NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Most of you are in far better position to take a road trip now than you were a year ago.
Unemployment rates — even the effective unemployment rate that includes those who have left the workforce — have drifted back to pre-recession levels. Gas prices may not be under $2 per gallon anymore, but they're still $1 to $1.20 less than they were at this time last year. It's enough to make well-traveled car lovers yearn for the open road.
“What is more quintessentially American than a road trip?” asks Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director for Kelley Blue Book. “The two words conjure up images of exciting possibilities, new friends, memorable experiences, perhaps even a taste of romance.”
Then again, it all depends on who's riding with you and how long the trip is. Going solo or with a friend can be a bit more freewheeling, but it's a different story with a family in tow. It can still be fun, but the needs are much different. A decent playlist and frequent stops at off-the-beaten-path attractions just aren't going to cut it.
“When it comes to road-tripping, it's all about the journey, not the destination,” says Edmunds.com consumer advice editor Carroll Lachnit. “A great family road-trip vehicle can't merely be the conveyance that gets you from point to point. It has to check several boxes. You'll want comfort for long stretches of driving, safety for trekking on unfamiliar roads and locations and entertainment choices for when the thrill of the 300-mile day has worn off.”
And that becomes the issue with the American road trip: Its definition is as diverse as the folks traveling U.S. highways. While KBB's Nerad looks at weekend getaways and cross-continental excursions (including a weeklong foray from the east coast of Australia), Lachnit sees the other end of the spectrum where families are just trying to reach their destination with their nerves intact. Those various trips require very different types of vehicles.
“There has to be sufficient cargo space for luggage and gear, without cramping passengers," Edmunds' Lachnit says. “And if the road-trip vehicle has a little something extra — a rear-seat DVD entertainment system for the 1,000th showing of Guardians of the Galaxy to the kids, or a refrigerated console to chill some soft drinks — so much the better. When you're in the right road-trip vehicle, you might not ever want to go home.”
Perhaps the right vehicles and a rosier financial picture can reignite a love of the road that has dwindled of late. The Department of Transportation notes that U.S. driver, who had been racking up a steadily increasing number of miles since the 1970s, started cutting back in 2008 and never hit that peak again. A study done by the Frontier Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, meanwhile, found that the average U.S. driver actually started cutting back in pre-recession 2004. While the total miles driven in the U.S. rose 3.8% from 1948 to 2004, they've been flat since. Yes, the economic crisis played a role, but fluctuating fuel prices certainly didn't help during that span.
“Efficiency is certainly something that needs to be considered in a road trip vehicle,” says Steve Halloran, content and social media manager for automotive review and pricing site CarGurus. “If you are not flush with cash, then the amount of miles that you are going to get per gallon are going to matter quite a bit over a long trip.”
So what vehicles will it take to make American drivers revel in the road trip again? Well, as Halloran notes, sometimes it just takes the car you have. He spoke at length about cross-country trips he'd taken in a Honda CR-V and a Toyota Camry — two of the best-selling cars in the U.S. — but noted that in each case space and comfort didn't make either all that fun to drive. With some help from the folks at Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book and CarGurus, we've come up with 10 vehicles that put some of the leisure back in those long leisure trips while keeping some of the excitement necessary for those endless expanses: