I
f you know a car guy, you’ve heard him say something like “I should probably get back to my job as soon as I finish choosing the carbon fiber finish on the door handles of my future Aston Martin Vanquish.” Back in 2001, with a far lower budget but with just as much boyish enthusiasm, I spent at least a full work week’s worth of hours choosing the permutations for my BMW 325Ci. Manual transmission, Steel Gray Metallic paint, black leather interior, Sport Package, Xenon headlights, moonroof, Harman Kardon premium sound system. It was everything I wanted and nothing I didn’t. The wait for delivery was three months. It would seem like an eternity.

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The day I went to pick up the car with my buddy, I was thrilled and surprised to see it parked smack dab in the middle of the showroom floor. The salesperson who originally took my order asked what I thought. Then he said “This baby is yours” and I opened up the door. That day marks one of the pinnacles of my automotive life. Over the next few years, I spent countless hours caring for the car — washing, waxing, purchasing bigger wheels and tires, as well as upgrading the performance. I took it to performance driving schools, autocrossed it and learned everything I could about its capabilities. As a car guy — and as a single guy — my German sports coupe was almost an obsession (thank goodness for my cigar habit).

Nearly 13 years later, through career changes, marriage and the birth of my first child, the Bimmer has survived, though it’s lost some of its original luster and incurred substantial repair costs. My brother rightfully joked at my wedding that my BMW is no longer my baby, and everybody who knew me nodded heartily in agreement. Since then, the 3 Series has been autocrossed and waxed far less, and the summer performance tires have been substituted with all-season ones. Life’s priorities have shifted by necessity, and though it’s still a thrill to rope through the gears and toss it around now and then, it’s nearly time to say goodbye. As the family grows, as do the sheer number of trips and errands, the need for more practical transportation takes precedence over the desire for great performance. I’ve expressed to my wife that I don’t want to drive something completely emasculating, like a minivan. Thankfully, she has no desire to helm one, either.

My brother rightfully joked at my wedding that my BMW is no longer my baby, and everybody who knew me nodded heartily in agreement.

Now comes the difficult part. The new (or used) car purchase has to fulfill a number of criteria, and not all of them can easily be found in one vehicle. First of all, of course, there’s the issue of cost. Since we’re not related to Warren Buffet nor do we ever count on a windfall from Mega Millions, we’ve got to keep things reasonable, which automatically rules out my dream of owning a V12 Ferrari. My wife loves cars, too, but she’s never bought new because she prefers the first guy or gal to take the big depreciation hit. (I’m the type who’d usually spend as much a he could afford.) Next, the car has to have four doors and adequate room for kids and the requisite kid gear, so even a used Porsche Cayman isn’t an option. Oh, the limitations of real life. Third, it’s got to have good fuel economy, at least 30 mpg highway, which isn’t a huge number these days.

Fourth, the car must be either front wheel drive or all wheel drive — we live in Chicago, after all, and the weather can be a tad unforgiving. No more extra sets of tires for me, since I can’t spend as many weekends as I’d like at the track or the autocross course. The desire for reliability is a foregone conclusion, but it’s the last two requirements that can thwart that goal. We want the car to still be fun to drive, and it needs to possess a design that’s both attractive and that will hold up well over time; we plan on keeping the car for at least ten years. As I mentioned earlier, not all of these criteria can be easily met in one vehicle.

Lucky for me, I’m in a privileged position and have had the benefit of driving a slew of fantastic cars over the past few years. But that privilege also happens to be a bit of a buzzkill when looking for a new family car. Every scintillating sports car or exotic I’ve helmed is effectively removed from the list of candidates. Imagining what I’m missing is one thing, but having experienced them makes it that much harder. Every time I drive a great rear-wheel-drive, sporty car, I have to bite the proverbial stick, knowing I likely can’t buy it until my kid goes to college.

All that said, one of the most difficult aspects of choosing a car is the emotional transition itself. The blood of my automotive passions runs thick, and it’s hard to know that there will be some necessary dilution as life progresses. Sure, I’d love to say that my bankroll is big enough to net me a personal sports car, as well as a family car, but that’s not the case, so something’s gotta give.

But amid all of my complaining about the limitations of my next car purchase lies a hopeful truth: in the modern automotive era, you can just about have it all. No longer are family men relegated to family haulers that handle like battleships on wheels or five-seater sedans that look like loaves of bread. Automakers have figured out ways to keep your ride practical while still infusing a flavor for driving.

I’ve managed to narrow things down to a handful of very good contenders that fit the aforementioned criteria. The list, in no particular order, is as follows: the 2015 Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen, the 2015 Mazda6 or CX-5, or a certified pre-owned Audi A4 Avant 2.0T Quattro. Over the course of the next few months, my wife and I will decide on the winner.

CHEERS, JEERS? We’d love to hear from you. Email the author at akwon [at] gearpatrol.com and let him know what you think. Just remember, you’re what makes us rev. Thanks for reading.