The 10 best cars for a road trip
It’s the best kind of holiday you’re not having. Here’s how to do it properly
At the risk of premature optimism, we will eventually be shot of this hateful virus. And when that happy, halcyon day arrives, we’re going to need a proper holiday. Because this whole ‘staycation’ thing has worn about as thin as our COVID track pants.
But what sort of holiday are we going to take? Are we really just going to go back to hopping a plane somewhere, checking into an Airbnb and then gorging ourselves on cuisine that stopped being authentic after the first million tourists or so? Swanning around to the same old monuments, craning our necks past the sea of selfie sticks and manoeuvring among the phalanx-like throngs of tour-bus patrons? Yeesh. Even staying at home doesn’t sound quite so bad when you put it like that.
Luckily, there is a perfectly brilliant holiday just waiting in the... er, non-wings. Yep, it’s what holidays used to be back when flying was a) expensive and b) remotely enjoyable: the road trip. And, just like drive-in cinemas, it’s the kind of idea so great and so obvious that no one can really adequately explain why it was consigned to history.
And, as far as we can tell, it’s high time to bring it back. Maybe keep things to the planning stage at the moment, while everyone is still at the mercy of a deadly virus that’s stalking the globe and generally ruining whatever it touches – much like tour-bus patrons, now that we think of it. And while you’re planning, it makes sense to consider the perfect set of wheels for your upcoming road trip.
But what actually makes for a good road trip car? Well, decent mileage wouldn’t go astray, because, while a ghostly quiet service station on a pan-flat plain makes for great calm-before-the-storm pacing in movies, real-life service stations are about as enjoyable as... hm. How many times can we riff on tour buses before the joke gets old?
Reliability is another strong point. This doesn’t mean that everything has to work as accurately (and characterfully) as an industrial sewing machine. It does mean that everything that might break should be able to be diagnosed and repaired or replaced easily.
Space is an absolute must. Someone much cleverer than we are once said that space is the ultimate luxury. And it’s really hard to argue the toss on that one. Who doesn’t want a bit more width for their shoulders, a bit more legroom in front and headroom above? And then consider storage space, for luggage, drinks and food, and possibly hitchhikers – but only if they have their own towel – and you’re going to need more space than you think.
Character is often overlooked. But if you’re embarking on a lengthy trip, you actually have to want to be in the car. If you pull into your overnight holt and the prospect of getting back in the car the next day fills you with anything other than joy, what kind of holiday are you even having?
To that point, ride comfort is probably the most-overlooked part of any road-trip car. We get it: the allure of driving a GT3RS or Bowler Wildcat or broadly unobtainable hypercar is strong enough that it’s easy to overlook just how punishing these things can be over distance. With that in mind, we will be keeping a firm eye on the comfort portion of this little test.
Some would say that the most important part of a road-trip car – and any car, for that matter – is fun. But we’d like to split hairs for a little bit here. Fun, at least for us, comes from experiencing a car at the edge of its performance envelope. Just like a brilliant vintage Hiwatt amplifier doesn’t truly sing until you’ve turned it up to neighbourhood-dispute-starting levels, fun in a car tends to begin when you’re really pushing the car in a way that the local constabulary would likely take exception to. Enjoyment, on the other hand, doesn’t come from holding powerslides, inducing lift-off oversteer and all the other sorts of things that are incredibly fun to do and dull to describe to someone else in a conversation. Enjoyment can spring from the feel of the interior materials, the plushness of the ride, the smell of careworn leather and plastic that emanates every time you open the door. You can enjoy a car while driving, while sitting still, while having a cup of coffee and remembering that it’s waiting outside, ready to plod along for another 1,000 fault-free miles.
So, that makes up the six pillars of a good road trip car. However, finding cars that manage to be enjoyable, comfortable, characterful, spacious, reliable and economical is, to be frank, a bit of an ask. The good news, for you at least, is that we’re still at home, in our COVID track pants, with a lot of time to think about the right answer.Advertisement - Page continues below
Best saloon: Citroen DS
Back in the day, when the world made a modicum of sense, saloons were pretty much the default choice. And they, unlike the modern world, continue to make sense. There are enough seats for a whole family, enough doors to let them all in and out again and a separate space to put your things. Saloons really are the definition of practicality. Quiet now, estates, and wait your turn. We’re getting to you.
