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The 9 Best Road Trip Cars: Staff Picks


May 9, 2018 Cars By

Welcome to the most subjective argument to ever take place in the history of mankind. When it comes to road trips, what you’re driving is more important than where you’re going, what you eat on the way and what you listen to on the road — indeed, it may be even more important than who you bring along for the ride. We all have strong road trip car opinions, often driven by some form of nostalgia or aspiration.

I polled most of the crew here for their picks and then prodded for extra justification to back up their (incorrect) opinions. As it turns out, our choices aren’t all that dissimilar, but “agree to disagree’ all the same, right? Perhaps you’ll find some inspiration — or consternation — below.

Andrew Maness, Contributor: Mercedes-AMG E 63 S Wagon

Explain yourself: A perfect power to comfort ratio.

Anything else to add? The E 63 S Wagon checks all the right boxes. It’s a sleeper you can actually sleep in; it’s rare but you don’t have to be precious with it; it sounds phenomenal; it’s shockingly fast and you can get it with those top-notch Mercedes-Benz massaging front seats. Get it in the unassuming Diamond Silver Metallic over Nut Brown Nappa Leather with Natural Grain Ash trim for maximum “zen-den” effect.

Where are you driving? After setting out along the Pacific at dawn, I’d head northeast up to Ojai to Highway 33, then on to Bakersfield to hit Highway 178 to Lake Isabella. Then all the way to Highway 190 that runs through Death Valley. From there it’s a quick shot to Vegas, north on Highway 93 to Great Basin National Park and Highway 50, “The Loneliest Road In America.” 50 East leads to Central Utah where there are otherworldly landscapes to be explored. Once I’d had enough of the desert I’d point the car north to Wyoming and Montana before looping back west through Idaho and Oregon for some of the most incredible roads in the country.

Destination? Flathead Lake, Montana.

Best road trip snack? Bananas and almonds.

First song on your road trip playlist? “Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin.

What’s your personal road trip philosophy? Do have a general idea of where you’d like to end up each day; don’t feel the need to adhere to your plans exactly. The best road trips usually take shape after they’ve started, so don’t be too precious with your time. If you’ve got a passenger or two, always be open to their suggestions.

What is the front seat passenger’s primary responsibility? Snack distributor.

Essential Road Trip Gear: Andrew Maness
Wilson Sun Sunglasses by Garrett Leight $346
The Slider Lip Balm by Lucky Bastard $8
Center Court Gilbert Crockett 2 by Vans $70

Andrew Connor, Associate Staff Writer: Porsche 911 Targa 4S

Explain yourself: The roof. Or occasional lack thereof. Top-down road trips are a delight, and the gorgeous, geeky retractable roof on the new 911 Targa gives you that open-air freedom with the flexibility and comfort of having a hardtop.

Anything else to add? The “standard” Targa 4 is probably plenty of car, but fortunately, the S and GTS offer more power and suspension tuning if that’s your thing. I think if you are the type to buy a car like this for extensive road-tripping, the goldilocks-grade S model will have the right amount of power for Fun Time Driving without being too hardcore.

Where are you driving? The hell out of the US, up towards Nova Scotia, making sure to spend plenty of time driving the sublime roads around Cape Brenton Island. Eventually ending up in Halifax to consume copious amounts of Salmon.

Destination? Halifax.

Best road trip snack? Trail mix, but for the love of god make sure you don’t drop an M&M and accidentally sit on it. I’ve been burned before.

First song on your road trip playlist? “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. Cliche but a classic.

What’s your personal road trip philosophy? Road-tripping, to me, is just as much about enjoying a car as it is going somewhere new, so take the scenic route when possible.

What is the front seat passenger’s main responsibility? Navigation.

Essential Road Trip Gear: Andrew Connor
Espadrilles by Soludo $60
Spotify Premium $10/month
Clover Sunglasses by David Kind $295

Nick Caruso, Associate Editor: Aston Martin DB11 V12

Explain yourself: Easily the most beautiful, sumptuous V12 grand tourer available today.

Anything else to add? The DB11 V12 is an absolute grand slam of a car. Aston is growing massively right now while hoping to hold onto its roots: a heritage of making sporting cars in the hand-built, British tradition that are as capable as they are gorgeous. Most “car guys” prefer the V8 version because it’s lighter and therefor sportier to some degree. This is my choice, though: a completely customizable automobile (I configured the one pictured myself) designed to be owned and driven by sporting gentlemen; fast and violent-sounding, yes, but also velvety smooth thanks to its liquid V12. It is ultimate comfort, devilish luxury and top-tier, future-grade design rolled into one with a heavy, heaping dollop of the brand’s 100-plus-year history on top. Opt for custom-fit luggage, or perhaps some beautiful pieces of your own, and point in the direction of a heavenly getaway in a stylish, equally-stunning paradise.

