From Crosstour to Challenger
The thrill of the road trip is too enticing for most Americans to resist. Even with the price of fuel hovering around $4 a gallon, there’s a lot to be said about the joy that comes in the journey before you ever reach any destination. Don’t take our word for it — here’s Motor Trend boss Angus MacKenzie:
“I love cars, but not simply as inanimate concoctions of style and technology. I love the freedom they give you to explore; to take you to new places, see new things, meet new people. You see, there’s always an interesting road somewhere. And a car — any car; it doesn’t have to be the fastest, the latest, or the best looking — allows you follow it.”
That last bit is worth repeating: Your chariot of choice doesn’t need to be the fastest or sexiest ride available for you to have a good time. Whether your automotive budget is below $15,000 or as high as $100,000, on these pages we’ve collected some of the very best road trip vehicles organized by price as well as two-, four-, and six-passenger segments. Opinions vary on what defines an awesome road trip vehicle, but a long range is usually a good idea for cross-country drives, and generous cargo space couldn’t hurt.
From Crosstour to Challenger, we’ve got the best 2011 road trip vehicles right here. Let’s hit the road.
For two: 2011 Mazda2 Sport
Selection is thin for quality road trip vehicles in this price range, but the Mazda2 is a good choice for two travelers on a budget. Hatchback versatility is a big plus, and the Mazda has decent fuel economy of 29/35 mpg city/highway with the five-speed manual transmission. Prefer the four-speed automatic mated to the 100-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine? That will send the price above $15,000 and dull the responses of this tossable subcompact. Even on the base model, power door locks, power windows, power side mirrors, stability control, traction control, and air conditioning are standard equipment.
Estimated highway range: 395 miles
“Staffers quickly commended the munchkin Mazda for its weighty electronically assisted steering, unexpected cornering athleticism, and slick five-speed manual gearbox. … As one can expect with a car of this sort, such hasty scurrying (or highway merging) necessitates a thorough wringing of the 1.5-liter mill, plus plenty of right-hand rowing.”
For four: 2011 Nissan Versa 1.8 S sedan
Our pick for the best $15,000 road trip vehicle for you and three friends isn’t as exciting as the Mazda2, but passengers aren’t likely to complain about being cramped. Though the 2011 Nissan Versa competes in the subcompact class, the sedan and five-door hatchback have so much interior and cargo space that the EPA considers them midsize cars.
In fact, combined legroom for front and rear passengers rivals the space in the Altima sedan. The Versa sedan has 13.8 cubic feet of space in the trunk (the Ford Fiesta sedan is one cubic foot shy). A $15,000 Versa sedan uses Nissan’s 122-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission. Stability and traction control systems are extra, though with the next-generation Versa arriving soon, getting a better price on a 2011 model shouldn’t be difficult.
Estimated highway range: 409 miles
“And if this showdown focused purely on commuter duties, the Versa would be sipping the bubbly already. According to our sound meter and four miles of beautifully irregular roadway, the Versa was the quietest by a substantial margin, inflicting a mere 23.8 sones of interior noise, while simultaneously agitating its driver with the group’s second-best-recorded ride quality.”
For two: 2011 Scion tC
Even as a $20,000 base model, the 2011 Scion tC has a lot to offer. Just consider the standard equipment: a panoramic glass roof with a moonroof, 18-inch alloy wheels, a thick leather-trimmed steering wheel, and a 300-watt sound system using eight speakers and technologies like an automatic sound adjuster and Sound Retouch. Power comes from a 180-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and, with $20,000 to spend, you’ve got your choice of a six-speed manual or automatic transmission.
Estimated highway range: 449 miles
“Grip, composure, and overall stability through twisty sections are all vastly improved over the first-generation car. The MacPherson strut front suspension and control-arm rear help the tC to be a better handler, as do the larger 7.5 x 18-inch wheels.”