So, saloons take care of the whole ‘spaciousness’ bit pretty easily. How about ride comfort and character? Well, surely the Citroen DS nails both of those harder than Thor picking up Mjolnir and trying his hand at construction work. Even now, the DS is still the yardstick for ride comfort. And this is a car from the 1950s. And character? The DS could be a character in a Pixar film, like Cars, if only there was a spot in the cast for a slow, front-drive French limousine that oozed cool the entire movie and then casually stymied a presidential assassination at the end. Maybe the fourth instalment, Pixar. Give us a call; we’ll talk through the rest of the script when you’re ready.
Unsubtle pitches to major animation studios aside, what does the DS offer in the way of reliability? Don’t forget that these things won rallies – Monte Carlo, 1000 Lakes and any number not famous enough to mention outside the most anorak-wearing circles. In any case, these things were properly tough. Case in point? In a 1974 rally from Great Britain to Germany, that just happened to take a 12,000-mile detour through the African continent, the DS – despite being nearly 20 years old by that point – still finished first.
Mileage will be excellent, too, because of the supremely streamlined body (which, we just have to mention, still looks amazing to this day) and a simple four-cylinder engine that can trace its origins to the Citroen Traction Avant. So, power? It has some. Longevity? Merveilleuse.
But surely, you think, the DS can’t be enjoyable to drive. Not like a modern sports car. But maybe, we suggest, you experience the absolute mayhem that is a modern sports car before deciding how much you want to slight the DS on that basis. You’d be hard-pressed to find a new sports car with less than three times the power of the old DS, and that makes for very rapid progress along your chosen road and equally rapid progress through the local court system if you’re caught.
Instead, enjoying the DS is something done at a lollop, gliding over the vagaries and vicissitudes of whatever road, track or assortment of cobblestones your route is taking you. Take some time to sit back and relax; god knows it’s been more than long enough since you did that.
Best estate: Mercedes W123
‘So,’ you might be thinking, ‘if the perfect saloon for a road trip is the Citroen DS, then, surely, the best estate would be the DS Safari?’ OK, look. No one likes a smart ass. But then again, no one likes a dumb ass, either. In fact, just being an ass is enough for people to dislike you. Hm. This bears further investigation. It also feels like we’re digressing again.
Back to the DS Safari. This might be (OK, it absolutely is) nitpicking, but taking the incredibly avant-garde form of the DS and then combining it with the most practical of body styles loses something in the process. Really, it’s a victim of its own success – if the DS saloon wasn’t so shocking and so perfect and so jolie-laide, then tacking on a bit to hold antique buffets and Alsatians wouldn’t have been like resculpting a Rodin.
On the other hand, the Mercedes W123 is not a Rodin. It isn’t really sculptural at all, to be honest, unless you include a solid lump of uncarved marble in that description. Don’t get us wrong; we love it. We’re just saying that its more conventional, conservative appearance gels much better with the inherent practicality of the estate body style. In fact, we’d go ahead and say that, stylistically (and roughly every other way we can think of), the W123 works best as an estate.
And it’s hard to say that one of the most reliable cars in the world isn’t going to make it through whatever road trip you’re planning. Some of you might remember that a Top Gear TV alumnus drove a Mercedes W123 across Africa and could have driven right back to his starting point, were it not for a chronic lack of a sense of direction.
And there’s something incredibly enjoyable about piloting a car that feels about as impregnable as your average castle and gives the impression that it’ll last almost as long. And this is the W123’s calling card. It’s a classic car that still works as a day-in, day-out workshorse. And, not entirely coincidentally, as a road trip extraordinaire.
Given that it’s from back when estates weren’t sculpted and styled to look rakish and cool, the rear load area gives some impression of what it’d be like to cover your nearest sporting arena in carpet. And, because of the self-levelling suspension that came standard in the rear of all W123 estates, you can carry enough road-tripping supplies to circumnavigate Australia without having that dragging-bum look as the rear suspension capitulates entirely.