Where are you driving? Start north on the California coast and wind down through Carmel-by-the-Sea, eventually winding my way to Montecito for a week of good food, ocean roar and, well, showing off my car.

Destination? Coral Casino Club

Best road trip snack? Whatchamacallit candy bars, but not to be eaten in the car. Sorry.

First song on your road trip playlist? “Runnin’ Down a Dream” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

What’s your personal road trip philosophy? Driving is my Zen place. I’ll drive for hours without making a sound, without the radio on, alone with my thoughts and the road. I love the way I can manipulate a car and optimize a driving route. Conversely, I cherish road trips with good company — provided my passenger has good music taste. Extra points if they can harmonize.

What is the front seat passenger’s main responsibility? DJ.

Essential Road Trip Gear: Nick Caruso
No. 10 Weekender by Lotuff $850
S140 Pivot Merino Button-Up by Outlier $198
Google Pixel 2 XL by Google $1,398

Bryan Campbell, Staff Writer: 1991 Buick Century Wagon

Explain yourself: Space. You need to be able to feel like you can live out of the car. Because sometimes you have to.

Anything else to add? This is the car I grew up in as a kid, which I affectionately, yet plainly referred to as ‘the blue car’. (We had an ’87 VW Scirocco too, that was ‘the black car’.) The Buick was dark blue with wood grain paneling over a dark blue velour interior. Was it the hottest place in the world in the summer? Hell yes. But there was so much room in that car it might as well have been a modern SUV. And on shorter trips where luggage wasn’t necessary, you can bet my sister and I were in the trunk making use of the rear-facing rumble seat, taunting drivers behind us. Plus, one perk to the velour upholstery was it provided serious entertainment on the trips up to the Poconos. Once it was dark enough, all you had to do was rub your hair on the seat back and give your sibling a visible taser shock of static electricity.

Where are you driving? The most memorable trips were through snow storms up to Woodlock Pines to meet extended family for Christmas or New Years. I haven’t been back in years — I’m sure the place has modernized by now — but it was definitely a holdout establishment from the ’70s judging by all the decor.

Best road trip snack? Jerky.

First song on your road trip playlist? “Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison. This song would always eventually blast through the tape deck, and as a kid I loved it every time.

What’s your personal road trip philosophy? Bring enough sustenance to keep you going to the next gas station, because those are the only stops.

What is the front seat passenger’s main responsibility? Navigation.

Essential Road Trip Gear: Bryan Campbell
Game Gear by Sega $78+

Brian Leon, Contributor: Mercedes-Benz SL600

Explain yourself: It’s a V12 Mercedes-Benz convertible.

Anything else to add? The Mercedes SL-Class is simply the world’s favorite grand touring car. It’s been around longer than you have (probably) and though the current one may be the last, there’s a reason SL is the last word in drop-top luxury touring. For the money, the R129 generation (1989-2002) is my favorite, as it proves that boxy can still be beautiful. Capitalize on the current wave of 90s nostalgia and pick up one with a V12 for less than $25,000 in mint condition.

Where are you driving? The Overseas Highway from Miami to Key West seems a fitting route for the SL. At just 127.5 miles, it’s on the short end of the road trip spectrum, but why not extend your starting point a bit further north along the coast? Like Savannah, or Myrtle Beach… or Portland, Maine.

Destination? If you’re already down there, why not hit the southernmost point in the continental U.S.? At least it’s by the beach…

Best road trip snack? Beef jerky.

First song on your road trip playlist? Keeping it on theme: “Miami” by Will Smith.

What’s your personal road trip philosophy? If you stick to the planned route, you’re not really on a road trip, are you?

What is the front seat passenger’s main responsibility? DJ.

Essential Road Trip Gear: Brian Leon
Men’s Classic Cap by Mercedes-Benz $26
Retro 49mm Sunglasses by Carrera $170
UV Aqua Rich Sunscreen by Bioré $14

AJ Powell, Assistant Editor: 2015 Subaru Forester 2.0XT Touring

Explain yourself: It’s an AWD sleeper with a turbo. What more could you want in a road trip car?

Anything else to add? I can say from personal experience that this car is a blast to go cross country and back in. It’s got enough giddy-up to be fun across middle America. More importantly, it has a vast dealer network to keep up with the scheduled maintenance and oil changes while on the road.

Where are you driving? I’ve yet to check off a road trip through the South, so the ideal route would be to kit this thing out with a handful of bike racks and head down to Asheville. Once there, exploring the backroads in sport mode would be worth the trip.

Destination? Asheville, NC.

Best road trip snack? Haribo Sour Peaches.

First song on your road trip playlist? “Winter” by TV On The Radio.

What’s your personal road trip philosophy? Methodically planned down to where the closest Steak n Shake is at each fuel stop. Tire pressure? Check? Wiper fluid? Check. You get the picture.

What is the front seat passenger’s main responsibility? DJ.

