Gearing up for a summer vacation? Check out our picks for the best road trip cars under $10,000.
Of the many decisions when planning a summer road trip, from routes to hotels to scenic detours, one of the most critical choices is what to drive. While the Miata is always the answer, when it comes to long-haul family road trips, perhaps a sporty two-seater isn’t actually the answer. For this challenge, our writers considered various use cases, including towing boats and campers, romantic getaways for two, and even Griswaldian family sojourns to second rate amusement parks. While no vehicle can be all things to all people, the rides we found promise to make the miles fly by whether you’re just making a weekend jaunt to the coast or hopscotching national parks cross-country, and all at a budget of just under $10,000.
In looking for an affordable road trip car, one must take the comfort of passengers as a primary consideration. To that end, I first looked at the Honda Odyssey. With plenty of room, good seats, and even rear seat entertainment, the Odyssey is a road trip steal at $10,000. But there’s also the comfort and enjoyment of the driver to account for. A first-generation Porsche Cayenne provided all manner of luxury and a fierce V8 under the hood. Fuel economy, however, wasn’t exactly road trip friendly, and taking an aging German luxury anything cross country seemed like a recipe for headaches.
Then it struck me, with a perfect balance of luxury highway driving and unerring reliability, my pick had to be the Lexus LS 460. I found a 2007 model in excellent shape that fit the bill nicely. So, what makes the LS 460 my pick for a road trip car?
As I said at the outset, comfort for passenger is paramount on long highway drives and the LS 460 offers one of the smoothest rides you’ll find anywhere for under $10,000. With the LS 460, the aches, pains, and stiffness that usually attend long drives are a distant memory of other, lesser cars. And then there’s the plush leather seating and copious legroom. Sure, the LS 460 isn’t going to take the half the soccer team to Toledo like the Odyssey will, but for four passengers, you can’t beat the Lexus-level comfort.
There’s also the LS 460’s 4.6L V8. With 380 horsepower, you’ll have no trouble passing semis on the highway. And at 25 highway MPG, this used LS 460 isn’t going to kill your wallet on the back end with outrageous fuel consumption. The LS 460 features a smooth shifting eight-speed automatic that always finds just the right gear for long highway cruising.
And for bonus points, this example comes equipped with the Mark Levinson premium stereo, one of the best on the market. Few things are better on a road trip than having the perfect road trip playlist blasting from your speakers.
Most critically, the LS 460 is a Lexus/Toyota product. The last thing anyone wants on a summer road trip is getting stranded by the side of the road when an unexpected breakdown occurs. This is especially relevant when we’re talking about $10,000 dollar used cars.
In the final analysis, this 2007 Lexus LS 460 is about as good as it gets for a $10,000 dollar road trip car. With luxury-level comfort, reliability, a booming V8, and a killer stereo, what more could you need?
I started this road trip car for under $10,000 challenge with fuel economy and longevity in mind. So, I hit some of the usual suspects like the Kia Soul since it’s newer for this price point, the Ford Escape Hybrid since it has a history of driving up into the hundreds of thousands of miles, and a nice Volvo V50 wagon that I personally wouldn’t mind having as a daily. They all seemed like nice options, that is until I stumbled upon every Instagram influencer’s dream – a freaking school bus.
This 2004 Bluebird All American School Bus may seem like an odd choice given the cars I had started off searching for, but my idea of a road trip experience changed once I found this behemoth in the price range. My other choices were the safe options for getting to and from a destination in an efficient manner. This bus makes the road trip to any destination more about the journey to get there. As cheesy of an idea as that may sound, I’m pretty much sold with its $8,500 price tag and only 42,7169 miles on the odometer.
Now, I’m not suggesting keeping this thing in its 65 passenger, bright yellow school-going form. I mean, you could keep all those old vinyl seats if you plan on bringing the whole neighborhood to the tailgate party, but I’m talking about a full conversion. Repaint the outside to your color of choice, rip out all those old seats, give the inside a bit of a scrub, and then make this thing a traveling home away from home. This bus is $1,500 under budget, so there’s some extra spending room to create a nice place to be while you’re parked or along for the ride. The typical remodel of these things usually includes wood paneling from the floor to the ceiling, some cabinets, and adding a bed inside.
The nice thing is though, you can do whatever you want to this bus. Make this bus a rolling man cave with all your favorite sports memorabilia as you follow your team from game to game. Throw a full drum kit and audio equipment inside for your band to travel around to gigs throughout the country. Haul a bunch of motocross bikes for you and your buddies while also providing a hangout spot to get out of the heat. The possibilities are virtually endless for what you can craft the inside of this Bluebird into.
As for those technical specs on this 2004 Bluebird All American School Bus, it comes with a Caterpillar C7 inline-six diesel engine that makes around 240 horsepower and 925 lb-ft of torque connected to an automatic Allison transmission. Fuel consumption comes in around 7 mpg which doesn’t sound ideal; however, you won’t be at the fuel pump too often thanks to its giant fuel tank. That fuel tank can range from 60 to 100 gallons depending on what was ordered for the bus originally. Even on the low end, that calculates to just over 400 miles of range before your next fill up.
