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Test Drive: Rockin’ the Road… with Kelley Blue Book’s 5 Best Cars for Dad (2016)

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The Rock Father is a paid ambassador for the #KBBDads program, brought to you by Life of Dad and Kelley Blue Book. As always, all opinions are that of James Zahn.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time testing new cars and sharing my experiences here on THE ROCK FATHER Magazine. The qualities that make a good car great can be a subjective thing, but I have some specific points that I’m always looking at any time I get behind the wheel of a new ride – a mix of style, function, performance and price: four key points. My friends at Kelley Blue Book also have four key points that they look for on new cars (occasionally a fifth, “Special Circumstances” i.e. payload on a pickup), but under each – Driving It, Living in It, Living With It and Owning It – they dig even deeper, with five sub-points to keep things consistent across the board, their team doing detailed reviews on over 300+ vehicles each and every year, the most of any site out there. That experience and detail makes Kelley Blue Book the trusted resource for new (and used) car buyers to make the best possible buying decisions, and this month I went hands-on at the KBB headquarters in Irvine, California for a look behind-the-scenes at how it all comes together.  I joined the first-ever crew of #KBBDads to hit the road in the five vehicles that KBB has chosen as their Top Picks for Dads this year – each hand-picked from KBB’s list of the 16 Best Family Cars of 2016, putting the KBB picks against The Rock Father method to see how they all stack-up.

James Zahn aka The Rock Father at Kelley Blue Book Headquarters

After an immersion into the Kelley Blue Book company history, culture and method in a classroom setting, I paired-up with Nick Dawson of DadLabs to get some in-car time with the editors of KBB to find out what makes them tick – but even outside of HQ, we were able to make an even more personal connection with the KBB team, dining with them and attending special after-hours events during our entire four-day trip.  What we discovered is that the folks that work there have octane in their blood – the live for cars, many of them coming to KBB from enthusiast publications or manufacturers, bringing not only vast knowledge, but also enthusiasm to the gig. With that in-mind and the official KBB Vehicle Assessment Sheets in-tow, Nick and I hit the road for some Southern California driving in the 2016 Subaru Outback, 2016 Chevrolet Tahoe, 2016 Kia Optima, 2016 Toyota Sienna, and the 2016 Honda Civic“Top Picks for Dad”.

Starting in the 2016 Subaru Outback was an interesting choice, as it was Nick’s most-anticipated ride… and my least. He’s the proud driver of a 16-year-old Outback at home, while I’m a guy who’s avoided the Subaru line primarily due to a dislike in exterior styling. For the SUV/Crossover segment, I’ve never cared for the look at all – and while it’s considered a “2-Row SUV” for Kelley Blue Book, I’ve always been confused to what it actually is – wagon? Crossover? Weird car shaped like a trapezoid?

2016 Subaru Outback

Getting behind the wheel and onto the road, I can see the appeal for a car/thing that handles great, rides comfortable, and can easily haul both a family and a lot of stuff. We’d never use the roof rack and such, but after spending time with the Outback and looking at all of the specs, I respect it and find it worthy of it’s status.

2016 Chevrolet Tahoe

The 2016 Chevrolet Tahoe is a nice ride for sure, but I’m not only a Chevy fan – but also a Chevy owner. When compared to the rest of the Top Five, it’s a beast of a vehicle that stands tall and rides high. It really scored points with the KBB crew for its third-row seating, but I’m personally not a fan of having to fold one row to access another. Factor in the limited storage space while all three rows are in-use, and if I were going to spend the money, I’d go with the Tahoe’s big brother – the Chevy Suburban, or one of its cousins like the GMC Yukon. Better space and accessibility, plus massive storage, that would make the bigger, pricier vehicle my choice – but the Tahoe is still a fine ride, it’s just a preference thing when it comes to size vs. money.

2016 Kia Optima SX Turbo

The 2016 Kia Optima SX Turbo is one I let Nick have extra time with as he’d never driven a Kia (I’m already a fan), and I recently reviewed that very car, having driven it across Florida earlier this year, thanks to the folks at DriveShop. It’s technically a mid-size sedan, but it feels like a full-size, and like much of the Kia line at this point, is way more luxurious than you’d expect – several notches above its competition. And, as far as I’m concerned, no one tops Kia’s UVO when it comes to easy-to-use, completely functional infotainment options.

