by Tony Whitney

Auto enthusiasts have long argued as to what exactly a “GT car” is. The term GT (it stands for “grand touring”) has been used on all kinds of vehicles over the years – some of them very unlikely contenders for this supposedly lofty designation.

The origins of the term seem to go back to the pre-WW2 years when wealthy motorists sought out sporty vehicles that would speedily and comfortably transport a couple of people with their luggage across Europe for a “grand tour.” Certainly the somewhat elitist term was restricted in years gone by to fairly exotic automobiles from makers like Bentley, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Ferrari and Maserati, some of which never actually carried a specific GT badge. The GT tag has also been applied to classes of auto racing almost too numerous to describe and categorize.

In more recent years the term has found wide use – often fully justified and sometimes not applicable at all. Worst case examples during the 1980s involved makers adding a couple of racing stripes and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and granting the car ‘GT’ designation. The opposite extreme involved true grand tourers like the fondly-remembered Ford Mustang GT I once owned.

Of course, the entire picture of motoring has changed over the past 20 years with the addition of minivans, SUVs, crossover vehicles and every imaginable type of sedan and convertible. The current “buyers market” status of the auto industry where there really is something for everybody at every price point prompts a look at what a modern version of a GT might look like. Are those sporty two-seaters the best choice for fast, across-the-country runs, or are there better options out there? Is it time to give a new meaning to the term GT?

I recently completed a 3,500-km drive from Vancouver, BC, to Battleford, Saskatchewan and back, the driving part of which took four days. Hopefully, this was the first of several trips to this fascinating and under-rated province during its centenary year. This kind of drive is, one would imagine, perfect GT territory, with room needed for luggage and a companion, reasonable power and acceleration on tap for mountain passes and overtaking trucks and, given today’s gas prices, decent fuel economy.

Since I’m an automotive journalist with a choice of just about any available test car on the market for the trip, some readers might be surprised that my choice for the journey was a Honda Element. The Element is typical of so many vehicles available these days which don’t drop into any particular category. The boxy (more on that later) crossover probably doesn’t fit many peoples’ definition of a GT product, but when it came to the long drive, it worked out surprisingly well. Like so many vehicles in the crossover/small SUV/minivan class, it has abundant room, easily folded rear seating for cargo space, excellent handling and performance that really surprised us.

It may have “only” a 2.4-litre 4-cylinder engine with 160-horsepower, but its performance proved far better than at first expected. We had no problem accelerating past slower vehicles on those all-too-rare passing lanes on the Trans Canada Highway and the Element handled the long, steep, mountain passes with reasonable ease. I’ve always been convinced that mid-range passing power is far more important in any vehicle than burnout zero to 100 km/h times. And despite the vehicle’s squared-off looks, it had surprisingly low levels of wind noise and didn’t seem to be any less aerodynamic than many a more spiffily-styled product.

There’s so much room in the cabin, especially with just two occupants aboard, that there was never any need to shoehorn cargo into a compact trunk. Vehicles like this prompt you to take all kinds of potentially-useful stuff along without worrying about cabin clutter. It’s worth mentioning, by the way, that drivers planning a long trans-provincial trip should not depend on finding fuel in every small community – even on the Trans-Canada Highway. Depending on topping up in Field, BC, we found the gas station there closed (both out and home) and had a worrying “driving on fumes” dash to Lake Louise, another 27 km down the road. Carrying spare fuel in the vehicle isn’t a bad idea – in an approved container, of course. Interestingly, Field boasts a fairly elaborate visitor centre – but no gas!

While a Porsche or Ferrari may be a more stereotypical GT car, there’s nothing to beat a well-engineered minivan, crossover or SUV when it comes to putting a few serious kilometres under your wheels. In fact, on many extensive Trans Canada runs, I’ve seen very few true sports cars out for long trips. Minivans, SUVs and family sedans seem to dominate the highways.

I enjoy a long run in a really good sports car as much as anyone, but when it comes to practicality, roominess, general comfort, performance and economy on a 1000 km/day trip, I’d choose one of the new crossovers, compact SUVs or minivans without a moment’s thought. These utilitarian vehicles may be shunned by GT purists, but they might just be the best grand tourers ever developed – and clearly, tens of thousands of motorists seem to agree.

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