A Mazda6, an Abarth 500, and a life-changing experience driving the California canyon roads
High in the hills east of Los Angeles is a near-mecca of hidden driving roads that deserve every bit of attention and even higher amounts of appreciation than they garner. To the locals these may be ordinary, but to me they were anything but. On a particular Sunday in March of this year, one specific road stuck out above all the others: one designed as if the task was done entirely with automotive enthusiasts in mind, the snaking pavement serving as miles of driving enjoyment, an open expanse allowing man and machine to come together in symphony of gas-propelled indulgence. As a New Englander I can only dream about roads like those in the California hills, fantasizing from afar as podcasters and YouTubers alike swoon over the paved creations they so regularly enjoy. Finally, it was my turn to see if the hype was justified.
With some mapping and a primitive planning an adventure was born: a much-anticipated half-day up in the mountains taking full advantage of a Mazda6 press car and the breathtaking geology that the government’s paving machines afford road-car access to. It would be a prove to be a transformative, eye-opening and mind-blowing day in my enthusiast life, and is one that I have to tell the tale of so as to preserve the memory, to hopefully pass on the magnificence of the roads we traveled, and, as I try to do on a semi-regular basis, to urge people to “get out there and drive.”
Hot on the tail of Coastal Range Rally, jealous I hadn’t been able to attend, and with only so much time to work with on my west-coast vacation, Shifts and Grins podcast host Adam and I (with my fiancé riding shotgun) spent a gorgeous morning-into-afternoon hooning our respective cars, gaping over the views, and basking in the glory of all that is the hobby of automotive enthusiasm and specifically that of driving. Jump with me, if you will, to hear the full tale of “Coastal Range Rally LiteⓇ” in all its wanna-be, mountain road glory.
Car enthusiasts meeting in a coffee shop parking lot prior to any event has become something of a tradition in light of the aptly-named “gawk at stationary vehicle” early morning meets. Doing our best to stay true to form, Adam, myself, and my fiancé met at, yes, a coffee house a little ways west of Angeles National Forest. After making our acquaintances and waiting a frustratingly long time for delicious coffee that would prove wholly unnecessary given the adrenaline that would soon rush through our blood, I then in turn spent far longer than anyone would deem “normal” ogling over Adam’s Fiat Abarth 500, a car that remains a hysterical pocket-rocket boasting one of the best sounding factory exhausts available today. Itching to drive, we hopped across the street to gas up, set the GPS, and pointed to our destination.
There’s substantial anticipatory build-up as you convoy from meetup point to the actual stretch of roadway that will serve as your playground, and even though the transit section is calm and reserved, the tameness of the lead-up can do nothing to quell the adrenalin has already started to pump with the excitement for what is to come. The cars don’t know what’s ahead of them but your brain certainly does, and the inescapable fact of the road ahead is more prevalent than anything else in your life that could be robbing it of better-allocated brainpower. As each mile brings the mountains ever nearer you become continually more eager and more anxious and more excited for what is to come. The road ahead is all that matters. And not just any road, but The Road. A road recommended above all the rest. The one that’s revered as a hidden mecca, a road so technical and so testing of one’s car and one’s driving abilities that it would be a disservice to it to try and replicate it in any video game. Nothing can touch the finesse that must be displayed on The Road, and the consequences are ever-present in one’s mind. Looming ahead, The Road controls you…and you haven’t even gotten there yet.
And then it starts almost unceremoniously: you drive through a neighborhood of homes that look eerily similar to those in the Keanu Reeves movie Knock Knock (which I don’t recommend, for the record), then the path climbs a little, points right, and puts you onto what will become tarmac heaven. Ready past the point anticipation, the few slow-moving vacationers ahead of us made for an infuriating first few miles, but in turn made it that much more thrilling when we finally had room to ourselves and room to run.
After a slow, easy start, we came to a turn-out and stopped to stare at the magnificent valley that lay below us. Sights sufficiently taken in and knowing we had passed the turn for which the meat of our drive lay, we pulled a u-turn and headed downhill towards the right-hander that was our gateway to perfection. Suddenly we were there: A tight, twisty, stripe-less expanse. And better yet, we had it all to ourselves.
Those first few corners feel like freedom: you, the open road, a car’s limits to explore, and what feels like a limitless section of roadway on which to have fun to your heart’s content. With nowhere for speed traps to hide, the pace is is basically what you set it at, a rate which is actually pretty low given the tightness of the turns, the short distance between them, and the severe repercussions for any error any worse than “minor.”