For four: 2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT
Chevrolet’s Cruze compact sedan is a solid choice in the highly competitive compact sedan class, especially if you’re not in a hurry. The 138-horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine and the six-speed automatic transmission aren’t known for their ultra-quick responses, but once you get the car on the highway, the experience is more pleasant. The trunk will hold a generous 15.4 cubic feet, but the best reason to take a Cruze on a road trip is the turbo model’s 561-mile range. At under $20,000, the low-volume Eco model is also available with fuel economy of 28/42 mpg city/highway when the turbo four is mated to a six-speed manual transmission.
Estimated highway range: 561 miles
“Steering is very light in the Cruze, but surprisingly offers a little more feel than the Focus does. There’s more body roll to boot, but overall the 150-pound heavier Cruze comes off feeling like a lighter car, partly because of its willingness to rotate. The Cruze also makes a better long-distance freeway tourer, with low road noise and a relatively supple ride.”
For two people: 2011 Ford Mustang V-6 Coupe
The Mustang is a fine road trip car. It’s got power, efficiency, and the practicality of a hatchback body style. With only two people, you can stuff the 13.4 cubic-foot cargo area plus the rear seats with luggage and whatever else you pick up along your journey. In case you’ve missed one of our many comparison tests, the Mustang has a 305-horsepower 3.7-liter V-6 with EPA-official mileage as high as 31 mpg on the automatic transmission model. If you’ve got a budget of $25,000, take your pick between the six-speed manual or automatic transmission and consider the reverse sensing system.
Estimated highway range: 464-496 miles
“While the straight-line speed suggests musclecar, the engine note under WOT intimates more race car. And not a deep NASCAR growl like that of the 5.0-liter, but rather the high-pitched melody of a smaller-displacement GT racer. Thankfully, the slick short-throw shifter does an excellent job of keeping the 24-valve vocalist in song. Yet, when tackling the daily commute, the 3.7 hums quietly, offering no indication that 305 horses are lurking under hood.”
For four: 2011 Toyota Camry LE
It ain’t sexy, but see how you feel about the Toyota Camry after spending a few days on the highway with three co-pilots. Rear seat comfort levels are at the top of the class, and the 15.0 cubic-foot trunk isn’t too bad, either. With a highway range of nearly 600 miles, you’re more likely to stop for a bathroom break than because the four-cylinder Camry needs fuel. Spend a little more than $25,000 and the slightly more sporty SE model is within reach.
Estimated highway range: 592 miles
“Twist the key, drive off, and the Camry continues to impress with its supple ride quality and hushed cabin environment, especially at highway speeds. St. Antoine takes up the narrative: ‘Okay, steering feel and handling prowess are not outstanding, but when you hustle this slice of milquetoast, it shrugs off road imperfections and carves through turns just fine. There’s lots of chassis roll but no loss of control. Seemingly excels at nothing, yet it really excels at everything.'”
For six: 2012 Mazda5 Grand Touring
A $25,000 Mazda5 occupies a unique place in the minivan segment. Automakers that do offer a full-size minivan at that price point can only present a bare-bones model, whereas the smaller Mazda5 is loaded at that price point. Along with leather seats and HID headlights, the six-passenger Mazda5 has heated front seats and 17-inch alloy wheels. Though the Mazda5’s 157-horsepower four-cylinder won’t provide lightning-quick acceleration, expected EPA mileage of 21/28 mpg city/highway — at this price on a six-passenger vehicle — is unbeatable.
Estimated highway range: 445 miles
“You’ll find cargo nets and compartments hidden everywhere, including under the second row seats. Relative to the established minivan set, the tiny size makes the Mazda5 easy to maneuver through cramped streets and parking lots. It’s rather fun to throw around, thanks to responsive and communicative steering.”
For two: 2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring
This is the car you take when the road trip’s journey is far more important than the destination. The Mazda MX-5 Miata will make you and your passenger want to take every winding road instead of the main highway. Such a rewarding driving experience — and a quick-lowering convertible top — is worth the sacrifice of having just 5.3 cubic feet of space in the trunk. With $30,000 to spend, nearly every option on the MX-5 Miata’s spec sheet can be yours, including the power retractable hardtop.
