Ten cars, a few rules. One, four doors. Two, no big price tags. And three, you need nothing as big as an ocean liner (unless you're bringing home octuplets). Prices include destination fees, because you end up paying it anyway.
Starting Price: $18,720
Passenger Room: 96.3 cu. ft.
Trunk Capacity: 12.4 cu. ft.
MPG: 28 city/37 highway
For the person not looking for any sort of niche vehicle, Mazda's lineup is proof that driving a no-compromise do-it-all car can be cheek-tugging fun. The Mazda3 seats five, and comes standard with a backup camera. California's Air Resources Board classes it as a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle, a strict classification for low-pollution vehicles usually more common to hybrids. Steering feel is well-weighted and transmits good road feel to your fingers, especially for an electrically boosted system. (Don't scoff right off the bat; the original Acura NSX had electric steering.) There's a wagon version for a bit more coin, and V6 versions of both sedan and wagon.
If not this, then: Kia Forte, Ford Focus.
Starting Price: $22,380
Passenger Room: 96 cu. ft.
Trunk Capacity: 22.9 cu. ft.
MPG: 25 city/32 highway
Aside from sharing design flourishes and part of a name, the Rogue Sport is actually a different vehicle than the one-foot-longer Rogue. It's the Qashqai, which Nissan brought over from the European and Oceanic markets and renamed. Sirius XM- and Bluetooth-capable right off the bat, the Rogue Sport's base trim level also includes a selectable Eco Mode, which adjusts not only engine and transmission response but also air conditioning settings to save gas. An all-wheel-drive upgrade to any trim level costs $1,320.
If not this, then: Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson
Starting Price: $36,015
Passenger Room: 96.6 cu. ft.
Trunk Capacity: 12 cu. ft.
MPG: 17 city/23 highway
Six-speeds through a real shift gate and a real clutch pedal are never the wrong choice, and they drive all four wheels on this top-of-the-line version of the WRX, itself a souped-up Impreza. The STI generates 305 hp and 290 ft.-lb. of torque to move its 3,391 lb, and it retains hydraulically boosted steering, even as the regular WRX and Impreza lines switched to electric-assist, for its more-direct road feel. You can fit five passengers, and the STI will give you decent fuel economy, if you're the rationalizing sort. The kicker is that it drinks premium fuel.
If not this, then: Volkswagen Golf R, Ford Focus RS
Starting Price: $26,415
Passenger Room: 93.5 cu. ft.
Trunk Capacity: 22.8 cu. ft.
MPG: 24 city/34 highway
A shade under 3,000 pounds counts as lightweight these days, especially for a car that could take an average American family on vacation. The front-wheel-drive GTI sits five people in a car a tight 168 inches long, and its turbo I4 puts out 210 hp and 258 ft.-lb. of torque on regular 87-octane gas. Row your own gears with a proper six-speed manual, or spring $1,100 for a six-speed auto. Pay the $2,500 to go one notch up in trim levels and the Sport edition adds 10 horsepower (if you pour premium fuel), a limited-slip differential, and larger brake rotors to all four corners. The seventh iteration of the GTI is a driver's car, one of the few left at this end of the market. And plaid seat inserts are cool as hell.
If not this, then: Ford Fiesta ST, Honda Civic Si
Starting Price: $27,985
Passenger Room: 91.5 cu. ft.
Trunk Capacity: 19.8 cu. ft.
MPG: 55 city/53 highway in hybrid mode, 133 in electric-only mode.
Sometimes it sips. Other times it just holds it in its mouth for a while. The Prius Prime is a plug-in hybrid—in other words, a gas-electric car that you can also plug into home and public recharging stations, and even a standard wall outlet (for slower charging). You can give the gas engine a rest and go electric-only for 25 miles. That's not far compared to the range of modern pure EVs like the Chevy Bolt or a Tesla, but it's enough to get you to a recharging station at work or a shopping center.
A typical 240V charger will take the battery from zero to full in 130 minutes. Letting the gas engine work in tandem with the dual electric motors blows your range up to 640 miles. Or you can let the car cycle automatically through EV and hybrid modes, using what's best for the speed and terrain. Over time, the car's computer will learn your driving routine and adjust to maximize fuel efficiency to it, also. Another $1,700 for the Premium trim level adds an 11.6-inch touchscreen for a center-dashboard display. All Primes seat just four, though.
If not this, then: Chevrolet Volt, Hyundai Ioniq
Starting Price: $35,990
Passenger Room: 104.7 cu. ft.
Trunk Capacity: 16.5 cu. ft.
MPG: 16 city/25 highway
Want a muscle car that'll double as a family hauler? Dodge will sell you a full-size car wrapped around a 5.7-liter V8 driven through rear wheels, but beneath the Coke-bottle styling it has disc brakes all around and four-wheel independent suspension for a near 50/50 weight distribution. Considering the 370 hp and 395 ft.-lb. of torque that moves its 4,264 pounds, fuel economy isn't terrible, in large part thanks to an eight-speed automatic transmission and an engine that deactivates half its cylinders under light acceleration and cruising.
