BOSTON (TheStreet) -- There's a vehicle for every season, and when the kids are back in school and the leaves are turning, that vehicle is increasingly a crossover.
Sure, there will be folks unwilling to let go of their bulky SUVs when they pack up for football practice or head out for a hike this fall. But with crossover specialists such as
posting 21% and 20% sales gains respectively during a miserable August and the poster child of the '90s SUV -- the
Explorer -- converting to a crossover next year, consumer tastes are changing as quickly as colors on an October ridge.
As ground clearance climbs, headroom grows and moonroofs stretch, the distance between crossovers and their grocery-getting station wagon predecessors stretches. With the wayback no longer a sign of a long, woeful road trip and wagons aging like a fine fall Zinfandel, we selected five of the best crossovers on the market and paired them with five of America's most colorful foliage routes. Smell the dead leaves, load up your loved ones and hit the road in one of these all-purpose and increasingly popular rides:
Its starting price of $32,000 is the most expensive of our offerings, but the six-cylinder, 3.0-liter, 281-horsepower engine and 3,300 pounds of towing capacity make it the most powerful. The optional power sunroof is ideal for leaf peeping, while automatic climate control, autodimming rearview mirror, front and rear reading lights, wood interior and leather shifter and steering wheel create a comfortable ride for all involved. All-wheel drive, a standard integrated child seat and such options as high-pressure headlight washers, front and rear parking sensors and blind-spot warning system are just some of the safety features parents wary of slick leaves have come to expect from this brand.
ROUTE 100, VERMONT
In the shadow of Green Mountain National Forest, Mount Snow, Stratton Mountain, Killington Peak and Stowe is a route that stretches more than 216 miles along the length of the state and passes through expansive pastures with views of the foothills and through caverns of marigold and merlot branches. Ordinarily a Northeast ski corridor, VT-100 becomes a great place to catch a cup of coffee and slice of pie at Dot's Restaurant in Wilmington, stop for a game of minigolf or a ride on the alpine slide in Killington and enjoy the colors during a cruise through the Mad River Valley. The roadside vendors will ply visitors with syrup and maple candy, but the best takeaways are the local cheeses and beers brewed by Magic Hat, Long Trail, Otter Creek or any of the other local breweries.
At nearly five and a half feet high, the outback has lost much of its wagon credibility and grown into a behemoth comparable to its cousin, the Forester. That said, the more than 40 inches of headroom in front and nearly 40 inches of clearance in the back are mighty comfortable, and more than 34 cubic inches of luggage space give it a bigger wayback than its competitors. The all-wheel drive and hill-holding brakes are just some of the features Subaru owners have come to expect, while a combined 25 miles per gallon is indicative of mileage that has only increased with each model year.
ROUTE 30/HISTORIC COLUMBIA RIVER HIGHWAY, OREGON
Just outside of Portland and right along Interstate 84 is a road than not only offers spectacular views of the steep faces of the Columbia Gorge and the sprawling Columbia River, but a spectrum of color almost out of place in a region better known for being evergreen. It's difficult to compete with the rushing Multnomah Falls or the towering Mount Hood, but the deeply hued, deciduous quilt that surrounds the highway from late October through early November makes a strong play for a traveler's attention.
VOLKSWAGEN JETTA SPORTWAGEN
Starting at $19,500, the Jetta Sportwagen is one of the more affordable crossovers on the market, if not the largest. Its 66 cubic feet of storage is just slightly less than that of its peers, but 23 miles per gallon in the city and 30 on the highway give it the best fuel economy in its class by far. It's front-wheel drive only and doesn't have a hill-holding brake or sunroof, but it is prewired for Bluetooth phone access as a standard feature and has speed-proportional power steering.
ROUTE 94, NEW YORK
When you're driving through a section of the Hudson River Valley -- where people who intended to go to Woodstock but never quite made it settled, and people who went to Woodstock ended up on the way home -- it pays to have a Volkswagen. A canopy of gold and copper in some sections and stretches of quaint villages and quiet farmland in others, this stretch of the Hudson River Valley offers artisan goods such as homemade candles and stained glass at the Sugar Loaf artist colony; antiques and apple orchards in Warwick; and the nation's oldest continually operating winery at Brotherhood in Washingtonville. Just about any day in mid-October would be great to catch this region at its fiery peak. There's more than just quaintness here, though, including athletic trips down the Hudson itself. Even hippies need to work out sometime.
Treading a fine line between a wagon and a compact, the A3 has vastly less cargo space than its competitors and is noticeably smaller. The standard model's nearly 25 miles per gallon, combined, also seems like a bit of a letdown -- enough to make buyers consider splurging for the 40-miles-per-gallon turbo diesel. If they pass on paying more for a car that already has a $27,000 base price, standard features such as hill-holding brakes, standard power outlets in the cargo area, sun sensor, an interior charcoal air filter, leather trim and Sirus satellite radio should cushion the blow.
HIGHWAY 51, WISCONSIN
Known as the Route 66 of the upper Midwest, Highway 51 runs the length of the state from Beloit to Hurley and offers sights a lot freakier than dead leaves. Drivers starting in Beloit can get a glimpse of the world's largest collection of angels (12,000) and a giant can of chili, check the date on the world's biggest penny in Woodruff, hunt for the largest loon in Mercer and finish their trip with a large nightcap opened with Hurley's giant corkscrew. Get there by early October, before the landscape gets decidedly more stark.
The Venza by
is a new-line Outback with none of the street cred. Its size is similar, as its mileage and cargo capacity, and its 2.7-liter engine is just slightly more powerful than the Outback's 2.5 at 182-horsepower to 170. The starting price is a bit heftier at $26,000 to the Outback's $23,000, but options including a sunroof, rear sunroof, auxiliary engine cooler, heated driver mirrors, TV displays and DVD player make the Venza a lot more versatile.
ROUTE 441 ("THE PARKWAY"), TENNESSEE AND NORTH CAROLINA
New England gets the publicity, but the Smoky Mountains bring the genuine product. Vivid colors, lofty elevations and cozy little corners such as Cades Cove and its historic cottages put the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on par with anything the Northeast has to offer. While the ski gondola-style tramway, Ober Gatlinburg theme park and Seattle-style Space Needle in Gatlinburg, Tenn., are added incentive to make the two-state trek, nearby Pigeon Forge tops it with theaters, indoor skydiving and Dolly Parton's biggest gift to the world since "Jolene" and "9 to 5": Her Dollywood amusement park.
--Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.