Summer is a time for family road trips. Even with $3.75 per gallon gas at the pump, driving is a lot cheaper for a family of three or four or five than flying.
Most of us just road trip with the cars we own. But the AOL staff is lucky enough to test drive most of the new vehicles that come on the market. So we've put together our dream list of favorite vehicles to take a road trip -- and we had help from one of our readers. Some of the choices will surprise you.
We've also pulled together some of our best road trip memories. Three of us picked cars from a now-defunct brand. Read on to find out more.
For the Langenecker family from Dexter, Mich., a 2005 Ford Freestyle was their road trip car of choice.
In June, mom Jackie, dad Scott, 11-year-old Maya and 6-year-old Chloe took it on a 13-day, 4,300-mile journey from Michigan to eight national parks. The farthest one was Yellowstone, in northern Montana.
According to the GPS, the clocked 80 hours in the car. And they suffered only one family meltdown.
"Compared to how traumatized I was as a kid, it's not even comparable," said Jackie Langenecker. There is a center console in the back seat, setting a delineating line between the two girls. They watched movies on the in-car DVD system, and there was enough room in the trunk for everyone to have their own suitcase and easy access to snacks.
And although the car eventually took on an aroma of stale french fries and plant life and feathers the kids collected in the parks, there was very little drama. "We never said we were going to drop them off at the side of the road and leave them there," she said, repeating the traditional threat thrown at children for eons, before the days of DVD players.
MSRP: $58,000 - $64,500
Fuel Economy: 24 mpg Hwy/16 mpg City
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As we put together our recommendations, I took my wife and son on a trip from Michigan to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a 14-hour journey each way.
We left our minivan and VW Jetta TDI Sportwagen at home and took a 2011 Hyundai Equus. The $58,000 luxury sedan seemed like a good choice given its rear-seat entertainment system.
The Equus, while packing a surprising sticker price, is a deal compared with the comparably equipped Lexus Ls450, and Mercedes S Class. Horsepower of 385 from the V-8 engine combined with the luxury quiet tuned suspension made it easy, too easy, to knock the hours off the trip. We picked up a speeding ticket for going 82 in a 70 mph zone as I forgot to pack my radar detector.
My nine-year-old son enjoyed the reclining rear seat. But a lack of Bluetooth headphones meant we made him use the portable DVD player for his SpongeBob episodes rather than the car's system. Hyundai says that they did not include headphones because the sound system is meant to be enjoyed through the car's speakers. But parents know the dangers of 12 hours of Sponge Bob, and the damage that does to an adult's brain.
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Even with that shortcoming, the car is a far better choice than the 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass, a two-door, my parents chose to drive when they took my brother, John, and me to Canada in the summer of 1971.
We drove to Maine first where I "played" golf with my Dad the only time in my life, since he was not really a golfer. We continued on to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Quebec. It was then that I discovered that foreign water could have an adverse effect on a young 8-year-old's digestive system.
My brother, who was 14, and I wound up in an emergency room in a town called Tre Pistoles. I'm pretty sure I threw up a few times in the back of that Oldsmobile.
MSRP: $19,500 - $23,500
Fuel Economy: 38 mpg Hwy/30 mpg City
The Fiat 500 C is my ideal road trip car for two. It has Italian allure that will garner admiration on the highway and make your lady fall ever the more innamorata. Guaranteed, or your review back!
At the very least, the style adds a fun-loving element that is sure to counteract the road trip tensions that arise when you make a wrong turn.
With a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that gets 101 horsepower, you are not getting powerhouse performance. But the pint-sized vehicle has serious pick-up and enjoyable jolts, especially in standard. It's pretty fuel efficient, too, which allows for fewer time-sucking gas stops, and your wallet will thank you as well.
Though small, the car will give you ample room in the front and enough stow-away for your suitcases in the trunk and back seat. When the timing is right, drop the top and take in some summer sunlight. It will make this feel like a European adventure, even while stateside.
