2009 Mini Cooper. Click image to enlarge
Article and photos by Chris Chase
Summer’s coming, and for families on a budget, that often means hitting the road for a sun holiday, rather than taking to the skies.
A road trip means something different to every driver. Some see the drive as a means to an end – get us there quickly, cheaply and easily. Others may feel that it’s about the journey just as much as the destination, and why not enjoy the heck out of the car that gets you there. I say, why not have it both ways?
What follows is a list of road trip-ready cars, crossovers and vans that put an emphasis on driving satisfaction and fuel efficiency, without neglecting other practical matters like cargo and passenger space and affordability.
My wife and I drive to Boston almost every year to visit friends and spend some time in one of our favourite cities. In 2009, we did the drive in a Mini Cooper, a car I chose partly because it’s so much fun to drive, and mostly because I wanted to test just how fuel-efficient this go-kart-with-a-roof really was.
We put about 2,300 kilometres on our test car, trekking through New England to Boston, and then out to Cape Cod before heading home; the car burned 6.1 litres of fuel for every 100 km travelled, which made the trip quite affordable. A Honda Civic Hybrid we took on a similar trip a couple of years before averaged 5.3 L/100 km; a better result, yes, but the Mini was more fun, for sure.
Our Mini tester was the base model, with its 121-horsepower motor. It’s adequately powerful, but the little engine struggles up steep grades; the solution is to move up to the 181-hp Cooper S, where a turbocharged version of the same 1.6-litre provides far more performance, at a higher purchase price, of course.
The Cooper is a very comfortable car, despite its small size, and only those of unusually tall stature will lack for space in the front seat.
Obviously, the Cooper is no family car, at least not by the usual definition. When your family consists of just two people, though, it’s more than enough car for a week-long driving trip. For more space, the Cooper Clubman offers a larger rear seat and cargo area, and the newly-introduced Countryman adds all-wheel drive and extra ground clearance. The original Cooper is the most desirable for driving enthusiasts and is still the best-looking model, in my opinion.
The basic Mini Cooper Classic starts at $21,950; the better-equipped Cooper opens at $23,950, and adding the Comfort Package of sunroof, heated front seats and a media connect system takes it up to $25,850. If you need the Cooper S’ extra power, it starts at $28,950. You pay a lot more for a Mini than you would for a mainstream subcompact, but the payoff is in this car’s performance and refinement, which nothing else in its size range can match.
The Mazda3 is a perennial favourite both among journalists and the buying public, who have made this one of the best-selling cars in Canada. It’s included here for being a cheap thrill: it’s almost as fun to drive as the Mini Cooper, but is a far more practical package overall.
Mazda3 Sport; photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge
The base engine is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder that makes 148 horsepower. It has enough power to move this car with ease, but its fuel consumption ratings – 8.1/5.9 L/100 km (city/highway) are notably better than the optional, and more powerful, 2.5-litre engine.
Another obvious plus for a family on a long drive is the hatchback body style (called the Mazda3 Sport; a sedan is offered, too), which can accommodate almost 50 per cent more cargo than the sedan.
The base GS model (the only one that comes with the smaller engine) starts at $17,495 with a manual transmission, and includes power windows and door locks. Air conditioning is $1,195, and an automatic transmission adds $1,200. Three things you might miss in the GX are cruise control, Bluetooth and steering wheel-mounted audio controls, all of which are standard in the mid-range GS, whose starting price is $20,965, and includes air conditioning and the larger engine.
Of course, if you get itchy for more performance, try the MazdaSpeed3, a turbocharged, 263-horsepower track-ready version of the Mazda3 Sport. It’s spectacular fun, but its darty steering and firm ride can get tiring on the long haul.