The Best Cars to Drive in California

Find out the best cars to take out on the road for every classic California experience.
Written by John Pickhaver
Reviewed by Jessica Barrett
From its stunning beaches to rugged mountains to sprawling national parks, and of course its infamous gridlock traffic,
drivers can encounter just about every driving experience while on the road. Check out our list of the best cars to drive in the Golden State for any situation you may find yourself in, like the
Subaru Outback
for camping or the
Jeep Wrangler
for soaking up the California sun. 
Spanning nearly 800 miles from coast to coast, California is a state where many residents experience all four seasons, while others are treated to sunshine year-round. Pretty gnarly, right? So if you’re a beach bum or a ski junkie or both, expect a different vibe behind the wheel depending on where you are and what you like to do in the 31st state. 
Luckily, we've put together a list of the best cars for whatever driving experience you can dream up in the Golden State!
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Best for driving along the coast: 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Starting Price: $30,875
Car & Driver rating: 10/10
Arguably the most scenic drive in the world, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) spans over 650 miles from Southern California at Interstate 5 just south of
San Juan Capistrano
to U.S. 101 in Leggett in Mendocino County with endless breathtaking views along the way. 
But before you head out on this iconic California road trip, make sure you choose the right car for your journey. You may be thinking of a soft convertible or bust, but trust us, you’ll get over the wind in your face pretty quickly!
For this unforgettable journey, you want an agile ride that’s also a blast to drive. Enter the
Volkswagen Golf GTI.
  From the moment you sit down in the Volkswagen Golf GTI, you’ll know you made the right choice. This sporty hatchback is equal parts style and performance, so you can rest assured that you can take on the windy roads of the PCH while looking fly the entire time. 
Plus, if you opt for the SE or Autobahn trims, you can take advantage of the panoramic sunroof for even better views. Oh, and it has a 10/10 Car and Driver rating—take that, unnamed soft-top convertible!
MORE: West Coast road trip from San Francisco to Portland
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Best for battling traffic: 2022 Toyota Prius 

Starting Price: $26,100
Car & Driver rating: 5.5/10
As the state with the most cars, it’s no surprise that California has a lot of traffic—like A LOT.  So when you find yourself bumper-to-bumper day after day, you’ll want a comfortable and fuel-efficient car. 
That’s where
Toyota Prius
can help. The low Car and Driver rating reveals that this is a bit of a nostalgia pick for us, but the truth is, Prius remains the most recognized (and beloved?) hybrid on the road. It’s also one of the most popular cars in California, especially when you include taxis—remember those? 
The Prius can’t reduce your time in traffic—no car can, unfortunately—but it will save you money at the pump. Boasting over 56 mpg, the Prius is ranked at the top of its class for fuel efficiency. Plus, its popularity in high-traffic cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco means you’ll be in good company on the road. 
Remember, if you see a fellow Prius driver, give them a wave—they’re also trying to make it a thing!
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Best for traveling with the family: 2022 Kia Carnival

Starting Price: $33,595
Car & Driver rating: 9/10 
If you and your spouse are having the classic family car debate about whether to choose a sensible minivan or a monstrous SUV, the
Kia Carnival
may just be the happy medium or…monstrous minivan to find common ground.
The Carnival is safe, spacious, and stylish. We assure you that it will look great on any California freeway or driving up to the little league game. Not only does it look cool, but resting under the Carnival’s hood is a 290-hp 3.5-liter V-6 engine that would make even some of the most popular SUVs jealous. 
Every family car needs to go big on infotainment, and in that regard, the Kia Carnival delivers with a wide array of standard features, like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There’s also an abundance of options you can add, like a rear-seat entertainment system (standard starting on the SX trim) that’s sure to keep the kids out of your hair on long rides. 
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Best for the environment: 2022 Hyundai Kona Electric

Starting Price: $35,245
Car & Driver rating: 8.5/10 
Electric car sales are on the rise nationwide, but nowhere is that more true than in the Golden State. California has the highest gas tax in the country, so it’s no wonder why so many Californians are making the switch to electric.
We had a lot of choices for this one, but we picked the
Hyundai Kona Electric
because of its impressive range of 258 miles at a competitive price point. Plus, this crossover comes with a 10-year warranty. 
The Kona Electric has a sleek look on the outside and spacious interior on the inside, making it a fast-rising star in the electric car market that outshines all those in its class. 

Best for camping trips: 2022 Subaru Outback 

Starting Price: $28,820
Car & Driver rating: 9/10 
Big Bear
Joshua Tree
to Kings Canyon, there are infinite camping destinations in California. The first step of every camping trip is getting there, which is why it’s crucial to have a car that can take on the elements. Our pick is the
Subaru Outback
More rugged-looking than ever before, the Outback is synonymous with the great outdoors which makes this practical smooth-riding wagon the perfect auto companion for your next camping trip. 
With a roomy interior and a sturdy roof rack, you can easily and securely pack all your gear. The Outback all-wheel-drive system and high-ground clearance make it well-equipped to take on light off-road driving that you may encounter en route to your campsite. 
And if sleeping outdoors just isn’t your thing, you’ll have plenty of room to get nice and cozy inside your Outback.

Best for taking on mountain roads: 2022 Ford Ranger

Starting Price: $27,160
Car & Driver rating: 7/10 
When you think of California, your mind may go right to the beach. But this state, spanning nearly 900 miles, has a lot more than just beaches. It’s got plenty of mountains too, like Mt. Whitney which is just one of 12 fourteeners, mountains that reach over 14,000 feet into the sky. 
You’ll want a dependable ride with easy maneuverability when headed for the mountains. So how about one that’s Built Ford Tough? Our pick is the
Ford Ranger
due to its relatively lightweight, easy maneuverability and impressive fuel efficiency for its class—also, its turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine makes for a quieter ride that’s less likely to disrupt the peaceful nature around you. 
As far as off-road capabilities, the Tremor trim takes care of business! But if you can hold out a little longer, the upcoming Ford Ranger Raptor model may set a new bar for off-road performance.
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Best to soak up the sun: 2022 Jeep Wrangler

Starting Price: $31,590
Car & Driver rating: 7.5/10 
Florida may be the Sunshine State, but California is also home to sunny weather year-round in most parts of the state. And California’s lack of humidity makes it extra refreshing to soak up the sun in the Golden State while you’re out on the road. 
For this one, we wanted a car that checked all of our California boxes and is just a joy to drive. And that made the
Jeep Wrangler
the runaway winner in this category. With modification potential to open up the top and do away with doors, you can let the sun pour in from every which way.  
So yeah, it looks pretty awesome, but also performance-wise, the Wrangler’s got everything under the sun too. You can opt for a model with a furious 6.4-liter V-8 or even a plug-in hybrid option. All options come standard with four-wheel drive, so if you want to engage in some sunny off-roading, you won’t have a problem. 
Plus unlike the “Prius Wave,” the Jeep Wave is actually a real thing, especially when it comes to the Wrangler—so say hello out there!

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