Which car would you choose for The Great American Road Trip?

We’re thinking about it…..

Coast to coast. From sea to shining sea. All that stuff.

One of the tricks will be choosing the right car. I’m open to renting if the right car is available, but I’m also thinking of foregoing the rental route and purchasing a car to use, then re-sell when we’re done. The logistics will be tricky, I know, but it opens up the choices quite a lot.

So what would you choose?

You’ve got to get from the north-east down to Cali and then maybe all the way up the left coast. Part of me wants to do it in a black screaming chicken a-la Smokey and the Bandit but reliability and efficiency have got to count for something.

It needs to be:

  • Reasonably efficient (but I’ll still take a V8)
  • Comfortable for long sessions behind the wheel
  • Big enough to take at least 1 full suitcase, but not necessarily huge
  • Able to be fixed at a large number of locations if something goes wrong
  • Reasonably simple to acquire and then sell
  • Something you’re happy to have as part of your memories as integral to the trip

I asked Mrs Swade the question this morning and I liked her answer – Ford Mustang. One of the older ones would be romantic, but one of the newer series would be much more suitable. It’s also the most iconic American vehicle according to our poll.


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  1. Very easy, a Diamond Silver 2012 Saab 9-5 Aero BioPower XWD with DriveSense, Head-up Display, Infotainment, 18 inch Rotor wheels and ventilated parchment leather seats. 😉

  2. Sounds like a great trip! Is there any other option than a Saab for a trip of that size? I’d personally go with a good, used 9-5 Aero or 9-3 convertible. I took many monster roadtrips over the last 10+ years in the 9-5 Aero that I finally retired last month with 325k miles from new, never letting me down. The last big trip in the Aero last summer took me from the central US to southern California, up US101 and California 1 through Monterey and the SF area, before heading back to the midwest a couple weeks later…

    A early vintage Mustang would indeed be romantic, but over a monster trip like you’re proposing, it’ll quickly remind you how far cars have come over the years. A Fox-bodied V8 Mustang convert wouldn’t be horrible to drive for a trip like that, and would fit the ‘cheap wheels’ category.

  3. I once paid $1500 a 1991 Chevy Suburban, sight unseen, with 222,000 miles on it – and used it to tow my new acquired red SPG back to Minnesota from Savannah, Georgia. I did spend another $500 for new tires in Atlanta after I bought it. The big old GM SUV’s are dead simple to work on, and even high-mileage examples should be pretty reliable.

    A Mustang would be nice, but crowded I fear for a cross country trip.

    Might I suggest a 2008-2012 Chevy Malibu? Easy to buy, easy to resell, and even in base form, a decent highway cruiser. I rented a 2012 Malibu for a drive from Phoenix to Monument Valley, and back – I actually enjoyed it.

    The actual route you take should be the subject a separate post.

    I would highly recommend buying a AAA membership, just for the breakdown/towing insurance – or obtain comparable coverage from somewhere else.

    1. Good advice, Greg, esp the AAA bit. And yes, the route will definitely be the subject of a few posts (am trying to get Minnesota into my thoughts – why can’t you be closer to Tennessee?).

      But, purely for Saaby reasons, I can’t allow myself to consider a GM product (save for a GM-era Saab, of course). Would an old SUV from any manufacturer be comfortable enough for a trip (I’m thinking especially of Mrs Swade, here). I’m not averse to the older SUV idea. I’m assuming Ford might have made a few that would be worth checking out.

  4. I would definitely rent a V-8 Mustang. It gets pretty good mileage for a V-8. Hertz used to rent the special edition GT’s a couple years ago. Not sure if they still do. They were black with the gold racing stripes.

  5. Crown Victoria, no question. Ultimate late model land yacht. You will never feel a bump on the pot-holed highways, or any chaos outside. Safe and reliable too. Get the V8 but even the six still hauls. Take what every you want with room to spare. Invisble to cops (since most Crown Vics are cop cars), and other cars pull over and let you pass (becasue they think you are a cop). Don’t worry about it in parking lots, or when crashing through tight back alleys….its pretty much indestructable.

  6. I can’t believe I am suggesting this but I am very impressed with the 2012 BMW X-5 with the inline six cylinder Turbo. Handles good stiff suspension like I like. Drives well on freeways And is able to handle any road conditions one might encounter on a cross continent trip.
    Same X wheel drive as my TurboX.

