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Family Cars with a Dark Side

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author photo by Josh Sadlier October 2011

There's a terrible misconception out there that having kids means saying goodbye to driving enjoyment, so we're here to set the record straight. Fact is, there's never been a better time to be an enthusiast with a family. Don't believe us? Then check out the following rogues gallery of vehicles with spice to spare. Who knows, you might even end up thanking your kids for forcing you to buy one of these brood-friendly beasts.

BMW M5 sedan

Yeah, we've heard all the noise about the iconic M5 sedan's supposed decline. No more high-revving V10 under the hood...needs a diet...yada yada yada. Hey, haters: what part of 560 horsepower and 502 pound-feet of torque don't you understand? The M5's twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 begins life as the formidable 550i sedan's motor (among other applications), which means it's already blessed with locomotive-like thrust even before the M treatment. With a nip here and a tuck there from the M Power specialists, the mighty M5 ends up just two horses shy of a Ferrari 458 Italia. Of course, you also get the usual M-car collection of handling and braking upgrades for that (gulp) nearly 50% price premium relative to the 550i. Yet, with a comfy ride courtesy of adjustable dampers, as well as one of the most accommodating backseats in the midsize luxury segment, the M5 can do a wholly credible impression of a regular 5 Series when you're not in the mood for more. Your family won't know the difference unless you want them to.

Cadillac CTS-V

This second generation of the ultimate CTS has been around for a few years now, but anyone expecting the CTS-V to be humbled by the new M5 has lost sight of a little thing called "torque." Purely by coincidence, we're sure, the M5 has four more ponies than the CTS-V-consider it BMW's subtle way of acknowledging that the previous M5 got soundly spanked by Cadillac's finest. But the CTS-V packs a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 under its sharply creased hood, so in addition to those 556 horses, it's got an absurd 551 pound-feet of torque. That helps it maintain a slight edge in acceleration over the BMW, not to mention just about every other four-door on the planet. In the handling department, the ordinary CTS is hardly a slouch, but the V takes it up a few notches, adding a unique Alcantara-trimmed steering wheel (and optional Recaro sport seats) for good measure. You can even get a proper manual transmission-and that goes for the CTS-V wagon, too, which adds a healthy 53.4-cubic-foot cargo hold. All this can be yours for a shade over $60,000, a downright bargain for a family hauler that performs like a supercar.

Chrysler 300 SRT-8

Like the BMW and the Cadillac, Chrysler's finest is powered by a V8, but the 300 SRT-8's motor is the first thing on this list to be naturally aspirated. Enjoy it while you can. The Cadillac's supercharger is admittedly all about performance but the BMW's twin turbos are there because of tightening fuel economy standards, and turbocharging is undoubtedly the way of the future for the V8 engine. Hey, we like boost as much as the next automotive web site, but it's no substitute for the raw force and guttural blare of a classic American V8. In the 300 SRT-8's case, make that a 6.4-liter "Hemi" V8, with 470 horses and a matching 470 pound-feet of torque. Additional dark-side credentials include Brembo brakes and a sharp sport-tuned suspension that makes the hefty 300 feel remarkably buttoned-down in corners. Don't worry, though-the SRT-8 comes standard with adjustable dampers that smooth out the ride nicely, and its backseat is as accommodating as you'd expect from a premium luxury car. The trunk's family-friendly as well at 16.4 cubic feet.

Ford F-150 Raptor

Calling a 6,000-pound truck a "family car" might be a bit of a stretch, but the off-road-ready Raptor does have five seats, and if you get the crew cab instead of the standard extended cab, it's got four full-sized doors, too. So there's plenty of room for the kids, who will consider you even more of a hero than they already do if you take them on a desert drive in this thing. Basically a Baja off-road racing truck in street clothes, the Raptor has a comically wide track (good luck fitting into just about any urban parking space), a hardcore trail-busting suspension, and a vocal 6.2-liter V8 with 411 horsepower. In the dirt, it forces you to reprogram your internal panic button, taking obstacles in stride that would leave most other trucks high and dry. How's this for a dark side: the Raptor's fuel economy can easily drop to single digits in spirited driving.

Infiniti M Hybrid

Infiniti should nicely ask Honda if it can borrow the wimpy CR-Z's "Sport Hybrid" label, because if there's ever been a hybrid with legitimate sporting credentials, it's Infiniti's new M Hybrid. Fun fact: drawing on a combination of a 3.5-liter V6 and an electric motor, the M Hybrid generates a whopping 360 peak horsepower, leaving it just 40 ponies shy of that 550i we mentioned earlier. They're special ponies, too, because they're enhanced by the instant torque of the electric motor, so there's no waiting around for higher revs; you just drop the hammer, and a wave of battery-powered thrust does the rest. In most other respects, thankfully, the M Hybrid is just a regular Infiniti M, which means it's got unusually responsive handling and an engaging ride. For the rest of the family, there's also a decently spacious backseat and a beautifully curvaceous dashboard design.

Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG

Remember that turbocharging trend we mentioned in the SRT-8 section? Mercedes-Benz's current offerings exemplify it, as almost every naturally aspirated Benz V8 has been replaced by some twin-turbo this or that. A key word there, we're glad to report, is "almost," because the C63 AMG sedan is one of the few AMG Benzes that still offers the magnificent naturally aspirated 6.2-liter V8. Have you heard this engine at work? Oh, you really must. Think full-throttle NASCAR, except with palpable German precision in place of all those negative stereotypes. The C63 also benefits from its compact dimensions-unlike the other sedans on this list, this Mercedes is pretty compact, and that pays dividends on tight roads. Naturally, the special sport-tuned suspension helps as well. Now, note that of all the cars on our list, the C63 has the hardest time passing as a family vehicle. Two reasons stand out: it's gloriously loud, and its backseat is relatively cramped. But suppose your significant other insists on four doors, and that's why you're reading this article in the first place. Just buy one. Trust us. The C63 comes very close to perfecting the naturally aspirated V8, and we can't think of a more compelling dark side than that.

Toyota Sienna SE

This is the way the list ends: not with a performance car, but a minivan. The Toyota Sienna SE, however, is more of a bang than a whimper. Like many Siennas, it's powered by Toyota's brilliant 3.5-liter V6, which received a massive and permanent injection of street cred when Lotus picked it to be the heart of its Evora sports car. This six is so strong, so smooth, so delightful in its muted snarl at full throttle-you'll understand Lotus's infatuation after one run through the gears. Unlike other Siennas, though, the SE model includes a sport-tuned suspension and some tastefully racy exterior styling cues, notably fog lights and exclusive alloy wheels. Okay, don't get the wrong idea here: the Sienna SE still feels roughly as large as a UPS truck from behind the wheel, so there's nothing sporty per se about the drive. But between its confident V6, engagingly firm ride, and slightly tighter steering calibration, the Sienna SE makes minivan-driving as pleasurable as possible, which is pretty much what this whole "dark side" idea is all about.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Family Cars with a Dark Side - Autotrader