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Open Diff: What’s the best road trip car?

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1990 Ford Mustang LX 5.0. Photo courtesy Ford Motor Company.

Hitting the open road in the family car used to be an American institution, and for many, a rite of passage. Today, cheap airfare and ever-busier lives mean that most vacations begin and end in flying cattle cars, with the family four-wheeler used only for the segment to and from the airport.

Some of us, however, greatly prefer driving to flying, and when time is not of the essence, opt for secondary roads over interstate highways. Stick to the super slabs, and it’s now (sadly) possible to traverse this great country from coast to coast, eating in the same bland chain restaurants and sleeping in the same nondescript chain hotels. Stray off the interstates, and the true nature of what made traveling by car such and adventure remains easy enough to find.

The right car can make or break a road trip, too. A high-strung sports car is fun on a track, or tackling a few passes up and down a winding canyon road, but after hours on the interstate, thinly padded seats, a stiff suspension and a loud, droning exhaust detract from the experience instead of adding to it. Conversely, a ’75 Cadillac Coupe de Ville is a superb choice for fatigue-free interstate driving, but on narrow and twisty back roads the soft suspension, vague steering, and sheer mass take the enjoyment out of the drive.

The ideal road trip car, then, must be capable of providing some entertainment value on scenic secondary roads, while not punishing the occupants on the occasional stretch of interstate. It should be big enough for all occupants to enjoy some degree of comfort, yet small enough to maintain a conversation without the use of intercoms or cell phones. While fuel efficiency isn’t a primary concern, it should have sufficient range that trips aren’t planned around gas stops.

As a sports car guy, the predictable response would be “first-gen Mazda Miata,” but 14-hour stretches in a diminutive Japanese roadster, across the Midwest in the heat of summer sans air conditioning, are best enjoyed by those with fewer trips around the sun than I’ve accumulated. I’d love to say “Porsche 911SC,” since this version struck a near-ideal balance between comfort, performance and bulletproof reliability, but prices remain firmly out of reach and even the newest example left the Zuffenhausen factory 34 years ago. Chances are you won’t need a repair on the road, but should you break down in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, good luck finding parts for a three-decade-old German car.

Which brings me to my choice: A Fox-body Mustang GT (or LX with the 5.0-liter V-8) convertible, preferably a 1987-’93 with cloth seats and the five-speed manual transmission. The trunk of these cars is big enough to swallow up a week’s worth of luggage for my wife and I, and there’s always the back seat if we run out of cargo room. The 5.0-liter V-8, while lacking by modern standards, delivers sufficient power to be entertaining, and the Quadra-Shock rear suspension provides a reasonable blend of ride comfort and handling (on all but the roughest pavement, anyway). With a stock exhaust (or at least a quiet aftermarket one), the rumble of the V-8 is pleasant, even for longer distances, and like any American car of the period, the air conditioning (on hot, top-up days) is cold enough to hang meat in the cabin.

Though prices have gone up in recent years (especially for clean, unaltered examples), the later Fox body Mustangs remain affordable, and common replacement parts aren’t particularly hard to find. Chances are there’s a Ford dealer wherever you’re headed, too, adding to potential road trip peace of mind.

What’s your pick for the best road trip car, and for bonus points, what’s the best road trip route?

A tip of the hat to reader EricL for the topic suggestion!