My editor asked me to write a guide to choosing a good adventuremobile, largely because she needs a new one. It’s not the first time she’s asked me to do this, nor is it the first time she’s ignored my advice. I can say something similar about virtually every person who’s ever asked me for car advice. So here’s a bunch of hard-earned wisdom that you’ll probably ignore but that I’ll share anyway, because I’m an eternal optimist.
Tires, Tires, Tires
This is first for two reasons: no one ever listens to this piece of advice, and it’s the most important piece of vehicle-related advice anyone can ever give you. The tires that come standard on new cars and trucks are, with very few exceptions, chosen for their ability to incrementally improve fuel economy and for their low cost. Being able to claim one extra mile per gallon on a window sticker is critically important for automakers, not only because fuel economy is a major comparison point for shoppers, but also because they have to comply with something called Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which are exactly what they sound like. That one mile per gallon is irrelevant to you, mostly because it only exists in a variable-free test environment and not in the real world, where your terrible driving habits are costing you way more money at the pump than tires ever will.
Because tires are the only component of your vehicle that touch the ground, every other gizmo on your car has to work through them and can therefore only ever be as good as the tires allow it to be. There’s no point buying a car with a powerful motor if you don’t run tires that are capable of exploiting that power. There’s no point buying a car with all-wheel drive unless you run tires capable of providing grip in whatever weather you’re facing. There is no point buying a vehicle to use off-road and then running road tires on it.
Tires are also available in way too wide a variety of flavors for me provide one catch-all suggestion for every reader. The best I can do is tell you to run winter tires in the winter and all-terrain tires if you plan to drive on dirt roads. You can probably figure out how to get the right size, but make sure you also look at the weights for those specific sizes and load ratings. Tires that are too heavy will ruin everything from your car’s ability to brake to its ride, handling, and, yes, fuel economy. It’s worth taking the time to get this right. Replace tires before they wear out.
Carry a Tire-Repair Kit
Tires are also by far the most frequently and easily damaged component on your vehicle. Yet many modern vehicles don’t include a full-size spare. Even if your car has one, it’s possible to get more than one puncture at a time or two punctures on the same trip. Carrying a tire-repair kit, an air compressor (for blowing up a now-repaired but still flat tire), and a couple cans of Fix-a-Flat (it helps with tricky repairs) will enable you to quickly and easily repair a flat tire yourself. This will ultimately save you money, since you’ll no longer need to pay a nice person at a tire shop to do it for you. It’ll probably save a whole hell of a lot of time, too. More importantly, all of us travel through places where we don’t want to be stuck, say, 60 miles from the nearest paved road in Death Valley. Empowering yourself with the ability to remedy the most common thing that’s going to go wrong with your car will mean that you don’t get stuck there.
Prepare for the Worst
If you plan to travel off paved roads, which all outdoorsy people do at some point, then you need to prepare for stuff that can go wrong off-road. Even a simple dirt road leading to a trailhead can carry you away from cell reception and throw significant obstacles your way. We’ve already covered punctures, so let’s talk about getting stuck. Again, this can and will happen to you, and the tricky nature of stuff like ice, mud, and sand is that they’ll sneak up on you when you’re least expecting it. Getting out of that stuff is really, really hard and often dangerous if you’re unprepared. Fortunately, there’s a device capable of making it simple and safe: Maxtrax. Put it under your wheels, and drive out of whatever you’re stuck in.
Driving Is the Most Dangerous Thing Most People Do
Other than chugging random containers of chemicals you find under your kitchen sink, driving is the most dangerous thing you do in ordinary life. And you do it every day. And you don’t get better at stuff without deliberate attempts to get better. So does it make sense that you stopped learning how to drive after your gym teacher showed you how to parallel park between two cones? Most of us have spent considerably more time trying to get better at running around grass fields than we ever have at the most dangerous thing in our lives.
The most effective way to improve your safety on the road is to take an advanced driving course. These are conducted on racetracks, which are safe, controlled environments where you can make mistakes free of consequences, then learn from them. You will learn what it feels like to lose control of your vehicle. You will learn how to regain control. You will learn, among other things, how to take full advantage of your car’s brakes. Believe it or not, you do not know how to do that right now. That should scare you.
Unfortunately, part of the mass insanity that is America’s relationship with the automobile is that most people are perfectly happy driving around in metal death boxes, with virtually no knowledge of how to control those metal death boxes. As a result, advanced driver training is in relatively short supply and is expensive. If you’re going to spend all that time and money pursuing it, you might as well go to the best school there is. And that’s Skip Barber. I’d spend money on that way before I’d spend money buying a fancier car. In fact, I did.
