's $26,000 Midsize Sedan Shootout: Meet the Family

Raquel and Patrick Girvin pay close attention to details, and that made them, along with their teen daughter and her friend, excellent judges for this Shootout.

The Girvins and friend, from Arlington, Va., are rich in experience, credentials and opinions.

The parents' current family cars are a 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ with a turbocharged engine and a six-speed manual transmission and a 2005 Volkswagen Passat GLS wagon with Tiptronic five-speed automatic transmission — evidence that they enjoy driving. 

It's the VW they figure they'll replace with a midsize sedan now that dad Patrick has finished a home-improvement project and won't need the lumber-toting space of a wagon.

Raquel and Patrick Girvin test one of the six cars in our comparison.

Patrick, 48, is an architect specializing in entertainment projects. When evaluating cars, he appreciates "interesting, helpful details and beautiful lines" as well as responsive handling.

He does much of the kid-chauffeuring and other running around because his schedule is more flexible than wife Rachel's.

Rachel, also 48, was trained as an aeronautical engineer and in transportation science, and says she's currently "just a manager." She values practicality and efficiency in cars, and she's a fan of proper cupholders.

They both like to know what's what under the hood, so at the very least, they can check and fill the fluids. They dislike manual prop rods to hold open hoods and favor shock-absorber-like struts.

Both are short-statured. He's 5 feet 6 inches and she's 5 feet tall, so they found the midsize sedans roomy. They had the front seats situated far enough forward so that the two teens in the backseat had no complaints.

Rachel found that seats without height adjustment left her with a poor view of the outside world.

Daughter Cecilia, 14, a high school freshman and gymnast, had strong opinions on upholstery and storage areas in back. Unusually observant among today's car-blasé‚ teens, she quickly noticed approvingly that two of the midsize test cars had turn signals built into the side mirrors.

Because son Sam was away at college, the Girvins brought along Cecilia's chum, Jessie Goldenberg, also 14, a freshman and a gymnast. She's a frequent car pooler with Cecilia, so she paid a lot of attention to rear-seat amenities.

The Girvins and friend test the rear-seat room of one of the cars.

Jessie quickly applauded the individual rear-seat lights that let backseat occupants read without distracting a driver the way center dome lights can.

The girls didn't hesitate to condemn backseats with upholstery and trim they considered ugly, as well as uncomfortable seats. They favor second-row windows that go all the way down, leaving no sliver of glass above the sill, but they'd accept windows that don't retract fully if the window openings are large.

The Girvins were extraordinarily thorough, making their own careful notes. And the four spent as much time as possible exploring each car, literally from bumper to bumper, before the drives. Even after they finished scoring, Patrick and Raquel went back over their scores, making sure they were rewarding cars that should be rewarded and withholding points from the laggards.

So how did they find the experience?

The family found that the six had roughly the same on-road performance, but bigger differences in their looks and details. "Some of the cars simply exhibited more passion in their design," Pat said.

"Our daughter expressed it best when she said that all cars eventually lose their novelty, but some of these brand-new cars were already unexciting," he said. "In the end, if they all perform similarly, you have to go with the one that makes you feel the best."

© 12/27/2012