The danger with cars as reliable and reserved as the W123 is that, by doing its job with all the fuss and histrionics of your average toaster, it’ll be as memorable and characterful as... well, that very same toaster. But the Mercedes has that indefinable but unmistakable spark that separates it from any number of reliable, and reliably dull, pretenders to its throne.Advertisement - Page continues below
Best ute: 1959 Chevrolet El Camino
At first blush (or blanche, depending on how you react to coupe utilities), utes don’t seem to make the same amount of sense as saloons and estates for road trips. No space for family or friends, to start with.
But, by now, you might be cottoning on to where we’re going with this: what if your idea of a perfect road trip is one undertaken with just one other person or even by yourself?
Every god since the Greek ones knows that there’s a huge distinction between being alone and being lonely. What’s more, travelling is the best way to learn about the people you’re with. And it stands to reason that travelling alone – especially into the unknown – is one of the very best ways to learn about yourself.
But before we put ourselves in jeopardy of trotting out any more ‘travel expands the mind’ idioms and completely descending into hackneyed guff about wanderlust, let’s think about the right kind of car for a one-person odyssey into self-discovery.
Would you believe it’s a sixty-something-year-old Chevrolet? No? All right, we like a challenge. First things first: the 1959 El Camino comes from the Cadillac school of design, where too much is never enough. Just look at the wraparound windscreen, art-deco-homage glasshouse and sculptural flanks and try to resolve what you see with the idea that this was sold as a commercial vehicle. See, it’s not just the Italians who can make the banal beautiful – let a few 1950s Americans off the leash and you get a near-architectural farm truck.
Just looking at a ’59 El Camino is a joy, let alone easing it along the road of your choice. And you will want to ease it, if the El Camino’s going to clear our whole ‘somewhat economical’ bar. But don’t stress; just waft along, carried by the immense low-down torque of a 5.7-litre, all-American, all-iron V8. Also, if you’re not so fussed on economy, remember that this is long before the dreaded Malaise years, when horsepower took a decade-long vacation from almost every American engine – the top-spec 1959 El Camino was good for 335bhp when new, as well as a sound glorious enough to rival the Stratocaster of the same year. And for the non-vintage-guitar-tragics among you, that’s saying pretty much everything we can say about it.
Out back, there’s space for pretty much every conceivable road-trip appurtenance. We’d suggest waterproof bags for the things you’d prefer to keep dry and clean, but even if you carried your actual wardrobe and its contents on the back, there’s still room there for more, like a bike to go and explore the wilder bits of the blue yonder. Hey, that gives us an idea...
Best bike: BMW R80 G/S
Yes, it’s not a car. We are super aware of this. But calling the article ‘the best machines for a road trip’ or ‘the best vehicles for a road trip’ feels like what someone from an alien land would call it if it were trying unsuccessfully to assimilate into humanity. And we’re doing a fine job assimilating. So cars it is.
And yes, if you are taking a proper road trip all by your lonesome, can we suggest truly embracing the double-edged sword of trepidation and enjoyment by putting yourself truly out there?
The BMW R80 G/S is the absolute daddy of putting yourself out there. In fact, ever since its introduction in 1980, it’s pretty much redefined just how out there one can put oneself. The G/S in the name stands for Gelande / Strasse – literally terrain / street, but a better translation is off-road / on-road. And this isn’t some marketing-led bumpf on BMW’s part; the R80 G/S won Dakar on its debut – and this is back in the days when they actually went to Dakar. It kept raking in victories at Dakar and Baja throughout the 1980s, too, until it was replaced in 1987.
By modern standards, the G/S is far from the quickest bike in the world, but It. Just. Keeps. Going. Case in point: Ed Culberson rode from the north coast of Alaska all the way to Argentina. And that’s a good 19,000 miles of road. And about 80 miles of the complete absence of roads. Yep, we’re talking about the Darien Gap, a swathe of rainforest so dense and forbidding that the general plan when doing the Pan-American Highway is to hop a ferry from Panama to Columbia and keep riding south. Culberson didn’t do that. He rode, dragged, pushed and winched the G/S through a literal jungle. So let’s just say it can handle the highways and dirt roads you have in mind.
