No Wrong Turns: Choosing a Car for an International Road Trip

In the initial planning stage, we had a hard time finding recommendations about what kind of car would be the best for this type of trip, so we had to muddle through on our own and hope that whatever we chose would be hardy enough to withstand a year long (maybe more) driving trip.

Choosing a car can be a bit difficult — you don’t want to stick out too much, but you also need a car in good, solid condition that will be able to tolerate the demanding roads and sweltering heat.

Here are some things to consider when choosing a car for a long road trip of this nature:

Make of Car

Mexico seems to have an abundance of Fords, Toyotas, and Volkswagens. But we’ve also spotted plenty of Isuzu Troopers, Land Rovers and Jeeps. Some of the most popular models are the Ford Bronco and standard Toyota truck, which we were told are some of the easiest cars to fix. Our VW, a 1991 Golf, has done well, but finding parts has proved to be an issue (at least in the Baja) — something we did not anticipate.

A Ford truck or SUV seems to be the way to go. Whichever car you do choose, try to pick one with a relatively simple engine, this way if you do require a mechanic’s help they should be able to get you back on the road as soon as possible.


If you don’t want to see your car’s guts all over the road, pick a car with high road clearance. Roads conditions can be pretty rough with potholes, uneven surfaces, and rocks among other things that make you wonder what the Mexican definition of “road” truly is. Extra clearance insures that the rocks, bumps, and holes won’t knock lose any items that you’d like to keep, like your oil pan. We’ve been lucky and the only part we have lost is the bottom part of our bumper.

4-Wheel Drive

This is something I would highly recommend in your car choice. As mentioned previously some of the “roads” are often barely more than tire tracks. Sand, rocks, and potholes bigger than the car make navigating the roads tough. 4WD will minimize the chances of getting stuck where smaller, less powerful vehicles might have problems. You don’t need 4WD but it might be a nice addition if you are planning to do a lot of back road driving.


Gas isn’t cheap so you will want to choose a car that is efficient. The standard fuel options are gas or diesel. Some people may prefer diesel, which can often be cheaper than gas (though not always), and is reputed to be more environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient.


This is a long going debate between Tom and I: should we have gotten A/C? We don’t have it and though it can be warm (ok boiling!), with the sunroof and windows open we manage to get a really good breeze going. One thing to consider is that in some of the larger cities, having your windows down might not be the safest option. It doesn’t take that much to reach in and grab something through a car window, which means you could end up melting in a hot vehicle while safely driving though town. So if you can’t handle the heat, investing in air conditioning is a good option. Though I have heard if your A/C system breaks you might be out of luck in getting it fixed quickly or at all.


As I mentioned roads are bumpy, so bumpy you will be irritable instantly. Make sure your car has good suspension and if your shocks are old you might want to consider replacing them before you leave — you are for sure going to need them!

When choosing your vehicle make sure you think about where you intend to drive and invest the time into making sure your choice is going to be reliable. Have your mechanic give your car a tune-up and replace any part that seems to be on its way out. You might as well shell out the cash to have your car in good working order before you leave, this way you can spend time enjoying the ride instead of worrying about whether you will make it to the next town.

For us our little VW is working out fine: it is discreet, pretty tough and lets us drive some crazy roads. With only two mechanic visits under our belt so far, good gas mileage, and my ability to dig a tire out of sand in record time, we think we made the right choice though some days a little cool A/C and a bit more clearance would be nice.

“No Wrong Turns”
chronicles Kelsey and her husband’s road trip — in real time — from Canada to the southern tip of South America in their trusty red VW Golf named Marlin.