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CARFAX Finds: Family Sedans Under $20,000

We can dream all we want, but at some point the next car purchase you make will have to be a pragmatic one. You realize you need space for things, people and something easy on fuel. Chances are, you’ll be looking at a family sedan, which is consistently the most popular form of car in the U.S. (and the thing most likely to blend in at a mall parking lot).

For this roundup of family sedans to consider, I bring you the benchmark, the popular alternative and the left-field choice for those of you unwilling to get totally rational.

You really can’t go wrong with a Honda Accord. The reason it’s long been the model family sedan is because it gets everything right. For less than $20,000, you can buy a current-generation Accord, which is possibly the best family sedan on the market right now.

I know this spot is for the 1987 Accord, but it reminds me of a key point about these cars. The Honda Accord is routinely the car that more actual car buyers pick every year. For about the last 15 years, more retail buyers pick the Accord rather than the actual best-selling car in America, the Toyota Camry.

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They’re definitely on to something, because it’s really hard to fault the Accord. It’s a true five-passenger sedan with an efficiently packaged interior and large glass areas that buck the trend toward shallow windows and sweeping beltlines. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is pretty much all the power you need in a car like this, and it’s still rated at 36 mpg highway. You can even have it with a six-speed manual – if you can find one in the used listings. While it’s never been anything to look at, the Accord is also proof you can have a well-rounded family sedan that’s also decent to drive. Everything about it is logical.

For a few thousand dollars less, however, you could have a current-generation Nissan Altima. The Altima does a lot of what the Accord does, from its spacious interior to high fuel economy and capacious trunk, yet it does it for significantly less money.

Since its 1993 introduction, the Altima’s theme has been luxury for less. Or that you get more stuff than you expected for the price.

[Read: 2015 Nissan Altima Review]

That carries over with the ‘13 and newer Altima. They typically come loaded up with items like push-button start and Bluetooth and even a power driver’s seat, yet 2013 Altimas can start below $15,000 – a price point where it might be difficult to find a modern Accord. Sure, the continuously variable transmission (CVT) in the four-cylinder Altima isn’t as highly regarded as the one in the Honda. And no Altima has a fun-to-drive demeanor the Accord still manages. But for basic and relatively inexpensive family sedan transportation, the Altima looks like a bargain.

But what about an unconventional choice? That’s where the 2014 Mazda6 comes in. Its purpose is to break the mold of traditional family sedans by being striking to look at and as fun-to-drive as possible without compromising many practicalities.

Even since the Mazda6’s ancestor, the 626, was being pitched more than 30 years ago, Mazda has reinforced that it’s offerings are not mainstream four-wheeled boxes, but for people who enjoy driving and a good “road car,” whatever that is. Let the late, great James Garner explain.

[Read: Best Used Cars Under $25,000]

The current Mazda6 does without turbochargers or CVTs to get about 40 mpg on the highway. It’s light for the class and free of mechanical complexities in the same way the company’s Miata roadster is. You don’t buy a Mazda6 for outright speed or total refinement, you buy it because it makes you forget you’re driving something with five seats, four doors and a big trunk – except for when it’s filled with your family.

For a moment on a fun road, the Mazda6 will let you pretend you bought a sports car instead.

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