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Family cars with fun

So, you've had your fun and now you're paying the price. The Mustang/Mini/Miata/(insert-your-choice-here) of your carefree, childfree youth is history. Life as you drove it is sooo over.

So, you’ve had your fun and now you’re paying the price. Suddenly, four doors and easy-cleanup upholstery have acquired an importance you could never have imagined before you began breeding. The Mustang/Mini/Miata/(insert-your-choice-here) of your carefree, childfree youth is history. Life as you drove it is sooo over.

Actually, no. It doesn’t have to be that way. You may have to tone down your driving style while your co-accused is breast-feeding in the back seat or negotiating a cease-fire between sibling rivals, but what you drive doesn’t have to be a total snore.

Nor does it even have to look sporty. If it matters, your co-parent doesn’t even have to know that you bought what you did as much for your own selfish gratification as for meeting the family’s needs.

Here’s the thing: it’s not what the car can do, but how it does it.

You know what was one of the most fun-to-drive cars ever? The original Mini. All 848 cc, 34 horsepower and 0-60-mph-in-about-30-seconds of it.

THROTTLE RESPONSE

Even by the standards of 1959, the Mini was a slug. But it felt fast. That was partly because it was noisy and low to the ground, but mainly its engine was incredibly responsive. It wasn’t about what happened when you flattened the throttle — it was the immediacy, the eagerness of its right now! reaction even when you cracked the throttle just a little.

The difference between an engine with crisp, punchy throttle response and one that’s lazier or softer may be measurable only in hundredths of a second, but it makes a world of difference to a car’s performance feel.

The other fun factor in the Mini was its steering. On tiny 145/SR10 tires it didn’t have huge grip, but my word, when you wanted to go there, it went there — no waiting.

STEERING FEEL

Precise, linear steering is something you can enjoy in every move your car makes, not just the odd occasion that you get a clear run at a cloverleaf on-ramp.

So don’t get too hung up on 0-100 acceleration times and skid-pad lateral-g numbers. Find a car with crisp, punchy throttle response, plus sharp, eager turn-in, and you’re well on your way to the most fun you can have within the speed limit. And if the engine revs willingly and sounds musical, so much the better.

All of which is not to say that speed and grip aren’t desirable, and there’s plenty of family-friendly vehicles that can deliver them in spades. Look no further than the Dodge Charger R/T, for example, or the Chevy Impala SS. You don’t have to feel you’re missing out on all the fun if all you can afford is, say, a Ford Focus or a Mazda3.

Perhaps the best contemporary example of what I’m talking about is the Mazda5. Here we have what is basically a 3/4-scale minivan, with three rows of seating and sliding side doors, yet it’s available with a stick-shift, has a smooth and peppy engine, and steers better than most sports cars. That little thing is a fun drive.

At this point, I’d like to suggest you avoid cars with variable-assist power steering systems. The idea behind these systems is to provide more assist to keep steering effort low at parking speeds, and reduce the assist at higher speeds to supposedly give more natural road feel like that of unassisted steering.

I have two problems with this. First, low-speed lightness and high-speed heavier-ness are actually the exact opposite of what happens with unassisted steering. Second, the steering effort of the variable systems is often disconcertingly inconsistent and unnatural.

Some variable-assist steering systems are definitely better than others, but I’ve never yet met one that I liked as much as a really good (ie, not too light) conventional power steering.

GIVE US THE GEARS

For most of us, a satisfying manual gearbox is a key component in a fun-to-drive vehicle. The best that can be said about automatics with sequential quasi-manual shifting ( la Tiptronic, Autostick, etc.) is that they are better than automatics without them. They do not, however, come anywhere close to replicating the fun of a slick stick.

The trouble with most of these pseudo-manuals is that, unlike real ones, they’re built to be idiot-proof. If you don’t shift up or down when the powertrain control module thinks you should, it’ll take over and do it for you automatically. Combine that nannying with the absence of a clutch, and I find it hard to shift my brain into a “manual” state of mind when I’m driving these things.

If you must have an automatic, go for a VW or Audi with the DSG automatically-shifted manual transmission. Cars so equipped are the only automatics we’ve tested that can out-accelerate their manual-transmission counterparts in test-track mode. And they shift more smoothly, too, than other auto-shifted manuals.

Standard manual gearboxes are pretty much universal in sub-$20K cars, and in the base four-cylinder versions of most mass-market midsize sedans. Shift quality is to some extent a matter of personal taste, but I don’t think I’ll get much argument if I say that Honda still does it best.

Your options thin out dramatically if you want a six with a stick. The only domestic I can think of that provides that combo is the Pontiac G6 GTP. On the import side, we have the Mazda6, the Nissans Altima and Maxima and … um, I think that’s about it.

Although it’s not a six, we should mention the turbocharged Subaru Legacy GT; with 250 horsepower, it’s got more grunt than ‘most any six-pot alternative. And speaking of Subaru, don’t forget its giant-killing compacts — the Impreza WRX and Forester 2.5XT — both powered by an engine similar to the Legacy GT’s.

Ever sensible, the Europeans have got the sporty/practical phenomenon down pat. In addition to that poster car for all sport sedans, the BMW 3 Series, you can also buy wagon versions of the Bimmer and most of its peer group — Saab 9-3, Audi A4, Jaguar X-Type. Mercedes dropped its C-Class wagon this year but replaced it with the phenomenally versatile and roomy B-Class.

GRIPPING MATTERS

Here’s another way you can spice up your drive: snow tires. Okay, not really snow tires themselves, but here’s the thinking: many of us are already switching from standard all-season rubber to full-on winter tires for the frigid months. So, instead of re-installing those compromised all-seasons for the skeeter season, why not treat yourself to a set of no-compromise summer performance tires instead?

The standard all-season tires on an awful lot of cars sold in North America have low speed ratings and are biased towards ride comfort. Even if you stick with the stock rims and tire size, a switch to more aggressive Z- or W-rated rubber can work wonders for your car’s grip and steering response. Move to lower-profile tires (which will necessitate bigger rims), and the gains can be greater still.

So you see, your perpetuating of the species doesn’t have to condemn you to decades of minivan boredom. Pick the right vehicle, and the fun can go on.

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