Only a few years ago, people searching for exciting family vehicles had to accept whatever cheap thrills came their way.
Remember the 1995 film “Get Shorty,” which featured General Motors' Oldsmobile Silhouette minivan? John Travolta’s slick, macho protagonist was forced to drive one because the rental-car agency lost his Cadillac reservation, and he coaxed himself and others into believing the van was cool because it had a sliding rear door with a remote control.
That may have been as thrilling as family cars got then, but the market has heated up immeasurably since. Welcome to the wonderful world where hot rods and family vehicles come together, resulting in speedy, powerful, sexy luxury cars that still have space for kids, pets and soccer gear.
This is perhaps the best year ever for family vehicles. Just consider Porsche’s recently released, $112,000 Cayenne Turbo S sport utility vehicle, which offers what the company calls "ultimate Porsche SUV performance." With its 520-horsepower V-8 engine, the Cayenne Turbo S can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, and has more power than the Ferrari F430, a curvaceous coupe.
Audi’s recently overhauled, entry-level A4 range has a hot-rod wagon variant, the S4, with 340 hp and a zero-to-60 time of 5.3 seconds. Ford Motor's Land Rover subsidiary just started selling supercharged versions of its Range Rover and Range Rover sport flagship SUVs; the models have 400 hp and 390 hp, respectively. And while DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz subsidiary currently offers a supercharged, 469-hp hot-rod version of its E-Class wagon, the E55 AMG, it will soon up the ante with a replacement model, the E63 AMG, which will have a 503-hp V-8 engine.
When compiling this year's list of the hottest family cars, we had to think carefully about the definitions of "hot rod" and "family car."
While we realize a roomy sedan can count as a family car, Americans prioritize cargo utility above pretty much everything else. So, with all due respect to brood-hauling sedans, we chose to limit our selections to SUVs and wagons — the most versatile family cars, and the only ones that lend themselves to hot-rodding (at least until somebody fulfills our dreams by building a ten-cylinder minivan).
The definition of a hot rod is harder to settle. Purists will tell you the term is strictly reserved for modified production cars of the 1930s and '40s. In 2004, we interviewed Boyd Coddington, renowned hot-rod builder and star of the Discovery Channel’s "American Hot Rod," at his shop in California. "My definition of a hot rod," he said, "is probably a '32 Ford roadster Highboy, which means there are no fenders on it."
But, he said, such a car was merely the epitome of hot rodding, and that these days, a hot rod is any vehicle with a high-performance motor and modified suspension and wheels.
For our list, we decided to simplify things by featuring only hot-rod brand names. For example, not just "Porsche," but Porsche’s in-house designation for hot rods: its "S" models, such as the Cayenne Turbo S. Audi’s hot rods are also called "S" models. Volvo’s hot rods are "R" models, and Mercedes’ are "AMGs." Land Rover designates its performance vehicles by adding the word "Supercharged" to their titles.
The cars in our slide show — luxury models with hot-rod brand names — offer owners credibility with performance-auto enthusiasts. They are not just luxury vehicles with bigger engine options (such as the V-8 versions of the BMW X5 and Volvo XC90 SUVs, which we have not included), but true performance cars. Hop in, kids.