The Jeep Grand Cherokee is a fine road-tripping machine. How do I know this? Early Sunday morning, I returned home to the Ann Arbor area after driving through the night all the way from Saint Paul, Minnesota, where I saw the Michigan Wolverines fail to clinch their tenth NCAA men’s ice hockey Division I championship, falling to the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs in an overtime thriller by a score of 3 to 2. Like all Michigan hockey fans (and particularly the meager handful who made the eleven-hour trip to the Twin Cities), I was disappointed by the loss. I’m certain, though, that it didn’t bother me as much as it did some folks. You see, I’ve attended thirteen Frozen Fours since 1993 -- regardless of whether Michigan has earned its way to the annual championship weekend -- because I am a fan of college hockey as much as I’m a U of M fan.
For each of the past seven years, I’ve driven an Automobile Magazine Four Seasons vehicle to the Frozen Four (after years in my dad’s 1987 Plymouth Grand Voyager or his ’95 Dodge Grand Caravan ES). Automobile’s 2011 Grand Cherokee was the latest long-distance shuttle, and my two traveling companions and I found it to be extremely well-suited to the 630-mile one-way journeys, each of which we began at midnight -- as has been our typical approach throughout the years -- so as to maximize our speed through gridlock-prone Chicagoland and minimize our cash spent on lodging. Here’s a list of where I’ve been, what I drove there, the approximate length of the trip, that year’s NCAA hockey champion, a top future NHL star who helped his team win the title, and some brief vehicular highlights.
Chrysler 300C; 400 miles round trip
NCAA hockey champions: Denver University
Future NHL star: Paul Stastny
This actually ended up being among the longer trips, because my dad and I decided to do the relatively short Detroit-to-Columbus round-trip commute twice -- once for the pair of semifinal games on the Thursday and again for the finals that Saturday -- saving on hotel costs and valuable vacation days from my new job at Automobile Magazine. We loved the Chrysler’s Hemi-licious throttle response, comfortable seats, excellent value, and head-turning design. We didn’t love the car’s poor visibility and excessive exterior chrome or the fact that just one of college hockey’s several leagues, the WCHA, was represented.
Subaru B9 Tribeca; 625 miles round trip
NCAA hockey champions: University of Wisconsin
Future NHL star: Tom Gilbert
The Tribeca’s powertrain seemed especially overburdened when four guys and their luggage were added to the vehicle’s 4225-lb curb weight. Too-low armrests, disobedient climate control, and poor fuel range also darkened our opinion of the Subaru. But at least some excellent headlights helped brighten things, as did expansive second-row legroom and lots of luggage space. The Subaru redeemed itself somewhat by transporting us to Colin Comer’s enchanting classic-car showroom and a tour of the Miller Brewing Company. Spending time with a friend who’d just returned from a tour in Afghanistan and seeing the hometown favorite take the hockey title was entertaining, too.
Lexus LS460L; 1025 miles round trip
Saint Louis, Missouri
NCAA hockey champions: Michigan State University
Future NHL star: Justin Abdelkader
The most comfortable car for both driving and back-seat sleeping was easily the Lexus flagship that three friends and I drove to Saint Louis in 2007. A 6-foot-4, 265-pound companion was comfortable in every seating position, and all passengers were impressed with the LS’s on-ramp eating torque, 500-mile fuel range, and quartet of heated and cooled seats. The smallish trunk and difficult-to-modulate brakes weren’t so popular, however. A tour of the Budweiser facilities occupied us when we weren’t cheering for Michigan’s in-state archrival to win the hockey tournament. Unfortunately, our return-trip home was delayed for almost three hours while we sat parked on I-465 in Indianapolis due to the aftermath of a terrible, fatal head-on collision.
Chrysler Town & Country; 2425 miles round trip
NCAA hockey champions: Boston College
Future NHL star: Nathan Gerbe
It took three drivers twenty hours (with some weather-related slowdowns) to reach distant Denver. Overall, the T&C was an excellent road-tripper: comfortable, spacious, relatively unfatiguing, and tolerably quick. And like a minivan should be, it was also more maneuverable and easier to load than a traditional SUV and many crossovers. However, excessive road noise, along with a center console/cupholder compartment that vibrated like a coin-op bed in a cheap motel meant that we had to crank the Sirius satellite radio in order to keep our sanity. Visits to the Coors brewery and Bandimere Speedway didn’t hurt, either. The T&C’s extra space allowed us to haul back a bunch of stuff (including books, kitchen sundries, and hockey equipment) belonging to our Denver-area host, who would soon be moving back east. Unfortunately the Wolverines, in their first Frozen Four appearance since 2003, couldn’t get past Notre Dame in the semifinals.
Dodge Ram 1500; 1050 miles round trip
NCAA hockey champions: Boston University
Future NHL star: Colin Wilson
The Ram had been in Automobile’s fleet for less than two weeks when our quartet shoved our suitcases into rain-fighting garbage bags and tossed them into the pickup’s bed. The owner of a 2000 Saab 9-3 turbo, addicted to the Ram’s roaring Hemi sound at turnpike tollbooths, held the truck’s steering wheel for nearly 400 miles before finally relinquishing the reins. The Dodge’s optional 32-gallon fuel tank and sedanlike ride helped his traveling companions get plenty of rest despite the upright rear seats. On the ice, Michigan’s CCHA league rival, Miami (Ohio) University, lost the title game in overtime after blowing a two-goal lead in the final minute of regulation.
Subaru Outback 3.6R; 60 miles round trip
NCAA hockey champions: Boston College
Future NHL star: Cam Atkinson
Five people packed the Outback for the short drive to downtown Detroit, and none of them complained, although I could detect increased highway squishiness due to the extra weight. The Outback’s powerful 3.6-liter flat-six made it easy to keep up with Motor City traffic, and its raised ride height made for no-stress crossings over giant Detroit potholes and through a steep parking structure. Too bad such a steep angle wasn’t present in the temporary bleachers placed on the Lions’ playing surface at Ford Field; our assigned seats were so atrocious that we sat in them for just one of the nine periods of hockey.
Jeep Grand Cherokee; 1250 miles round trip
Saint Paul, Minnesota
NCAA hockey champions: University of Minnesota-Duluth
Future NHL star: Justin Faulk
Just because time has marched on doesn’t necessarily mean that navigation technology has, at least in the cars I’ve driven to the various Frozen Fours. The Jeep’s Garmin-based nav system is the worst so far: slow to update, lacks labels for city names, and uses a cartoonish car icon that’s dozens of miles long when you zoom out. Nonetheless, we found the exceptionally welcoming Twin Cities with no problems. The Jeep was very comfortable in the front seats, even though it rode a bit bouncily in the back. We loved the classy-looking cabin but noticed a few places where the pieces could have been installed more carefully. The Grand Cherokee’s rugged four-wheel-drive system allowed us to play around on a variety of water-covered Minnesota and Wisconsin roads. All three hockey games were hotly contested, too, which was a lot different from the three blowouts that we witnessed in Detroit in 2010.
For what it’s worth, my friends and I will probably skip next year’s Frozen Four in faraway Tampa, Florida, despite my access to Automobile’s fleet of Four Seasons test cars. Judging from the boos that resounded through the Xcel Energy Center when fans were reminded of the 2012 venue last Saturday, I’m clearly not the only dedicated college hockey fan who won’t be trekking to the Sunshine State to watch ice hockey. But I can’t wait to see what’s in the Four Seasons fleet for the 2013 tournament in Pittsburgh and the 2014 Frozen Four in Philadelphia …