Great Road Trip Rides for Under $20,000

It’s road trip season: and thousands of Canadian shoppers are hitting the marketplace in search of a new, or new-to-them ride that’s road-trip ready with space and comfort to make fuzzy family motoring memories on the open road this summer.

Using $20,000 as a price cap, the boss asked for a list of road-trip ready rides worthy of tackling the needs of you and yours with an eye for long-haul space and comfort. You’ll have your own list of favorite rides under these criteria, and here is ours.

Volkswagen Passat TDI, 2011-2013

The Draw

The Passat TDI is big, comfortable, gets silly-good fuel mileage and has room for the wife and kids and their stuff. Sporty drivers will like the availability of a manual transmission, though the available DSG makes a great partner for the TDI engine, enhancing fuel efficiency, performance and overall refinement in the process. Look for a lengthy list of feature content available, including heated leather, premium audio, a sunroof, automatic xenon lights, climate control and plenty more. The Passat TDI’s abundant space and its ability to make many miles disappear with comfort and efficiency make it well-suited to weekend family road-tripping duties, and it makes a stately and relaxing commuter during the week, too.

The Trendline was the entry model grade, while Highline and Execline represent mid-grade and fully-loaded, respectively. You’ll have little trouble finding a few-year-old copy of a Passat TDI for well under our $20,000 price cap, though many units tend to be higher in mileage than their age suggests.

How to Buy

If you’re shopping at or near the $20,000 mark, look for a 2012 or newer model from a VW dealer Certified Pre-Owned Program for maximum peace of mind. Ensure the tires and brakes are in good shape, ask the dealer to confirm any and all recalls have been carried out, and seek out service records indicating that all oil changes have been carried out on time, which is key to long life from the turbocharger system.

Also, note that any shifting issues on a model with the DSG transmission could be caused by a faulty “mechatronics” unit, which controls the advanced gearbox. Any issues should be investigated.

Chevrolet Impala, 2012-2013

The Draw

Strong reliability on most models, highly-reasonable pricing and a comfortable ride with plenty of space make the Chevrolet Impala worthy of a test-drive by avid road-trippers. The standard OnStar communications and connectivity system adds peace of mind when travelling in unfamiliar territory, and your OnStar advisor can even plug navigation destinations into the system for you, remotely. Look for plush seating, a generous trunk, and a variety of solid and fuel-efficient engines. If you’re after the top-line road trip experience, the Impala LTZ is the model you’re after. You’ll find young, low-mileage copies of a last-generation Impala LTZ for under $20,000 all day long – with plenty of remaining warranty coverage on a 2012 or 2013 unit. There are some high-mileage 2014 models around too if the number on the clock doesn’t bother you.

How to Buy

Numerous owners have reported premature wear from the factory brakes and tires. Though this will largely prove a function of driving habits and locale, be sure to inspect the condition and remaining life of both components ahead of your purchase. Feel for any signs of slippage or hard shifting, which could indicate a problem with a pump or solenoid within the transmission – or the computer control module that runs it. The four-speed automatic used in the Impala is known to be solid and robust, though regular maintenance is key to the longevity of this important driveline component.

The owner’s community prefers the 3.9L V6, or the 5.3L V8 (available on the sporty Impala SS model), citing potential issues with gaskets and leaks on the common 3.5L V6. Your best bet will be an Impala with one of the preferred engines, and plenty of remaining warranty coverage.

Mercedes-Benz S-Class, 2006-2008

The Draw

Depreciation is a beautiful thing – especially when it means you can treat your family to a six-figure driving experience for under $20,000 by parking a few-year-old Mercedes S Class in the driveway. This world-class luxury flagship sedan packed big power, cutting-edge feature content and one of the most opulent, spacious and comfortable cabins on the road. Look for V8 power, 4Matic All-Wheel Drive (AWD), and a lengthy list of luxury features in a used copy – which you can find from 2007 or 2008 for under $20,000 with some miles on it. When comfort, classiness and rolling like royalty without the big price-tag are priorities, a healthy used S-Class is a virtual steal.