  7. I’ve done that drive–Vermont to San Francisco via Albuquerque–in a 92′ SAAB 9000 Griffin. What a great car that was. Those seats! Car made it through dual winter storms in the northeast, long dull passages on the 40, and through dense fog in the CA Central Valley (aftermarket Bosch headlamps didn’t hurt).

    Let me say again–those seats! But this was back in 2001. To do it now, I’d probably go with an autobahn cruiser with big seats and plenty of get-up-and-go. I’d prioritize great seats, good AV package, get up and go for the flat bits. I think that leaves you with very, very few American options. But Hertz does rent Mustang GTs, as well as C-63 AMGs and Porsche Panameras (at least at LAX).

  8. Easy, I’ll take my 2010 Saab Aero. Plenty of room, big trunk, lots of power, and it handles very nicely for the twisty bits.

  9. Been there, done that. 1959 Rambler American, of course the year was 1962. I didn’t drive, but the view was great from the back seat. (no air conditioning)

  10. Being that it’s the Great American Road Trip, I would like to suggest something iconic and vintage, very special, but reliable. I would love to make such a trip in something like a 1953 Studebaker Commander 2-door (a Raymond Loewy design that I think is recognized by the Smithsonian), or a 1963 Avanti (the great car that failed to save Studebaker, but set impressive records on the Salt Flats), or any V8 Hawk. There are many good, drive-able examples on eBay, and some on sale in the North East. Very reliable, easy to fix, and easy to sell.

  11. I actually suggest if you can get one, a Pontiac G8, you should recognize it 🙂

    Unfortunately, the best two vehicles for your trip would have been an Impala or a Pontiac GrandAm. Both are good long distance cruisers, tons are around, and its easy to fix.

    I suggest actually a Dodge Minivan or Charger. Both are very comfortable, which is what you need on a trip of this sort.

  12. Definitely Ford Mustang. Or if you want to stand out, get a replica of the General Lee!

  13. I guess it has to be an American iron for such an iconic trip (although it was a bit telling a few weeks ago when a Toyota hauled the retired remains of the glorious US space program through the streets of LA). I understand if you say no to any GM car, so a Ford Mustang sounds just fine. An old one would probably look great on photos, but I guess I would prefer a rather new one for comfort and safety reasons. Otherwise, why not rent a Mercedes? A Mercedes CL, perhaps? Feels to me like a car that would be spot on for a trip like that.

    A new 9-5 would be great, but I don’t know about the situation when it comes to service and spare parts all over the continent…

  14. Winning thoughts so far – definitely the Mustang. And yes, it’d be a newer one. Preferably a V8. It’d probably be best to rent one due to cost. Renting one to pick up on one coast and drop off on the other seems a bit difficult, so we might have to look further into that.

    In terms of used – a V8 Merc S Class might be fun. I think a 9000 Aero, properly checked over, would eat up the miles, too.

    A CTS, Eggs? You’re not taking your medication, are you? 🙂

  15. To me, it would be all about the seats. While there is so much romance and charm about making such a road-trip, I know how just a few hours in sub-par seats is pure misery. Using seats alone as a criterion would eliminate many vehicles. While 9000 seats are the most comfortable (as much as I adore them, I find the standard 9000 seat superior for plain comfort), why come all this way just to get in a Saab, any Saab?

    An SUV, much as I wouldn’t want to own one, isn’t a bad idea. I was surprised when I was afforded the opportunity to drive a 9-7x considerable distances that it was quite comfortable. There is that GM bugaboo, though….

    How about a nice F150 extended cab? You’d fit right into the landscape, it’s uber-American, can get it fixed anywhere, might be comfortable (??) and would be easy to resell.

    As you think about your trip, I might suggest to you and Mrs. Swade a read of John Steinbeck’s “Travel’s with Charley,” an autobiographical account of Steinbeck–late in life–setting out with his pickup/camper to see the USA with his dog, Charley. It’s a much more enjoyable read than his fiction!

    1. It’s funny you mention it, mate, but I did spot a 9-7x Aero with that big LS2 engine on Ebay before……. but naaah, couldn’t do it. It’d be comfy, I’m sure, but I couldn’t do it.

      F150 crossed my radar after Greg’s suggestions, too.

