Family car under $30,000: Kia Optima tops diverse car category

Differing requirements means no one car fits all families — but the Optima leads the field.

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No two families have exactly the same vehicle needs, and the diversity of this category reflects it: three gasoline sedans, two “mini-minivans” and a diesel sedan. That wide range makes it a tough segment to assess and buyers need to weigh their requirements when determining if what wins at the Car of the Year awards will also prove to be a champion in the driveway.

WINNER — Kia Optima LX ($21,995/$24,195) 677 points: It handles better than the 200 but the ride isn’t as smooth. The 2.4L four-cylinder is well-matched to this lighter-weight model, drivers get an angled dash for easy access to controls and it’s intelligently priced. The rear seats are set low and I could barely see out the side window back there.

Volkswagen Passat TDI ($28,875) 670 points: If you like diesels, you’ll love this one. It’s silky smooth and mated to a six-speed direct shift gearbox, basically an automated manual transmission (with no clutch pedal or need to shift) that improves fuel economy. Handling is very good although braking distance was the longest of all. Most of the money is in the engine, as the interior of this Passat is roomy but plain.

Toyota Camry ($23,700/$29,390) 660 points: The Camry’s 2.5L four-cylinder is the most fuel-efficient among the gasoline contenders. It handles nicely, with the shortest braking distance of the bunch, and it is roomy with supportive seats. It doesn’t feel like almost $30,000, though, and I kept bumping my hand on the ridiculously large stereo/information controller on the steering wheel.

Mazda5 ($21,795/$23,840) 653 points: The 5 seats six, with minivan-style sliding rear doors that are perfect for parking lots. Handling is sharp and confident, but the 157-horsepower, 2.5L four-cylinder can get a bit wheezy under load. Cargo cubbies abound, including hidden compartments under the seat cushions. The base model includes auto climate control and rain-sensing wipers.

Chevrolet Orlando ($22,295/$24,815) 651 points: Based on the Cruze sedan, the Orlando seats up to seven passengers. Its 2.4L four-cylinder is more powerful than the Mazda5 but slightly thirstier. Second-row room is tighter than Mazda’s but the third row is roomier, easier to access and viable for adults on short hauls. The two rows fold flat for a cargo floor that’s longer than many pickup truck beds.

Chrysler 200 ($19,995/$28,235) 640 points: It’s the replacement for the Sebring, but don’t mention them in the same breath. Chrysler’s new 283-horsepower Pentastar 3.6L V6 is a standout, the interior is luxurious and the ride is big-car smooth. Still, the seats are handsome but hard. And why doesn’t Chrysler — and Toyota Camry — give us a handle to easily close the trunk?

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