Denise Cardwell
Lutz, Florida
Job: Technical writer
Commute: About 17 miles – and 30 to 40 minutes – in each direction
What she wants: Something more fun than her current "mom car"
Budget: $30,000

Two things you should know about Denise Cardwell's search for a new car. She knows exactly what she wants. A MINI Countryman. Also: She's not buying a MINI Countryman.

"I had my mind made up, but my son was so against it," she said.

She'll sometimes share the car with her son, Troy, who turns 17 in June, so his opposition is important. He stands to have this car passed down in a few years, and based on good grades in school, Troy has earned a say in the car-buying decision.

The new car in the Cardwell family will replace a well-liked Hyundai Santa Fe that has about 170,000 miles on the odometer. They've had a positive experience with the nameplate, and another Santa Fe is a possibility.

At the same time, Cardwell says she's wide open to alternatives. SUVs, crossovers and sedans have all crossed her mind. For better or worse, the Santa Fe has served as her "Mom Car" and she's interested in something that's decidedly sheds that label.

She wants something fun. It needs to be practical enough to serve her commute and occasionally carry a family of four. And her son's friends, who all have their own opinions on the car search. Likewise, Troy also wants something fun to drive.

"Fun" seems to be the crossroads of their particular automotive desires.

With that in mind, we've recommended a few cars to Cardwell we think fit the mold of both fun and practical.

Possible no-brainer: Hyundai Santa Fe Sport 2.0 FWD SWB
Sticker price: $30,400
Invoice: $29,302
MPG: 20 city/27 highway
Why it's a good choice for Cardwell: There's one big change since the last time Cardwell went shopping that should be taken into account.

Within the past year, Hyundai has re-branded the car, making it bigger. The new Santa Fe replaces the larger Hyundai Veracruz in the company's lineup. The new Santa Fe Sport is probably closer in size to her old Santa Fe, so that's why we chose it.

We've chosen the 2.0T FWD SWB trim level for two reasons. One, we've tacked on the upgraded leather-interior package and think that will make this feel less like a mom car. Second, and more importantly, we like the 264-horsepower turbocharged engine, which should make the ride more fun for both mom and son.

It will seat five passengers, staying within her more practical parameters. It's right at their price range, and less expensive if they opt to forgo the interior upgrades. And it will continue the family's Hyundai relationship, which they say has served them well.

Another solid option: Mazda CX-5
Sticker price: $27,620
Invoice: $26,208
MPG: 25 city/32 highway
Why it's a good choice for Cardwell: Both mom and son want a fun car, and the CX-5, which Cardwell specifically asked about in our initial conversation, fits that bill. In fact, it's the most fun-to-drive crossover on the market.

Assuming she doesn't need all-wheel drive in Florida, we think the Grand Touring front-wheel drive version gives the Cardwells what they want without raising the price out of their budget. Safety is of utmost importance to Cardwell with a rookie driver on the road, and the CX-5 comes with side airbags that protect both the head and torso. Of course, electronic stability and traction control come standard, helping to prevent accidents in the first place.

Fuel economy is a best-in-class 25 miles per gallon in the city and 32 on the highway in this trim level, which is as big a practical consideration as seating for five. A bonus for Troy: He can get the CX-5 in red, for an extra $300.

The sleeper: 2013 Honda Accord EX-L
Sticker price: $30,070
Invoice: $28,783
MPG: 21 city/34 highway
Why it's a good choice for Cardwell: She is open to sedans, so we wanted to present at least one non-crossover option.

Her daughter, Daley, 21, drives a new Civic, which she likes a lot. Cardwell likes the car too. She is tempted to add another to the family fleet, but thinks it'd be odd to have identical cars.

So we suggest moving up in size to the Accord. The EX-L trim level will give family and friends the space they need to feel at home in this vehicle, which is an IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus, the highest-possible rating. Side airbags come standard.

The Accord is also redesigned for 2013 models, and Honda made some terrific strides with the car. Its steering and handling are much more nimble, and its throttle is very responsive. On the outside, it may not look like a sports car. But on a recent test, I was surprised at how much I liked driving it. If it's a sporty ride the Cardwells are looking for, they'll find it in the Accord.

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With such a wide scope of choices, it was a little hard to whittle down Cardwell's list to a manageable size, but we think those three best meet her wants and needs, and give her options between a small SUV, a crossover and a sedan. We also floated the Mazda6 sedan and a Jeep Grand Cherokee as possibilities.

As of last weekend, Cardwell says she's made a couple tweaks, eliminating the Grand Cherokee from her search and adding the Chevy Equinox, which gets a thumbs-up from her son. She's currently leaning toward the CX-5. Both are good options.

Regardless of which car she chooses, there's one bit of advice we'd like to impart. With her teenage son about to get behind the wheel for the first time, mom is understandably concerned about his safety.

So this part's for you, Troy: We understand you plan to enjoy driving around with several friends in the car, but we'd be remiss if we didn't point out that too many passengers can be a fatal distraction.

A recent study showed that one passenger in a teen driver's car increases the fatality risk by 44 percent and two passengers doubles the risk. Often, it may seem accidents that hurt teens happen at random, but research reveals a pattern. Fatal accidents involving teens often happen to teens driving with passengers at night, with no particular destination in mind.

So we want you to have fun in the car. First and foremost, however, we'll hope you keep that in the back of your mind, and stay safe.

If you'd like some help narrowing down your car shopping list, email Pete Bigelow at peter.bigelow@teamaol.com