Win on Sunday, Carpool on Monday

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Feb 9, 2009 | Dodge, Honda, Nissan, Saab, Subaru, Toyota | Posted in Shop Work | From the May 2007 issue | Never miss an article

We might not all know where babies come from, but we do know what they come with: a lot of stuff. By the time you add up the stroller, Pack ’n Play, diaper bag, juice boxes and educational toys, a 15-pound infant comes with nearly as much gear as a Marine Expeditionary Force.

When it comes time to move all that gear from place to place, the Marines have a lot of specialized equipment, ranging from Humvees up to transport ships. These days, most parents look for something that’s nearly military-strength as well: The SUV—love it or hate it—has become today’s child carrier of choice.

SUVs may be fine for urban war zones and snow-covered mountain passes, but they’re not well suited for our kinds of use. They’re just not the type of vehicles we’d gladly trade our Miatas and Mustangs for, even if the family is expanding.

Lots of enthusiasts face this common dilemma, and we often hear of their plights on our message board: Baby is on the way, and now a fun family hauler is needed. What to do?

The online replies to these questions range from genuine to comical. Yes, technically a baby does fit inside a Corvette, but it’s not a solution we can seriously recommend. A minivan goes well with children, but these top-heavy vehicles are shunned by motorsports groups. A parent who wants to keep at least a toe in the motorsports scene would need a second car if the first is a minivan. And when a good portion of your weekly paycheck is going to Pampers, it’s hard to justify that additional car payment.

Two Jobs, One Car?

Surely there must be a vehicle that can win on Sunday and carpool on Monday? After a day spent squealing tires plus loading and unloading diaper bags and other kid gear, we think we have some answers.

Our plan was pretty simple. We grabbed five different types of “family” cars and gave them a workout at the Ocala Gran Prix. We had four-door sedans in the small, medium and large sizes plus a sport wagon and what is called a tall wagon—a five-door compact car with a tall-in-the-saddle vantage point. The track work would help us evaluate each car’s performance potential. Tech Editor Per Schroeder would handle the timed laps, while Art Director J.G. Pasterjak and New Daddy/Marketing Guy Bill MacDonald would also take several laps around the track.

We planned to measure each car’s kid-hauling abilities with the help of a real, live baby, as little Myles MacDonald—Bill’s infant son—joined our test crew for the day. And with Myles came all of his stuff: car seat, stroller, books, toys, diaper bag and the always-present sippy cup.

While this test sampled new cars, the data can easily be extrapolated to something older or more to your liking. If the Dodge Charger R/T sounds like the right vehicle for your needs, but the $30,000 price would put a dent in junior’s college and/or orthodontics fund, why not consider a less expensive option like a mid-’90s Chevy Impala SS or a police package Crown Vic?

The point here is that there are more options than just the five models we tested. This test was designed to measure the abilities of representative models from each of the major categories of family-type cars; once you have used our data to narrow your shopping to a particular car type, then you can fine-tune your search to a make and model that does it all for you.

And one final word before we get to our test: We passed on two-door cars. Sure, your parents transported you and your kid sister in the back of a ’69 Camaro, but today there are too many good options to make that back-busting exercise a necessity. Call us lazy, but we want it all: Fun and practicality, all wrapped up in one easy-to-use package.

Large Performance Sedan

For generations, the large sedan was the only choice when it came to transporting a family. Fifty-something years ago, in fact, alternatives didn’t even really exist. When ma and pa visited the local Chevy dealer back in 1957 to buy their new family hauler, they could choose the color and how much chrome they could stomach, but they didn’t have many options regarding body style. The choices were basically sedan or station wagon. If they were feeling frisky and had the scratch, maybe a convertible would work.

It’s no small wonder that this formula was the standard for so many decades: sometimes it’s hard to argue against a row or two of bench seats, a decent trunk and a competent engine. Even today, when we can buy minivans, SUVs and wagons in nearly every shape, size and configuration, the large sedan is still with us. If anything, it has experienced something of a resurgence lately, as the format is once again available with a bit of a bite.