      BTW, if we do this, there’s every chance we’ll be starting from around your way. I might have to lean a little on your vehicle spotting expertise 🙂

  16. Swade,
    I would have to ask what time of year you and the Mrs. would be driving across country? In addition I’d like to know the basic route direction such as NE to SW, N to NW? I would also like to know what your plans are for the trip? Such as overnight stays (motel/hotel or friend in the States?) Planned sight seeing stops. Not really where, but rather yes we plan to. I think those answers could play some in the process.

    I have driven many times quite some distances. NY to Flordia….NY to Indiana and back in a weekend in a HUMMER. NY to Texas…NY to Missouri… NV to CA in a Honda….uuurgh. I’ve driven, pick-ups, RV’s, Saab’s, Suzuki’s…. Like so many here..really a vast amount of vehicles..

    Here’s what I’m thinking based on assumption. If you plan a summer trip, where you plan to stop at friends houses, landmarks, natural wonders, sightseeing stops and random “this looks cool, take a right honey” locations in a vehicle that is comfortable for both of you to drive and rest in over long periods between stops, allows the freedom I think you’re looking for in regards to the ability to stop and go as you please. Is small enough to maneuver yet large enough to have some amenities such as food storage, water, bathroom and space for purchases and treasure to take back to the family and is comfortable enough to forgo the motel expense of traveling…….Then a Camper Van, A Class B or a small Class C RV is definitely the way to go! You can rent them, they have roadside assistance on them, they are semi to fully contained, reasonably fuel efficient, ford powered, easy to drive for you and Mrs. Swade.

    If it were I and Melissa and I have spoken about such a trip of sorts, then a 26′-28′ Class C RV with a single slide would be our choice hands down.

    Stop where ever when ever and stay nearly as long as you like for little to nothing. Picture this. Pull up. Put in park, open slide on RV. Go outside. Open folding chairs. Sit next to Mrs and have a coke and a smile where ever your heart desires!

    No matter what you choose, as the others here have mentioned, comfort in driving long distances is paramount. Handling and even fuel mileage fall to a lower level of importance in a driving across country trip! I trust you will be happy with whatever choice you make.


      1. So funny. I actually hoped you had time to swing by quite and take her for a rip! For such a trip, Roadside assistance – Ha! People to work on it – ha-ha! and comfort….ha-ha-ha…..but fun factor….super sized! maybe thats what we put on the dolly behind the RV and unload just to rerun that last “section” of road…. what a hoot!… 🙂

        1. Hey, if Steven comes by we should caravan over to Smitty’s for some beer and pizza. The Sonabusa can lead the way.

  17. I’ve done the trip three times. Once in a tour van and twice in cars. It’s a fun trip, and surely a lifetime experience for a couple of Aussies.

    A few practical considerations:
    If you are buying and reselling, I suggest that you go west-to-east and not the other way. West coast cars sell at a premium on the east coast, whereas east coast cars are hard to sell on the west coast. That’s partly due to rust concerns, partly due to emissions regs in California.

    Forget about SUVs and pickups. They can be a pain to drive over long distances, especially if you or your wife are susceptible to motion sickness. Also, you will kink your neck and get back spasms if you spend a day fighting a bad crosswind. The money wasted on gas can be spent on better accommodations, better food, more sightseeing, etc.

    Don’t worry too much about reliability and parts availability. Long-distance touring isn’t very hard on a car. Worst case, you will need to make an unexpected stop. Even the most obscure parts can usually be overnighted to the most obscure parts, as it were. Think of it as an opportunity. Overall, Americans are some of the friendliest, most honest and most generous people you will ever have the pleasure to meet.

    I would have no qualms about doing this trip in a vintage RWD American car purchased off of Craigslist. Make sure you budget an extra thousand for a pre-trip service (probably new tires, shocks and front-end components, alignment, transmission and radiator flush, etc). There’s no shortage of one-owner, low mileage Dodge Diplomats in mint condition.

    Keep an open mind. Iconic cars go for a premium. That’s why I mentioned the Dodge Diplomat: nobody ever mentions the Dodge Diplomat! Any car you buy will soon become iconic to you.

    Have fun. Drop me a line if you venture up to Ontario.

    1. Some great advice there Bernard. The voice of experience. West to East is a good tip as my first consideration was to go the other way.

      Thanks a bunch.

