Labor Day is summer’s last gasp for warm-weather escapades. The final stand for top-down driving, ice-cold road slushies, sunscreen, shorts and T-shirts, the lot. The three-day weekend makes a great time to explore the country.
Sure, you could find yourself waiting in line with the masses at an amusement park in its last throes of family-hosting before shuttering itself for the season. Or you could use the long weekend to bake in traffic on your way to a beach that’s already crowded with tens of thousands of your best friends.
But why do that when the great outdoors, glassy smooth pavement, and a sense of adventure await?
The right tool for the task makes every drive better. For these off-the-beaten-path destinations, we dug deep to find the right car for the right highway. Click on the link to each trip for a Google Maps route of our recommendations.
Have a read, and then hit the road.
2019 Kia Forte
Big Bend National Park is a long way from anything—it’s four and a half hours to El Paso, which isn’t exactly close to anything, either. And in early September, temperatures in Big Bend are still in the 90s.
With this in mind, consider the thrifty, redesigned 2019 Kia Forte. It’s rated at 40 mpg on the highway and, at about $24,000, it’s one of the least expensive new cars with cooled seats. With just 147 horsepower on tap, the Forte is not going to win a drag race. But federal land isn’t the place for speeding, anyway.
2019 Subaru WRX and WRX STI Series.Gray
Southwest of Portland, Oregon, lies one of the most beautiful stretches of paved highway we’ve ever seen. State Road 224 runs along the Clackamas River and eventually becomes National Forest Road 46 (which was once SR224). Its pavement is pristine, but numerous curvy offshoots worth exploring are less predictable.
The Subaru WRX STI’s dual nature makes it the perfect vehicle for attacking these roads, especially since the weather can change at a moment's notice. Snow can fall as early as October in this part of Oregon, and these roads are often impassable.
2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Skip the busy Blue Ridge Parkway and stake out the curvy roads in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. Our favorite paved highways are in and around the village of New Castle, Virginia, where even the most sloppy stab at the map will find motoring bliss.
The 2019 Mazda Miata’s 181 horsepower—a 26 hp bump from last year—doesn’t make it into a drag strip machine, but it makes it even more adept at zipping through tight, curvy roads. These fun roads are just three hours from Washington, D.C.
2019 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro
Nearly 1,000 years ago, the Anasazi people built a massive, sprawling complex in the northwestern New Mexico desert that they used as their base. And then they abruptly abandoned it. Awed by the intricate construction, detailed pictographs, and natural preservation, President Teddy Roosevelt declared the extensive ruins a National Monument in 1907.
Getting to this treasure of the southwest requires a lengthy drive down New Mexico Route 57, an unpaved road riddled with sharp rocks. The 2019 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro’s lifted suspension is probably overkill, but its standard snorkel breathes in air above the inevitable dust clouds.
2018 Volvo XC90
Scandinavian immigrants to the U.S. over the last century and a half flocked to the upper Midwest for a reason: it reminded them of home. Few natural areas feel more authentically Swedish than State Highway 91 as it hugs Lake Superior for about 150 miles from Duluth to Grand Portage, Minnesota.
It’s an idyllic, peaceful ride, and one well-suited to the tranquil Volvo XC90. Pick one with a light interior and the costly (but worth it) Bowers & Wilkins audio system and, with the right music loaded, you’ll start to crave lutefisk.
2019 Ford Mustang
Indiana is not one big cornfield with basketball hoops, it turns out. The southern half of the state is a hilly, densely wooded playground for drivers patient enough to wait for passing zones to get around the occasional tractor. Tower Ridge Road snakes right through Brown County State Park.
The 2019 Ford Mustang GT’s new Performance Package Level 2 turns America’s pony car into a true sports car, one as adept at burning rubber from a stop (because, of course) to nipping along a curvy road.