As for character? Well, bikes tend to follow the same rules as Porsches: you want real character? Go air-cooled. And the upright riding position means your back doesn’t ache from hugging the fuel tank. Oh, and your hands won’t go numb. Say that about a cafe racer.
Because it’s a bike, fuel economy will be better than a Ford Fiesta. And because it’s a bike, you’ll be a part of the environment that you’re moving through. No car – not even Caterhams – involve you in your surroundings as much as a motorbike. If your road trip is going to take you to somewhere beautiful (and it really should), are you willing to experience that less than you could?
OK, so calling a 1980s motorbike spacious would take some mental gymnastics, there’s much more space than you think to stretch your legs. Add a few panniers and pack like a student backpacker and there’s not a lot you’ll miss leaving behind. Possibly one more set of clean underwear, but that’s not really our business.
Best grand tourer: Aston DB9
More than any other, the GT car makes sense for road trips, right? With power to burn, space for your fitted luggage, trophy spouse and obscenely expensive, yet entirely cheap-looking sunglasses, surely all other cars must bow their heads to the king of long-haul-without-the-long-face motoring? Well, there might actually be something in that, now that you mention it.
It’d make sense to pick a Bentley Continental GT and call it that, but you know we’re going to try a little harder. Yes, folks, it’s the Aston DB9, one of the most gorgeous shapes of the modern age that just so happens to make one of the most gorgeous sounds of the modern age. And even now, approaching two decades since we first saw the DB9, it remains, as we’ve said before, “one of the world’s prettiest, classiest GT cars”. And, we hasten to add, easily one of the most enjoyable.
OK, so the whole ‘fuel economy’ thing is dented somewhat by the presence of 12 cylinders and the constant temptation to deploy them in the loudest and most enjoyable way. But it’s not like you’ll always be channelling your inner Finnish rally driver at every conceivable moment. The DB9 has performance chops, for sure, but its raison d'etre is more considered than just speed and handling.
Come on, you know this one: the DB9 is about supreme comfort and superlative cool. And it’s hard to argue that the DB9 doesn’t nail that brief, even now, when they’re a £30,000 second-hand proposition. Here, listen (or, y’know, read) what our most helmsmanly road tester had to say about the DB9, a decade after its introduction: “The languid V12 never appears to work that hard. It’s smooth, cultured, urbane: forceful in a very understated way. So, yes, it will propel itself along any given road with as much vim and vigour as you dare deploy, but you’ll never get the feeling that the car is having to work particularly hard for its speed. This makes it a very relaxing car to pilot.”
This, perhaps more than any other on this list, is the one to pick if your idea of a road trip involves the phrase ‘a few thousand miles’.
Best convertible: Mercedes SL Pagoda
But what about convertibles? Don’t they epitomise the road trip, with wind sailing through whatever’s left of your hair and the sun beaming down on your blissful face? Well, the thing about road trips is that they tend to be fairly lengthy things, by definition. A road trip will not be, for instance, London to Slough, because a) it’s a very short distance, b) the road there is neither fun nor less-travelled, and c) you end up in Slough, which is entirely uncalled for.
Real road trips take in hundreds, if not thousands of miles. And your average human being who is considering a road trip – the bulk of which wake up in a climate-controlled house, drive a climate-controlled car to a practically hermetically sealed office and then return to said house in said car – aren’t really experienced in what exposure to the elements can do to a person’s body. Or indeed mood.
As our two-wheeled brethren will already know, even what feels like gentle sun and whispers of breeze can ravage skin that’s used to being kept inside and moisturised. So, take that into account before you start scouring the classifieds for an old SL you can afford.
And yes, it’s going to be an SL, because they’re the best convertibles ever made. And the apotheosis of road-trip convertible perfection has to be the W113 Pagoda. OK, sure, they’re not exactly free these days, but where in our rigorous search for ‘best’ did ‘cheap’ come up? While there have been swathes of good SLs – some of which, like the excellent R129, are still entirely affordable – the Pagoda is the summit of what Merc achieved with its Super-Leicht drop-top, at least in terms of road-tripping. We should mention that the Fifties 300SL, while absolutely magnificent, wasn’t super big on the whole ‘carry luggage’ thing, which knocks it out of contention.