The Dodge Charger is one of those new full-size, performance-tuned sedans. After throwing all of their rear-drive heritage down the toilet some 20 years ago, Chrysler is now pretty much leading the resurgence of the rear-drive movement among the American nameplates with their Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300. They’re not the only ones in Detroit recalling the days of the ultimate Q-ships, as the Cadillac CTS-V is another standout in the category. Ford even offers a sport-tuned Crown Victoria. (We’ll wait why you Google it.)

Track report: Like its predecessors from the ’60s, the Charger was happiest when the steering wheel was pointed straight ahead. Plant the gas pedal to its wide-open position, and the Hemi came into its element, smoking the rear tires and propelling things along nicely.

When it came time to turn, our large sedan never confused itself with a Boxster, Corvette or anything else more nimble than a taxi cab. The Charger could be coaxed to change direction on track, but the touring-grade 225/60R18 tires seemed best suited for long-distance drives to grandma’s house.

The Charger’s on-track performance was further hurt by the fact that it, like almost everything in its class, only comes with an automatic transmission. “Without a stick, it’s really not as fun as you’d like,” said Tech Editor Per Schroeder, adding, “I’m sure that bigger brakes, a slightly sportier suspension and a rumbly exhaust would wake this car up.” The car set some decent lap times, but it still wouldn’t be our first choice for a lapping day or autocross event.

Family time: The Charger is a physically big car, but like a lot of others in this class it doesn’t make very efficient use of its size. Yes, the Dodge offers a generous trunk, for example, but the opening is almost too small to be useful. Likewise, while the rear seat isn’t small, it’s in nowhere near the same league as what you’d find in a minivan.

When it comes to hauling capacity, if you’re shopping one of these types of sedans, our advice is to check each car out for yourself. We have popped open the trunk on some larger sedans only to find the rear axle and full-size spare eating up much of the available room. “Pretty practical, although it’s not as large inside as I thought it would be,” quipped our new daddy, Bill MacDonald.

Final thoughts: “Fun to drive, but the thirsty V8 and lack of manual transmission turn me off. Less practical than you’d think, with an oddly shaped trunk opening.”—Per Schroeder

Medium Performance Sedan

Something exciting happened during the mid-’60s, and we’re not talking about Beatlemania. As consumers started to discover automobiles from overseas, American auto manufacturers responded with slightly smaller sedans. Cars like the Chevy II, Ford Falcon and Dodge Dart started popping up in dealer showrooms in response to the offerings from VW and the like.

Once gearheads discovered that a smaller car fitted with a bigger engine made for an awesome ride, a whole new subset of performance-tuned family cars was born. These smaller sedans also offered the advantages of lower fuel costs and easier parking compared to their larger siblings.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and we still have these mid-sized performers. Most are now based on a front- or all-wheel-drive platform, meaning they’re a little more space-efficient than the typical full-size car. Car manufacturers seemed to more or less perfect the mid-sized car about halfway into the ’90s, and one of the standouts was the Nissan Altima. It was the right size, the right price and the right shape for a growing family. The only problem was that it was on the boring side, even though a stick shift was available from the get-go.

A couple of years ago, Nissan started to offer a real performance package for the Altima. While their use of the SE-R badge may have offended a few purists, the Altima SE-R came well equipped, sporting meaty tires, forged wheels and even a six-speed manual transmission.

Track report: The Altima SE-R’s 3200-pound curb weight doesn’t sound too excessive at first, but asking the front tires to deal with more than 60 percent of that heft does compromise the car’s track manners. Like the Charger, the SE-R seems happier when traveling in a straight line. It doesn’t feel as nimble as some other cars in its class, including the slightly smaller but no lighter Acura TSX.

