Many, many years ago, I drove Ray, John “Bugsy” Lawlor and the Boston Globe’s John R. White from Boston to Detroit in what was called “The Enlarged Prostate Express.” We made the trek in Bugsy’s 15-passenger Ford Econoline. There were better cars to make that trip in. Pretty much ANY car is a better car than something with the aerodynamic profile of a tool shed.
Almost 15 years later, the landscape for road trip cars has completely changed. There are vehicles in the market now that actually make you WANT to drive halfway across the country, rather than suffering PTSD at the very sight of a black Ford stalker van driving past you.
We’ve rated each car using the handy guide below. Each one of Bugsy’s vans represents how much more we liked the car than his rickety claptrap.
Jeep Grand Cherokee Diesel
A little over a year ago, I drove a Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel from Boston to Detroit, with a pitstop in Toledo to visit the original Willys factory. Aside from the foul aftermath of lunch at Tony Packo’s, the Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel proved itself, not only as a solid off-road choice, but as a vehicle with a ravenous appetite for highway.
Ford got out of the full-size van business for a bit while it was tooling up to make the ginormous Transit. Unlike Bugsy’s Econoline, the Transit isn’t based on an architecture first unveiled during the Nixon Administration, and therefore, it has the ability to roll down the road in relative comfort and surefooted handling. You can buy a Transit in three different lengths and heights, the tallest of which allows a passenger up to 6 foot 5 inches tall to stand without hitting his head. Passenger configurations come anywhere from “Tee Ball Team” to “Milwaukee Brewers.” An EcoBoost turbo V-6 and a Powerstroke Diesel inline five-cylinder are both better for the environment than the Bugsymobile, which runs exclusively on snail darters and the souls of environmentalists.
Dodge Challenger R/T
You’re not interested in driving the entire cast and crew of Game of Thrones to California in a vehicle the size of Rhode Island; it’s just you and your best guy/gal/whatever on an epic road trip. The Dodge Challenger is an awesome choice. Yes, the 707hp Dodge Challenger Hellcat has been making all the news, but the 375hp Dodge Challenger R/T is a wonderfully fun car you can purchase at just about any Dodge dealer for around $35,000. Despite its 5.7-liter HEMI V-8, the Challenger R/T still provides respectable 24 miles per gallon on the highway, thanks to an eight-speed transmission and cylinder deactivation. Get a white one and you’ll be a dead ringer for Kowalski in Vanishing Point.
Volkswagen Golf SportWagen
The Golf SportWagen is a new entry for Volkswagen. It just started going on sale this month, so you’ll have to look around a bit to find one. It’s sized right for the kind of road trip you’ll be going on this summer, with a little extra room for cargo. You can either select a turbocharged 1.8-liter inline four, or a 2.0-liter TDI Clean Diesel, which can provide up to 43 miles per gallon on the highway. When you lay the seats down, you can pack 66.5 cubic feet of Bugsy’s cra…er, “collectibles” back there, so even he’d consider it a win over his current ride.
So you’re a cheapskate; there’s no reason to be uncomfortable driving some ill-equipped penalty box. The Honda Fit is for people who still have their First Communion money, but don’t want to look like one of those extreme couponers you see on the Discovery Channel. I like everything about the Honda Fit with one exception: that dumb radio interface with a touch screen instead of a knob the way the good Lord intended you should tune a radio. Beyond that one misstep, the Honda Fit is a lovely driving experience that complements a frugal lifestyle, but can still get you to your summer destination without your butt falling asleep.
Everybody needs to do a road trip in a convertible, but apparently, there’s something written into the Man Code of 1845 that suggests no man can drive a Porsche Boxster. Hogwash. They’re a blast, and I see no reason that we have to let the ladies have all the fun. The last one I drove was shod with snow tires and that thing would go anywhere. It was the S version good for 60 miles an hour in 4.7 seconds. This isn’t some flaccid 1999 Chrysler Sebring, for crying out loud. And forget everything you know about sports cars with automatic transmissions. Porsche’s PDK shifts better than you can ever hope to, unless you’re Mario Andretti.
Ohhh, the F-Type. It’s the rare sports car I like much better in hardtop form than convertible. Over the last 12 months, I’ve driven two Bentleys, three Corvettes and the most luxurious car Mercedes-Benz had to offer, but nothing drew attention like the Jaguar F-Type. It is – unequivocally – the best looking sports car built right now. Jaguar offers the F-Type in both an automatic and a manual transmission if you feel like you need it. Do yourself a favor and spring for the $1,300 active exhaust system. Every time that thing uncorked itself I nearly wet my pants.
When I first started writing about cars in the late 1990s, the Kia Sportage was one of the first vehicles I drove. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, I hated, hated, hated this automobile. But in the last 25 years, Kia has completely turned itself around and the Sportage went from a car I hated to one that I truly enjoyed driving. It’s comfortable and capable for five (well, four, really), has decent cargo room and it has the single best radio interface in any car I’ve ever driven. The only complaint is rearward visibility, but that’s solved a bit with a rear camera. You couldn’t pick a much better everyday vehicle that could double as your road trip partner.
The Mazda3 Touring is the rare compact car that doesn’t make you hate owning a compact car. There’s got to be a whole lot of Miata DNA in the Mazda3, because it’s an absolute pleasure to drive. Up to 184hp provides plenty of acceleration, and the suspension is better than anything you’ll find in this class. It comes in two bodystyles – sedan and five-door hatchback – and a manual transmission makes the trip as fun as possible. A favorite for 2015.
Moto Guzzi Stelvio 1200 NTX
Yeah, that’s right, it’s a motorcycle. If you had to drive 1200 miles with that crew, you’d want to spend a little time listening to nothing but your own thoughts in a full-face helmet, too. Everybody forgets Moto Guzzi still sells motorcycles here, and it’s a shame, because the Stelvio is probably as good a machine as Moto Guzzi ever built. It’s got off-road looks, but what I’m really after is the high riding position and the hard luggage.
Did I miss your favorite road trip ride? Post your nominations in the comments and next week we'll have a little vote to decide on the best road trip car of all time.