Memorial Day weekend means many things to many people, but it universally signals the start of one summer tradition: road trips. Regardless of if you’re heading to see family, escape into the great outdoors, or simply crisscross the country, we’ve rounded up some ideal road trip vehicles for those seeking to hit the road this summer.
I want to…go there and back on a single tank.
Volkswagen Passat TDI
Base Price: $26,225 EPA mileage: 30 mpg city/ 40 highway
There are a number of thrifty, diesel-burning vehicles offered in North America – and plenty from the Volkswagen Group, at that – but few strike us as ideal for long-distance road tripping when compared to the Passat TDI. Volkswagen’s diesel-sipping midsize sedan is powered by a 2.0-liter turbo-diesel, which cranks out 140 hp. What it lacks in sheer power, however, it delivers in impressive fuel economy. Fitted with the optional six-speed automatic transmission, a 2013 Passat is rated at 30 mpg city, 40 mpg highway.
These numbers are incredible when you consider the size of the Passat. Yes, it’s deemed a midsize sedan, but at 191.6 inches long, it’s on the larger end of that spectrum. That extra size results in plus-sized interior, with enough space for large adults to sit in both the front and rear seats. Think you sacrifice on cargo space? Wrong again – there’s 15.9 cubic feet with the rear seats up, allowing the trunk to resemble Mammoth Cave – albeit with a bit more plastic trim and carpeting.
I want to…bring the entire family. And I do mean the ENTIRE family.
Base price: $41,315
EPA mileage: not tested by EPA
If the tired stereotype of precocious in-laws and annoying extended family members applies to you, skip this section. If not – and you’d actually like to travel with your large family using as few vehicles as possible – there’s really only one option shy of picking up a used transit bus at public auction: the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. In its passenger form, the Sprinter seats up to twelve fairly comfortably, and even more comfortably if equipped with the cathedral-spec, 107.5-inch tall “high roof” option. The 140-inch wheelbase provides plenty of space (23.7 cubic feet) aft of that rear bench, but the elongated 170-inch model provides up to 31.2 cubic feet. We’ve seen (and lived) in urban apartment dwellings with less usable space than a Sprinter.
Yes, the sliding door rattles a bit over bumps; no, interior materials aren’t the fanciest; and yes, the price tag – especially if you go crazy with stand-alone options – isn’t inexpensive – but that’s beside the point. For such a gargantuan people mover, the Sprinter is surprisingly easy to drive – and it’s also incredibly efficient. Its weight class allows it to sidestep EPA testing, but we’ve frequently seen combined averages around the 19-20-mpg mark. For a vehicle that has the aerodynamic profile of a two-story house, that’s impressive.
I want to…use no gasoline, diesel, or combustible fuel at all.
Tesla Model S
Base price: $71,070
EPA rating: 88 mpge city/ 90 highway Yeah, we get it – electric cars aren’t necessarily road-trip vehicles, or if they are, they’re only so when paired with a range-extending internal combustion engine. Still, if you insist on using a battery-powered vehicle for a road trip, it’s hard to best the Tesla Model S. Why? Space, for starters. There’s room for five passengers within the Model S, although that number grows to seven if you opt for the small, rear-facing jump seat. We’d skip that, as it frees up the rear cargo area for your luggage and other belongings. Between that area and the “frunk” beneath the hood, there’s nearly 31.6 cubic feet of storage available.
Range? That’s still a hot-button topic, but the top-tier Model S Performance comes with a 85-kWh battery that theoretically provides as much as 265 miles on a single charge. Of course, your distance will vary based on temperature, terrain, and your own temperament – but compared to the EPA-rated range of, say, a Ford Focus Electric, it’s fairly sizable. Depending on your journey, we’d still recommend ensuring your planned drive regularly passes charging stations, and that you do budget time for a recharge or two along the way.
I want to…travel as far as possible in the lap of luxury.
Mercedes-Benz S350 Bluetec 4Matic
Base price: $93.905
EPA rating: 21/31 mpg
Diesel-powered Mercedes-Benz sedans have long been sold in North America, but until the launch of the S350 Bluetec in 2012, Mercedes always shied away from selling a diesel-powered flagship here. We’re just glad the S350 finally made the trek from Germany, as it blends first-world luxuries with first-rate fuel economy.
Despite tipping the scales at 4784 pounds and being paired with an all-wheel-drive system, its 3.0-liter, turbo-diesel V-6 and seven-speed automatic help the S350 attain an EPA rating of 21 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway. With a full 23.8- gallon tank of diesel, the S350 can cruise over 730 miles without refueling.
That cruise will be quite comfortable, given the S Class is arguably one of the most refined, comfortable, and luxurious sedans this side of a Rolls-Royce. Benz’s premium leather interior boasts attractive hand-stitched accents on virtually every surface, including the dash and door panels. Rear seat occupants are already gifted with 42.3 inches of legroom, but an optional package allows those in the outboard seats to heat, cool, and recline their seats. Add power sunshades, a DVD entertainment system, and a Bang & Olufsen audio system, and you’ll be cruising in unimpeached comfort.
I want to…haul the family, cargo, and ass.
Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT
Base price: $63,990
EPA rating: 13 mpg city/ 19 highway
We wanted to throw a muscle car on this list, but last we tried, packing a family of four and their cargo into a Camaro or Mustang is essentially impossible. Or if it is possible, it doesn’t make for a very comfortable (or tolerable) four-hour drive. But what if there were a way to blend the power of a muscle car with the packaging of a family vehicle? Enter Jeep’s SRT-tuned Grand Cherokee. Seating for five? 35.1 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats up? 470 hp on tap? 0-60 mph in about five seconds? Check, check, check, and check.
Unlike the first generation model, today’s Grand Cherokee SRT is a comfortable chimera that walks the line between performance and civility with few qualms. Adaptive Bilstein dampers at all four corners provide a surprisingly compliant ride quality for long hauls, but stiffen up to snuff out body roll on twisty back roads. The 6.1-liter V-8 slams passengers into seatbacks like a Mercury Redstone rocket, but idles four cylinders under light loads to reduce fuel consumption. Better yet, this latest iteration of SRT Grand Cherokee can tow up to 7200 pounds – perfect for dragging a speedboat behind your speed wagon.
I want to…soak up the sun.
Audi S5 Cabriolet
Base Price $60,195
EPA Rating 17 mpg city/ 26 highway
Nothing says summer like soaking up UV rays while behind the wheel of a convertible. Several drop-top models are on sale in the United States, but the Audi S5 is one of the most well-rounded choices available. There’s room for four, with rear seats that are larger than the glorified parcel shelves found in many convertibles. There’s adequate trunk space – 12.2 cubic feet, with the top up, or 10.2 with the top down. There’s the sophisticated interior (note the rear-seat reading lamps integrated into the convertible top) and handsome exterior styling. And, for those who might want to plan a road trip to a ski resort come winter, the S5 is one of the few convertibles offered with all-wheel-drive.
Better yet, the S5 is a blast to drive. Audi’s supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 serves up 333 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque, and emits a delectable growl at wide open throttle. Although S5 coupes are offered with a six-speed manual transmission, S5 cabriolets feature Audi’s seven-speed dual-clutch automatic as standard equipment.
No matter – it’s still happy to snap off lightning-quick gearchanges in either sport or manual mode. Do make sure to opt for the so-called “sports differential,” which replaces the standard rear diff with a torque-vectoring unit that helps the car rotate into corners.
I want to…stray from the beaten path.
Jeep Wrangler Unlimited
Base Price: $26,790
EPA rating: 16 mpg city/ 20-21 mpg highway
Road trips are great, but what if your destination isn’t exactly on a road? For those who want to journey far outside the beaten path, we can’t think of a better choice than Jeep’s eternal Wrangler. By modern SUV and crossover standards, the Wrangler may seem like a bit of a crude anachronism, but in truth, it’s better than ever. A new instrument panel design is more attractive than ever, but the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 tucked underhood finally delivers adequate power – something the JK Wrangler previously lacked.
Although it is possible to squeeze four into a two-door Wrangler, don’t count on bringing all their belongings along for the ride. For that reason – and to give rear-seat passengers legroom for long hauls – we’d go with the four-door Wrangler Unlimited, which still offers the same off-road prowess and open-air sensations but with additional versatility. That said, you’d better act quickly if you’re in the market for one – demand for four-door Wranglers is nearly double that of the two-door model, and dealer inventory is presently at 68 days supply.
I want to…stay overnight, but not in a hotel.
Nissan NV Roadtrek N6 Active
Base price: $65,260
EPA rating: not rated by EPA
Remember the days when minivans could easily double as mobile camp sites? Decades ago, such vehicles ran rampant across this country, but ever since the Volkswagen Eurovan died in 2003 the good old pop-top camper was virtually extinct. Thanks to Roadtrek, an Ontario-based motorhome manufacturer, that’s no longer the case. The new N6 Active – which is also sold as the NAV-6 – converts a Nissan NV passenger van into a multipurpose camper.
In its van configuration, the N6 Active/ NAV-6 seats six. That’s roughly half that of a standard NV passenger wagon, but understandable when you see Roadtrek packs in everything including the kitchen sink. Cabinetry installed next to the two-passenger third-row bench houses a refrigerator, sink, microwave, and cupboards. Second-row captains chairs swivel to face the rear seat and a pop-up table. The optional pop-top roof increases headroom and provides an extra two berths for sleeping, yet still allows the NV to fit in most garages.
I want to…take a road trip only using back roads.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
Base Price: $24,515
EPA Rating: 21-22 mpg city/ 28 mpg highway
Another convertible on this list? Yep. The Miata’s top – either made of fabric or metal -- does fold and stow for top-down fun, but that’s not why we chose it for this group of cars. We revel in road trips that trade the hustle, bustle, and malaise of the interstate system in favor of winding, scenic, two-lane, back county roads. And for that, there’s virtually no way to best the MX-5. We should know – we adopted a MX-5 for a summer two years ago, and frequently sought the curvaceous road less taken instead of the quickest route between points A and B.
Yes, we know the Miata’s cabin is a bit tight, and that packing for a long trip may require you to invest in those vacuum space-saving bags seen on late-night infomercials. Still, if you’re looking to plan a long trip full of entertaining roads – i.e. PCH, Tail of the Dragon, OH-555, etc. – there’s not a better choice. As road test editor Chris Nelson wrote back in 2011, “you can find a lot of little things to complain about, but if you do, you're missing the point. The Miata is, has been, and always will be a purpose-built automobile. That purpose is to be one of the purest, most enjoyable sports cars on the market. Give it a smooth road, good company, and great scenery, and the Miata takes care of the rest.”