Choosing the Right Road Trip Vehicle

For Chevy Chase's character, Clark Griswold, in the classic comedy National Lampoon's Vacation, the perfect vehicle for a cross-country family trip turned out to be a reliable old station wagon that was long enough to carry the corpse of unfortunate Aunt Edna for some distance on the roof — and sturdy enough to survive the ill-fated journey to the Walley World Amusement Park.

There's no substitute for the cargo area of a boxy SUV, such as the Chevy Tahoe, if you need to bring a lot of luggage.

There's no substitute for the cargo area of a boxy SUV, such as the Chevy Tahoe, if you need to bring a lot of luggage.

Whether you take your own car on long family journeys or weekend getaways for two, or just rent a vehicle for your trip, your car should help you relax and unwind. Nothing can turn a trip into a drag more quickly than being stuck with the wrong wheels.

Here are some factors to consider when choosing a road trip vehicle:

The third-row seat of the 2009 Saturn Outlook is easy to get in and out of and can hold adults comfortably.

The third-row seat of the 2009 Saturn Outlook is easy to get in and out of and can hold adults comfortably.

Size in All Its Dimensions

Although $4-a-gallon gasoline has become a fact of American life, don't automatically discount large SUVs and vans. There may be enough offsetting advantages to make one worth the sizable extra fuel cost.

Particularly on a long road trip, some drivers prefer a full-size SUV's elevated seating. And some may feel extra security in knowing that their big Chevy Tahoe or Honda Pilot will hold up well in a crash against most anything else on the road. A larger car usually means more interior space for everyone, something crucial to keeping the peace.

Relationship expert April Masini says that a lot of interior space is especially important for "feuders" who vacation together. "You might consider paying a little extra for gas [usage] and a little less at the therapist's office," said the author of 50 First Dates and the Next 50 Dates.

And if you have a family or a lot of gear, there's simply no substitute for the beefy, boxy interior of an SUV or minivan. A few pieces of luggage, a couple of golf bags, a dog cage and a family of four or five can still fit into some highly capable vehicles, such as the Chrysler Town and Country or Dodge Durango.

And of course, if you're a recreational boater or camper, your Toyota Prius just isn't going to cut it when it comes to hauling that boat or ATV to the lake or campground. Raw pulling power still has its place, and you'll find the highest towing capacities on large SUVs and trucks.

Sitting Pretty

Relatively fixed and unsupportive seats can be downright painful on a long road trip; favor vehicles with plenty of seat adjustments and, if possible, lumbar supports. For passenger comfort, a crucial mistake can be choosing a vehicle without reclining second-row seats, forcing sleepy riders either to sit up straight or slouch over on their sides.

Also be careful about third-row seating: While many automakers tout them, lots of these third rows would only be comfortable for trolls. But vehicles such as the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, Mazda CX-9 and Saturn Outlook have comfortable third rows — and none of them are the biggest SUVs on the road.

Seat fabric can be a major determiner of interior comfort as well. Leather lends itself to long trips because it allows you to slide around in the seat a lot more easily than cloth does. Pay attention to color, too: Dark-colored seats could be a big mistake if you're traveling where it's hot.

Safety First

Every vehicle on the road today is constructed to create a cage around the passenger compartment that holds up pretty well, except in the most horrific of crashes. The best vehicles literally create a pneumatic ring around you in the event of an accident, with front-row side and full-length side curtain airbags that work with seatbelts and frontal airbags. The Acura MDX, Mercury Sable and Volvo C70 are among vehicles with this level of safety.

Beyond that, automakers today are introducing more accident-avoidance systems that make vacation driving safer. Take electronic stability control (ESC) for example. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety now requires that any cars it designates as Top Safety Picks each year include ESC, at least as an option, because of how valuable these systems are in helping drivers maintain control of their vehicles during emergency maneuvers. "SUVs, especially if they're loaded up with people and their gear, have a higher center of gravity than cars and are more likely to roll over," said Russ Rader, an executive at the Institute.

Electronic warning systems that alert the driver when he/she is drifting out of their lane are another lifesaver for those who tend to zone out after a few hours on the interstate. BMW's 5 Series and 6 Series, for example, sports such an assist, and the upcoming Infiniti EX compact SUV actually lightly applies the vehicle's brakes to keep the driver from drifting out of his lane if he hasn't shown his intention — such as by signaling — to change lanes. (For more articles on recommended safety technology, see the Car Safety Guide.)

Green May Mean Lean

If you like to drive fuel sippers for economic or environmental reasons, then road trips may pose an interesting choice. Most fuel-efficient cars are smaller and have less room for stuff than other vehicles.

If your determination to be green prevails, a trip in a fuel-efficient vehicle can be its own reward. A family driving from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta can make the entire trip on one tank of diesel fuel, for example, notes the Diesel Technology Forum, whereas in a gasoline vehicle they'd have to refuel in Charlotte, North Carolina — four hours shy of their destination.

Hybrids, of course, are in more plentiful supply than ever. The Ford Escape Hybrid, for example, offers the space of a small SUV with less of the gas guilt. And if you want better fuel economy but don't want to sacrifice too much oomph, consider hybrids such as the Lexus RX 400h, a midsize SUV with a six-cylinder engine that performs with all the robustness of the comparable, all gas-powered Lexus RX 350.

Highway to Fun

Automakers like to feature vehicle amenities in their advertising. But you don't really use a lot of these doodads until you're on a long road trip — and at that point, they can really come in handy. For example, in the glovebox of its Avenger sedan and Caliber hatchback, Dodge has included what it calls the Chill Zone: a cooler that can store as many as four 12-ounce beverage cans and other snacks. The Avenger, along with the Chrysler Sebring, has cupholders that will both heat and cool beverages. Some Volkswagen models have gloveboxes and center consoles that keep food cold as well.

And while you may not have much need for a navigation system for your daily commute, today's nav systems can be priceless little fonts of information on a long trip or if you're headed to unfamiliar territory. They calculate driving times, flag upcoming restaurants or gas stations, and get you from Point A to Point B. Honda, Nissan and Toyota have robust nav systems that are easy to use, though their interfaces vary even within the brands.

"Adaptive" or "intelligent" cruise control systems take much of the physical edge off long stretches of driving by automatically maintaining a safe distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you. Models with these systems, including the Infiniti QX56, remove a great deal of the long-distance driving strain.

As any parent knows, rear-seat DVD entertainment systems can be indispensable for a road trip. And a plethora of power outlets — from 12 to 110 volts — is another great feature in a vacation vehicle, allowing folks to plug in everything from laptops and cell phones to coolers and video games. Just remember to check what kind of power and/or interface your devices need ahead of time.

Whether you take a lot of vehicle vacations or you save it all up for the once-yearly road trip, you don't need to end up like the Griswolds. Renting or purchasing the right vehicle for your trips can be a great preventative.

Get more help planning your vacation with a list of the Top 10 Road Trip Vehicles.

Dale Buss has been covering the auto business for more than 20 years. He is based near Detroit.