Best Summer Rides

Summer means fun, right? Sure, spring has its moments, and fall can be lovely too. Driving in the winter is often full of challenges, but it does have its satisfactions as well. But when it comes right down to choosing the best season of the year for driving, it just has to be summer. The roads are clear, the weather is warm and the sun feels good on your shoulders. You can’t help but want to drop the top, hit the accelerator and go. Here are our picks for the best summer rides of 2011 that’ll have you savoring the heat in style.

No. 5: Ford Mustang GT Convertible
If you’d like to leave the city and your cares behind, the Mustang GT convertible is your ticket to ride. First, you will find yourself ensconced in the classic pony car shape. The better news: That shape encloses a drivetrain and suspension that offer significant doses of pure handling and exhilarating acceleration. The 5.0-liter V-8 delivers 412 horsepower, and the six-speed manual transmission keeps you engaged in the game.

No. 4: Fiat 500 Convertible
OK, we admit its 101 horsepower pales in comparison with that of the other vehicles on this list. But a driver does not live by horsepower alone. The all-new Fiat 500 convertible is an engaging vehicle from any angle. It puts a new spin on the classic Fiat 500 styling, features an inventive interior and top arrangement, and is guaranteed to win you some attention, whether you’re speeding around or standing still.

No. 3: Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible
If you were going to design a car strictly to drive on summer nights in any American suburb or small town, it would be just like the Chevy Camaro SS. The car looks great, drives great and even sounds great. It offers 426 horsepower (yes, 426!), and that power is accompanied by the most sophisticated suspension ever seen in a pony car.

No. 2: BMW 335i Convertible
A convertible with a hard top: That is one of the 335i’s calling cards, but it is perhaps the least important aspect of the car. What’s more important is the fact that the 335i convertible is a true BMW 3 Series, which means it is one of the best-balanced, most rewarding cars on the planet. It not only offers 300 horsepower, but also features a torque curve as flat as the Kansas plains, which means it is easy to drive fast. Add Euro sophistication, and you have a ride that’s truly worthy of you.

No. 1: Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport Convertible
Just you, your chosen companion and 430 horsepower -- what’s not to like? Though the Corvette’s shape is familiar, it still commands attention, and there is something deliciously selfish about keeping all that power just for the two of you. The Corvette isn’t merely for profiling, though. As a performance car, the Grand Sport has the goods to out-accelerate and out-handle all but a tiny handful of vehicles, none of which can be purchased for anywhere near its $60,000 sticker price.

Photo: © GM Corp.

More Great Summer Drives

Can it be that summer is about to arrive on our doorstep? Again? Last year in this space we at Driving Today profiled a few of our favorite routes, culled from years of driving cars for a living in palatable locales, most often at other people's expense. Because of the unique opportunities offered to auto journalists, we've had the chance to motor in such out-of-the-way regions as Australia's Nullarbor, the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia, and the Baltic coast of Russia, Estonia and Latvia. Journeying to those destinations might take a toll on your minivan, so in this space we'll examine two terrific drives in much more accessible regions. Included are drives on the Gulf Coast and in the upper Midwest, varied enough to fill the bill for those seeking history, scenic grandeur or just plain fun.

Even though gasoline prices are up this year, meandering around in your favorite vehicle can be a rewarding experience, and the experience is even better when the trip is made on great roads filled with wonderful things to see. That describes these two routes to a "t" and so, without further ado, here are Great Summer Drives for the millennium.

Pensacola: Beaches, Beauty and More

They say that Pensacola, Florida, is where the "New South" meets "Old Florida." Others will tell you the farther north you go in Florida, the farther south you go in attitude, and historic Pensacola reflects that. As one of Florida's most northern cities, this old and picturesque city can offer a dose of Ante Bellum southern charm, while at the same time feeling thoroughly modern. Best of all, it features lush semi-tropical beauty, pristine white sand beaches and the vibrancy of a burgeoning urban area.

The best place to start a tour of the Pensacola corridor is in Pensacola itself, an easy hop for many in the east and central United States off coast-to-coast Interstate 10. To get the feel of the town, immediately cruise to the historic district a stone's throw from Pensacola Bay.

Known as the "City of Five Flags," Pensacola has been under the rule of the Spanish, the British, the French, the Confederacy and the United States since the first conquistadors landed in 1559, and reminders of this varied heritage abound in a stroll through the Historic District. Designated a National Historic Landmark, this area is lined with restored homes, museums, shops, galleries and restaurants - some more than 200 years old.

From the Historic District it is a simple 20-30 minute drive on Route 98 through the town of Gulf Breeze to Pensacola Beach, an area boasting miles of pristine white sand beaches. While the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area is known as a winter resort, summer is the season in Pensacola Beach and environs, so be prepared for amiable, fun-seeking crowds. Don't worry, there's plenty of beach for everybody, because the barrier islands that protect Pensacola Bay are little more than long stretches of floury sand. You can travel mile upon mile along route 182, picking your sun and sand spot nearly at random.

