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Seven car qualities required for long road trips

Today we're going to look at what makes a great highway car. But first, a posthumous apology to a man named Colonel Bernie Cox.

When I was 13, Cox and I had a heated discussion about the features and engineering that optimize a car for long-distance travel. Cox, a friend of my dad's who had logged about a million highway miles, argued that the best machine for a long road trip was a silent, smooth-riding car like his Buick.

I scoffed. Buicks were bourgeois luxury barges that no real driver would be caught dead in. Although I had yet to drive a single highway mile, I declared that the ultimate car for a long trip was the Ford GT, a machine that had won the 24 Hours of Lemans. Never mind that the GT's engine wailed away just millimetres from the driver's skull, or that the interior was the size of a Guantanamo confinement box – this was a true driver's machine that would be ideal for a major trip.

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Or so I believed.

In the decades that have passed since that argument, I have learned a lot about what makes a great highway car – and I have also learned that the Colonel was smarter than I realized.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I did a 3,000-kilometre road trip to Georgia and back. We've done this trip in many different cars. In some, the trip was effortless. In others, it felt like a four-wheeled version of the Bataan Death March.

This got me thinking about the essence of the long-distance machine. What are the automotive qualities that make distance disappear?

Torque: In a BMW X5 diesel, the Georgia trip was easy. Ditto for the Subaru Outback 3.6R. But in our old four-cylinder Honda, the same trip seemed twice as long. Why? Because the old Honda had the wrong kind of power. The diesel BMW and the six-cylinder Subaru both have abundant torque, a little-understood force that matters more than horsepower. Torque provides the instant, irresistible push that a Clydesdale draft horse does when it leans into the reins. Without torque, every merge, pass and hill climb is hard work – you have to shift down and work the throttle. With a torque-abundant engine, everything's easier.

Silence: Manufacturers spend a lot of money eliminating wind and mechanical noise. On a long trip, these take their toll. I learned this the hard way when I took my wife on an ill-advised, 750-kilometre road trip aboard my motorcycle. By the time we got back, we were nearly deaf from the combined effects of windblast, intake howl and my Hindle Racing exhaust system – it might have been great on the race track, but listening to the Hindle for seven hours straight was exhausting. Cox was right – silence is golden.

Space: Although the Porsche Boxster, Corvette C7 and my Lotus Evora S were surprisingly good on the long Georgia trip, it was easier in less costly machines such as the Toyota Venza and Subaru Outback. Their added interior volume made it easy to change position as I drove and they made luggage handling effortless. Packing and unpacking a sports car is like a mission to the International Space Station.

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Creature Comfort: When you're young, inconvenience and discomfort can actually add to a machine's allure, because they render it inaccessible to anyone over the age of 25. As a teenager, I did lengthy trips across Europe in a Fiat 600 with comforts that were limited to a windshield, a semi-effective heater and seats like the ones you see in military cargo planes. But, as I've learned, the right car for a long trip is one that has a first-rate sound system, cup-holders and electric seats that let you change position without risking your life (if you alter the position of your manual seat while you're under way, pray that you don't have to hit the brakes). And air-conditioning is a must, since it allows you to keep the windows rolled up to reduce wind noise.

Cruise Control: As I recall from a long-ago study of Dante's Inferno, one of Hell's special punishments was to lock adulterous lovers into an endless embrace – you may have thought you liked hugging each other, but your joints tend to seize up after a few thousand years in the same position. Driving without cruise control is a similar punishment: your right foot and leg are condemned to the gas pedal. While any cruise control is good, the best kind for long trips is adaptive cruise, which automatically maintains a safe following distance from the cars ahead.

Accurate Steering: Few drivers understand the engineering that goes into good suspension and steering (if you want to be alone at a cocktail party, start talking about unsprung mass and camber angles). But badly designed systems wear you out on a long drive. Good highway cars track accurately and require minimal steering corrections. Electronic power steering and computerized stability control make most modern cars markedly superior to their forebears in this respect – to see how much work it can be to keep a car on the road, try driving an old VW Beetle on a windy day.

Aerodynamics: A great highway car slips through the air quietly and with minimum drag. Its shape allows it to track straight even in gusts and crosswinds. At the extreme end of the scale are sleek machines such as the McLaren P1 and Ferrari 458. But even though they're aerodynamic masterpieces, they lack the luggage space and wiggle room required for a truly great highway car.

For long distance travel, the perfect balance is the Mercedes C-400 or Tesla Model S – their aerodynamics let them track beautifully, but they're also solid and spacious.

If Colonel Cox came back from the dead, these are the cars he'd trade his 1966 Buick for.

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