Where the Charger seemed to flounder a bit in the turns, at least the SE-R gave its driver a fighting chance thanks to its standard-issue 225/45R18 Bridgestone Potenza S-03 Pole Position summer tires. The fact that the SE-R also comes with a manually operated gearbox helps the car’s on-track manners.

Despite the premium tires and gearbox, the car still feels a little too bulky to us for autocross use. On the open track, where fun outweighs measured performance, the SE-R makes for a good compromise.

Family time: The Altima seemed to be about the right size for our practical needs. Its trunk easily swallowed our kid gear, while the interior was certainly roomy enough for our baby seat. “There’s nothing this car can’t do that an occasional rental vehicle can’t accomplish,” Bill noted.

Final thoughts: “This class seems to be just right. It doesn’t scream ‘baby on board.’ It will hustle around some cones with confidence and get the blood flowing at the same time."—Bill MacDonald

Compact Sedan

Sometimes reality gets in the way of dreams. For example, you want a new Subaru WRX or an earlier BMW 5 Series, but reality says that you need a new, practical car that won’t upset the family budget or leave anyone riding the bus to work.

That’s where a new compact car like the Toyota Yaris comes into play. On paper, these cars make some sense: They’re good on gas. They have roomy interiors. Most don’t even look half bad. And the Yaris is built by Toyota, so it will probably still be around when your newborn starts drivers’ ed.

However, it’s not quite a WRX.

Small cars that make a big impact have been part of the automotive landscape for years, dating at least all the way back to the original Mini Cooper. Models like the Datsun 510, Honda Civic Si and Dodge Omni GLS have continued that legacy. Unfortunately, small cars tend to grow up and cease to be small cars—witness the latest Civic Si for a tangible example.

As small cars become big cars, or simply fall from their manufacturers’ rosters, they need to be replaced by something to fill that space in the lineup. Toyota’s latest small car for the American market is the Yaris, the replacement for the Echo.

It’s not a fire-spitting monster like the Subaru WRX or Lancer Evo, but those cars weren’t really designed for young families that are just starting out. That’s where something a little more sensible like the Yaris comes into play.

Track report: Between the 2300-pound curb weight, 106-horsepower engine and $12,000 base price, we had visions that the Yaris would be the second coming of the original Civic Si. Once we got on track, however, those hopes quickly faded. The complete package just isn’t there.

“It has good tires from the factory, but they’re much better than the chassis,” J.G. Pasterjak noted. “Unprecedented body roll ruins otherwise decent handling.” A suspension that is way too soft allows the Yaris to understeer on a massive level.

The car’s one saving grace is its curb weight, as it’s lighter than almost every other sedan available today.

Family time: The Yaris’s performance didn’t wow us, but its practicality did get our attention. Even though this sedan is tiny by today’s standards, the Yaris swallowed up our baby gear, including the car seat and stroller. Hard to believe that this car has more interior space than the E36-chassis BMW. (Okay, so the Toyota wins by one cubic foot, but a win is a win.)

Final thoughts: “Like the Fit, it just doesn’t spark any emotion in me other than, ‘ugh, I wish this had more horsepower, a better suspension, and looked less like a toaster.’”—Bill MacDonald

Tall Wagon

Remember the Mitsubishi Expo LRV? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. Offered from 1992 through ’95, the Expo LRV looked like a giant Chuck Taylor All Star and didn’t sell well.

However, the LRV does bridge the evolutionary gap in the U.S. market between Honda’s quirky highboy Civics of the ’80s and today’s tall wagons. In anthropology speak, the LRV is the Lucy to today’s Scions, PT Cruiser and our test car, the Honda Fit.

While these tall wagons look like scaled-down minivans, most contain a healthy dose of small-car DNA. The Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe, for instance, come from the Corolla’s branch of the family tree. Remove the bodywork from the Scion xA and xB, and again you’ll see architecture originally intended for a small passenger car.