I do have some added points to note before diving headfirst into a bus purchase. You’ll want to take some diesel mechanic classes before you go out on your first journey in this bus. Better to know how to fix it yourself rather than catch an expensive tow to an expensive shop. You’ll also want to have enough cash flow to properly mold this new bus project the way you want it and be able to afford to fill up on a ton of diesel at a price that’s inching close to six dollars a gallon. In the end though, you’ll have the ultimate road trip vehicle that you can take pride in having crafted it with your own two hands. Plus, you can start your own Instagram page documenting your adventures, I guess.
The possibilities are seemingly endless when it comes to the best road trip cars. Do you go with a utility-focused truck, a spacious and luxurious sedan, or an off-road capable SUV? How many passengers are there? How long is the road trip? Does the trip involve winding your way through mountains? Is it a summer trip or a winter trip?
With so many factors, I think my choice has to be a SUV. It offers a blend of ability and comfort. There’s enough space for passengers, but still some room for cargo. There’s no truck bed for bicycles or kayaks, but those can be stored behind the SUV or on top of the SUV if it is equipped properly. If all else fails, those things can probably be rented at the vacation destination.
The specific SUV I chose is a 2013 Chevrolet Equinox LT, selling for $9,990 with 113,817 miles. This one is gray, has a seven-inch touchscreen, and is all-wheel drive (AWD). There are several 2013 Chevy Equinox models listed. I found one with fewer miles and with leather seats, but it didn’t have all-wheel drive. This one does. The trade-off is that this one has cloth seats. It’s worth it though. I’d rather have AWD for any unexpected situations that arise.
Under the hood is a 2.4-liter inline-four engine. It makes 182 horsepower and 172 lb-ft of torque. There was an available 3.6-liter V6 on all 2013 Chevy Equinox trims, but, unfortunately, this particular vehicle isn’t equipped with that. All 2013 Equinox models come with an automatic six-speed transmission. The four-cylinder model does have a towing maximum of 1,500 lbs, so even small fishing boats may be out of the question. Personal watercraft and some small campers are possible though. Even with the base engine, the 2013 Equinox is a fuel-efficient vehicle. It gets 20 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city and 29 mpg on the highway for a combined 23 mpg.
If you’re behind the wheel of this 2013 Chevrolet Equinox, you should have a good enough driving experience. It’s not an exciting vehicle to drive, but the handling is smooth enough. It’s a little underpowered, but it’s perfectly acceptable for day-to-day city driving or the occasional road trip. Some nice safety features on this model include hill start assist, traction control, and a rearview camera. The tires and brakes on this used 2013 Equinox are listed as being in good shape. Everything else is pretty standard for 2013. Windows, locks, and steering are all powered. The 2013 Chevrolet Equinox has dual front, head, and side airbags. It also has keyless entry and stolen vehicle assistance.
Music options for the six-speaker stereo are abundant with a CD player, MP3 plug-ins, and satellite capability. Audio controls are included on the steering wheel. The system is easy to use. Thankfully, there are hard knobs for audio and temperature controls. Navigation and Bluetooth are also included in the 2013 Equinox. When choosing a used vehicle, you’ll want to make sure it still has connectivity. Take a look at our article on How the End of 3G May Affect Your Car for more information.
In terms of cabin layout, the 2013 Chevrolet Equinox isn’t bad. The knobs are easy to reach from the driver or passenger seat, the digital screen gauge is directly in front of the driver, and there are storage bins on doors. Cup holders can be found on the doors and in the center console. The entire cabin, controls and all, look updated and stylish even if this SUV is almost a decade old now. Noise isn’t an issue, even on interstates or highways. The materials inside were specifically designed by GM to absorb sound. Their efforts paid off.
While these seats aren’t leather, they do look high quality with red stitching. It looks sporty, but the seats offer more than just looks. They do provide a comfortable highway ride. The front row has 41.2-inches of legroom, and the rear legroom only decreases to 39.9-inches. Rear seatbacks recline, so passengers can get even more comfortable if needed. Overall, this Equinox gives off a roomy feel.
The 2013 Chevrolet Equinox doesn’t have a massive amount of cargo room, but there is 31.4 cu. ft. to work with behind the rear seats. Unless you’re squeezing five adults in fishing poles, tennis rackets, or other equipment for a 10-day trip, 31.4 cu. ft. should be fine for most trips. It’ll fit luggage and a cooler or two. If there are only two people on this trip, then there’s plenty of room. The rear seats do fold in a 60/40 split, expanding cargo space to 63.7 cu. ft.
Factoring it all in, this SUV will get the job done on a road trip. The 2013 Chevrolet Equinox is cheap enough from a pricing standpoint, but still provides a quality ride, space for passengers, and some bells and whistles to make the trip more comfortable.