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The dishwater-white wheat fields stream by on repeat through the car window, each frame the same whirl of panhandle bleakness, pooling through Oklahoma's wintry desolation at a 65-mile-an-hour blur. I'm in a 2003 Honda Pilot filled to the gills with baggage (physical, emotional), as my girlfriend, her aunt and uncle, and I have been driving hours from a pre-Christmas stint in Green Mountain Falls, Co.
All roads around here lead to Oklahoma City: thick thatches of grass spill over roadside drumlins, clumping like excess lotion on raw knuckles. The next evening, the start of the biggest blizzard here in half a century, 14-inches of white will incubate this landscape in a glittery Yuletide shawl. But for now, there's something Joadian about our travel through the dusty stretch.
We steer through ghost towns and desolate highways (not much use for a saddle maker in a one horse town) and shift between various Christmas CDs. Jostled gas pump nozzles hang unevenly on holsters along the way, and upholstery store signs with chipped paint slough off into nothingness.
Wind zips through the plains here, whips around the empty spaces and past the Pilot's contours; men farm the breeze on large turbines that rise to the sky and crank profits. At a 3,000-ft. elevation, the Oklahoma panhandle functions as a convex scooper with wind rising from the Mississippi Delta, past the Bayou, shooting across the piedmont up toward the Rockies where it ricochets through hollers. This is the ultimate in Americana--the hum of the open road and shelter of the firmament.
Fuel Economy: 95 mpg Hwy/90 mpg City
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Perhaps not as flashy as an open-air convertible or as utilitarian as a big SUV, in this age of rising gas prices I'd take a Chevy Volt over either.
No, I'm not just concerned pinching pennies and hugging trees. The extended-range electric Volt offers drivers an entirely new automotive experience; and what is a road trip if not the pursuit of discovery and adventure?
Forget I-Spy -- the road trip game of choice for Volt drivers becomes stretching how far you can travel on a single tank of gas. Be sure to add camp grounds and Cracker Barrel restaurants to your route, where you can recharge your car and avoid refueling for another day.
Besides all the high-tech stuff going on underneath the hood, the Volt offers comfortable seating for four, trading in a rear bench for two individual seats (to make room for the lithium-ion battery housed down the center of the vehicle). The driving dynamics benefit from the battery's weight and placement as well, keeping the car balanced through tight turns. And, the hatchback styling leaves plenty of room for travelers' luggage.
If the freedom of the open road is what you seek, the Volt delivers by liberating you from the gas pump.
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I'll admit, with some embarrassment, that I've yet to fulfill that purely American rite of passage: a coast-to-coast road trip. To further discredit myself, my meager long-distance driving experience pales in comparison to my wife's. She once drove all the way to Michigan from her childhood home in Alaska, splitting time at the wheel with her father. Their Honda CR-V full of luggage and dog in tow, they powered through the great northwest as I lamented a 30 minute commute to the family dentist.
The closest I've come to a brag-worthy journey by car was a 10 hour jaunt from our Detroit offices to AOL's spiritual headquarters in Dulles, Va. (bonus: if I muddle my speech as I tell the story, most leave impressed, thinking I drove from Detroit to Dallas, Texas.) I had the pleasure of piloting a brand new 2010 Chevy Camaro, with a plenty-powerful 3.6L V6, unfortunately paired to an automatic transmission.
I can't claim to have logged all the drive-time myself, as I was traveling with friend and former AOL Autos colleague, Reilly Brennan; but, I did feel a palpable sense of pride upon completing the trip -- like a distance runner in-training who just crossed the finish of their first half-marathon, with their eye on the next challenge: the full thing.
Fuel Economy: 19 mpg Hwy/14 mpg City
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As a mom to three kids, I should probably want a minivan, what with all the space and conveniences they come with. But I have emotional ties to the old-fashioned wagon. If I could get a wood-paneled Oldsmobile that came with heated seats and a DVD player, I'd be set.
