What Makes a Good Family Car

The glory days of the SUV and minivan are over for family cars.

In this new world order, shoppers are settling into two segments: the crossover, which has replaced both SUVs and minivans on many shopping lists, and the tried-and-true midsize sedan, one of the best-selling segments regardless of trends.

However, our $25,000 Family Sedan Shootout has proven that not all midsize sedans are created equal. This leaves us wondering why some are more successful than others.

What does a family sedan need? Let's see:

Safety. It's is one of the top requirements for all buyers. Only our Shootout winner, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata, and runner-up 2010 Chevrolet Malibu have been named Top Safety Picks for 2010 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

While the Suzuki Kizashi hasn't been crash-tested by IIHS, the rest of our Shootout contenders have undergone the roof-strength crash test that's now required for Top Safety Pick status; the Sonata, Malibu and the Toyota Camry earned the top rating of Good. The Nissan Altima, Mazda6, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion all scored Acceptable in roof-strength tests, the second-highest rating.

Space. Backseat room is essential for families. While inches of legroom matter to adult and gangly teen passengers, those numbers don't mean as much if your kid's feet dangle from a child-safety seat within easy-kicking distance from the back of the front seats. Every ride will seem infinitely longer with repeated kicks to your spine from your backseat passengers. That meant the cavernous rear seats found in the Camry, Accord and Mazda6 scored better than even the Sonata, which makes up for lack of overall volume by carving knee room out of the back of the front seat. That may work for teens, but a toddler's Stride Rites will still find its target.

Good handling. What about how the car drives? It turns out that while sporty performance mattered, especially for our Shootout dad Ben Tiernan, it doesn't trump an all-around performer like the Camry, which surprised even the most critical of our experts. Our overall winner, the Sonata, received some of the harshest criticism for its lack of handling finesse.

Parents have a lot to worry about besides how the car handles, of course. In the end, if it can transport the brood safely and comfortably, handling chops and pure acceleration often get bumped down the list of must-haves.

Cargo/trunk space. A sedan's trunk remains important because if it isn't big enough, shoppers will look at a crossover or hatchback with expandable cargo areas. That's why it was impressive to see the trunks of the Mazda6 (our largest trunk on hand) and the Kizashi (our smallest) handle strollers and groceries aplenty. There's something to be said for bigger being better; while our family said the Kizashi's trunk was "big enough," those of us on staff with kids know "stuff" accumulates quickly back there. You never want to run out of room, so the Mazda6's trunk scored highest in this department.

High-tech. Several of our contenders offered high-tech wizardry. Our test family was wowed by the Sonata's fully integrated navigation system with a touch-screen. The Kizashi also had a nav unit, but it was an aftermarket device that didn't feel as upscale as the Sonata's. Chevy touted its OnStar Turn-By-Turn service, which Ben and Jill Tiernan took note of, but weren't dazzled by.

A safety-related feature that's often on consumers' minds is Bluetooth connectivity for in-car cell phone use. Hands-free calling is the law in many cities and states, and for Jill, it was essential that a new car have this feature. In the Shootout, only the Sonata had Bluetooth as a standard feature; four other cars — the Mazda6, Fusion, Camry and Malibu — added the option.

Cupholders. It wouldn't be a family car without cupholders. The never-ending quest for more and more of these drink receptacles has reached its epic conclusion with virtually every door in our test featuring a slot for a water bottle, and the rear armrest in a few cars, such as the Mazda6, holding two cupholders. The kids should never go thirsty.

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