These aren't just fun for the kids, they'll be fun for you too.
The word "fun" means different things to different people. For us, it's a two-seater on an open mountain road or a closed circuit prepper for amateur hotshoes. But most of the time, we're more likely with our families. That's why, as much as we love our Poster Car and Track Weapon CarBuzz awards, this one, Family Fun, is probably more important.
To win in this category, a car needs to fit at least four people and their luggage. It has to be fun on road trips and it might even need a little adventure grafted onto its DNA. Last year, we gave the award to the Chrysler Pacifica minivan for its never-ending bounty of tech features, comfort, and surprisingly enjoyable drive.
We had some great contenders this year, all with combinations of what makes a perfect road trip/family vehicle. The runners up that just missed the podium in 2021 include the happy Kia Sorento, the new and rugged Nissan Pathfinder, the electric Ford Mustang Mach-E and traditional F-150, and both the Hyundai Elantra and Kona N.
This is the first time a single automaker/auto group has swept a category in our awards, a testament to Hyundai/Kia's impressive product onslaught this year.
Kia and Hyundai have managed, in a sea of Toyota Camrys and Honda Accords, to make names for themselves in styling, standard features, and with these latest models, speed. The K5 GT and Sonata N Line now sport a 2.5-liter turbocharged four producing 290 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque. That power is fed to the front wheels through an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission and the Sonata can get to 60 mph in 5 seconds dead, with help from available summer tires. That's for moving your family quickly.
They both get loads of safety features more often reserved for more expensive vehicles, like adaptive cruise control, lane following assist, high beam assist, and driver attention warning. They also sport big 10.25-inch touchscreen displays that can be divided to look at two pieces of info - say navigation and radio - simultaneously. We personally love the lead car indication, which beeps when the car in front leaves your bumper. These sedans are safe, tech-heavy, and fun to drive.
The Kia Carnival ad campaign doesn't feature moms going to soccer practice or grandparents taking their grandchildren down to the lake. It features a bunch of hipsters on a southwestern US road trip stopping to ride motorcycles and take pics of roadside oddities. We can clearly see which demographic the Carnival is catering to. But the things that make it good for spring break (rear-seat entertainment, passenger intercom), also make it good for families.
It has best-in-class passenger room, best-in-class cargo room, and can work as a pickup truck with a third row of seats that fold into the floor and a second row that is removable. It offers eight seats, with the middle second-row seat able to slide forward for easy access to a baby. It can also act as a table for the kids on long trips. Other features include hands-free power-sliding doors, a power liftgate, rear occupant alert, and safe exit alert, which keeps the doors locked when traffic is approaching.
The new Santa Cruz might seem like a weird choice for family fun, but once we explain, we think you'll understand its benefits. Like we said in our original story, don't think of the Santa Cruz as a pickup, think of it as a lifestyle vehicle. And from that perspective, especially if you have an adventurous brood, it might be the perfect Family Fun winner. Think of it as a crossover with a truck bed attached; a bed that is covered, lockable, and with a height-adjustable tailgate.
Inside, we found that the Santa Cruz even feels like a crossover, mostly because its cabin is borrowed from the Tucson SUV. It features Hyundai's bright new digital dash along with a landscape-layout touchscreen. There are a ton of storage spaces in the front and some extra bins in the back for stuff that you want to keep close. The rest of it can stay dirty but dry in the bed. The Santa Cruz features one engine, shared with the above sedans. It's a 281-hp, 311-lb-ft turbo-four and Hyundai's HTRAC all-wheel drive is optional but recommended because family trips don't always stop at the end of the road.