A road trip is the essence of freedom, when you can spread out a map and wander to mountain lakes, through small towns, and along forgotten back roads. The open road calls to everyone who’s given a moment’s thought to adventure, whether that means sampling diner food along the way, setting up camp at night, or stumbling upon fun drive-in movies in the middle of nowhere.
This adventure you’re dreaming of does not include afternoons spent at auto shops hoping a mechanic can keep your vehicle going. If you do some homework before buying, you’re more likely to enjoy the scenery than to end up at the side of the road, waiting for a tow.
Get the right vehicle for the road trip of your dreams by following these steps:
Lookup the VIN and check car history.
It’s unlikely you have $35,000 to drop on a new Mercedes Sprinter, so you turn to reputable dealers for a used ride. But where to begin, and whom to trust? The National Insurance Crime Bureau offers a free VIN lookup. The VIN is the unique, 17-digit Vehicle Identification Number located in the corner of the windshield of most vehicles. By tracing this number you can find out the ownership history, whether the model has outstanding safety recalls, whether it’s been wrecked, and the last odometer reading. All of this information should square with what the seller tells you, and can indicate if the vehicle is prone to future issues that could be costly. For instance, if it has been deemed totaled in a hurricane’s flood, problems could arise in the future with electrical systems and body rot due to immersion in brackish water. Therefore, you need to be sure that the car you’re buying is manufactured as a lemon car.
Research the model and year. Consumer
Reports is a nonprofit organization that tests and reports on the most reliable makes, models, and years of vehicles. If you’re hoping to travel 50,000 miles or more on your adventure of a lifetime, you’d best find a vehicle with longevity. The organization also culls information provided by its members to further profile vehicles that have been on the road for a number of years, helping buyers of used cars, trucks, and SUVs to predict if one may have significant – and expensive – issues in the future. Using the information they provide you may weigh the pros and cons of different models, including things like the price of a brake job, cost of fuel, and even find out what others thought of the vehicle’s performance in similar conditions.
Consider creature comforts.
Everyone you ask will have an opinion on what’s going to be important for a long road trip: air conditioning in summer, legroom, storage space, a good sound system, or less cabin noise. The car gurus at the website Jalopnik were asked about the best vehicles for road trips and their response ran the gamut from minivans to campers to station wagons, all for good reasons.
Map out your route, at least a little
Different terrain demands different considerations. If you’re planning to run up and down a lot of high mountain roads in Colorado or California, find a vehicle with a strong engine, perhaps one with climbing gears. Likewise, it should have good brakes for steep descents and newer tires for weather conditions that can go from dry to icy depending on elevation. But those considerations are different when you’re staying on flat highways like The Loneliest Road in America: here your most significant consideration might be gas mileage so you can scoot between far-flung refueling stations without worrying and a new air conditioner to handle desert temperatures. Even if you’re riding in style aboard an electric Tesla Model S you’ll need to plan for refueling stops that accommodate your needs.
Brush up on your spreadsheet skills.
Given all of the criteria to weigh, this is better than flipping a coin. Lay out the pros and cons of each vehicle. Which of your options best meets your budget and priorities for comfort, fuel efficiency, space, reliability, and cost of repairing?
Patrick Peterson is a writer/editor at Auto Dectective Born and raised in the automotive world. He’s a passionate writer who crafts exquisite content pieces about everything related to cars and bikes.