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May 12, 2013

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Top auto picks for Northwest road trips this summer

Special to NWautos

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Top: Cadillac ATS. Above, left to right: Chrysler Town and Country, Volkswagen Passat and Subaru BRZ.

Northwesterners are definitely fun hogs. Our vehicles get us to ski slopes, coastlines, mountain-bike trails and wine-country getaways. We're blessed with more recreation per square mile than nearly anyplace on the planet, and the roads that get us there are truly spectacular.

Deciding on what to drive? Let me be of assistance. Driving 50-60 different vehicles a year has given me insight into the ultimate road-trip machines.

The vehicles I've chosen have a unique blend of comfort, quietness, space, fuel economy, features, driving dynamics and value. All of my choices can be had for less than $50,000, and many are under $30,000.

Wide-open spaces

If you're taking the kids to, say, Silverwood Theme Park, just outside of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, I suggest investing in the luxury of space. The Chrysler Town and Country minivan's flexible seating is unbeatable, and the standard DVD entertainment system is a godsend for fidgety children.

Cool cats who eschew vans should check out Ford's Flex. The hip-to-be-square design provides epic cabin room for all eight passengers. Options include radar-assisted cruise, all-wheel drive and a refrigerator (yes, it works well).

Upscale travelers will want to seek out the seven-seat Buick Enclave. With a cabin that makes libraries seem loud, its refined interior will make scenic roads that much better.

Whine-free weekend

Let's say you want to cruise to Walla Walla for a romantic weekend. The classic sedan is an excellent choice, and there's a blizzard of choices. For power and a hushed cabin, check out Chevrolet's Malibu Turbo.

Want sporty driving dynamics and great fuel economy? The 2014 Mazda6 is your go-to ride. The Nissan Altima and Honda Accord slot nicely between fun and comfort.

In the real world, I've gotten more than 50 mpg while cruising in a Volkswagen Passat TDI. For a little extra refinement, check out the sleek new Toyota Avalon.

The road less taken
If you're headed to the Mazama area for remote hiking, camping or cross-country skiing, you'll want something that traverses trails. Those on a budget will gravitate toward the Subaru Forester. The 2014 model offers more room, a quieter driving experience and the rugged ability loyal Subie owners expect.

Moving upscale is the Jeep Grand Cherokee. This mountain goat on four wheels is also comfortable for daily use. For 2014, the Grand Cherokee gets a new fuel-efficient eight-speed transmission and EcoDiesel option.

My final pick, Volvo's XC70, may surprise some, but a full day of beating one up on rugged forest-service roads made me a believer. Supremely refined on the highway, this Swede shrugs off tough terrain like a Viking.

Drivers wanted

Do you wake at dawn to savor an empty North Cascades Highway before it's blocked by RVs? You'll want the proper tool for the curves. Dollar for dollar, it's tough to beat the Scion FRS/Subaru BRZ twins. The low center of gravity of these two-door coupes keeps both your wallet and the hairs on the back of your neck happy.

For vroom with a view, Mazda's MX-5 Miata is unbeatable for a romp on twisty roads. If you need more room from your ragtop, Ford's Mustang is a modern classic. While the GT's V-8 power is seductive, I prefer the lighter, more danceable V-6 model.

Finally, if rear-drive sport sedans are your thing, feel free to argue which is better: Cadillac's ATS or BMW's 3-Series. It's hard to go wrong with either. I lean toward Caddy's fresh, angular sheetmetal, well-crafted cabin and firmer ride quality (yes, you read that correctly). Make mine a V-6 model and wake me up early; the curves are calling.

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