Let’s get this out of the way right now: none of the following family sedans are anything like your father’s Oldsmobile. What’s more, in today’s new car marketplace these cars also represent a level of affordability, fun to drive verve, and fuel efficiency that you can’t find anywhere in a SUV or minivan. These family sedans may be the bread and butter of the auto industry and make up the largest slice of new car sales, but their driving characteristics now mirror those of sports sedans from a decade ago. Times have surely changed. We didn’t make our picks here by putting pictures of each car on a dart board or by making educated guesses. No, we have driven each of these five vehicles for a week of intensive testing putting hundreds of miles on their odometers, and in a few cases well over a thousand, simply because it was so enjoyable to drive. Not only did we drive a lot of family sedans, we also managed to drive them with most of their available powertrains so in this list we will also let you know which variant was our favorite. Now, hold your breath as we list every model we tested for this article so here they are (not in any particular order) the 2014 Honda Accord (4-cylinder, V6, Plug-in Hybrid), 2014 Toyota Camry (4-cylinder, V6, Hybrid), 2014 Nissan Altima (4-cylinder, V6), 2014 Kia Optima (2.4 liter 4-cylinder, hybrid, 2.0 liter turbo), 2014 Ford Fusion (2.0 Ecoboost, 1.5 Ecoboost, hybrid), 2014 Volkswagen Passat (1.8 turbo, TDI diesel, V6), 2014 Chevy Impala (V6), 2014 Dodge Charger (V6), 2015 Hyundai Sonata (2.4 liter 4-cylinder), 2014 Mazda6, 2014 Subaru Legacy (2.5 liter 4-cylinder, 3.6 liter 6-cylinder) and a pre-production 2015 Chrysler 200 4-cylinder. Trust us this was not easy to write because there isn’t a real dog in the aforementioned bunch. Some of them, however, just rose to the top. We are absolutely sure that any one of these five family sedans would make you happy for years and years to come. Much happier than a minivan would, rest assured. Plus, we haven't even gotten to the best part yet! All of these sedans come in under $35,000! Fun to drive, family friendly, and a steal? Oh, read on for more happiness!
- Ford Fusion: (Our Top Pick-2.0 Turbo EcoBoost): If you are after a limo-smooth ride over almost any horrible road surfaces (ahem, San Diego), one of the most stylishly executed exterior designs in Ford’s history and an interior with the luxurious feel of a car from the class above then the 2014 Ford Fusion might be the car for you. Prices start at just $22,400 and the 1.5 liter EcoBoost engine with 181 horsepower/185 lb. feet of torque is surprisingly capable of keeping this large family sedan on the move with ease while returning 25 city/37 highway. But our favorite tester was a fully (and we mean fully) loaded Fusion with the 2.0 liter 240 horsepower/271 lb. feet of torque turbocharged Ecoboost 4-cylinder that turns this stylish 4-door into a veritable rocket ship. Sure, our tester stickered out a little over $35,000 but this included navigation, heated and cooled front seats, dual zone climate control, 19-inch alloys, back-up camera, an Earth shaking Sony Premium audio system, power front seats, halogen headlamps, rear seatbelt airbags and the most perfectly dyed red leather seats we have ever seen in any car, ever. Those leather seats got nothing but complements from passers-by and really, isn’t that what counts?
- Honda Accord: (Our Top Pick-2.4 liter 4-cylinder with 6-speed manual in Sport Model): The Accord is the best-selling family car in the United States for good reason. It looks stylish, has an amazingly roomy interior and trunk, comes with 4-cylinder, 6-cylinder, hybrid and plug-in hybrid formats, is fuel efficient, has a top safety and reliability rating, as well as being supremely affordable to buy. Sure, the V6 engine is very, very appealing and for those of you who must have an automatic the CVT (continuously variable transmission) used in 4-cylinder Accords is the best one in the business. But not only does Honda offer all of that, they also offer a special Sport model available with a sweet shifting 6-speed manual perfectly mated to the standard 2.4 liter 189 horsepower 4-cylinder. Not many family sedans offer the option of a manual gearbox and the Sport version itself is a steal at just over $23,000 which includes dual zone climate control, 18-inch alloys, power driver’s seat, power windows, locks and mirrors, halogen headlamps, back-up camera, Honda’s ingenious side view assist camera (which gives the driver a view, via the center stack mounted screen, of the two lanes to the right of the car, eliminating any blind spots), as well as a 160-watt audio system with USB/i-Pod integration. You can’t get much more car that is this much fun to drive for this much money. Anywhere.
- Kia Optima: (Our Top Pick-2.0 liter turbo):Prices for nicely equipped LX versions of the Optima start as low as $21,500 and, thankfully, that includes the incredibly stylish exterior and interior designs of this standout South Korean family sedan. You also get the brand’s generous 10 year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty. But our favorite optima has to be the SX and SXL models which come equipped with the 2.0 liter 274 horsepower/269 lb. feet of torque 4-cylinder that has seemingly endless amounts of power. Our only gripe is that the traction control can sometimes cut in too early as the Optima’s suspension is more forgiving and the handling more benign than the on-board computer gives the car credit. The turbo’s fuel economy penalty over the naturally aspirated 2.4 liter 192 horsepower 4-cylinder also isn’t all that great with 20 city/31 highway compared to 23 city/34 highway. Either way, you get a stylish family sedan which is a very rare thing in this segment, indeed.
- Mazda6: (Our Top Pick-2.5 liter 4-cylinder with 6-speed manual):The Mazda6 family sedan seriously lives up to its “Zoom-Zoom” moniker, thanks to its razor sharp handling, communicative steering, terrifically sporty engine noise as you rev it to redline, and for the fact that you can order a 6-speed manual in both iSport and iTouring trims. A fine 6-speed automatic is available in all trim levels even the base iSport which starts just over $21,000. Currently all Mazda6 models come with a free-revving a powerful 2.5 liter 184 horsepower 4-cylinder which in our hands returned an amazing 39 miles per gallon which is above its EPA highway rating. If you love to drive, the 2014 Mazda6 MUST be on your test drive list. Period.
- Volkswagen Passat: (Our Top Pick-2.0 liter TDI turbodiesel): With prices starting at just $20,995 equipped with Volkswagen’s quite exemplary new 1.8 liter turbocharged 170 horsepower 4-cylinder engine, now more than ever buyers really can’t go wrong with whichever Passat they choose. But if fuel efficiency and a long driving range (nearly 700 miles per tank) are what you treasure along with classically Germanic style, a huge back seat and trunk as well as terrific handling, then perhaps the 2014 VW Passat TDI turbodiesel is for you. The TDI versions start a little over $26,000 and the 2.0 liter engine puts out 140 horsepower and a whopping 236 lb. feet of torque to ensure freeway passing will pose no problems. EPA fuel economy estimates are 31 city/43 highway but in our experience with the TDI motor, drivers should have no problem getting 50 miles per gallon during highway drives. And that’s without hypermiling like a Prius.
James Hamel is a freelance road tester, auto journalist, and Motor Press Guild full member. Find past work at Autobytel.com and current work at iSeeCars.com. Contact James at [email protected]