As the weather heats up and the school year draws to a close, it's that time of year when Americans hit the road to discover the gorgeous country one highway mile at a time. Accordingly, we put together a list of the five best American-made road trip cars.
2008-2012 Chevrolet Traverse
We're kicking off our list of best American-made cars for your summer road trip with the largest entrant: the Chevy Traverse. The Traverse is a full-size crossover that's downright cavernous on the interior, with over 116.4 cu ft of cargo space with the second and third rows folded -- more than the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot or Ford Explorer. With the second and third rows up, however, the Traverse offers seating for either seven or eight passengers. This abundance of space immediately drew us to the Traverse as an ideal road trip car. There is more than enough room in the back for all your stuff, or even to sleep in if you want to save on lodging.
The Traverse is offered in front- or all-wheel drive, which means it can take on virtually any terrain. Under the hood, Chevrolet has put its 3.6-liter V6 engine and a 6-speed automatic transmission. What's impressive about the Traverse is that, while it produces 288 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque, it still achieves 24 miles per gallon on the highway -- the best fuel economy of any 8-passenger utility vehicle.
Yes, you can haul a ton of stuff and people inside the Traverse, but you can also tow with it, too. The Traverse can tow up to 5,200 pounds. That makes it perfect for road trippers who want to bring along oversized toys. But don't be mistaken: When you're towing, the Traverse won't achieve 24 mpg.
Another great feature of Chevy's largest crossover is safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) named the 2011 Traverse one of its Top Safety Picks. You can confidently travel across the American continent knowing your family will be safe on the road.
2009-2011 Ford Escape Hybrid
The next car on the list is the Ford Escape Hybrid, which differs from the Traverse in nearly every way. The Escape Hybrid is a boxy, American-built hybrid with a rather ordinary interior.
This generation of Escape was one of our favorite American made cars and the best-selling SUV in America, and for good reason. The Escape Hybrid offers the durability of a rugged, compact SUV with the fuel economy of a specially designed hybrid.
The 2009-2011 Escape Hybrid is rated at 34 mpg city/31 mpg hwy, which is not quite as efficient as other hybrids on the highway but far more worthy of a road trip. So if you're going to take a trip with a lot of inner-city cruising, the Escape Hybrid is your best bet.
As mentioned above, the Escape Hybrid has a plainer, more durable interior than other vehicles on this list. While it's not quite as nice to behold, it's nonetheless enjoyable. The seats of the Escape might not look it, but they are comfortable and well bolstered -- especially on long drives. Passengers of all sizes will find ample room in the front and second-row seats. Behind the second row in the luggage area, the Escape offers 30.9 cu ft of cargo space.
What's cool about the 2009-2011 Escape Hybrid is it was offered in either front- or all-wheel drive. Although fuel economy is best in the front-wheel-drive model, you can still have hybrid efficiency with all-wheel-drive Ford capability.
Also, Ford covers the hybrid-specific components under warranty for eight years or 100,000 miles, so you should have plenty of worry-free driving ahead.
2005-2011 Honda Element
Some have mocked the Element for its bread-box-like looks. If you can look past its exterior design, you'll find one neat little car. The Element is like the Swiss Army knife of cars. It might not be the best looking, but it'll do everything you need it to, with a few more tricks still left up its sleeve. And the Element was actually built in Ohio: Buyers wanting Japanese reliability from the hands of American workers will love it.
It's not the biggest on the interior for rear cargo space. What the Honda Element lacks in sheer cubic feet of cargo room, though, it makes up for with clever features perfect for the open road.
All the seats are stain-resistant, and the floors are covered in urethane. So the accidental spill of your gas station fountain drink won't turn into a sticky nightmare down the road; the Element is easily cleaned. The rear seats -- just like the front -- recline individually, making the Element a comfortable ride for more than just two passengers on a long haul, especially those who want to nap in the back.
The Element might not be as fuel efficient as the first two cars on our list, but its fuel economy is nothing to shake a stick at. The Element was offered in 2- or 4-wheel drive in either 5-speed manual or automatic. Front-wheel-drive models were the most fuel efficient at 20 mpg city/25 mpg hwy. Choose the all-wheel-drive model, though, and the fuel numbers only trip by one respectively -- down to 19 mpg city/24 hwy.
To recap: The Element can hold a bunch of people comfortably for a long trip; it's virtually spill resistant; and it's economical. You might say the Element is perfect for a car full of frugal road trippers who are also prone to spills.
2011-2012 Kia Optima
Up until this point, we've chosen vehicles for their fuel economy, practicality and comfort -- and for their American manufacturing plants. All those factors were considered for the Kia Optima. Unlike the rest of the cars on this list, the Optima is downright stylish with many modern creature comforts. And, critically, the Optima is built in West Point, Ga., at the Kia Motors manufacturing facility.
As standard, the base Optima LX offers great-looking 16-inch rims and dual exhaust with chrome tips. On the interior, the transmission can be shifted manually with paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel. The stereo system even offers AM/FM/CD/MP3/Satellite radio, along with Bluetooth as standard. While these cool features might not be essential for a road trip, they won't hurt, either.
Passengers will find the Optima interior to be a comfortable and quiet one. The driver's seat is 6-way power adjustable. The rear passengers also will find plenty of space, with 34.7 inches of legroom and 37.6 inches of headroom.
Under the hood, Kia has placed a base 2.4-liter inline 4-cylinder GDI engine that produces 200 hp. This peppy engine is capable of 24 mpg city/35 mpg hwy, which isn't bad for a non-hybrid model.
Road trip enthusiasts who admire the stylish exterior of the Optima but also wish for improved fuel economy will be delighted to know a Hybrid model is also available. The Hybrid will carry a higher asking price, but it is also estimated to achieve 34 mpg city/39 mpg hwy. If you take long road trips often enough, the increased initial cost might someday pay for itself in savings at the pump.
2013 Hyundai Elantra
The Elantra is the only new car to make our list of best road trip cars. It's not just any new car, though. The Elantra was named 2012 North American Car of the Year. So to say the Elantra is pretty good would be an understatement.
Built in Alabama, the 2013 Elantra starts at $16,965, which makes it comparable in price to any other car on this list. Unlike some of the well-appointed interiors, however, the Elantra is pretty plain. There is something to be said for a simple, good-looking, reliable compact sedan, though.
The Elantra might not have many features, but that can be a good thing. With few features, the Elantra doesn't have much that can go wrong or break. Also, without a bunch of tech toys, passengers are free to visually absorb the scenery of the American countryside.
The Environmental Protection Agency certified the Elantra to achieve 28 mpg city/38 mpg hwy, making it one of the most fuel-efficient cars on our list.
Although it doesn't have a lot of fancy features, the Elantra has just enough to make a road trip a success. It has air conditioning, cruise control and heated seats -- when the customer opts for the GLS A/T Preferred Package.
Our favorite feature of the Elantra, aside from its great exterior design and exceptional fuel economy, is its warranty. Hyundai calls its warranty program America's best. It covers the entire vehicle for five years or 60,000 miles and covers the powertrain for 10 years with unlimited miles. To us, this means numerous carefree road trip possibilities await behind the wheel of the 2013 Elantra.