But that’s no hardship when you’ve Paul Bracq’s finest design, married to underpinnings (and a glorious straight six) that’d keep contemporary Ferraris honest if the track was tight enough. There’s just enough space to scrape by with ticks in the ‘comfortable’ and ‘spacious’ columns (still, pack light, yeah?) and economy isn’t at all terrible, especially given its age and sporting bent.
Where it excels – aside from its incredible reliability, which you just kind of assume from a pre-1990s Benz – is character. This is the car that swayed everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Stirling Moss back in the day, then still had the goods to get Kate Moss’s attention and affection decades later. And it’s easy to see why. This car, perhaps more than any other, makes you happy just to be behind the wheel, even if it’s in the middle of rush-hour traffic, let alone an open highway.Advertisement - Page continues below
Best hatch: Lancia Delta Integrale
Hm. This can’t be right. Surely hatchbacks aren’t road-trip material, right? Wrong. Allow us to reintroduce the Delta Integrale as you’ve never expected it to be used before.
So, you know all about how these things can cover ground like you wouldn’t believe, gripping like an episode of Chernobyl. But it’s worth remembering that, inside the fender flares and above the rally-spec drivetrain, lives a properly practical five-door hatch.
Speaking of practicality, the Integrale is left-hand-drive only. And this is actually handy, because that’s how most of the world does things. So you can cover the entire European mainland, almost all of the Americas, the top half of Africa, all of Russia and China and the bulk of southeast Asia without ever dicing with traffic from the wrong side of the car.
But who gives half a stuffed turkey about practicality when the Integrale is one of the most charismatic cars of all time? The Nineties-style turbo (hint: next to nowt down low, then a spitting, sizzling assault once past 3,000rpm or so), the super-quick steering rack, the blend of perfectly sculpted seats and a big plastic box for a dash, the immense grip only matched by the extraordinary suspension travel... every part of the Integrale is an event.
And that huge suspension travel also means that the little Lancia can eat up all the road imperfections that’d knock a more tightly screwed-down car off course, all while being as comfortable as a set of COVID track pants. This is a car you fire down a road on a rush of overboost, revelling in the joy of driving that’s untempered by the road surface.
So, it must be time to address the whole ‘Lancia reliability’ thing now, before someone digs up a joke so tired that it could pass for a first-time dad. And here’s how we choose to: six World Rally Championships on the trot, from a car that was pressed into service to replace a custom-built Group B monster at short notice. So yeah, it’ll likely handle the Côte d'Azur – after all, it won a rally there back in 1993.
Best electric car: Tesla Model S
This one’s tricky. First, because we rather like the planet and the idea of experiencing it without decade-long droughts, wildfires the size of continents and the concept of glaciers being a thing of the past. And we like electric cars too, especially the i3, Model 3 and Taycan.
But road-tripping, at least as much as we can conceive, is the Achilles’ heel of the electric car. While fast-chargers have been springing up about as quickly as TV subscription services, they tend to be on highways and heavily trafficked routes. And this makes complete sense for any number of logistical and economic reasons.
But perhaps the one central thing about road trips is that they’re always at their best away from the main thoroughfare. And the just-to-the-side-of-central thing about road trips is taking trips of fancy. Your intended route might be a top-to-bottom of the eastern seaboard of the US or Australia, but it’s the unintended diversions, spur-of-the-moment stopovers and unplanned explorations that engender the most memorable moments.
And how can you resolve that with an electric car’s charging constraints? It all seems a bit hopeless for the electric car.
But we have found something of a solution: the newly updated Tesla Model S Long Range Plus. Its range is now rated at a shade more than 400 miles. And how much do you really feel like doing more than 400 miles a day on your road trip?
Of course, you still need to put electricity back into the battery once it’s gone, and recharging a battery big enough to take a two-tonne car 400 miles isn’t going to be the work of a few minutes with a household outlet. But if you plan to stop at scenic locations for a day or two, that’s more than enough to hoover up the requisite kilowatt hours at your B&B, no? Also, be a mensch and pay your hosts for using more power in a day than they do in a month. Better yet, with a Tesla, you can take advantage of destination charging, where tourist destinations like wineries, hotels and so on install proper Tesla superchargers to attract the electric-car road tripper.