Feed it 89-octane mid-grade gas, as the driver's manual calls for. No stick shift, but that's old news. If you want one in a four-door muscle car, you have to head over to Chevrolet for its Australian-imported SS, and it'll cost you $48,620 before options. Yeah, those are the times we live in.
If not this, then: Chevy SS, and the more upscale Charger sold as the Chrysler 300
Starting Price: $31,095
Passenger Room: 100 cu. ft.
Cargo Capacity: 41.3 cu. Ft. (bed)
MPG: 20 city/26 highway
Never mind that mid-sized trucks today are the size of full-size trucks 20 years ago, and full-size trucks today are the size of small houses 20 years ago. You can choose an extended cab, which is technically four-doors, but we're pushing the four-full-doors crew cab for its rear seat room, and also the V6 engine for its 7,000-lb. towing capacity, double that of the I4. Its 61.7-inch-long bed can lug 1,574 lb. From there, like with the Wrangler, you can lay on the options thick. Leather power seats, 74" long bed, diesel engine, towing equipment, four-wheel-drive, and so on.
If not this, then: Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier.
Starting Price: $38,990
Passenger Room: 95.4 cu. ft.
Trunk Capacity: 13 cu. ft.
MPG: 24 city/33 highway
It's pronounced "Julia," and Alfa's nine-year effort to reenter the U.S. market by sending low-volume sports cars was all meant to pave the way for this car. With standard 10-way power leather seats, xenon headlamps, and no-touch keyless entry, it's to be the company's big seller in a crowded market segment that includes cars like the Audi A4 and Jaguar XE. Proper rear-wheel-drive (unless you spring $2,000 for all-wheel-drive) and a sublime driving feel justify calling it a sport sedan.
The Giulia's 2.0-liter turbo four puts out 280 horsepower and 306 foot-pounds of torque on a chassis balanced at nearly 50/50 front/rear weight distribution. The downside? No manual transmission. If that guts you like a luckless tilapia, head over to competitor BMW 3-Series for an extra pedal.
If not this, then: Infiniti Q50, Cadillac ATS
Starting Price: $32,190
Passenger Room: 104 cu. ft.
Trunk Capacity: 31.5 cu. ft.
MPG: 16 city/21 highway
The only hardcore off-roader left on the U.S. market for some time, the Wrangler has become Jeep's cash cow since the brand introduced a four-door version in 2007. You can see that we nudged you up one trim level from Sport to Sport S. The difference, along with a keyless entry alarm and power locks and windows, is an upgrade from 29" tires to 32" tires.
You don't have to worry about accidentally buying one of those two-wheel-drive versions. Jeep took them out back and put them out of their misery years ago, and now all Wranglers once again come with part-time four-wheel-drive standard. Solid axles front and rear are godsends for slow travel over craggy trails because they allow for equal articulation up and down as you pass over obstacles—better for keeping tires on trail and not dangling in mid-air. If all this sounds like ancient Aramaic, you can learn. Off-road clubs are welcoming, and most perform trail maintenance to keep access open. Your stock Jeep will be up to it.
If not this, then: There's nothing else on the U.S. market with this kind of off-road capability. Your closest bets are the Toyota 4Runner and Jeep's own Grand Cherokee.
Starting Price: $13,875
Passenger Room: 83 cu. ft.
Trunk Capacity: 11.1 cu. ft.
MPG: 29 city/38 highway
The Spark wins out over the Fiat 500 in the micro car class for one main reason. Look closely at the black behind the rear side glass. Those are vertical door handles for rear doors, which means the Chevy has four doors to the Fiat's two. At 143 inches long, it's also a foot or more shorter than the four-door MINI, Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta, and Toyota Yaris. There's a backup camera standard through a 7-inch touchscreen in the dash, along with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. A cup holder console splits the rear bench, so the Spark seats only four, unless one of your kids is shaped like a cup.
If not this, then: MINI Hardtop 4 Door, Toyota Yaris
Whether you're about to have your first child or you're a parental veteran, remember the basics of traveling with kids in the car. Though it's true that all new cars have devices to disable passenger-side airbags when a weight sensor detects the equivalent of a child in a car seat, both the National Institutes of Health and the National Highway Transportation Agency strongly advise that a child stands a much better chance of surviving a car accident when seated in a rear-facing car seat in a second row. , car accidents are the leading cause of childhood mortality in the U.S., and one of the easiest things you can do to prevent it is to properly buckle a child in the second row.
The reason it must be rear-facing is that a child's head is huge relative to his or her body. In infancy, its weight accounts for roughly one-quarter of the body (for adults it's more like 8 percent). Also, a child's neck simply isn't as muscularly developed as an adult's. A rear-facing seat supports a child's head even during sudden braking because a child's skeleton and musculature cannot. The NIH says to use a car seat for infants and a booster after that, and that a booster must be used until the lap belt can be worn low and flat on the hips and the shoulder belt actually crosses the shoulders, not the neck. They suggest a transition away from a booster when the child is about four foot nine and 80 pounds.
Follow this advice at all times, and, of course, buckle yourself in too. You have to be around to teach your kid how to drive someday.