Meet the Shootout Family

If you sell cars for a living, you couldn't do better than to have Ben and Jill Tiernan stroll into your showroom.

They're dream buyers: young, college-educated and upwardly mobile. Parents of a toddler and a baby, they reside on the affluent west side of Los Angeles. Right now, they drive two kinds of German cars: a 2005 Mercedes-Benz C240 wagon, bulging with kid stuff, and a jaunty 2008 Audi A4.

Ben, Dani and Jill Tiernan put one of the eight sedans through its paces.

Ben, Dani and Jill Tiernan put one of the eight sedans through its paces.

They seemed to be the perfect family to participate in the $25,000 Family Sedan Shootout sponsored by, USA Today and "MotorWeek."

The Tiernans' mission: to evaluate from a family perspective eight of the top rival family sedans with stickers at $25,000 or less. The pack consisted of the Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu, Hyundai Sonata, Suzuki Kizashi, Mazda6 and Nissan Altima.

For Ben Tiernan, the experience was a preview of a process he'll go through with his own money at stake later this year. He said he plans to start seriously looking for a new car in about six months when the Audi's lease expires.

Ben and Jill Tiernan discuss the pros and cons of a sedan.

Ben and Jill Tiernan discuss the pros and cons of a sedan.

The Tiernans went through every car looking for details, such as whether USB inputs or auxiliary jacks for iPods were easy to locate in front and if the seatback pockets and backseat cubbies would hold all of 2-year-old daughter Dani's toys and crayons. Then Ben took each car for a spin on the freeway and boulevards.

Ben delivered the verdict, and it was a shocker: His personal favorite among the pack was the newcomer, the Suzuki Kizashi. The Kizashi, from the smallest and hungriest maker in the pack, is a maiden effort by Suzuki to compete in the big, but hotly contested, family sedan market.

Suzuki previously has sold mostly small cars and small crossovers. It has high hopes that the oddly named, but nicely appointed new model, which offers more driving panache than many, can make a splash against the sedans from the big guys.

But Ben offered a critical caveat about his choice of the Suzuki: It's based on his personal preferences. If he factors in what his wife likes, he says he'd have to go with the Camry.

So for the record, the family's official favorite is the Toyota Camry, even though Ben's heart isn't in it.

Jill and Ben Tiernan compare notes during the Shootout.

Jill and Ben Tiernan compare notes during the Shootout.

"What surprised me the most was the Suzuki," especially its performance, he said, surrounded by the models after a day of testing on the grounds of the Toyota Speedway in Irwindale, an industrial enclave east of Los Angeles. Not that it fell down as a practical sedan, he said. "As a family car, it came in a close second to the Camry."

The Camry, he said, was smooth, quiet and just an all-around good car. But he says he'll recommend the Suzuki to his friends at work.

Overall, the whole competition was a series of close calls. The intense rivals for this market so closely monitor each other and emulate details of each model that picking a favorite comes down to gut feel and picking nits.

"I know how fierce the competition is," Ben said. "I feel they are all pretty much the same car."

Still, he said there was a clear loser. He said the Fusion's automatic transmission balked between shifts during his road test and he didn't like it much overall. "I think the Ford Fusion just didn't perform," he said.

Ben, 34, knows his cars. A media buyer, he said he once worked for a firm that had the Nissan advertising account. He can click off the cars that he has owned since college. These days, safety is a clear priority.

"I want to be driving around in a suit of armor," he says. Antilock brakes, airbags everywhere, anti-rollover computers, "I want all that stuff."

Jill Tiernan, 32, has strong opinions as well. A stay-at-home mom for the moment, she worked years as a magazine editor. She paid close attention to trunks and interior details, such as making sure the cars have plenty of usable cupholders. "It's an American thing," she explained as she eyed the Hyundai Sonata. Even Dani got into the act, crawling around interiors, while infant sister Adrienne, born Jan. 15, stayed strapped to Mom.

Moving the family is no easy task. She says she typically carries a diaper bag, two strollers, a toy bag, a purse and maybe a computer bag.

Living in a high-rent district, value is a major criterion for the Tiernans.

Still, style and image matter to them and their neighbors, even in a family sedan. They're Californians, after all, Ben jokes. "We're shallow. We're materialistic. That's the way of life."

© 5/3/10