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Road Trip! Best Cars and a Maintenance Checklist

From the slapstick misadventures of National Lampoon's Summer Vacation to the weird vibe of Little Miss Sunshine, Americans love watching families answer the eternal question: ARE WE THERE YET????

But if you're thinking about taking a real-life road trip with your family or friends soon, mishaps won't seem so funny. You'll want to drive a great road-trip vehicle or at least have the car you own checked out before hitting the highway.

Four Great Road-Trip Cars
If you're in the market for a new road-trip worthy car, you're likelier to get a better deal now than later in the summer (see Grab These Car Deals While You Can). For our recommendations, MoneyWatch began with Kelley Blue Book's 2010 picks of the 10 best road-trip cars and then narrowed their list to meet needs of four types of travelers:

Tackling the outdoors If your upcoming camping or fishing trip will take you over rough terrain, the all-wheel-drive Subaru Outback will get you there. Half station wagon, half SUV, the Outback also sports a comfortable ride for the highway portions of your journey. Reviewers like the redesigned 2010 Outback for its extra space for cargo and passengers. With a list price of $22,995 for the base model, Subaru is good value. Plus, it'll keep down the cost of filling up (19 mpg in city driving, 27 highway).

Little kids in tow With their eyes on a DVD or video game, your children in the back seat of the Toyota Sienna minivan will forget to nag you about when they'll get there. The van has an optional extra wide back-seat screen that can operate as a split-screen and show two videos or games at once, which should keep the family amused even on long days of driving. Reviewers cited by U.S. News call the 2011 Sienna, already on sale, among the best of minivans. (The Sienna was not involved in Toyota's recalls for sudden acceleration problems.) The list price starts at $25,060 for the four-cylinder engine (19 mpg city, 26 highway) or $26,300 if you want the more powerful V-6 power plant (18 mpg city, 24 highway).

Looking weirdly stylish If quirky but cool is your style, the Nissan Cube gives you a funky look ("Moss Green" anyone?) unlike anything else on the road. But you still will have plenty of space for five people and their suitcases. If you have fewer travelers, seats fold down to reach a maximum of 58 cubic feet of cargo space--equivalent to a small van. Reviewers praise its excellent handling and comfortable seats-definite assets on a road trip. The Cube starts at just $13,990 list price for its base model but can go up to $20,440 for the best-equipped model with premium stereo and safety features like rear-view backup camera.. Gas station stops will not interrupt too often with the Cube's 24 mpg city, 29 highway.

A sipper for a road tripper Among the new clean diesels European auto makers now sell here, the Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI is one of the most popular. More than 80% of buyers of this wagon choose the diesel option, and no wonder. Highway mileage is rated at 41 mpg and city driving at 30 mpg. These days, diesel fuel is available at about half of all gas stations and always at highway truck stops. Reviewers like the combination of fun-to-drive performance and cargo capacity bigger than some small SUVs. The turbocharged diesel wagon starts at $25,365. Unlike most hybrids now, the diesel Jetta still has a $1,300 federal alternative fuel tax credit.

Road Trip Maintenance Tips
If you're not buying a car, but want to be sure your current wheels will hold up on a road trip, be sure these items are in good working order:

Tires To see if your tires are getting worn, which could lead to a blowout or flat tire, take a Lincoln penny and insert it into the tread. If the tread reaches only to the top of Abe's forehead or less, buy new tires. Be sure your tires are at the proper inflation level (a figure usually noted on a small metal plaque visible on the end of the driver's door when open). Experts say tires inflated even four or five pounds too low are dangerous because such tires tend to overheat. Under-inflating tires also hurts gas mileage.

Brakes Find a deserted parking lot or quiet road and accelerate to 50 mph. Then hit the brakes hard. If they are sound, you should stop within 100 feet. If the brakes make squealing noises or the steering wheel pulls to one side, those are danger signals and you should have a mechanic check the brakes before your trip.

The battery Failed batteries result in more calls to roadside service than anything else, according to the AAA. If your battery is more than three years old, have a mechanic check to see whether you need a replacement.

Belts and hoses These little-noticed items are the next most likely to break down after batteries, says the AAA. Always have your belts and hoses checked during an oil change or other service visit. Some belts and hoses typically need replacing after about 50,000 miles.

Photos courtesy of the manufacturers

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