      1. OK, then I can help you sell the vehicle. He’s right–much easier to move a west coast car here than the inverse. You’ll have to look into regulations about registering/insuring a vehicle without a residence and that likely varies greatly state to state. One possible advantage to starting east–buy or register the car in New Hampshire (if possible) and you’ll pay no taxes.

    2. Can’t really imagine going west to east. I have this picture in my head that you really want to go towards California, the Pacific… Into the sunset…

  18. A SAAB 9-5 Areo , but if I had to rent , a Mustang so long as the seats feels good to this old guys back .

  19. Saab 9-3 2.8 V6 Convertible with OnStar and/or classic navigation system, i mean is a best choice for ,,Trans-Am” Nomads.

  20. I side with your wife, Swade. I immediately thought of a Mustang as well, but it HAS to be the 2013. Ford made several subtle changes to the Stang from 2012 to 2013, whose combined efforts result in a pretty spectacular car. Kind of what Saab did with the 900 to 9-3…

    Go with the convertible, the trunk provides a good amount of space. The GT is surely an exhilarating ride, but obviously the V6 provides excellent gas mileage, relatively speaking. I think the V8 delivers 25MPG HWY, and since there will be plenty of that, perhaps not a bad option either?


  21. Endorse the West-East thing, I thought the same.

    Seriously, all kidding aside:

    – The later model Mustang is a great choice. The question mark for me with that choice would be comfort — the seats in the Mustangs that I’ve rented (three) haven’t been the best.

    – For similar reasons, I’d also suggest a newer Dodge Charger. Maybe a Challenger if you want, but it will probably be more expensive. The upside: huge low-end torque, rear-wheel-drive, some techie toys, decent handling and rubber. The downside: cheap-ish interior, gas mileage, not the head-turner the Mustang can be. Tons of room.

    – Infiniti G35/G37: Performance, style, comfort and stable resale value. Can be repaired at any Nissan or Infiniti dealer. A very solid choice.

    – Audi A6/A5/A4 quattro turbo: What great cars these are. My A4 was a flawless performer. May be a little tricky to get service in some environs.

    Omitting vehicles that you won’t choose (SUV, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Toyota), that’s the deal as I see it.

    1. x2 on the Dodge Charger. Excellent idea. And I’ve done a couple of road trips in a Chrysler minivan — not bad at all, if you’re OK with the minivan concept.

  22. I used to have an AMC postal Jeep that I bought from the US Postal Service. I have a tendency to buy distinctive vehicles, and it definitely fit the bill. I could slide the driver’s door all the way back so that the ground was right there for good ac and to provide somewhat of a feeling that you were on a motorcycle. It was my back & forth to work vehicle while my new SAABs sat in the garage pristine. Have you ever seen a “Baby On Board” sign? I had one that said, “I Owe, I Owe, It’s Off To Work I Go”. I don’t know what could be simpler to work on. It was an inline six with auto tranny. It was actually fun to drive because it wandered and the steering had a dood share of slack. The fun part was that it caused you to laugh as you sawed the wheel like driving a sprint car on dirt. My point is that it would ward off any drowsiness as you sawed on the wheel. Look on the bright side. It’s hugely preferential to a covered wagon like the settlers used with engines shootin at em and sometimes gettin stuck in the mud up to axle! Okay, okay, all humor aside. The first car that popped in my mind was a new Vette. Out and out elprimo in every way except that it’s Gee Em. My second thought is a new 9-5 Turbo 4 Premium. My butt feels soothed just thinking of driving long distance in a SAAB. It was always good therapy for me when I had a sore back and/or butt. SAAB seats are like magic. I don’t need to start explaining the additional wondrous attributes of these wonderful Swedish treasures. Good luck, and have a great trip!

    1. A friend of mine in high school had one of those mail trucks. Slower than molasses in January. His was a four-banger.

      The Corvette came to my mind, too. However, I thought about the drive across the desert and I determined that the seating position may be too confining. Perhaps that’s just my 6’5″ frame talking, but I’d eschew the Corvette as a road car. On the flip side, you could get a 10-year-old one pretty inexpensively, I’d think?

  23. You certainly wouldn’t want to drive it across the country – but if New England is on your route (sure it is) – here is the opportunity to borrow my Sonett III for a few days of fun.

  24. Like someone before me I too first thought of a Crown Vic (or its sisters the Mercury Grand Marquis or Lincoln Towncar). It will eat up the miles and very comfy seats… and the mileage is surprisingly good for something that size.

