With airline travel getting more miserable (and more fee-laden) day by day, many folks are re-discovering the joys of the great American road trip -- but which cars are best for life on the road? Different travelers have different needs, so I've picked a variety of cars that I think make great road trip vehicles. Here they are, arranged by price from lowest to highest.
Most small cars make poor road-trippers, but the Fit is the exception to the rule. Thanks to its brilliant cabin packaging, the Fit accommodates four adults and their luggage with ease, and it's flip-and-fold back seat and deep cargo bay are great for impulse purchases, even really bug and bulky ones. The Fit gets great gas mileage and its optional navigation system means you'll never get lost.
Minivans are great for family road trips, but not everyone wants to drive a bus. The six-seat Mazda5 strikes a nice balance between the space of a minivan, the road manners and fuel economy of a mid-size car, and the price tag of a compact. Be warned, though, that the 2-2-2 seating arrangement limits flexibility -- chances are you'll have to fold the back seats for additional cargo space, and that drops the Mazda5's seating capacity to four.
The Insight Hybrid is a great car for green travelers on a budget: It's cheap to buy, entertaining to drive, gets great fuel economy (it's a hybrid, after all) and has a roomy hatchback body. The downsides: While it's great for two people and their stuff, its smallish back seat makes it a squeeze for four.
The Miata is one of the all-time great road-trip cars: It's small, it's racy, and it's got the easiest-to-open convertible top in the business -- just pull the release lever, give the roof a shove, and presto, you're basking in the sunshine. The small trunk means you'll need to pack creatively, and rear-wheel-drive means it's not the most sure-footed car in bad weather (as I discovered firsthand) -- but given a sunny day and an open road, there are few cars I'd rather drive.
Chrysler redesigned the Sebring in 2008, and frankly, I prefer the old version; the new Sebring Convertible is pretty miserable to drive. But it's your best bet -- actually, now that Toyota has discontinued the Solara, it's your only bet -- for a convertible with a big back seat and a reasonably roomy trunk. Best of all, most major car rental companies stock Sebrings, so you can take one on vacation without having to get stuck driving it the other 50 weeks of the year.
For me, a family vacation means my wife, two kids and the dog, and all the stuff that comes with 'em -- and believe me, that's a lot of stuff. Enter the Volvo V70: Not only does it carry half the world in its cargo bay, but its fuel-efficient engine and big gas tank means it can run a good 500 miles between fill-ups. And thanks to the Volvo's well-designed front seats, you won't be feeling all those miles in your back and shoulders when you finally get out to stretch your legs. Long live the Family Truckster, Swedish-style!
I like the Lincoln MKZ -- the updated 2010 version, that is -- for all the same reasons I like the Lexus ES350 (see below) -- it's quiet and comfortable with a big back seat and a generous trunk. The MKZ has two major advantages over the Lexus: Better value-for-money and optional all-wheel-drive, the latter a real boon for traveling to places where the weather isn't always great.
I love cars that are involving to drive, and the ES 350 is anything but. But if you're out to see the sights, a comfortable, unobtrusive car makes a great companion -- and that's the ES 350 in a nutshell. It's spacious, quiet, smooth, easy to see out of, and as reliable as the day is long, making it a great way to tour the country.
Yeah, I know -- I used to make fun of Corvettes too, and then I drove one. Today's Corvette is a barrel of laughs, but you'll be laughing with it, not at it. The Corvette is huge fun to drive, it's surprisingly fuel efficient, and it's available as a convertible, though I like the coupe with its removable roof -- it gives you all the sight-seeing visibility of a convertible without the worry that someone will knife the soft-top to steal your stuff.
If money were no object, the S8 is the car I'd choose to drive across the country -- although with a 450 horsepower V10 under the hood, I bet it'd be a pretty quick trip. The S8 has it all -- supreme comfort, apartment-like room, and optional gadgets like massaging front seats and God's own Bang & Olufsen stereo. A great way to travel if you can afford the payments and the gas. Anyone have a hundred grand I can borrow?