So you're going to be a first-time dad. Mazel tov! To say your life will change is a monumental understatement, and it extends beyond kid-friendly furniture and converting your home office into a nursery. There's the matter of what's parked in your driveway.
You don't get to put a sidecar on your sport bike and call it good. Child seats don't work well in two-place sports cars, either. Even if your better half already has a sensible family hauler, your bachelor ride has to go. Fortunately, that doesn't have to be the end of driving pleasure as you know it. Take these family cars for first-time dads. They're all four-doors starting around $25,000 or less, deliver reasonable gas mileage and offer ample space for kid stuff (trust us, you'll need it). At the same time, they're rewarding to drive, giving you a little indulgence on 3 a.m. diaper dashes.
2011 Volkswagen GTI
Summing VW's original hot hatch in one word is a challenge. "Refined" is good, but don't take that to mean dull. Even if the GTI's 2.0-liter turbo's 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque aren't exactly world records, everything about this car works harmoniously. It's easy to tackle curves and on ramps with confidence. The GTI communicates well and rewards with balance and poise. With the brood aboard and you behaving, the car is content to function like a mild-mannered Golf. Until the next back road tempts you, anyway.
2011 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback GTS
To answer your first question, we're including the Lancer Sportback GTS here (soon to be known as the GT for '12) because a bona fide Evolution is well beyond our $25,000 price point. That said, you still get a responsive ride in this Mitsu without the Evo's tiring stiffness plus a bigger boot to boot. Other cars for first-time dads are better-appointed, no doubt about it. But what you sacrifice in amenities is rewarded with eagerness to entertain, and you won't see a dozen cars just like yours with every drive.
2011 Suzuki Kizashi Sport GTS
Suzuki cycles and SUVs have been popular in America for decades, though it's taken longer for their cars to hit their stride. That ended with the 2010 Kizashi debut, and the ante was upped with a 2011 facelift. All-wheel drive and CVT gearbox are offered, but they're budgetary no-nos given our limit. Stick to Sport GTS trim with front-drive and a six-speed manual instead and you won't feel compromised. Handling is well-balanced courtesy of suspension upgrades and 18-inch wheels, yet thankfully doesn't punish in everyday traffic. The manual trans makes the most of the 2.4-liter's 185 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque.
2011 Hyundai Sonata SE 2.0T
A generation ago, first-time dads weren't looking at Hyundai Sonatas unless it was an alternative to walking. Too often, early Sonata owners hoofed it anyway as victims of not-ready-for-prime-time build quality. Hyundai has stepped up their game in every way, especially with the Sonata SE 2.0T. Behind that distinctive grille is a 2.0-liter twin-scroll turbo with 274 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque; great output from modest displacement. Even better, it's composed enough for you to enjoy its strength. All this, plus it's an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Pick award winner.
2011 Kia Optima EX Turbo
It seems Kia never got the memo from those dismissing them as an eternal also-ran in Hyundai's shadow. Or maybe they did and it lit some motivational fires. Either way, today's Optima shouldn't be overlooked as a family car for first-time dads--especially in EX turbo guise with 274 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque. Like the turbo Hyundai Sonata, it's where things get entertaining and comparisons are inevitable. Neither is a slam-dunk over the other, but both have plenty of pluses and belong on your test-drive list.
2011 MINI Cooper Countryman
If you're resisting this newest MINI as a first-time dad car and arguing an infant seat fits fine in the original coupe, bear in mind your baby's legs will lengthen. Plus you'll be constantly flipping a front seat and leaning over to load and unload your bundle. Even a three-door Clubman can leave you wanting more. Your child and back will thank you to drive the Countryman. Its character isn't totally in sync with the Coupe, but it's plenty nimble and will keep you in touch with your inner child as you tend to your own.
2012 Honda Civic Si
For 2012, the subtly updated Honda Civic is still everything you expect: practical, solid and a little vanilla. Though if Billy Mays were here, he'd vociferously implore you wait, because there's more for first-time dads with the Si. That's always been where Civic turns fun, and now it has a 2.4-liter i-VTEC with output you don't have to quote under your breath: 201 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque. Inside, the cockpit layout is updated but still funky enough to satisfy the gamer in you.
2011 Mazda Mazdaspeed3
During a press event, the Mazda rep warmly invited us to have fun exploring the Mazdaspeed3's 263 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. He then drolly advised, "Keep both hands on the wheel, please," acknowledging the car's well-known torque steer. We'll stop short of saying it's an endearing trait, but wheel tug is worth the overall experience. And say what you will about its Krusty the Clown face; this factory-tuned hot rod leaves you with a grin just as wide.
2011 Subaru WRX
Yes, it slightly cracks our price ceiling and won't include any room for options. Skip the clubs for a month and you'll make up the difference. As a first-time dad-to-be, your clubbing is concluding anyway, so you may as well get in the groove now. And even if it's not an option-laden STI, the base WRX still satisfies with its distinctively snarly 2.5-liter boxer turbo and confidence-inspiring all-wheel drive.