While these small wagons have existed on and off in the U.S. market for the last 20-plus years, only recently did they start to get some street cred and become truly popular. The PT Cruiser and Chevy HHR both cashed in the current retro-car craze, while the box-like Scion xB scored a direct hit with today’s younger crowd. Tall wagons seem to have the right combination of style, practicality and price for today’s market—both the über-hip Scion xB as well as the grandma-approved PT Cruiser start at about $15,000 brand-new.

The Honda Fit is one of the latest entries in this market. After making its release in Japan for the 2001 model year, the car finally came to the U.S. five years later. We hear there’s still a waiting list.

Track report: The Fit was fun on track, but we don’t ever see it becoming a national-level contender—it’s hard to overcome basic physics. “While the car has good potential, its height, weight and narrowness let it down, no matter what kind of lowering springs and wheel/tire combo you put on this,” Per noted. “It’s still going to have too much weight transfer. It’s not bad for street use, but don’t expect any Nationals trophies.”

J.G. found that the Fit actually felt better than its numbers proved it to be: “Fools you into thinking that it handles better than it actually does with quick steering and a reactive throttle. Still handles better than it has a right to, considering its size and height. Quicker than it ought to be with an automatic as well. Paddle shifters are actually kind of fun.”

Family time: On paper, the Fit was the most practical vehicle in our bunch. It features a roomy interior, easy-to-load back seat and excellent view of the road.

However, our new daddy still didn’t feel totally comfortable with this particular class of car. “When your baby is born, everything, even your body chemistry, changes. I no longer want to jump out of airplanes, and I cringe at the idea of even remotely putting my baby in harm’s way. For that reason, I just can’t find it within myself to transport Myles in a tiny car.”

Final thoughts: “Through some sort of dimensional warpage, the Honda Fit actually ends up being bigger inside than out, sort of fitting into that size slot between the Scion xA and xB.”—J.G. Pasterjak

Sport Wagon

Station wagons are nothing new on the automotive landscape; many of us grew up watching the highway disappear from the tail-gunner seat of a Chrysler Town & Country, Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser or Ford Country Squire. Practically speaking, however, the minivan killed off the wagon about 20 years ago. Except for Volvo, Subaru, Mercedes-Benz and a few others, most companies dropped traditional wagons from their lineup.

Well, wagons are back—just don’t call them station wagons and don’t expect any faux wood siding. Small to mid-sized “sport wagons,” as they’re now called, started crawling back into the automotive mainstream in the ’90s and beyond with the release of the Saturn SW2, Mazda Protegé5 and Lexus IS 300 SportCross. Today we may well have more wagons than ever thanks to BMW, Dodge, Ford, Mazda and others.

Many of these wagons are sportier than their forefathers, too. The Dodge Magnum, for example, is available with the company’s tire-shredding SRT Hemi engine—425 horsepower and 420 lb.-ft. of torque. Subaru has been offering turbocharged wagons for decades, but their latest Impreza WRX Sport Wagon sets a new standard between its willing turbocharged engine and all-wheel grip.

We couldn’t wrangle an Impreza wagon for our test day—the press pools were empty and our project car had not yet arrived—but we found the next best thing in the form of our Saab-badged 9-2X. The Saab 9-2X was born through GM’s short-term relationship with Subaru parent company Fuji Heavy Industries. It was available for only the 2005 and 2006 model years, as it died along with the relationship. The Saab 9-2X is basically an Impreza without a Subaru logo, a badge-engineered product that follows the tradition of previous GM wagons like the Buick Century, Chevrolet Celebrity, Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser and Pontiac 6000.

Track report: The Saabaru didn’t set the fastest time at our test day—that distinction goes to the Altima SE-R—but we believe that this car has the most motorsports potential due to the fact it’s basically a Subaru Impreza, one of the most popular cars in our scene at the moment. Bigger tires, an upgraded suspension and, on the turbo cars, more boost are only a phone call away.

Even in its basic, non-turbo state, the car’s track manners impressed our crew. The handling felt spot-on, only slightly let down by a lack of poke.