So, by taking your breaks at beauty spots, you can break free of main-road charging and middle-of-the-road trips. Anyone else up for an electric road trip through the Yukon?Advertisement - Page continues below
Best van: VW T3 Syncro
Full disclosure: we’ve never done the whole ‘drive a van around Europe’ thing. Our parents did, and they’re still together, so it’s clearly possible. But, at least for us, it offers up something of a conundrum. Driving a van tends to be about as fun as driving a stake into the heart of your favourite child.
That said, vans tend to nail the whole ‘space’ thing. Comfort’s a bit more hit and miss, unless your van used to be the courtesy bus for a quote-unquote classy Las Vegas hotel. As for character? Unlikely – 99 per cent of the time, vans are only slightly less characterful than an airport departure lounge.
But not the Type 2 Kombi. Yeah, it’s a little bit on the obvious side of no duh, but there’s a very good reason for that. They’re plentiful, reliable, spacious, economical, fun to be in and brimming with character. Not bad, really, for an underpowered, slab-sided van.
Our pick? Well, just to bring a little contrariness back into the mix, we’re going for the squared-off T3, also known as the Vanagon in the States. Why Vanagon? Because van + wagon = a stupid name, as it turns out. It also turns out that Volkswagen was terrible at naming things waaaay before the Arteon, which seems to have turned into a ‘Hold my delicious Czech lager’ for the bods over at Skoda. But we, as ever, digress.
The T3 was the most spacious and most powerful Vee Dub van that still followed the proper Type 2 formula: engine at the back, driver at the front, young adults in varying stages of insobriety in the middle. Possibly Steely Dan on the stereo.
And call us odd, but the supremely oddball Syncro version, with all-wheel-drive, lifted ride height and styling only slightly more squared-off than your average Brutalist building really speaks to us, even if the concept of sleeping in a van rates slightly below the concept of just forgoing sleep altogether. But what on earth would we need a jacked-up 4WD for on a road trip? Well, as a nice lead-in to our next point, perhaps.
Photo: Sam Beebe
Best 4WD: Mercedes G-Wagen
We’re sure, by now, that at least a few of you are wondering why there haven’t been any SUVs in this list. And at least one of you has correctly surmised that it’s because they’re hateful objects, bereft of anything approaching enjoyment or character. And they tend not to be stellar in the whole ‘fuel economy’ thing, either. For anyone keeping count, that’s three out of the six pillars that make a good road-trip car, crumbled into dust and therefore not holding the roof up in a way that the people under said roof would much prefer they did.
But there’s also another reason. Cast your mind back to when cars were designed for specific purposes and not specific markets. Some of you will have to accomplish the faintly impossible task of casting your mind back further than your mind has actually existed. In this halcyon time, SUVs weren’t called SUVs, and car journalists couldn’t mock the fact that the cars in question weren’t sporty or particularly utilitarian, so were really only Vs. They were called 4WDs or off-roaders. And now, not a moment too soon, we reach our point: if you’re going on a road trip, is there not a whiff of logical fallacy in taking an off-roader?
And we reach another problem with including SUVs – if they’re designed to go off-road, they’ll be compromised on it. And if they’ve already been adapted to go on the road, then their original purpose has been compromised by the adaptation, and their use on the road will be compromised by the fact that the original purpose of a vehicle of that sort is to go off-road.
And now let us quietly pierce our own logical argument by remembering that not all roads are in tip-top shape. Some, such as those in less-developed parts of the world, like Australia, are in such poor condition that the open, grass-tufted paddock next to the road is often an inviting alternative to the torturous potholes and corrugations of the quote-unquote actual road.
So if your intended road trip takes you on roads that mimic the surface of the moon, there really can be only one choice. Something built to take hits that not even Rocky Marciano could walk off. Something with big wheels and tyres that won’t disappear into cavernous potholes. Something that oozes character, but generally not coolant or oil. And that something is probably going to be an old Land Rover Defender or a Jeep Wrangler.
Which side you fall on probably relates to how you feel about dumping tea in Boston Harbour, but our choice? Probably an old G-Wagen. Yeah, we picked German. Does that mean we have to surrender our British passports or something?