Viewed from within Australia, family chariots that once made up Kingswood country are a threatened species in the increasingly diverse and crowded world of family transport.
Not so long ago, family sedans and wagons led by the Holden Kingswood/ Commodore and Ford Falcon dominated the overall local vehicle market.
Now, medium-sized passenger cars are almost relegated to niche-market players as families increasingly embrace the more rugged and versatile SUVs for the work commute and school and sport runs.
Though sales have tapered here, in other parts of the world there is healthy ongoing demand for conventional passenger cars. Manufacturers continue to produce these medium-sized players, and this means we have no shortage of choice in the segment including the Toyota Camry and Aurion, Mazda6, Subaru Liberty and Levorg, VW Passat and Nissan Altima.
They often also come in various body styles.
Our three 2016 family car finalists reflect this variety - a hatchback (the Ford Mondeo), a wagon (the Skoda Superb) and a sedan (the Kia Optima).
As the defending winner, the Ford Mondeo Trend hatch continues to impress as a comfortable and well-mannered five-seater with a willing (177kW/345Nm) 2.0-litre Ecoboost four-cylinder turbo engine which cooperates nicely with its six-speed auto gearbox.
The drivability of the under-rated 2.0L turbo-petrol engine earns praise and the Mondeo offers pleasant handling and a compliant ride on 50-series 17-inch alloys. Whilst it feels heavy, it changes direction easily and recovers quickly from big bumps. It's not cumbersome.
But it looks quite big, close to around Falcon size, and has a huge cargo area under a large hatch opening.
"There is a real substance to the Mondeo," one judge observed.
At $37,290 (plus on-road costs), the Trend comes loaded with lots of active safety gear including adaptive cruise, active city stop, forward collision warning, adjustable lane keeping with departure warning, pre-collision assist with pedestrian warning and a rear-view camera (but no blind-spot alert).
These and seven airbags and other worthy features (keyless entry, steering wheels buttons and voice activation) make for an excellent value equation. A first in a big volume seller is its inflatable rear seat belts, giving it an added safety tick.
The interior gets a leather look with cloth seat inserts, big door bins, and a centre armrest. The front seats are excellent aesthetically and functionally, and have bum warmers.
The latest SYNC 3 infotainment system, with touchscreen and Apple/Android phone integration, is simple to operate and easy to read, allowing the driver to control their phone actions, music and climate control by voice.
Parents amongst us liked the MyKey feature which allows mum and dad to program certain boundaries (like limiting speed and the volume of the sound system, and maintaining stability control) before waving young drivers off in the Mondeo.
Negatives are the small (and dark) rear window aperture which compromises vision, and its 1634kg weight impacting on fuel efficiency, with a so-so claimed average of 8.2L/100km on 95-98RON petrol.
Also available as a wagon, all Mondeos get 16-inch steel spare wheels. The hatch space is huge, especially with the 60/40 fold-down rear seat backs flat.
Warranty is three years/100,000km and servicing for that same time (but limited to 60,000km) is capped at $1615. The Mondeo's resale value across the 36 month's timeframe is 48 per cent.
The stylish Kia Optima GT looks willingly sporty on the outside with the design positives extending to the spacious feeling premium interior too, with clean white-on-black gauges and smart black leather trim with pinhole seating inserts and red stitching.
Also a heavy car for a mid-sizer, the Optima GT is powered by an enthusiastic180kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine which is hooked up to an in-house six-speed auto which performs strongly to capitalise on the engine's generous low-rev response and commendable eagerness, which is highlighted by its ability to accelerate from 0-100km/h in 7.4secs.
Like with the Mondeo, the Optima's 1650kg weight registers unhappily on its fuel economy with a rather thirsty claimed average of 8.5L/100km.
The Australian-tweaked sports suspension tune registers favourably and gives credence to the Optima's GT badge. Riding on 45-series Michelin Pilot Sport rubber, it fires into corners competently without notable body roll or pitch, and changes direction with just a smidge of understeer. The absence of early stability control interference is appreciated.
But judges were alarmed by the poor initial brake pedal feel and, in the standard slalom test, there was a hint of binding in the steering.
Safety equipment is expansive though, with active cruise control, lane-departure warning, high-beam assist, autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot detection and rear-cross traffic alert.
