What Are The Best Cars For Beach Life And Beach Driving?
David Collins9-minute read
UPDATED: December 12, 2022
If cars are fun, and the beach is fun … well then, beach cars must be super fun!
And they should be, but in ways that are not the most obvious. One of the major qualities of a great beach car, aside from fun, is practicality. And we’re talking specifically about cars for people who live near the beach — not just cars that you can drive to the beach on a daytrip. It’s a car that your wet dog can hop into after your daily stroll among the sand and waves. But beach life can be very different for different people, and the perfect vehicle that suits your particular needs is crucial.
For instance, for a family with lots of young kids, their friends, and all the toys they love to bring to the beach, a minivan or large SUV is great. If you are just two, or even one, a small, fun car can be enough, and it’s much easier to park, with spaces at a premium on busy beach days. Pulling a boat or a couple of jet skis? You might want a vehicle with a strong tow rating. Or perhaps your favorite beach is drivable. A four-wheel drive vehicle can keep you from bogging down or getting stuck in the sand.
Perhaps surprisingly, our list of excellent beach vehicles tends toward no-frills used cars, trucks and SUVs that are high on utility and low on luxury. A beach transport can take a lot of abuse, with people piling in and out, along with their coolers and umbrellas, plus the inevitable sand. Your beach car should not care about a few dings and scratches, and it should be easy to clean, preferably with a non-carpeted floor and cargo area. A beach car might also get knocked around on unpaved access roads and may have to fit into improvised parking spots.
Of course, some people do care what their car looks like at all times, and must curate their beach car with as much care as they put into picking out their swimwear for the season. For those who like to cruise the beach scene in style, we have included a couple sportier rides as well. But whether it’s funky, pleasantly kicked in, flashy, or good for towing, a good beach car has personality. Think Keanu Reeves’ Mustang Mach 1 in “Point Break” or Sean Penn’s surfer panel van in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” These cars look right at home on the beach.
So, here are just some of the vehicles you might want for your dedicated beach mobile.
Source: art_zzz – stock.adobe.com
For a reliable, versatile, rough-and-tumble beach town vehicle, a used midsize pickup checks off a lot of boxes — and the clear champion among consumers has been the Toyota Tacoma. In fact, in 2021 Toyota sold more than 250,000 “Tacos” in the United States, double the next highest selling truck in its class. As a pickup, Tacoma can handle light towing duties (boat or jet ski trailer) and haul all the beach toys. Plus, it’s smaller than the half-ton trucks that are so popular today — and therefore easier to maneuver in crowded beach parking areas.
But for a beach car, the real value in the Tacoma heritage is in the older models. Tacoma is currently in its third generation, and there are lots of first- (1995 – 2004) and second- (2005 – 15) generation Tacos still on the road performing admirably. Depending on how you look at it, there are plusses and minuses to Tacoma’s legendary reliability. On the plus side, this truck routinely surpasses 200,000 miles of service when properly maintained. A downside of that for used truck shoppers is that Tacoma maintains incredibly high resale value (it’s won a Best Resale Value Award from Kelley Blue Book). It’s hard to find a Tacoma with 100,000 miles or more for less than $15,000 in today’s admittedly inflated used car market. But for a knockaround beach vehicle that can seemingly run forever, this truck is worth it.
Ford Bronco And Bronco Sport
Source: Mike Mareen - stock.adobe.com
As it is one of Ford Motor Company’s most popular brands, it’s almost inconceivable that the automaker stopped building this legendary SUV for the last 25 years. Discontinued in 1996, it was not until 2021 that Ford finally released the new, sixth-generation Ford Bronco to much acclaim from critics and consumers alike (the smaller Bronco Sport was released a year earlier). Perhaps what drove Ford to bring back the Bronco was the growing cult-like reverence for the many vintage Broncos still on American roads. That and the fact that Jeep’s iconic Wrangler, a direct competitor to Bronco, has enjoyed uninterrupted success as a dominant brand for decades was what likely pushed Ford to bring back the Bronco.
The biggest difference between the Bronco and the Sport – aside from sheer size – is that the larger vehicle has a body-on-frame construction similar to most trucks, which makes it an extremely capable off-road vehicle for beach and dune driving. The smaller Sport features a unibody construction common to cars and most SUVs, but it too has off-road capability that is up to the task of driving on sand. And aside from being extremely versatile with multiple storage and tie-down functions, the Bronco blows the lid off the fun factor when you remove the roof and all four doors for beach day. Some packages even have marine grade vinyl seats and rubberized flooring that can literally be hosed down when the fun is done.
Admittedly, the Jeep Wrangler is not everyone’s cup of tea. With its high ground clearance it can be tough to get into for some. It’s bouncy and forces the driver to feel the road more than most SUVs. And especially on older models, Wrangler interiors were always low on luxury and high on utility and cleanability. The Wrangler has been around since 1986 in four generations: YJ (1986 – ’96), TJ (1997 – 2006), JK (2007 – ’17), and JL (2018 – present). The more recent JK and JL have made concessions to comfort concerns, adding more luxury features and bolstering the suspension. But it’s still a Wrangler — built for fun and arguably the most capable off-road production vehicle built anywhere in the world. In fact, the cult-like following Wrangler has procured — and the massive aftermarket that feeds the people who modify it (suspension lifts, bigger wheels and tires, bumpers, pop-up campers, etc.) — are testament to its ability to go almost anywhere.
