Colorado: the cars, the culture, and the roads

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Colorado: my glimpse at the cars, trucks, roads, and automotive culture in the Denver/Boulder region
4Runners. 4Runners everywhere. I must have laid eyes on more of these Toyota SUVs in ninety-six hours than the rest of my life combined. They’re everywhere in Colorado, and the best part is that about half are lightly modified and sit on fairly aggressive tires, the kind best suited to the mountains and less so to basic civilian chores. A fairly clear representation of the vehicular populous in itself, the dirt-covered, not-washed-in-a-while 4Runner handily describes the function over form mentality maintained by most drivers.
People out in the Denver/Boulder region thoroughly enjoy outdoors activities and vehicles are the means to their madness. And while I expected this, it was something that struck an entirely different chord in person rather than in my feeble little imagination. I’m being too narrow-scoped though; this doesn’t start and end with the 4Runner, it’s just the tip of the iceberg and what I’m using as a symbol for Colorado’s automotive culture as a whole, or at least the slice of what I saw.

Back in November of 2015, I took a business-and-play vacation to Colorado that spanned four days, enough to get a taste and enough to leave me wanting more. Though the following observations are limited to Denver, Boulder, Golden and the surrounding mountains, it was pretty easy to get a sense of the area’s car culture from these few places. Things may be different elsewhere (and if they are someone should tell me otherwise) but the following is what I gathered from my far-too-short stay.  Every day I wish I was still there.
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Rear windows are littered with stickers from ski-snowboard destinations; “I do outdoors stuff” racks fill the space on most roofs. Scratches are ever-present and worn with pride, and more likely than not their owners bought them to actually take make use of their capabilities rather than to drive to their favorite strip mall.  This was the overall theme that resonated with me, a reminder of how back in New York the 4Runner that was once an ordinary sight in suburban and rural communities is of late one commonly sacrificed for something the likes of a crossover. Accordingly, however, New Yorkers demand less in the way of capability from their vehicles, and a machine better suited to the tarmac on which it will likely spend close to all of its life putting about is of no issue for those whose winter driving consists of rushing to the supermarket in a frenzy the day before a major snowstorm is forecast to hit. Out in Colorado though, the SUV is still the purposeful, working-class vehicle used for its functional and active-lifestyle-favoring characteristics, just as it was intended to be. This makes me happy.
Spotting a 4Runner in lower New York means either it’s brand new or it’s a more weathered example used by landscapers or high-school/college students as (relatively) inexpensive reliable transportation. That’s not the case in the Centennial State, where for many people having four wheel drive still means making manual use of a transfer case (even if by button/knob/switch), and anything less might not get you home in the out-of-nowhere blizzard-like conditions. And yet, the Colorado residents don’t fear this the way New Yorkers do. It’s something they’re accustomed to, something they embrace, something they accept and deal with and even somewhat enjoy. If there’s a metaphor for how different this mentality is out in Colorado, it’s one that translates directly to the vehicles.
As you’d expect, roll around in a lifted 4×4 in any town in Westchester County and you’re bound to land onlookers’ stares, ranging from the eco-minded (who will hate you for your rainforest-murdering, gas-guzzling off-roader) to the outdoors-wannabe’s (those stuck in a mostly developed county but with their mind to the north or west where they could be in the woods, in their calling). Sure, there’s the few who “get it,” but it’s a niche that goes largely misunderstood. This isn’t the case in Colorado where a lifted 4×4 fits in just as well as does a CUV or midsize sedan and only garners second stares from enthusiasts and “outsiders” like me. What I said about different, more adventurous lifestyles being fully embraced in Colorado? Again, look at how differently people oogle modded rigs and are instantly understanding of said rigs’ purposes.
