Just because your family has grown and you need more seats doesn't mean that your days of driving a fun car are entirely over. In fact, we would argue that there has never been a better time to be an enthusiast who needs a few extra seats for passengers.
We looked at the entire industry before whittling our way down to just 11 cars under $30,000 that make a great balance between practical needs and enthusiast driving pleasure. None will thrill you quite like a track day sports car, but each provides the kind of day-to-day usefulness that makes a daily driver so much easier to live with.
In addition to setting a $30,000 maximum list price budget, we wanted to only consider cars that offer good rear seat room for growing families (they're in a car seat now, but they'll be 6'4 before you know it), as well as decent trunk space and a general sense of daily driver livability in terms of suspension comfort. In other words, we needed a vehicle that can keep a smile on the driver while not eliciting groans from the other three or four seats.
Finally, we only considered cars that are available for purchase new during the month of July 2012. There are some exciting vehicles coming out soon - like the second-generation, Aston Martin-inspired Ford Fusion and the next-generation Honda Accord - but you'll have to wait a few months to take delivery.
As a result, our list primarily focused on midsize sedans. There are a few sport-oriented crossovers and SUVs out there, and while vehicles like the delightfully precise Mazda CX-5 and zippy turbocharged Subaru Forester XT are great for the kind of vehicles they are, they're simply not as fun to drive as most lower-to-the-ground cars at the end of the day. In this case, if we wanted to make a compromise, it needed to be in something other than driving dynamics. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we realized that hot hatches like the Volkswagen GTI and the Mazdaspeed3 really don't make great full-size human haulers. If your kids are still little, you might want to consider one, but a lanky teenager probably shouldn't be folded up into their back seats.
11 Fun and Affordable Family Cars for Enthusiasts
Acura TSX Fine, we cheated. The cheapest Acura TSX runs $30,010 right now, which puts it a ten spot over our budget. But you once found a $20 bill on the ground, right? Now you're $10 under! The TSX isn't long for this world now that Acura has the much cheaper-to-build Honda Civic-based ILX, so now's the time to snap one up. This Euro-polished Acura has a high-revving, ultra-smooth 2.4-liter four-cylinder and one of the most precise six-speed manual transmissions you'll ever encounter. Yes, please.
Dodge Charger R/T Squeaking by at just $5 under our threshold, the Dodge Charger R/T is the least expensive way to buy a new sedan with a V8 engine in the U.S. Don't think that's damning it with faint praise, however. In just about every way, the reinvigorated Charger R/T shames luxury sedans costing nearly twice as much. From its capable rear-drive chassis to the phenomenal grunt of its melodious 5.7-liter V8, the Charger reminds drivers at every opportunity that spending time behind the wheel is just about the most fun thing they can do.
Dodge Dart Dodge hasn't fielded a first-class compact car, well, ever, but the new Dart is really promising. Sized a bit more like midsized sedans were a couple of years ago, the Dart is infinitely more grown-up feeling than most of its rivals, which should please your pragmatic side. And to enthusiasts, the phrase "Alfa Romeo platform" should inspire more than a hint of excitement. Luckily, the Dart is an extremely impressive handler, displaying excellent grip and Euro-direct steering. The sporty R/T is a few months out, but the optional 1.4-liter four-cylinder nabbed from the Fiat 500 Abarth is good, raspy fun.
Honda Accord V6 Although it keeps getting bigger with every generation, the Honda Accord somehow manages to defy the odds by remaining remarkably fun to drive. A fluid chassis, dynamic steering and a flexible V6 engine are enough to remind us that Honda is still something of the Japanese BMW. Unlike Accords of yore, however, the current model offers terrific rear seat and trunk room, which means it should please the right side of your brain just as much as it does the left side.
Hyundai Sonata SE 2.0T Sonata's Kia Optima platform-mate might be the sportier looking of the two, but we're more impressed with the Hyundai variant's driving dynamics and steering tuning. Although it still falls short of "truly sporty," the Sonata makes more of a case for itself with every update. Definitely helping the cause is the rip-roaring 274-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, which has one of the highest power-to-displacement ratios you'll find anywhere. Underneath, Sonata's sport suspension could be a little crisper, but it should provide plenty of grins through the twisties.
Nissan Altima 3.5 S The freshest face on our list, Nissan's recently redesigned Altima is leaps and bounds above its hardly slacker-grade predecessor. A more contoured shape and an improved interior hide a carryover V6 mated to an all-new continuously variable transmission. While these infinite-ratio transmissions have long been the kiss of death to so many enthusiast-oriented cars, Nissan has finally gotten things "just right." Syrupy smooth and thoroughly unintrusive, the CVT helps deliver immediate power. Throw in precise steering and a stable chassis and the Altima remains a significant cut above average.
Subaru Legacy 3.6R Subaru's latest Legacy isn't as crisp looking as its predecessor, and it loses its brilliant turbo motor for 2013, but we remain huge fans of its available flat-six. A veritable torque monster, this six-cylinder provides strong thrust as soon as the skinny pedal is tapped. On paper, its 247 lb-ft. of torque seems rather ho-hum, but there's something tough to explain about the seamless power delivery aided by its ultra-smooth five-speed automatic. You'll need to drive one to really understand its appeal. The downside? Fuel consumption, at an EPA-estimated 18/25 mpg, is not impressive.
Suzuki Kizashi Proving that it's usually more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow, the ultra-precise Kizashi is one of the segment's msot under-rated vehicles. Hampered by Suzuki's increasingly limited presence in North America, the Kizashi is a rare sight. But those who do take the plunge will find a beautifully balanced chassis and a commendably composed suspension, plus a decent manual transmission. Unfortunately, the surging optional CVT is a tough sell, so you'd better be prepared to operate three pedals if you shop for a Kizashi.
Toyota Camry SE V6 What? A Toyota Camry for enthusiasts? You read that right. Toyota's latest Camry got a much-needed kick in the pants recently, and the sport-oriented SE finally lives up to its name. Eschewing the flabby suspension and overboosted steering of Camrys of yore, the current sedan feels much more crisply-toned and buttoned down when the road gets curvy. A robust 3.5-liter V6 and a remarkably low base price mean that this is the first Camry truly worthy of an enthusiast's attention.
Volkswagen Jetta GLI With its recently-extended wheelbase, Volkswagen's bigger-than-average compact sedan range offers excellent utility. But only the turbocharged GLI can satisfy enthusiasts. Chucking the low-tech beam axle rear suspension seen in other Jettas for a more complex independent unit, the GLI lives up to its heritage by providing precise handling and a mostly upmarket feel throughout. Although it's expensive for a compact car, the Jetta's dimensions, its power and much of its still-premium detailing makes it somewhat of an in-betweener - at least in GLI guise.
Volkswagen Passat TDI Really, it's hard to go wrong with either VW's 2.0-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder or its 3.6-liter V6, but we're ever so slightly more impressed by the frugal oil burner. Capable of netting well over 40 mpg on the highway (we've approached 50 mpg in Passats before!), it can be mated either to a snappy-shifting six-speed dual-clutch automatic or a snick-snick six-speed stick shift. You can't go wrong either way, especially when you combine this powertrain with a willing and able chassis. It may lack the visual pizazz of Korean and domestic rivals, but this Tennessee-built Volkswagen sets the bar very high for this class.