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.