“It’s utterly composed, easy to drive fast and smooth,” J.G. noted. “Nice torque, excellent handling, great balance. Overall a no-brainer kind of performance.”

Family time: Not only was the Saabaru a blast on course, but it’s a practical vehicle, too. It easily swallowed all of our baby gear, although there wasn’t much room to spare once it was fully loaded.

As an added benefit on the practicality scale, the Saab’s all-wheel-drive makes those family outings a little safer. “The manual transmission and all-wheel-drive drivetrain make the car handle well and add an element of safety that’s important to me,” Bill said. “It’s also small enough to zip around town, but solid enough to feel safe and comfortable on trips to Grandma’s."

Final thoughts: “This car is not too hot and not too cold. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not perfect, but darned close. Certainly the kind of car I’d put on my short list. Plus, I wouldn’t feel silly putting a set of Hoosiers on it.”—Bill MacDonald

Judgment Day

The five cars that participated in our test day paint a nice picture of what’s available to consumers these days, especially those shoppers with young families. Some of them do seem better suited for family life than motorsports duty, however.

Going in, the Honda Fit and the Toyota Yaris were the two biggest unknowns. We’ve always championed the small, tossable car, but neither of these really had any motorsports potential. That little fact would put them at the bottom of our list.

The Altima SE-R (which was just replaced by an all-new model) and the recently introduced Dodge Charger really pushed some of our hot buttons. These cars certainly had the right mix of muscle and sedan practicality. Along with most other large performance sedans, however, the Charger is severely hurt by its lack of an available manual transmission. (The full-size Cadillac CTS-V comes with a manual transmission—a big plus—but its $53,000 price probably exceeds the budget of most young families.)

Those of us on staff and without kids have always liked the Subaru Impreza thanks to its rally-bred performance, ever-growing aftermarket and, on the WRX models, healthy dose of turbo boost. Those with families have appreciated Subaru’s commitment to the sure-footedness offered by all-wheel drive.

Put everything together, and the Saabaru was the class of our field. It pretty much did it all, offering safe, comfortable family transportation along with excellent motorsports potential. That’s a compromise anyone can live with.

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2/26/10 1:12 p.m.

Great idea for an article, but you left out a car that I would consider one of the top 3 contenders: the Mazdaspeed3. It's a surprisingly cavernous hatchback with plenty of room to seat a family of 4 or 5 comfortably while carrying lots of cargo, yet has gobs of torque and power and more than decent sporty potential on the track -- I ran in the high 1:49x range consistently at Laguna Seca in mine, which is nothing to sneeze at. Plus, they can easily be found used with very low miles for less than 20k!

3/6/10 9:54 p.m.

I had a altima se-r and went to few track days. When the potenzas was 20,000 miles I put some 245/40/18 Azenis, Motul brake fluid ,staineless lines, eibach springs and I was rocking. From 30 cars in the evnents I was 8-10 but remember that the first ones was ariel atoms. On monday I was a perfect daily driver. It's a whole package. Also the stock exhaust sound its crazy. Good car

Highway8 None
6/23/10 12:34 a.m.

Everytime I go to the track in my 07 RX8 I have to remove my kids car seats first. Its a true sports car with 4 doors, well sort of four doors. Disclamer: rear facing seats for 1 year and under children do not fit well. Forward facing seats fit great.

zoomin6 New Reader
10/26/10 9:27 p.m.

There are many cars available that didnt seem to get even mentioned. or even a nod for being unusual. for example why not a ford taurus SHO? they were stone reliable, fast, mass produced, and now cheap. or following my interests, an earlier ( 88-92 ) Mazda 626 gt turbo, or for added room, an 88-92 mazda 626 gt turbo hatchback ( with optional 4 wheel steering ).

joelvan None
11/13/10 7:14 p.m.

I think you sold the charger short on its track potential. anyone who reguliarly attends NASA-SE events knows of one that podium finishes Reguliarly in Time Trials it's also an old police cruiser

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