How to Buy

In a word, carefully. Many owners report reliable and fuss-free S-Class ownership, though some don’t. Given the nature of this vehicle, low repair and running costs aren’t on the list of top purchase considerations.  Plan to spend an hour or more for a test-drive of a used S-Class, as you’ll want to confirm proper operation of its numerous electronic systems and features. Double check all windows, locks, power seats, the navigation system, air suspension (if equipped) and climate control system. According to owner forums, shoppers should also confirm proper operation of the washer-fluid pump, power seat lumbar control and backup camera.

Problems with worn-out timing gears inside the engines on earlier models are well documented. So are transmission issues that may require repair and even replacement of the gearbox. Out-of-warranty repairs of these parts will turn your wallet inside out, so shoppers are advised to protect themselves by opting for as new a model as possible or opting for any additional powertrain warranty coverage available.

A $20,000 copy of a few-year-old S-Class is a hell of a deal on a family road trip machine, though purchasing one without a full inspection at a Mercedes Benz dealer is strongly advised against.

Subaru Outback, 2011-2012

The Draw

Safety, reliability, and that satisfying sense of getting a sensible family-ready crossover were key draws to this machine, which is on our list because it’s ready for a road-trip in any weather, has a great AWD system, packs a cavernous cargo hold, and is available with a plethora of add-on gear-carrying goodies from the aftermarket. Plus, it’s half-decent on fuel, given its size and space. Good driving manners and confidence in any weather round out the package.

At or near our $20,000 price point, you’re looking at a copy from the last full generation of the Outback, perhaps a 2011 or 2012 model. Shoppers can look for features like voice-activated GPS navigation, a back-up camera system, Bluetooth phone interface and streaming Bluetooth audio. There’s a media hub for iPod fanatics, as well as an available Harmon Kardon stereo system on higher grade models.

How to Buy

Especially in an older or higher mileage example, a full fluid change including transmission, differentials, brake fluid and coolant, should be carried out for maximum peace of mind if service records aren’t available. Check for proper operation of the headlamps and taillamps, as some owners have reported frequent bulb failure, which could be caused by a wonky light sensor circuit.

Confirm that the trunk release button works properly, several times, and be on the lookout for a noisy power steering pump, and a stiff feel to the steering, as signs of potential power steering pump problems. Park the Outback and turn the wheel from lock to lock at various speeds, noting that unwelcome sound effects or a change in steering effort could indicate a problem.

Be sure to listen to the suspension system when travelling at various speeds over a variety of surfaces, noting that a thumping or banging sound in the rear may be a sign of a blown or worn-out suspension component. If you hear any unwelcome sounds, be sure to have a mechanic investigate. Ditto if you feel a persistent shimmy or vibration through the steering wheel, which could indicate the need for updated steering-system parts.

Dodge Grand Caravan Canada Value Package, 2015

The Draw

The big draw on this list is that you can get one of these magic-wagons for under $20,000, brand spanking new. That’s with a big fat zero on the odometer, no previous buttocks in your driver’s seat, and all that plastic film you get to peel off before you set off for your first drive. This high-value package includes the 3.6L Pentastar V6, fuel saver ECO mode, three power outlets, Stow ‘n Go seating and a fold-down rear-row of seats that enhances versatility or turns into a flip-back bench for tailgate parties. This one’s on our list because, for the money, you won’t find a vehicle this big, flexible or family road-trip ready, period.

How to Buy

Buying a new Grand Caravan is easy – there’s nothing to check, no inspections to be made, and nothing to worry about: just go to the dealer with your bank draft, and drive out with your lustrous new family hauler. Done deal.

If you’re looking at a slightly used model for the price, go with a 2012 or newer for higher performance and mileage from the 3.6L Pentastar engine, triple-check for proper operation of the air conditioner and the entire rear-seat climate control system, and run all power accessories, especially the sliding doors and tailgate, through their paces in search of trouble signs.

Sometimes, unwanted sensations or behavior from the transmission are caused by a simple-to-fix problem within the computer that controls the unit. Other times, internal transmission damage may be to blame. Be sure the transmission operates smoothly – and that it’s been treated to on-time fluid and filter changes, avoiding any model that exhibits signs of slippage, clunking or unwanted noise from the transmission during gear-changes.