    Another thought would get the all American travel vehicle, a minivan! This you may want to buy as rentals are quite expensive. And another thought would be, if you plan on spending anytime in national parks or the like, & want to get off the beaten path a bit is something with some clearance. I’ve had to turn back a few times when the car we were in just didn’t have the clearance.

    Another thought on buying vs renting is rental agencies can charge a fee if not returning where you picked up. But the advantage of renting is if anything goes wrong you can get a replacement easily.

  25. If you and Mrs. Swade come anywhere near Pierre (Boston) or Darryl (Albany), you’ll surely have to swing through HMN World HQ (Bennington)! I’ve done the cross-country trip twice, the first time in a Volvo 240 in August with no A/C (sweaty) and the second in an ’88 Honda Accord (seats were tough on the back). I’m not generally an American car/automatic trans guy, but I’ve always fantasized about the cross-country road trip in a stretch-out-big American convertible from the late 1960s-early ’70s (seat comfort and fuel economy be damned). Avoiding the more obvious GM choices, something like a Chrysler Newport or Ford Torino GT would nicely fit the bill…
    But for you folks, practical choices would include the Mustang convertible, Challenger and drive-in camper rentals, or the Crown Vic or even a late LeBaron convertible buy/sell- both are cheap and plentiful!

  26. If you could take an ‘Icon’ I’d be opting for a well sorted E-type. Obviously not
    a likely choice unless you had a maintenance truck in convoy. The Mustang has some appeal.
    Or you could follow in the footsteps of Karl Pilkington on the Idiot Abroad in that little 2 seater!
    That Studebaker in the hotrod photo’s I sent you would be fun, as would the Chev BelAir

  27. You HAVE to drive an older Saab!!

    I would opt for a 9-5 Aero. West to East is the best way to do it.

    I would get in touch with Walter Wong at the Right Solution and have him find you a car and go through it before the trip. He did this for a young couple with a Saab convertible a year ago.

    Also use Saabnet and other forums to set up potential Saab help along the way.

    Maybe Walter will sell you his red convertible used in the movie SIDEWAYS [I think he still has it]. A classic 900 convertible would be so much cooler than an old Ford Mustang.

    If you are thinking SUV. I can fix you up with a great 1995 Tahoe that would sell fast on the East coast and really get you there. My son just bought a 2004 Aero wagon today and he is dumping the excellent Tahoe.

    whatever you do please come by and show Mrs. Swade Malibu and the Cold Canyon house for that intro….etc…

  28. A good used 2007 or 2008 Mustang GT ought to be easy to find in the northeast and easy to dispose of in Cali. Better make it a coupe or the noisiness of the convertible on the highway will probably get to you on such a long run. On the other hand, a Saab 9-3 convertible would be tolerable and more comfortable over the long haul. A 2008 or 2009 would be the most reliable vintage and a low mileage unit ought to be comparatively easy to find here in Saab Country. The convertible also ought to be more marketable than most other Saab models wherever you end up on the Left Coast.

    Chester, Connecticut

  29. Hello, some goodly advice has been posted…..just some additional points to ponder…..if you are early risers and driving, east to west may be preferred……I have had friends drive SUVs, minivans, Corvettes, to pickups pulling small airstream trailers. My dad has done it numerous times in an old reliable (believe it or not) Cadillac. Never had a problem. He also limited driving to no more than 6 hours a day (you are probably bombarded with ideas and suggestions)……the suggestions I have read are very interesting and worth considering. (i.e. “Bernard” and “eggsngrits”) Also, just to note, over the last decade, RV places have popped up all over. Some have literally acres of RVs, new, used, rentals, leases. (If you are considering that possibility)………Unless of course you are considering a promotional (reporting) function for the Alfa Romeo Group and they are supplying a vehicle!……..Best Wishes for a Safe and Enjoyable trip!

    1. Promotional for Alfa? One can only wish.

      A Corvette has crossed my mind. The only GM product I’d let myself consider. But I imagine the romance would wear off as the miles rolled on and the small luggage space wore thin (esp on the Mrs).

  30. .
    Which ever way you go Swade, you’d better allow twice the time, as you’ve alot of people to say ‘hi’ to…

    1. We had almost the exact same car. It was a 73 in a darker (olive) green. The tailgate was really cool, but the 78 that replaced it was better in every other way.