If I had to haul my family around on a road trip, I'd want to do it in a Cadillac CTS V wagon. In navy blue. It's the coolest family car available right now. I mean, it has 556 horsepower in a 6.2-liter V8 engine. It can go zero to 60 in four seconds. Can your Toyota Sienna do that?
It is ridiculously expensive, starting at $63,000. (If you can afford that, you probably won't mind that it only gets 19 mpg highway and 14 mpg city.) And it doesn't come with rows of seats, which is almost a must when you and your spouse are outnumbered by children, if only so you have some way to separate them.
But it's so much fun to drive, especially for a car its size. And it has all the luxury bells and whistles – heated seats, a DVD player to keep the kids occupied, satellite radio with the nifty ability to rewind live radio if you can't hear something over the whining of your children, lots of airbags, and a fair amount of cargo room.
Would I rather do a month-long road trip in a hot little convertible? Sure, but I like my kids too much to leave the behind. And I don't think they'd appreciate a month in the trunk.
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As a kid, I remember laying on the back seat of our hulking wood-paneled Oldsmobile station wagon, watching the electrical wires dance above my head as we sped north on I-95 from New Jersey to Connecticut.
We took these trips frequently. My parents, who'd immigrated from Ireland just months before I was born, had made deep ties to the Irish diaspora in and around New Haven. Although my father's job took us to New Jersey, we spent many weekends and holidays up with the folks we'd adopted as our family. I was a teenager before I realized none of the people we spent so much time with were actually blood relatives.
Even though it was just a two-hour ride, I hated the drive. I actually think I invented the term, "Are we there yet?" If not, I definitely perfected it. I'd stare at the electrical lines and try to nap. If my parents were lucky, I'd fall asleep. If not, they'd endure two hours of whining.
Now my kids have to endure long pilgrimages too, since we live in Michigan and our families are in New Jersey. But they had DVD players and hand-held gaming systems, so their whining falls on deaf ears.
Fuel Economy: 28 mpg Hwy/18 mpg City
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As a The Audi A7 is a shoo-in as a road trip car. Not only is this one of the most beautiful and luxurious vehicles on the market right now, it's also perfectly practical for a long road trip.
Its 310-horsepower supercharged V-6 can save you from having to make multiple stops for gas (it gets 28 MPG on the highway) and is sure to keep things interesting on those long, empty straight-aways throughout the Midwest. Plus, you can bet its quiet, uber-comfortable interior will keep you and your driving companions in good spirits, be it your spouse, kids or 3 buddies you roomed with in college.
The A7 is a hatchback with a rear power liftgate, which gives it a lot of versatility and space for your luggage. Combine all of that with classic Audi luxury features like Bluetooth, GPS navigation and cutting edge safety technology and you've got what is perhaps the perfect road-trip vehicle.
Heck, you'll probably enjoy the drive more than your actual destination.
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The Audi A7 is a far cry from the car that played the starring role in my fondest road trip memory: A 1995 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. When I was a junior in college, my roommates and I wanted nothing more than to spend the week of Spring Break relaxing down in Marco Island, Fla. (not your typical spring break spot, but, hey, we had a free place to stay). However, the trip hinged on our ability to find a car to get us down there and things were looking bleak, since none of my friends could drive my manual-transmission Saturn. Enter the Olds.
Though it had already spent almost 13 years on the road, the Cutlass Ciera proved to be more than adequate in getting us from Michigan to Florida. Sure, the creature comforts of the A7 like cruise control, a high-tech music interface and plush leather seats would have felt like a dream compared to the Cutlass's tape deck (with one tape, The Eagles Greatest Hits) and hot, itchy cloth interior.
But what the car lacked in style and comfort it made up for with its undeniable character. In fact, I think we all emerged stronger for the experience by driving a car that was both physically and mentally demanding (we drove with a constant fear of the engine simply quitting without warning).
We drove that Cutlass 24 hours down to Florida and 24 hours a week later back up to Kalamazoo. It wasn't the most comfortable drive, but it got us where we desperately wanted to be: Out of the chilly Michigan spring, making some fond memories to last a lifetime.
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