic (1999) is available with automatic from the 1.6 16 valve, although it is the Alize model which has air conditioning and should return almost 36mpg.

* CAR CHOICE: Please write to Features, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or e-mail giving your age, address and contact number, and details of the type of vehicle you are interested in.

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