2016 Toyota Sienna

On the minivan front, the 2016 Toyota Sienna SE was our fourth ride of the day, and again it’s a ride that I’m familiar with. We had the 2015 edition here for awhile last summer, and it was a stellar ride – one that placed the vehicle firmly toward the front of the pack for a potential future purchase here at Rock Father HQ. Then this summer, I was invited to drive tuned versions of the Sienna… on a race track. Unfortunately, I could make that special engagement, but taking the ’16 to the hills and highways of Southern California, I fell in love with it all over again. Hauls people. Hauls stuff. Has all the bells and whistles. Like the Kia, it’s a vehicle that feels like it should have a higher price tag. Now I’m wondering if they still offer that “Attitude Black Metallic?”

2016 Honda Civic

And finally, the 2016 Honda Civic. This is interesting on a few levels, but I have to be completely transparent in that the entire Honda brand is foreign to me. I’ve never reviewed any of their vehicles, know very little about their line, their company, etc. You could say that Honda seems to be in my “blind spot” on all levels, so my upfront opinion was nil. The Civic is a great-looking compact, but that’s the thing – it’s a compact… the kind of car I would’ve driven before having a family. While it’s been noted that the interior space is more akin to a mid-sized sedan, the back seat would be a tight and uncomfortable squeeze for car seats or most of the grownups that I know. The car is comfortable in the cockpit, handles great and performs well, but the size would nix it for me completely. Add into that a wonky touch-screen dash that’s cumbersome to operate when compared to the competition, and I just can’t recommend it. It’s not a bad car by any means (hence a Top 5 KBB Pick), but just not for me. 

When it comes down to it, my final decision on the best of the top five is nearly a tie, but I have to give the Toyota Sienna a very, very, teeny, tiny edge over the Kia Optima for “The Rock Father’s Top Pick of the Kelley Blue Book Best Dad Cars.” The reason is simple, at this point in life, I’m looking at vehicles with my family in mind. If I were giving myself the extra edge, I’d go with the Optima for sure – it’s truly a fantastic car straight across the board. But the Sienna is a perfect road trip vehicle for families, in addition to being just right for all the day-to-day around town stuff, without falling into the old-school minivan stereotype. 


If you’re curious what the rest of the field looks like for the Top 16, I’ve included them all below, and encourage you to go in-depth at the KBB website. I see some other Rock Father favorites on the list, like both the Chevy Malibu and Impala, along with the Kia Sedona making the cut. There’s a lot of data to consider, but the next time you’re in the market for a new vehicle, empower yourself with the knowledge of Kelley Blue Book, and be sure to look at their five year cost-to-own numbers. You just might be surprised!

Kelley Blue Book’s 16 Best Family Cars of 2016:

  • 2016 Honda Civic (Sedan)
  • 2016 Chevrolet Malibu (Sedan)
  • 2016 Hyundai Sonata (Sedan)
  • 2016 Kia Optima (Sedan)
  • 2016 Honda Accord (Sedan)
  • 2016 Chevrolet Impala (Sedan)
  • 2016 Honda HR-V (2-Row SUV)
  • 2016 Honda CR-V (2-Row SUV)
  • 2016 Subaru Outback (2-Row SUV)
  • 2016 Nissan Pathfinder (3-Row SUV)
  • 2016 Toyota Highlander (3-Row SUV)
  • 2016 Honda Pilot (3-Row SUV)
  • 2016 Chevrolet Tahoe (3-Row SUV)
  • 2016 Kia Sedona (Minivan)
  • 2016 Toyota Sienna (Minivan)
  • 2016 Honda Odyssey (Minivan)

Bonus: Want something a little faster, but with far less comfort? Check out the KBB review of Chase Elliott’s NASCAR Number 24, a powerful beast that lacks air-conditioning, has no headlights, comes without an audio system, and was immediately red-flagged for a lack of door handles. No airbags or cupholders, either.

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