At $43,990, the Optima GT is not cheap but is generously appointed with niceties including auto slide-back seats upon entry and exit, Harmon Kardon sound system, sat-nav (but no Apple CarPlay), a centre front armrest, and practical oddment bins including full-size bottle holders in the doors.
Another feature; the GT blows your choice of hot or cold air into your nether regions via the seat cushions. The Kia also has a heated flat-bottomed steering wheel with phone and cruise control buttons, and paddle shifters for the transmission.
The rear compartment gives enough head room and excellent knee room for tall adults with wide-opening back doors also appreciated. There's also a flip-down armrest, a 12- volt outlet, rear air vents and a couple of cupholders for those in the rear.
The boot is large, even with a full-size alloy spare.
Owners would relish the Kia's industry-best seven years/unlimited kilometres new-car warranty. But there is pain in the Optima's six monthly/7500km service intervals which translates into hefty capped-price servicing - $2712 for the first 60,000km. And the Optima's resale is below its rivals at 46 per cent.
The smart-looking Skoda Superb has many practical touches, a punchy yet fuel-efficient engine and agreeable Euro wagon styling with astonishing interior space for a medium-sized car.
Using the engine from the VW parent company's sporty Golf GTi, we were anticipating lively performance from this relatively light (1490kg) vehicle?and that's what we got. Its rapid (claimed) 7.1sec time for the standing 100km/h sprint was the fastest of the three family COTY candidates.
The turbo petrol engine cranks out 162kW and 350Nm through a six-speed dual-clutch DSG transmission. The combination gives the Superb plenty of punch but more importantly the easy driveability and response required in the cut and thrust of city and suburban running.
It also cruises in a refined, quiet way on the highway.
As lively as the Superb is, judges acknowleged its brilliant 6.4 litres/100km fuel economy, way better than its competitors.
Dynamically, the Superb wagon is handy enough on 40-profile Pirelli Cinturato tyres. It turns nicely with no body roll, the only niggle being a wooden feel to the steering.
Impressively as the Superb drives, functionality and versatility are priorities in a wagon, and here it is a standout.
The cabin had an airy feel despite the high windscreen glass line which does compromise visibility a little.
The seats look smart with perforated leather-look trim with heating and cooling. They do lack some shoulder support though.
A big touch screen (with buttons either side) dominates the high scuttle, and there's Smartlink Apple and Android smart phone internet connectivity, with a Columbus sat-nav system.
Three-zone air conditioning pampers the rear seat passengers who are already well served with brilliant leg room, a central armrest with cupholders and full-size bottle door bins.
The cargo space is huge at 660 litres with the rear seats upright, and a cavernous 1950 litres with the 60/40 back seats folded flat. Velcro cargo helpers and an umbrella stowed in a compartment beneath the cargo floor are nice touches too. And, yes, it has a standard full-size spare wheel.
The Superb wagon supplied by Skoda for the COTY judging had options including metallic paint, comfort pack and a tech pack that raised its price to from a base $41,690 to $48,590 plus on road costs, making it the most expensive of the family car finalists.
The $1500 comfort pack bundled ventilated leather seats, heated rear seats, and controls which give rear-seat passengers the possibility of adjusting the recline/slide operation of the front passenger's seat.
A $4700 tech pack focussed on safety, including adaptive cruise, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot warning, park assist and rear cross traffic alert. It also extends to hands-free "gesture control" boot opening , premium audio, and traffic-jam assist.
Like its rivals in this contest, the Superb comes with rear camera, and front and rear sensors.
Offsetting its price premium, of the three COTY finalists in this category, the Superb is the cheapest to service - $1260 across 60,000km.
The standard warranty is for three years with unlimited kilometres. An extended five-year warranty is available for $1699 and worth consideration given the reliability issues of some VW Group products.
The estimated forward resale value for this still-new wagon is 56 per cent over three years.
Judges were by no means unanimous at voting time, such was the high standard of the contenders. All three are excellent family cars, loaded with value, strong dynamics and practical to varying degrees.
Judges debated the unavoidable history of VW Group reliability but are now comfortable that engine and dual-clutch transmission failures of the recent past have been addressed are no longer substantive issues.
With its standout fuel efficiency and spaciousness - but also its pleasing dynamics and powertrain, affordable servicing and comprehensive safety features - the Skoda Superb 162TSI Wagon just edged last year's winner the Ford Mondeo Trend, with the Kia Optima GT third in a field of three impressive products.
By Peter McKay