When we drove from Manhattan to Detroit's Woodward Dream Cruise, it got us thinking about the Holy Grail of American road trips: all the way across the country. It has to be done, but behind the wheel of what?
Not what we drove, believe us. We had a great time at the Dream Cruise, but we didn't have a really great time getting there (or back!) because we drove Bumblebee/Phyllis/Edith, our bright yellow Camaro, and frankly most muscle cars are hell for long trips. Once we got back, dropped Phyllis/Edith/Optimus McBumblebee off, and cabbed it home, we realized the cabs were by far the comfiest yellow cars we'd ridden in all weekend. Which explains our first choice:
Chevy Caprice-or really any big American body-on-frame sedan
Occupants: Up to four down-to-earth friends with extensive cassette-tape collections
Attitude: Relaxed, with ample stops for gas-station souvenirs
Slouchy comfort is the strong suit here. You get big bench seats fore and aft to stretch out on, a sort of floaty wallowy comfort, and a huge trunk for storing enormous 256-ounce collector's drink mugs, petting-zoo T-shirts and silver naked-lady silhouettes. It's unquestionably American without being a grandiose flag-waving statement, and some of them are still mistaken for cop cars in many regions. A great car to use when the trip matters more than the destination, but the drive matters less than the trip, if you will.
Photo Credit: Geocities
Volkswagen Camper Van
Occupants: Two in comfort, but up to four with increasing probability of hippies occurring
Attitude: Face-first and wide-eyed into the eternal now of the North American continent, or other such pseudopoetics
The VW van is really a very serviceable little automobile, within its limits, but those limits are defined as much by metaphysics as physics. Something about its ambling rate of progress, its right-up-front driving position, and of course its heritage, all combine to make this car a spiritual pitfall. People have been known to become cut-rate Ken Keseys after a week traveling in one of these, which is too bad. They really are pleasant and functional little things to putt around in, if your tie-dye inoculation is up to date.
Photo Credit: Motivemag
Mercedes E-Class Wagon
Occupants: Married couple with 2.4 kids
Attitude: Don't Make Me Turn This Thing Around, You Spoiled Ungrateful Brats
The point here isn't Mercedes style or quality or comfort or any of that, though it's nice to have those conveniences and comforts as possible on a family vacation. Any wagon would work just fine here as long as it had, as the Merc does, the rear-facing bench seats for the wee 'uns. The backwards bench is plain awesome to ride in when you're a certain age (roughly 7-65) and your mean dad won't stop at the petting zoo. It's also a good barometer for judging the behavior of your little darlings. Just belt them in, give them some juice, and set out for the other coast. If a Peterbilt rear-ends you and kills you all stone dead, your children were hellions who have learned to give The Finger. If not, they're probably pretty good kids.
Photo Credit: Motorward
Occupants: One thoughtful loner or two people who are deeply and genuinely in love and have good nonverbal communications skills
Attitude: "I am just going outside and may be some time"
This is really the only hairshirt option on this list. Usually we love the Miata because of its balance and handling, but if you're the sort who can travel with a single big duffle bag and you're not limiting yourself to Interstates, the Miata is a brilliant tourer. The seats are good for moderately long stints, there's just enough weight that you don't get buffeted by trucks, and you can put speakers in the headrests so your music is audible over the wind noise, mostly. Believe us, driving through the mountains in a nimble convertible with the top down feels transcendent, like getting away with something. Of course, you'll become really familiar with American wheelcovers, and driving through a thunderstorm with the top up feels like spiralling down the Norway maelstrom in a tent, so there are tradeoffs.
Photo Credit: Automotive
Occupants: 1-3, plus huge dog with bandanna around its neck (not optional)
Attitude: Roads are nice, but not really necessary
Who wouldn't love a good old Bronc? It's the perfect cross-county ride for people who take the phrase literally. Plus you sit up nice and high, so you can see over bridge railings and the like, and you can roll the rear window down and feel rugged and raffish. And everyone loves them so you'll instantly make friends with the locals, especially when you stop to take snapshots of the petting zoo and your huge dog with the bandanna around its neck jumps out.
Photo Credit: flickr
Occupants: Up to four adults with luggage or two with a darling credenza
Attitude: Before we leave, make sure all the NPR stations are pre-programmed in
There are some people who simply must have an SUV, so if you must, take this. It has the ride height to give you good views, it drives more or less like a car, it returns fair fuel economy, and it can even carry a few tasteful pieces back, for those who are too button-down for kitschy road-trip crap but aren't above a bit of modest antiquing. Just don't bring kids, who tend to leave unsightly smudges on the glass as you drone right past waterparks and petting zoos and giant roadside dinosaurs. Come to think, don't bring us either.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Cadillac Sedan DeVille, 1994-1999 models
Attitude: Stern, plus must be starting in upper Pacific Northwest, Upper Midwest, or Upper Northeast, and be heading for Florida
This is a seriously comfy car: good leather, nicely done LED lights, arctic air conditioning, very smooth Northstar V8. God alone knows why they stopped making it, but it's no surprise because there hasn't been a sane day in this country since Eisenhower. Ashtray's really too small for the cigars, but that's why Christ created power windows. Damn if Rush doesn't sound like he's right in the car with you, and the music would sound okay too if it all didn't sound like some loon bangin' on a can anymore. How many more miles to Fort Lauderdale?
Photo Credit: picasa
Converted School Bus
Occupants: Up to 30, but who's counting?
Attitude: Either "Taking a year off to see a game in every great American ballpark" or "If it's really and truly terminal, this is better than a hospital bed."
Sometimes a transcontinental journey is both a specific goal and a way to say To Hell With Everything. In those cases, see of your local school district has a Bluebird they're not planning on using and go to town with whatever tools and batty ideas you have lying around. The example in our photo is a bit extreme, but you don't have to have a camper van welded to the top. Cutting off the roof aft of the wheel humps to make a porch works, as does adding alfresco seating in the middle section, as is installing a hang-glider launch ramp on the roof. Once you finally trundle it out there, just don't be in a hurry. Be willing to let "across the nation" become "around the nation." And watch for hippies.
Photo Credit: hackedgadgets
Attitude: Understated, underappreciated, and well over the speed limit.
There may be better and faster grand-touring cars, but we just love this thing. Honda couldn't convince people their exotic really was an exotic, but we get it. Most know its reputation as a very balanced car, even with "only" 300 horsepower-less than the FX35. But it's also a supremely comfortable car, with some of the all-time great seats. It'll only hold two carry-ons in its "trunk," but you're not going camping in an NSX; have the coincierge send your clothes out to be cleaned and pressed while you take dinner. If we were to make a serious attempt at a fast but sane personal transcontinental record, this car would be hard to pass up.
Photo Credit: gotbroken
Attitude: One man drives while the other men scream
We repeat: Muscle cars are terrible long-distance transportation. But if we had to pick one, it'd be the Mustang GT, with its combination of good outward visibility, ride quality, driver comfort, and survivable back seat room. If you have to play Third Cylon in a muscle car, as we did on our recent Detroit trip, this is the muscle car to do it in. But seriously, after the first gas stop, you'll be thinking about trading it in on a nice '94 Sedan DeVille.
But whatever you go in, go! We've given you the best states to drive across, discussed the worst, and now a list of vehicles and ideas. Now get out there on the road and make our country a great destination again. Those petting-zoo animals ain't gonna pet themselves!
Photo Credit: Wikipedia