All-Wheel Drive Doesn’t Work the Way You Think It Does
Because automakers sell cars, not tires, they’ve poured hundreds of millions of dollars into an elaborate propaganda campaign in an effort to convince you that a made-up thing called all-wheel drive is a panacea for scary stuff like snow and ice. It is not. At best, AWD may, in some limited circumstances, enable your car to better take advantage of its tires while accelerating. Acceleration is the only circumstance in which AWD may, in some limited circumstances, provide a benefit. It cannot improve a car’s ability to slow down or turn, two things that are made more difficult the faster a car goes. See the problem?
With no exceptions or caveats, appropriate tires for the conditions you are driving in are what enables your car to grip the surface. And—wait for it—a good set of tires actually costs less money than “upgrading” to all-wheel drive.
Don’t Buy, Lease
It’s been a long time since cars were simple devices. They’re now full of so many computers, plastic components, and just stuff, that today’s cars are guaranteed to have problems as they age that will be expensive to repair. Cars also depreciate in value quickly. Yet conventional car-buying wisdom has everyone thinking that the wisest way to spend money is to buy that three-year-old used car that’s just out of warranty.
I don’t understand that. All of us normal people earn money incrementally. So coming up with a monthly budget that you’re comfortable with, then being able to guarantee that will be all you ever spend, just sounds a lot more sensible to me. Because you’re leasing a new car, with a warranty, you’re never going to have to pay to fix it, and it won’t let you down. Your only expenses will only ever be the ones you sign up for. You can lease a good, brand-new car starting at around $170 a month. That sounds like a lot better value to me than blowing $12,000 on a three-year-old version of that same car and then ponying up for repairs and maintenance.
Take Less Stuff
Your car or truck is not too small, you’re just trying to carry too much. This is especially applicable to adventuremobiles, because off-road driving subjects your car or truck to much greater forces than simply cruising along a smooth road ever will. Carrying additional weight in your vehicle, while it’s subject to those forces, will exacerbate wear, potentially cause components to fail, and will generally make obstacles more challenging and dangerous. Simply taking less stuff with you will make your vehicle easier and safer to drive. And doing that is free.
Never Lift a Subaru
Upgrading the truly terrible stock tires that come on most Subarus and other AWD crossovers is the most effective change you can make to them. If you plan to use that Subaru to drive on dirt roads, then fitting skid plates under the vulnerable sump, transmission, and rear differential is also smart. But taking modifications any further than that will just ruin the things that made you buy a Subaru instead of a Toyota 4Runner in the first place: ride, handling, performance, and fuel economy. And changes like suspension lifts, bull bars, and tires that are designed to work on heavy trucks, not lightweight economy cars, won’t actually endow your Subaru with enough added off-road performance to justify their cost, their weight, or their reduction to your car’s on-road manners. If your Subaru doesn’t perform as well as you’d like on dirt after you’ve fitted a set of lightweight all-terrain tires, then the best way to fix that will be to sell it and buy a truck.
When in Doubt, Buy a Pickup Truck
So you’re outdoorsy. And you’d like to know which car will best enable you to go on road trips and camping trips, drive in bad weather, and carry your outdoor gear. I’ll make it simple: that vehicle is a pickup truck. Which one is right for you? First, figure out how big you need it to be, then how much money you have to spend. Then pick whichever brand, color, engine, and cab or bed configuration sounds neat. Most pickups on sale right now are pretty similar to the competition. The only one that really does things differently is the Jeep Gladiator, which includes a solid front axle and other off-road gear that makes it extremely capable but which will ultimately impact its on-road refinement.
But Don’t Get a Tacoma
Whatever truck you settle on will be a great choice, with the exception of the current Toyota Tacoma. Its V-6 engine was designed for the Camry, where it’s a surprisingly sporty option, but that means it makes its power only high in the rev range. In the heavier Tacoma, you have to work that engine incredibly hard to get anywhere, which would be frustrating on its own but which is further complicated by what’s probably the worst automatic gearbox on sale right now—it constantly hunts for gears, usually chooses the wrong one, and just generally gets in the way as you drive. And that terrible gearbox is made worse by unsuitable final-drive gearing, which doesn’t feel like it was even intended for this vehicle and must be changed before you can run even slightly upsized tires. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, the seats are horrendously uncomfortable, and the rear brakes are horrendously outdated and have inadequate drum designs. Considering all those objective failings, and the fact that the platform used in this truck dates all the way back to 2004, you’d figure the Tacoma would at least be cheap. But it’s not. With prices starting at $25,850 and running all the way up to a truly outrageous $52,804 (which again, still comes with drum brakes, in 2019), it’s actually more expensive than competition like the Chevy Colorado or Ford Ranger, which have better engines and transmissions, comfortable seats, and, yes, disc brakes on all four corners.