I have been pondering this piece for quite a while now. As the cost of travel — well, the cost of everything, really — has gone up, more and more people I know have turned to the road trip for their journeys. This got me to thinking. Harry Truman believed his 1953 Chrysler New Yorker to be an ideal car for his post-presidential road trip. Thelma and Louise favored a ’66 T-Bird. Ferris Bueller jacked the Ferrari 250 belonging to his best friend’s father.
But what do normal, modern people take on road trips? When I asked on Facebook, I got a variety of answers from my friends. Some suggested sporty cars, while others seemed more interested in utility. What follows is a list of cars that includes many of their suggestions, along with my own carefully considered choices. I have decided to divide it up by category. Enjoy.
For one or two people
Acura NSX (targa top), 1995 to 2005
Supercars have a bit of an earned reputation for wearing you out after an hour. The driver takes it out for a drive, gets his kicks, then needs a nap. That follows the equally well-earned reputation for breaking frequently and requiring expensive repairs. Acura’s NSX broke that mold. Even though it’s a mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive supercar, the NSX is a Honda through and through: both reliable and comfortable. Don’t think that makes it soft, though. The NSX was one of the best-handling cars of its day and, though it wasn’t a rocket, because of it’s all-aluminum construction it was still quick, despite deriving power from a mere V6. In fact, also because of that engine, I have talked to owners who regularly achieve fuel mileage in the mid- and high-twenties, even when driving in a more… spirited fashion.
Because the engine is in the middle of the car, there is still an ample trunk for all your travel gear. Although the inside is not exactly cavernous, it can accommodate a wide variety of body types and in 1995 Acura replaced the hardtop coupe with a targa top as the standard model, maintaining rigidity but adding an open element.
The ultimate deciding factor here, though, is the price. You can have a late-model supercar that rides and runs like a Honda for as little as $30,000.
Honorable mention: Ford Mustang Convertible
As one friend I asked put it, “I had a mustang convertible to drive around the California desert and up the coastline this summer… I’m not much of a car guy, but I can’t imagine a better car for the job, personally. It was great.”
You could also consider a convertible Corvette for similar reasons, and either would likely be less expensive than the NSX. The combination of price and performance for the Acura, though, is still too good for someone like me.
For a family of four
Volvo V70R, 2004 to 2007
A Volvo station wagon probably doesn’t really sound like a fun car at first consideration. The R model, however, is one of the most badass wagons you will ever meet. The turbocharger on the 5-cylinder motor has been beefed up to pump out 300 horsepower and, whether mated to the manumatic slush box or the 6-speed manual, it pushes the car like a rocket. Keeping all that power under control is a Volvo AWD system and a set of beefy 235/45 tires mounted on 17×8-inch rims. The R cars also received a stiffer suspension, bigger sway bars and additional bracing in the engine compartment.
That combination makes for one of the most surprising station wagons ever put in to general production. The V70R can comfortably haul your family anywhere you want to go, with room for all your stuff (and even the dog, if you pack a little lighter). The stereo is great and the seats are Volvo-standard comfort. Few wagons can make the road itself more enjoyable, though, and the R is equally settled sprinting down the highway or carving up the backroads.
Honda CR-V, 1997 to 2001
As one suggester pointed out, the CR-V offers something unique for travelers: a fold out table for camping and picnics. That nicely highlights the biggest strength of the CR-V. Where the last two cars I discussed have been about performance and comfort, this category is about being thrifty and useful, and there are few better choices. Models of this vintage can be found on Autotrader for between $5,000 and $12,000, depending on condition (and you could probably find them much cheaper with some additional searching) and they offer a lot of space, great gas mileage and rock-solid reliability. In addition, the capable Realtime AWD system adds a degree of go-anywhere-ness to your travel plans, especially with a carefully-chosen set of tires.
But, you say, don’t you also get essentially the same from the Toyota RAV4? What makes the CR-V so special? Well, I guess it’s all about the picnic table.
Honorable mention: Mazda3
I have several friends who own a 3 and all of them spoke in hearty support of it. Said one, “30+mpg, plenty of room, great sound system, sunroof; but drives with more passion than you’d ever imagine.” It is undoubtedly quite the package for the money.
Jaguar XJ, 2009 to present
I don’t think I am going to type much for this one. I will simply refer you to this Top Gear segment: Jezza v. God
I think that says all I would want to about it. For those with the dough, it seems to be worth every penny.
Honda Element, 2003 to 2011
I know a number of people who love (or loved, depending on the circumstances) their Elements. One (whose license plate at one time read “BOXOFUN”) hit the nail on the head when it comes to its strengths as a road trip car: “Lots of cargo space, good for taking pets, and it becomes its own sleeping space!”
It also has a completely hose-able interior, innovative folding rear seats and a unique suicide door system that makes loading and unloading (people and cargo) from the side a breeze. The Element is not just a useful appliance, though. Rather, it oozes personality, from the love-it-or-hate-it design to the modern-utilitarian dash. It also sports the same engine, transmission and AWD options as the CR-V, so it rides and handles with personality as well. While you wouldn’t want to use it as a rough trail vehicle, the Element is a great car for those who want to enjoy getting to and from their outdoor adventures as much as the adventure itself.
So there you have it. Those are my thoughts, but I would be interested in hearing yours. Did I whiff on any of these? Miss an obvious choice? Tell me in the comments and I’ll respond. I am genuinely interested to see what people think.
Some photos in this article were freely sourced from Google. If you take issue with usage of any image, please contact me and I will remove it.