What to drive this summer

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It isn’t too soon to think about what you’ll be driving this summer. For Alan Monaco, that’s an easy decision: He and his wife, Stephanie, will take their GMC Yukon Denali to the Jersey Shore.

The Monacos, who live in Mt. Laurel, N.J., like the SUV’s satellite radio, detachable seats and plenty of room for their beach blankets and coolers. Best of all, it’s a comfortable vehicle for distances, particularly all that stop-and-go traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike on a late Sunday afternoon in August.

“There’s ample storage space, leg space, seat comfort and an entertainment package to keep passengers amused during long-distance travel,” says Monaco, an account director for a telecommunication company.

What are you driving? A lot of Americans are considering that question. “March to May is the three-month period with the most overall new car sales,” says Peter Levy, the CEO of Carjojo.com, a data company that helps car buyers negotiate better deals. “These are the lead-up months to summer.”

Reality check: Most of us (me included) are just talking about cars. We don’t have the money for a new vehicle, and even if we did, we’re reluctant to take on another burden. But for those of us who need a new set of wheels, there’s a right way to do it. The perfect summer road trip cars, it turns out, have a few things in common:

• Dean Chu, a banker from Sunnyvale, Calif., likes his 2017 Toyota Prius Prime. He drove it to Fresno for Christmas, and it was a terrific ride. His favorite part: “I love the cruise control, because there is a braking component that slows or stops your vehicle based on the vehicle in front of you,” he says.

• Ashley Renne, the creative director for a green travel website, is partial to her 2017 Ford Fusion Energi. She recently drove it from her home in Manhattan to the Berkshires, a 150-mile road trip. “It was comfortable, super quiet and energy-efficient,” she says.

• Andy Feliciotti, a photographer from Washington, doesn’t go anywhere without his 2017 Subaru Outback. “With tons of space, a built-in roof rack and heated seats, it’s made long journeys a blast,” he says. Favorite amenity: adaptive cruise control, which keeps pace with the car in front of him. Hmm, that sounds familiar.

• Dan Bukowski, an entrepreneur from Naperville, Ill., will take his 2016 Chevrolet Suburban on summer vacation — he’s not yet sure where he’s going. It hauls his five kids plus their camping gear “and handles superbly on the highway,” he says. It’s his second Suburban, and he’s taken his family everywhere in it — out to Jackson Hole, Wyo., down to Orlando and through New England. “Great safety record, too,” he says.

Handles well. Plenty of room. Intelligent amenities. We’ve got a few themes going here, don’t we?

GM chief engineer Eric Stanczak says that’s no accident. In driver surveys, GM discovered motorists look for a few key things in the ideal road trip car. They include a sophisticated navigation system that works with Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, Wi-Fi, active suspension for a smooth ride, multizone climate control and an extra-large gas tank for a long range. Drivers don’t like loud cars.

“A quieter interior makes for a more enjoyable trip and reduces driver fatigue,” Stanczak says.

I asked CarGurus.com if it could help me get a little more specific about the ideal car type. It commissioned a reader poll that found the best vehicle for a summer road trip is somewhere between a midsize crossover/SUV such as the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport (23%) and a full-size crossover/SUV such as the Honda CR-V or the Mercedes-Benz GLE (21%). In other words, not too big but not cramped.

Matt Smith, the site’s editor, said apart from driver comfort, one other feature made a difference. You guessed it — those autopilot amenities Feliciotti and Chu raved about. “Particularly when you’re tackling hundreds of miles at a time, a car with some advanced safety features, like Subaru’s Eyesight system, Volvo’s IntelliSafe and Toyota’s Safety Sense, can help you stay sharp and focused,” he says.

Most Americans travel by car, so this probably isn’t an academic exercise for you. It isn’t for me, either. This spring, I’ll set off on a six-month, 11,000-mile tour along the perimeter of North America. I feel conflicted. I’m a mass transit guy and believe there are too many cars on the road. But I’ve driven many of the vehicles in this story, and I like them.

I’ll let you know what I decide to drive before I leave.

Alternatives to buying a new car for a summer road trip

Let’s face it, not everyone has the budget for a new set of wheels. Here’s how to get around that sizable roadblock.

• Rent a car. Car rental companies offer discounts for weekly or monthly rentals. It may make more sense to rent a vehicle, which is well-maintained and usually this year’s model, so you’ll get to enjoy all the bells and whistles that you covet. Hertz offers special monthly rates with discounts on insurance and other attractive terms.

• Share a car. Try renting from a company such as Turo, a car-sharing company that offers a variety of vehicles, including exotic cars that might be perfect for your trip. Turo’s cars can be as much as 30% less expensive than a rental car.

• Buy a used vehicle. You can find last year’s favorite model through CarMax, the nation’s largest retailer of used cars. It offers an extended warranty on its cars, no-haggle pricing and money-back guarantee, which is unusual in the often shady world of pre-owned vehicles. Also, check a site such as Truecar.com or eBay Motors to find out if you’re getting a fair price.

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