But for the beach, we are recommending the older, more spartan Wranglers, the YJs and TJs of 20 – 30 years ago. This is Wrangler in its unrivaled youth — body-on-frame, with rigid front and rear axles, a no-fuss interior, and hopefully a manual-shift transmission. Remove the doors and the hard- or soft-top, fold down the windshield and hit the beach. You won’t care if it gets dirty and if it does just hose it down later. And if it gets a little nicked up when you park it between two trees, it wouldn’t be the first time. If you are purchasing an older used Wrangler, though, take heed and hire a good inspector before committing. A Jeep that old probably has more than 100,000 miles and will have seen a lot of this world.
Ford Mustang Convertible
Source: JRJfin - stock.adobe.com
For some, the allure of beach life is more about everything happening around the beach than actually digging your toes in the sand. Lots of great beaches have a great town attached to them, with lively nightlife, great bars, restaurants, shops, and galleries. Sometimes just sitting in an outdoor cafe, enjoying a coffee and breathing in the salt air is all the beach you want for the day. For people looking to enjoy the beachside scene, a sporty convertible is the perfect way to get around.
Almost since its launch in the mid-1960s, the Mustang has been an American icon. It became symbolic of the exuberance and youthful optimism of the generation born in the postwar years, and it helped to usher in the era of the American muscle car. But the Mustang never took itself too seriously. Meant to be affordable to the middle class, it was a fun, sexy, stylish coupe then and remains so today. Though there are Mustangs now with optional high-horsepower engine packages that could launch a rocket ship, the best for beach life are humbler base packages — as long as they have a convertible soft top. This is a car for low-speed cruising the strip on a sunny day, not drag racing on Thunder Road. On the used car market there are thousands of Mustangs, many of them older models with a lot of life left in them that can be found for less than $25,000.
Source: art_zzz - stock.adobe.com
Despite being cancelled after the 2015 model year, the Nissan Xterra still has legions of fans who swear by its workingman’s approach to an off-road vehicle, and plenty of dealers who would like to see Nissan revive the brand. Sure it’s not the best-looking vehicle, especially the one we’re looking to drive out to the beach — which is a 10-year-old Xterra that can be found on the used market for $10,000 or even less. If you’re lucky you might even find one with the gaudy grille-guard Nissan offered as an option.
The Xterra did all the things its prettier competition could. Those include true off-road adventure vehicles like Jeep Wrangler and Toyota Land Cruiser. Xterra gives up nothing to these body-on-frame bruisers with its high ground clearance, available four-wheel drive and low-range gearing, and a fortified suspension capable of high articulation on the roughest terrain. Add in ample cargo space that is cleverly configured and a clean, spartan interior and you have a great beach vehicle that is far more affordable than those glitzier brands.
Source: art_zzz - stock.adobe.com
If there was a category of vehicle to which we could apply the affectionate label “Old War Horse,” the Isuzu Trooper would join Nissan’s Xterra as charter members. The Trooper was a soldierly, no-frills, inexpensive SUV by design when it was new. It was built with body-on-frame construction and had available four-wheel drive back when SUVs were seen as utilitarian transport for work or busy families — as opposed to the posh brownstone-on-wheels that many of today’s full-size SUVs have evolved into (even Bentley makes a large SUV now).
Discontinued since 2002 (it had two generations dating back to 1982), the Trooper might someday assume the veneer of beloved vintage vehicle alongside such cult favorites as the original wood-paneled Jeep Grand Wagoneer or DeLorean DMC-12. Before that happens (now) is the time to snap one up on the used market, where a Trooper with less than 150,000 miles can be found for well under $10,000. Get some minimum insurance and keep it at the beach house as your coastal problem solver.
Fiat 500 (2011-2019)
The mighty little Fiat 500 we see on American roads today is a descendant of the 500 that began production in Italy in 1957 and was enormously popular throughout Europe for more than 20 years. If you can find one of those, by all means buy it. But we’ll focus specifically on the Fiat 500 that was re-introduced to the U.S. in 2011 after a 26-year hiatus — as opposed to the current 500X, which is a compact SUV.
The 2011+ 500, which is a four-seat, three-door hatchback, generously takes retro styling cues from the mid-century car and exudes a timeless, poppy, fun vibe. While still appearing downright tiny on American roads, the 500 makes a great car for cruising a compacted beach (it might get stuck on softer dunes) and all around a beach town. If it does require a handwash on the driveway after a day in the sand, there’s not a lot of surface area to clean. Most importantly, this car came with a unique retractable soft-top, so click that box when searching. And if you want to max out on adorableness, find a pink one.
The Bottom Line: Older Cars Find Second Life As Great Beach Cruisers
If you live near a beach full-time or have a beach house as a second home, it’s good to have a dedicated beach vehicle. Not only does this car meet all the requirements for a proper beach experience, it can also act as storage for all of the beach chairs, sand pails, coolers and boogie boards between trips to the beach. As long as it runs well and rides to and around your beach town are pretty short, your beach vehicle can be an older used car or truck that is inexpensive to purchase and insure — in fact, this is preferred. Older, more simply equipped vehicles can more easily tolerate the abuse that kids, dogs, beach gear, and sand can inflict on them. Perhaps more importantly, you care less about your beach car getting knocked around than if it was your nice clean luxury SUV. And finally, part of getting away is changing things up, and driving an older vehicle with some personality — preferably one with a convertible top and manual transmission — is a great reminder that you really get to spend all day at the beach.
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