Estimated highway range: 355 miles
“On the road, the hardtop-equipped Miata was as much a joy as ever, with its tossable, playful character, ample power, and top-down appeal. The Miata zings though its gears with the quick, slick six-speed manual gearbox, and the 2.0-liter four-banger is as rev-happy as ever (and sounds good, too).”
For four: 2011 Dodge Charger Rallye Plus
The Charger is a more viable option for full-size sedan buyers, thanks to the 2011 model year redesign. The Dodge received a redesigned interior that no longer requires any apologies, so spending lots of time inside the car isn’t a problem. A $30,000 Charger Rallye Plus is nicely equipped with ambient LED lighting, power driver and passenger seats, leather seats (heated front and rear), and Chrysler‘s 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment system. Power comes from the Pentastar V-6, making 292 horsepower in this application.
Estimated highway range: 515 miles
“The greasy, hard, and cheap plastic that filled the old Charger’s cabin has been banished in place of excellent soft touch stuff. The metal surrounding the vents and navigation screen is actually metal (aluminum). The gauges look better, the leather feels better — even the steering wheel is a big step up in quality. Speaking of movin’ on up, the Garmin-based 8.4-inch navigation screen/infotainment unit is a vast improvement over the nasty old system.”
For six: 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan Crew
The popular Dodge Grand Caravan offers value in the sub-$30,000 full-size minivan category and, with the new 3.6-liter V-6 engine, the Dodge is more refined for the 2011 model year. A better interior, more functionality, and a rear back-up camera come together below $30,000 to make this one of the easier choices here, even before incentives are considered.
Estimated highway range: 500 miles
“With the exception of the new Charger, the Grand Caravan is the most improved product on Dodge’s portfolio. It looks better, the engine is more powerful and yet mpgs are up, and the interior is totally improved. Even the still-best-in-class Stow’N’Go seats are larger.”
For two: 2011 Dodge Challenger R/T Classic
The Dodge Challenger is without a doubt one of the more enticing choices in this article. A loaded Challenger R/T Classic with a powerful 5.7-liter V-8 engine and nearly any option you could desire makes for a great highway cruiser.
Estimated highway range: 458-477 miles
“Here, in this car, is the road trip as only America can do it: a plain so vast that 75 mph seems a standstill, your broad steed galloping with 376-horsepower ease, bikers in full leathers offering thumbs-up as they catch sight of the Challenger’s profile.”
For four: 2011 Honda Crosstour EX-L
Yes, that’s right, the Crosstour. Honda’s odd-looking Accord wagon is quieter than you’d expect and boasts a very comfortable back seat. The price is thousands below the $40,000 price cap with all-wheel drive, leather seats, and a navigation system, and cargo capacity is a sizable 25.7 cubic feet with the rear seats in use. Under the hood is a 3.5-liter V-6 producing 271 horsepower.
Estimated highway range: 481-499 miles
“Senior editor Matt Stone took the Crosstour on a 750-mile road trip: ‘It ain’t pretty, but it sure works. I folded the seats down and filled the back with stuff. It was an easy road cruiser with impressive range, too.'”
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For six: 2011 Toyota Sienna SE or XLE
The Sienna is prepared for wherever your road trip takes you. An all-wheel-drive XLE can take you and up to seven passengers more safely through inclement weather while the SE looks and feels sportier than you thought possible for a minivan.
Estimated highway range: 440-480 miles
“And if this test were purely about how the minivans in question drive, the Toyota Sienna SE would be the hands-down favorite. As editor-at-large Ron Kiino points out, ‘directional tires!’ The Sienna also has the best power, the best handling, and by far the best steering of the three.”
For two: 2011 BMW 335i coupe/328i convertible
Stylish and fun to drive, the BMW 3 Series coupe and convertible will serve road-trippers well. A moderately equipped 328i hardtop convertible slides in under the $50,000 price ceiling. If you want brisker acceleration and a few more miles to every tank of gas, head for the 300-horsepower 335i coupe.