The nearby Gulf Islands National Seashore, which stretches from the Florida panhandle to Mississippi, is one of the best-kept secrets among the world's beach lovers. Windswept dunes are dotted with sea oats, and the waters of the warm Gulf mix their aquamarine with the sand's pure white. A protected environment for more than 280 species of birds, nature lovers will delight in these unspoiled stretches of shoreline. The more active vacationer will enjoy fishing, boating, camping and ranger-guided tours. Pensacola is also becoming recognized as a hub for ecotourism.

Back in Pensacola, you should head west of town to the U.S. Naval Air Station, which boasts the world-renowned National Museum of Naval Aviation and hosts the famous Blue Angels precision flight team. Nearby are the 16th-century Spanish Fort San Carlos de Barrancas and the Old Pensacola Lighthouse.

If you take Interstate 10 a few miles northeast you'll be within a few miles of Milton, a town dubbed the Canoe Capital of Florida. The local rivers won't offer whitewater rafting fans huge challenges, but they do offer kickback canoeing, kayaking and tubing jaunts in reasonably warm, crystal-clear spring-fed waters.

If you like seafood, you will love Pensacola's native cuisine. Gulf red snapper, scamp and grouper are among the best seafood eating you'll find anywhere, and Gulf shrimp boiled ready for the peeling are a terrific, if messy, way to spend dinnertime.

The Black Hills: Unspoiled and Historic

We have to admit that reaching the Black Hills of South Dakota isn't the easiest trek from most of America's major population centers. It's a two-to-three day drive from the East Coast, and still a long haul from Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis. Even if you live in the Twin Cities or Denver, you're still quite a distance away. But the Black Hills combine inspiring scenery with a rich history that few other areas can match. If you loved Kevin Costner's "Dances with Wolves" then you can't help but love the Black Hills.

Rapid City, South Dakota, is the gateway to the scenic and historic adventures in the area. A short drive to the east off Interstate 90 lie the Badlands, many of which are forever protected in Badlands National Park. The Badlands offer some of the most unusual natural formations you will see on this Earth, and they are also a rich digging ground for the bones of prehistoric creatures.

Southwest of Rapid City off route 16 is Keystone, a touristy jumping off point for the famous Mt. Rushmore National Monument. The infrastructure surrounding the national monument has been heavily upgraded in the last few years, and the monument itself, depicting four of our greatest Presidents, is truly inspiring. If possible, visit the monument at night when, most often, the National Park Service will present a short film in the amphitheater immediately below the monument depicting the struggle to complete its gargantuan statues.

From Mt. Rushmore head south on Iron Mountain Road, which features several "pig-tailed bridges," so named for their curlie-cue design. Iron Mountain Road offers great natural flora and great natural fauna, including multi-ton bison that often stroll leisurely onto the road. Be patient and you will be rewarded with inspiring views.

Stone Mountain Road will take you into Custer State Park, named for the cavalry general who lost his life, along with his whole command, to the Sioux at the Little Bighorn. The park is filled with terrific scenery and its state-operated lodges are well-run and relatively inexpensive. A word to the wise here - book early! The area is so lovely that President Calvin Coolidge decided to establish his summer White House here in a structure now serving as one of the hostelries.

Exiting the park by way of Sylvan Lake Lodge, a quick swing south on Route 386 will take you to the Crazy Horse Monument, a yet unfinished attempt to do for a Native American chief what Mt. Rushmore did for four Presidents. In some ways a much more ambitious effort than Mt. Rushmore, the Crazy Horse monument is still far from completion.

Retracing your wheelmarks a bit will take you back up north to Hill City, and soon after, we recommend you veer onto 385 (the Black Hills Parkway) for the awe-inspiring drive to the twin mining towns of Lead (pronounced "leed") and Deadwood. Both towns have their proponents, but Deadwood has the better-preserved pre-1900 downtown area. No car parking is allowed on the town's main street, so if you squint your eyes, you can imagine you're in the self-same era as when Jack McCall gunned down Wild Bill Hickok as he sat in Saloon #10 holding a poker hand of aces and eights. He and his ladyfriend, Calamity Jane, are buried side-by-side in the Mount Moriah cemetery up the hill from town.

These days, casino gambling is legal in Deadwood. The Saloon #10 is still a place to see and be seen, and gunfight re-enactments by authentically dressed actors who virtually live the roles are an everyday affair. Down the street from Saloon #10, Kevin Costner has opened a casino and restaurant called The Midnight Rose that offers some of the best food in town, and up the street the Hotel Bullock, which claims to be haunted, delivers comfortable period-style accommodations.

From Deadwood a drive west through Cheyenne Crossing will put you onto the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, a four-star road to take you back to the mundane grind of Interstate 90. From there your starting point in Rapid City is little more than an hour away.

-- Jack Nerad