I could endlessly wax poetic over The Road with ease, the task of repeatedly professing my love for an inanimate piece of paved pathway dousing the pages of Hooniverse with articles on how and why it’s a mandatory mecca for driving and still, my efforts would never do justice to what an eye-opening, life-changing, sincerely and genuinely enjoyable time it was dancing through the corners and taking in the views as we hooned through the California hillside. It might not be a high-speed attraction but it’s a full test of your gusto and that of your canyon road attack weapon alike. Each corner is an opportunity set up as if it’s a race turn, and like in racing you hate yourself for entering too early or too late and for getting on or off the throttle or brakes at the wrong time. Though the Mazda6 provided ample grip and oomph for our medium-quick pace, Adam’s Abarth had no problem keeping up and showed capability of easy passing should the space have allowed, the Fiat’s turbo punch and short wheelbase playing as strengths up in the mountains more so than they would anywhere else.
I clicked through the gears of the Mazda6, running the wheezy naturally-aspirated four-cylinder through the rev range and turning the leather-wrapped steering wheel as we ran from corner to corner, pushing hard but staying well within a the limit of what felt reasonably safe. The tightness of the road was borderline concerning, with our few encounters with oncoming traffic making for momentary self-questioning, but not so much as did passing a group of bicyclists who were riding in the imaginary median indulging while indulging in a hearty helping of self-induced torture.
Switchbacks, sweepers, bankings, tight transitions, decreasing radius surprises, elevation changes both gradual and drastic, and everything else you can think of; The Road has it all. As much as the beginning was a test of the engine’s power, the end was more so of the car’s brakes, a torture test that surprisingly revealed no fade to speak of, though it must be said that upon stopping at our first pull-off (about a third of the way through) the Mazda’s stoppers smelled strong of their protesting the beating which they were being dealt, but they never worsened and never made me question their stopping ability. That’s a good thing given the height at the road’s peak and that at which the best and most challenging parts are found. I’ve driven mountain roads before, but the altitude was simply astounding. So much so that half-way up, my fiancé and I shot each other quick nervous glances upon hearing a loud pop from inside the car, which turned out to be the water bottle in the door cupholder expanding to maximum volume.
Though the road begged us to keep moving, the scenic overlooks continued to lure me in with each and every brief opportunity to take in each view I had yet to lay eyes on, sights that continuously left me in awe and that were well worth the slowing of our driving pace to stop for. At our third mojo-crushing but jaw-dropping stop we found two BMWs and their drivers parked and, in typical “love everything with wheels” fashion, Adam and I struck up a conversation with the owners who told us of their toys (a 1996 Z3 1.9L and an e36 M3 convertible), their modifications, and the YouTube channel they’re working on to document their travels and builds. Though soon after re-starting on our journey we found ourselves coming down the backside of the The Road and returning to normal residential areas and freeways, the drive would stay on our minds. This was one for the record books.
As for the Mazda6: the chassis was the star of the package, making even the front-engine, front-drive layout enjoyable. The anemic engine was unquestionably begging for boost, but the transmission was more than willing to listen to my commands to keep the motor in its powerband. Seats? Supportive enough to prevent you from turning into a door-to-center-console projectile, and comfortable in transit and in the canyons alike. Overall, the Mazda6 impressed me quite a bit, even despite how much better suited a small, lightweight, rear-drive sports car would have been. If anything, the mis-matched nature of the 6 worked in my favor, allowing me to focus on my inputs and on stealing quick moments of taking in the scenery around us rather than trying to tame massive power in an attempt to not go Dukes of Hazzard-ing off a cliff. I like the Mazda6 a lot, and my experience with it on The Road was very positive…it just re-affirmed my feeling that it desperately needs the inbound turbo motor.
A great day driving a great road is an experience that a car enthusiast can appreciate to the absolute fullest in both regard, and even a fiancé who’s tagging along for the day can enjoy it given the sights and the “see new things” aspect of the adventure. It was a revelation finally driving one of the roads I’ve heard about for so long, and enough good can’t be said of this “secret” mecca that it must be experienced from the driver’s seat to be appreciated to its absolute fullest. It’s a gem of a course, hidden way up in the hills among hundreds of other roads like it, but for the day this road was ours. And the best part is that it can be yours, too. It’s too great to be ignored, and it’s a free, exciting, life-building drive that allows you to experience canyon driving in the fullest and best way. If you’re local or just in the area for vacation, get in your car, point for The Road, and fucking go. And if you’re not local, find yourself something like it, get in your car, and do the same. Get out there; go for a drive: there’s nothing like a new driving adventure to stir the car enthusiast soul. Seriously: go.
Shout out to Adam for an awesome day up in the canyons. Let’s do it again sometime soon…
Also, shout-out to my fiancé for putting up with our nonsense, though I’m wagering nothing in the vein of cars is anything of a shock anymore…
And for those wondering where “The Road” is and what it’s actually called, shoot me a message through Disqus or email me at email@example.com and I’ll be happy to give you the details so long as you swear secrecy.