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Most Fun-to-Drive Family Cars

To many of us, the day we have to trade in our sports cars for something family-friendly is a sad day. That Mazda MX-5 Miata doesn’t have a back row for car seats, and your Ford Mustang or Chevrolet Camaro don’t have nearly enough cargo space to take a family of four on vacation for a week. But more room for your family and top-notch safety scores don’t necessarily require a trade-off in performance. Here are a few safe, spacious vehicles that earn strong performance scores in our Best Cars rankings, which are based on the consensus of the automotive press. They can hold their own on the highway and are a blast to fling down twisty back roads, but won’t too much of a dent in that college fund you’ve set up.

In Pictures: Most Fun-to-Drive Family Cars

Affordable Small Car: Chevrolet Cruze

The Chevrolet Cruze is one of the best-performing cars in its segment, according to reviewers. And not only does it drive well, but the auto press says its interior feels more expensive than its $16,525 MSRP would suggest. With seating for five, 15.4 cubic feet of trunk space and an IIHS Top Safety Pick rating under its belt, the Chevrolet Cruze brings big value in a fun-to-drive package.

Upscale Small Car: Volkswagen Golf

The Volkswagen Golf is a nimble speed demon with a peppy five-cylinder engine and loads of interior space. This hatchback can hold up to 46 cubic feet of cargo with the rear seats folded, which is an advantage for trips to IKEA and Costco. Though it’s big on the inside, its small frame means it gets 24/31 mpg city/highway in automatic models. For even more sportiness, you can opt for the performance-tuned Volkswagen GTI, which is based on the Golf but includes 30 more horsepower. If you prioritize fuel economy, you can opt for the diesel-powered Golf. Adding a diesel engine to a four-door Golf means you’ll pay about $23,200 for this upscale small car, but you’ll save about $321 in fuel costs each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. If you opt for a four-door model, you’ll get a fun-to-drive car with an IIHS Top Safety Pick label to boot.

Midsize Cars: Ford Fusion

The Ford Fusion’s scores don’t lie. Its performance, exterior styling, interior, safety and reliability all make it stand out among affordable midsize cars. Reviewers give it top scores for performance, citing its crisp handling and strong base engine. But this car isn’t just good for the driver. It’s an IIHS Top Safety Pick, and earns a predicted reliability rating of 9 out of 10 from J.D. Power. Plus, Ford’s standard MyKey feature lets parents of eager-to-drive teenagers cap the car’s top speed, enhance low-fuel and seatbelt warnings and limit radio volume while their teen is behind the wheel.

Large Cars: Used BMW 5-series

In general, reviewers pan the entire class of affordable large cars for being floaty, cumbersome and disconnected from the road. Though a smooth, unobtrusive powertrain may be good for some drivers, others want a car that’s a little more fun to toss around sharp curves and wind out on the highway. You can get a certified pre-owned 2007 BMW 530xi sedan with all-wheel drive, cold weather package, premium package, navigation and satellite radio for $29,991. That’s about $3,000 less than a brand new base Toyota Avalon, the top-scoring performer in the affordable large car class. Though you’ll have to make some trade-offs in fuel economy when you upgrade to a larger car, and you’ll be paying more for the required premium gas, the extra $549 for gas each year may be worth it for those looking for a true driver’s car.

Sports Cars: Dodge Charger

The Dodge Charger is a muscle car that grew up and had a family, but hasn’t lost its performance roots. While it’s not the best-rated car in its class, it has four doors instead of two, the most comfortable back seat, the most cargo space and an optional SRT8 performance trim for those with tire-squealing ambitions. Plus, reviewers love its aggressive exterior styling. Its fuel economy isn’t great, though. The V6 Charger gets 18/27 mpg city/highway, while the V6 Ford Mustang gets 19/31 mpg city/highway, but the difference only adds up to an extra $228 per year. That’s $19 per month. So, if you want a four-door family sedan hiding underneath the skin of a sports car, the Dodge Charger is a good bet.

Compact SUVs: VW Tiguan

Porsche is using the Volkswagen Tiguan as the basis for a new compact SUV, the Cajun, and reviewers can see why. Though it’s one of the pricier vehicles in its class, its $23,720 starting price gives buyers a vehicle that zooms from zero to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds but can still haul five people or up to 56.1 cubic feet of stuff. “Imagine a small SUV with the heart and soul of a GTI and you have the awkwardly named Tiguan,” writes Car and Driver. “It has a spacious and lovely interior, great build quality, and the chassis provides carlike handling and refinement. ... Shame about the price.” If you like the sound of the Tiguan but can’t justify its high starting price, check out a certified pre-owned model.

Midsize SUVs: Mazda CX-9

The Mazda CX-9 earns the highest performance score in our rankings of affordable midsize SUVs, and with good reason. Reviewers say that it’s actually fun to drive, a rare thing to hear about a seven-seat family hauler. It boasts the largest engine in Mazda’s lineup, and the auto press remarks that its interior is nicer and better-equipped than most of the competition. If you’re looking for a comfortable seven-seater with lots of get-up-and-go, put the Mazda CX-9 on your list.

Luxury Crossover: Audi Q5

Americans are spending more time in their cars than ever, so our vehicles are a huge investment. If you’ve decided to take the plunge and treat your family to a luxury-branded SUV, reviewers say you can’t get much better than the Audi Q5. The auto press gives it a high performance score for its nimble handling and optional adjustable suspension settings. Plus, though the optional V6 engine offers scads of power, reviewers say the turbocharged four-cylinder is still plenty powerful for most drivers. The four-cylinder will also save you some money at the pump compared with the V6.

Minivans: Mazda5

The Mazda5 may be a bit smaller than its supersized van rivals, but reviewers say that’s one of its biggest benefits. It gets the best performance score of the group due to a tight chassis, impressive cornering abilities and its six-speed manual transmission. Though it seats six and can’t fit as much stuff as other minivans, the Mazda5’s lighter curb weight contributes to its class-topping fuel economy of 21/28 mpg city/highway. Reviewers say that overall, the Mazda5’s sport-sedan performance is worth any trade-offs in capacity.

Wagon: Subaru Outback

The 2011 Subaru Outback garners praise for its utility, standard all-wheel drive and go-anywhere attitude. Automotive reviewers tend to prefer wagons to SUVs because they offer the same amount of cargo space with better fuel economy and handling traits, and the Outback is a good example. Its continuously-variable transmission gets up to 22/29 mpg city/highway in EPA estimates when paired with its standard four-cylinder engine, which is better than most SUVs. Plus, the Outback’s all-wheel drive and 8.7 inches of ground clearance means it can go nearly anywhere a Ford Explorer can. If you’re looking for more oomph than what this four-banger provides, reviewers praise the optional flat-six engine, though that isn’t paired with a manual transmission. All in all, the Subaru Outback is not only a fun family vehicle to drive, but outperforms typical SUVs in most areas.