Estimated highway range: 418-434 miles (328i convertible), 450 miles (335i coupe)
“The power top moves quickly, and when it’s folded you’d hardly know where it’s gone. The rear deck is low and rakish, despite all that hidden metal (more magic). The Lexus looks positively frumpy in comparison.”
For four: 2011 Hyundai Genesis V-8
A full-size V-8 luxury sedan for less than $50,000? If you can stomach driving a four-door with a Hyundai badge on the trunklid, the Genesis sedan is a good pick for this category. A 2011 Genesis four-door with a V-8 pumping out close to 400 horsepower and a 17-speaker sound system still doesn’t come close to the price cap, meaning you’ve got more money for expensive hotels or extravagant souvenirs. If you can wait a few months, a 2012 Genesis R-Spec will be powered by a 429-horsepower 5.0-liter V-8.
Estimated highway range: 507 miles
“The Genesis might have been designed and engineered in Korea, but the 4.6-liter Tau V-8 feels eerily German in its power delivery. It’s smooth and linear up until about 3000 rpm, then you get a noticeable surge as the engine gets a second wind; old Benz V-8s used to feel just like this.”
For six: 2011 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite
Honda has consistently made dynamically high-quality minivans, and that’s still true for the latest generation, which debuted in the 2011 model year. Highway mileage on the Odyssey matches that of the much smaller and four-cylinder powered Mazda5, at 28 mpg. Unfortunately, though, you can’t get the six-speed automatic that makes this possible unless you spend at least $40,000 on the Touring trim. If you have that kind of money and take frequent road trips, we’d recommend the Odyssey.
Estimated highway range: 588 miles (Touring and Touring Elite trims)
“Acceleration feels considerably brisker with the six-speed, and stopping distances are improved by upsizing the rotors an inch all around. … It makes an indisputably spectacular vacationmobile. I feel completely comfortable in every seat, save the wider but slightly too-firm middle-row center.”
For two: 2012 BMW 650i Convertible
The 2012 BMW 650i convertible has a 400-horsepower V-8 engine with 450 pound-feet of torque. Acceleration from 0-60 mph comes in less than five seconds, but that’s far from the car’s only virtue. Cargo space — thanks to the softtop roof — is large for a convertible at 10.6 cubic feet. Also, the BMW 6 Series has a heated rear window that rolls down independently of the top.
Estimated highway range: 440 miles
“When you’re loping around Cape Town like a trophy wife headed to the mall, the eight-speed is Land o’ Lakes smooth and the 6 Convertible goes from angry lion to pampered pussycat. It’s a stylish top-down tourer to see and be seen in.”
For four: 2011 Porsche Panamera
Every Panamera trim except the Turbo and Turbo S has a base price below $100,000. With Porsche‘s reputation for making it easy to spend $20,000 on options, there’s no shame in selecting the V-6 model. The car is far from perfect, but the driving experience is so excellent we can overlook its faults.
Estimated highway range: 569 miles (V-6 model)
“Not only is this the smallest and lightest car here, it’s also the only one that makes no pretense of providing a plush ride. Normal suspension tuning feels like everyone else’s sportiest; Sport+ feels right for the starting grid at LeMans. Then there’s Porsche’s legendary steering, which always feels natural, its variable ratio never making itself known as most others do.”
For six: 2011 Infiniti QX56
The redesigned QX56 has every luxury and convenience feature you can imagine, incorporated into a huge 7- or 8-passenger package. As a long-term vehicle, Motor Trend drivers have found the QX56 more maneuverable than you’d expect for a vehicle this large that has an 8500-pound towing capacity, and we’re fans of the 400-horsepower 5.6-liter V-8.
Estimated highway range: 520 miles
“The steering is very light (an odd feeling for such a hefty machine), yet is highly responsive and makes for a surprisingly fun drive. The QX’s immediate thrust never grows old and is easier to regulate compared with our former FX long-termer. The 14-inch brakes clamp hard, but aren’t extremely touchy like the FX’s binders. It is amazing how little the QX leans into corners. For such a tall vehicle, it remains relatively flat and poised when engaging bends.”