The Great American Road Trip

08/15/2014 12:00 AM

08/14/2014 4:19 PM

Not long ago CNN/Money online featured a story detailing Six Great American Road Trips. The first was a 900-mile journey from Grand Forks, N. Dakota, to Kalispell, Montana, on U.S. Route 2. Others included the Blue Ridge Parkway through the Great Smoky Mountains, the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, and, of course, the Pacific Coast Highway from LA to San Francisco.

Even so, although AAA issues press releases pre-holiday predictions about how many Americans will take to the roads, most everyone I’ve known prefers simply to jump on a flight to wherever they’re going and leave the driving to someone else. That’s too bad, because you don’t get the impact of the landscape, or meet your fellow Americans, from 35,000 feet.

So Look at the Numbers

One can see the economy’s recovery in sales statistics, not just in new car sales nationally, but also in the vastly improved recreational vehicle market.

Not a week goes by that I don’t receive e-mails from Baby Boomers, preparing for retirement, asking me which RV might be the best buy for their planned road trips. No one ever asks about a fifth-wheel trailer or a pop-up camper. Nor do they ever seem to ask about a Class C Motorhome (built on a cutaway van chassis). It’s always about the full-sized Class A Motorhomes, some of which can now cost into the 7 digits.

Maybe it’s that little matter of aging. We once hit the highways and took long-distance drives in vehicles that today we’d be loath to drive around town. That’s the joy of being young; minor discomforts don’t bother you. Cars that are noisy, or not particularly well balanced — which requires making constant minor adjustments in steering and so on — just don’t faze a younger driver. But those little glitches can make a scenic vacation by automobile truly miserable for people of a certain age. So Boomers demand comfort and convenience in our road-trip vehicles, no matter how big or small they are.

One does suspect that over the next decade more and more retirees will be taking those last scenic cruises to see America again, and some will visit parts of the country they’ve never seen before. They’ll travel for pleasure, at least, as long as gasoline is still under $4 a gallon in most places and until the government decides to put tollbooths on every last major road in the country. But there are more two great reasons why that Great American Road Trip might be in your future. First, no TSA agent is going to come to your home and inspect your luggage and shoes before you hit the highway. Second, the car companies will not charge you $50 for every piece of luggage you put in the trunk.

While it is certainly true that large families may want or need a full-sized SUV to go long-distance cruising, for most it’s not all that necessary. However, to truly enjoy one of these trips, one does need a car that is abnormally quiet on most road conditions, has great handling that’s relatively precise, and has great air conditioning. Long-distance driving isn’t any fun if you arrive at your destination worn out, dreading the next leg of your journey.

Of all the cars I’ve reviewed over the years, five come to mind as the near perfect road trip cars for all of the reasons stated above. Best of all, they come in all price ranges.

Hit the Road in These

Under $20,000 it’s the Volkswagen Jetta. Now, before you roll your eyes, the moment I started driving the new Jetta I noticed that its overall handling characteristics made it a compact car unlike any other. I decided to put this one to the test by driving from Fort Worth to Bastrop and back in one morning. I left west Fort Worth at 6:30 a.m. in the morning and got back at just after 1 p.m. that afternoon, a time period long enough both for a safe drive and for my conversation with a Texas Highway Patrol Officer outside of Taylor, Texas. Sure enough, I could have stayed in that car for another 400-mile run and felt every bit as fresh.

And no, I didn’t get a ticket; at the time that was the first new Jetta of this generation in Texas and still had Michigan plates, so the officer believed my story of reviewing that car.

Under $25,000 it’s the all-new 2015 Hyundai Sonata. You’ll have to drive this one to believe it. While I called the last generation of the Sonata the closest to a perfect 10 of any car I’ve ever reviewed, this one is much larger on the inside. This new generation is officially rated as a large car in spite of its midsized body. It handles beautifully, but the real key to this car is that it is so incredibly quiet and smooth on most decent roads. When I tested it with a dB meter, it was a near whisper-quiet 67. That’s only a couple of decibels louder than a Lexus LS 430.

Under $30,000 it’s the Chrysler 300, hands down. For the life of me I cannot figure out why every Chrysler dealer in the Metroplex is not selling 20 to 30 300s a month. This model’s first generation had owners of BMW, Mercedes and Lexus trading those vehicles in for a 300. The current generation is improved in every way, yet over the past decade its selling price has remained virtually unchanged. But talk about an incredible road car, this one is it: I prefer the Chrysler 300 to the old standby Lincoln Town Car of years gone by, and it costs 20 grand less.

Under $40,000 one has to consider the Chevrolet Impala for all the same reasons; but the Chevy’s interior and body rigidity make you think you’re driving a true luxury car. As I’ve written before, GM should have sold this one as a Cadillac.

OK, we had to put an incredible sport car into this American Road Trip fantasy to fulfill our vision of the perfect car, a time machine that makes up for our thinning hairlines, our slight bulge around the waistline and the age spots on our hands. Believe it or not, this one will go to the Porsche Boxster convertible. Personally, I was never that impressed with the first generation of the Boxster, but now it has become the logical successor to the Acura NSX. True, it’s not as nimble as the NSX was in its time, but it is incredibly sure footed, substantial in its overall feel, and unbelievably easy to handle. Best of all, the interior noise level is simply one of the lowest of any sports car on the road.

Enjoy Your Trips!

Of course, others will disagree with these picks or offer their own choices. But there’s no doubt in my mind that these five vehicles are the perfect choices for anyone who plans on seeing America from ground level.

Then again, you can buy all five of them for what a reasonably priced Class A Motorhome would set you back, and still have enough money left to pay for top-flight hotels everywhere you drive.

Oh, and by the way: If you plan on taking that scenic drive across northern Montana on Route 2, it’s best to start off at Williston, N. Dakota, instead of Grand Forks. Each of the vehicles I’ve mentioned will make the 1,353-mile trip from here to Williston (through 800 miles of the Midwest’s corn and wheat fields) far more enjoyable, too.

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