Essential Road Trip Gear: AJ Powell
Ruggedized Series Kekunam 3 Rooftop Tent by Tepui $2,100
Mobile Powerstation by River $600
Pismo Sunglasses by SPY $120

Tyler Duffy, Contributor: Mercedez Benz W113 280SL Pagoda

Explain yourself: Understatement. The 280SL is pared down from its predecessor SLs and sleeker than its successors. You won’t look like a doofus climbing out of gull-wing doors. There’s at least a 50/50 chance you can escape the coffee shop without being dragooned for a 40-minute conversation by an eager car enthusiast.

Anything else to add? When former Mercedes F1 Champion Nico Rosberg cruises along the Mediterranean, he drives a 1970 280SL.

Where are you driving? I depart my charming Carmel-by-the-Sea inn. I turn south on Route 1. I leave my worries and the ubiquitous Bay Area tech bros in the rearview mirror as I savor perhaps America’s most striking coastline. Leisurely lunch with a view. I turn around in time to arrive for my pre-cocktail hour massage, because in this world that’s entirely reasonable.

Destination? Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Best road trip snack? Cinnamon Altoids.

First song on your road trip playlist? “It’s Hard To Be a Saint in the City” by Bruce Springsteen.

What’s your personal road trip philosophy? Leave earlier than any sane person would in the morning. Pace yourself with the liquids. Avoid lactose and legumes before traveling in polite company.

What is the front seat passenger’s main responsibility? Navigation.

Essential Road Trip Gear: Bryan Campbell
Aviator Classic Sunglasses by Ray-Ban $153

Will Price, Associate Staff Writer: 1996 Toyota 4Runner

Explain yourself: Sickening trunk space. I don’t pack light on road trips. Why should I? This isn’t air travel. I can bring whatever I want, so long as I don’t encroach on others’s leg room.

Anything else to add? The ’96 4Runner happens to be the car I learned to drive in. If you have the option (you probably won’t), you want the 4X4 stick shift model. Oh, and it needs to be red. Kismet led me to the man I rented this same car from some 10 years after learning to drive (in Puerto Rico of all places), and I’ll never forget bumping into cones while parallel parking or speeding up a mountain in it.

Where are you driving? You’ve got to rent the 4Runner from a suspect shirtless man in San Juan, Puerto Rico — with cash — and take the 149 to the 143, then Route 10. This runs you through an exceedingly up-and-down rain forest on crumbling gravel roads one-and-a-half cars wide. The canopy becomes so dense inside the Toro Negro rainforest it may as well be night, and oncoming vehicles aren’t keen on using headlights (honking horns is customary when swinging around blind corners). After a slew of switchbacks and 75-degree uphill shots the foliage finally thins, and the sun comes back. The rest of the drive you’re looking up the slopes of the tallest mountain on the island, and down at Poncé and San Juan far and below. When you arrive at Kurt’s coffee farm, you’ll be treated to a freshly grown, roasted and ground cup of espresso in a gazebo at cloud level. Not a bad reward for your efforts. (Hint: if there’s a chance of rain, do not go.)

Destination? Hacienda de Café Pomarrosa.

Best road trip snack? Certainly not beef jerky (sue me). Road trip snacking should feed into other timeless road trip activities, like rolling the windows down. Hence, roasted peanuts (unshelled) are peak road trip snack.

First song on your road trip playlist? “Triumph” by Wu-Tang Clan.

What’s your personal road trip philosophy? We’ll stop however many times we damn well please. Might we be a bit late? Sure. Do we care at all? No. I don’t always agree with the classics, but it’s the journey that you remember, not the destination. Before I embarked on my first road trip without him, my occasionally wise father told me this: if you’re thinking about getting there, you’re traveling, not road-tripping. This is either one of those really insightful messages or me glamorizing my dad’s words too much.

What is the front seat passenger’s main responsibility? DJ.

Essential Road Trip Gear: Will Price
Aviators by Persol $259
Zinc Sunscreen by Babo Botanicals $22
Slippers by Derek Rose $195

Hunter D. Kelley, Associate Designer: 2018 Volvo V60 Polestar Wagon

Explain yourself: The combination of stealth and power.

Anything else to add? This is one of the coolest wagons out there due to its sleeper status. It has classic Volvo styling mixed with subtle high-performance hints that not everyone will pick up on. To most, it looks like a standard Volvo V60, but to me, those massive Brembo brakes and blue Polestar badge tell me everything I need to know. This is not your father’s wagon.

Where are you driving? NY to LA as fast as possible.

Best road trip snack? Pizza Combos.

First song on your road trip playlist? “One” by Metallica.

What’s your personal road trip philosophy? Speed when possible, but do so safely. Don’t forget to take in the sights.

What is the front seat passenger’s main responsibility? DJ.

Essential Road Trip Gear: Hunter Kelley
Waze Free
MacigMount by Scosche $18+

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