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Everything above goes for the Toyota’s competition, and there’s a massive assortment of lightly-modified or stock-but-on-good-tire Xterras, Grand Cherokees, XJ Cherokees, FJ Cruisers, Wranglers, Tacomas, Frontiers, Land Cruisers, and on and on and on. And, of course, there’s bro trucks (though where aren’t there?). Yet the smaller off-roady vehicles are everywhere and they all look like they’ve been used hard and put away dirty. Better yet, the variety of heavily-modified but still street-driven 4x4s is vast, so much so that everywhere you turn another lifted rig is within sight.
Modified cars are even well-respected out in the streets. Tasteful mods seem more common than tacky ones and though tuned cars are far outnumbered by that of their trucks/SUV counterparts, those that have been worked over were done so nicely…for the most part. The occasional supercar can be sighted too; I spotted an F430 that was questionable at best (red wheels on a red car are always a no-no), and a bright yellow McLaren 650S stood out nicely against the drab desert-like plains northeast of Boulder. There was even a rare Tesla-meets-Hellcat (Jekyll & Hyde?) sighting in the Union Station area. And how have I failed to mention the Subarus? The sheer number of them rivals that of the northeast, though ski racks are even more common and stanced/slammed WRXs are thankfully less so.
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But most importantly, to me at least, there’s the roads themselves. It’s impossible for me to actually describe what felt like perfection, but I have to at least try to put into words how spectacular the mountain and canyon roads are. Every stretch of pavement is more rewarding than the next, each subsequent turn more perfectly laid out for enthusiastic driving than the previous, each bit of asphalt ascending into the sky as if it were deliberately set to be something best described as paradise. The banked corners, the sweepers, the elevation changes, the consequences of screwing up; I’ve never driven the canyon roads of California or the passes over the Alps, but in the mountains of Colorado just west of Denver and Boulder I found absolute hooning heaven. Even the highways between the cities themselves were buttery-smooth (albeit compared to my horrid NY/CT commute), and there’s never a point in the city of Denver when you’re more than a half hour to forty-five minutes away from bliss. Short of finding a patch of snow or ice or a stray fallen rock, you’re damn-near guaranteed to have a great time. And if the roads themselves aren’t enough, such dramatic and demanding roads are reward you with the most spectacular views upon reaching outlooks or summits; it’s something that needs to be seen in person to be fully understood.
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I do have to thank the Enterprise employee who “had too many Camaros and would do one for the same price as a ‘Standard’ rental” for gracing me with a RWD coupe rather than handing over the keys to a four-cylinder front-wheel-drive sedan (a la Jetta/Civic/Sentra), knowing going into it that I would thrash it like a 24 Hours of LeMons car. The Camaro took some getting used to with its awful blind spots, ergonomically challenged interior, and suspension that verged on painfully crashy over joints (which could be in that it was a rental), but I can absolutely see how it would be a fun car with a proper V8 and the right suspension setup.
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Driving the Camaro in the canyons certainly surprised me especially after loathing it upon leaving the airport and though it wasn’t anywhere near what I would consider great, the alternatives looked far worse. It most certainly could have been better (add: V8, manual trans., etc.), but being that I should have been trying to quell body roll, understeer, and torque steer behind the wheel something the likes of a Jetta/Civic/Corolla, the Camaro wasn’t too bad as a rental. Occasional paddles-to-transmission lethargic disconnect regularly causes curses to the shouted at the car, but despite the onslaught of full-throttle blasts on my switchback-laden self-proclaimed race track, along with the nonstop cornering as if it was a timed run in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, somehow the car managed to do about 250 miles on only ~$30 worth of gas.  Credit goes to about 200 of such cruising at the highway’s speed limit in top gear on low-rolling-resistance tires, but it’s actually pretty good MPG considering the way I mistreated treated the car.
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Despite the Camaro’s downfalls, the roads and environment and nature of such a foreign environment all combined for what was a truly eye-opening experience. Rarely have I found a locale in which juvenile and smile-until-your-face-hurts behavior such as pushing oneself and one’s vehicle is rewarding and rejuvenating as much as it was in Colorado. Everything I thought I knew about good roads was thrown clear out the window. Here, the rental Camaro was adequate, but the real enjoyment came from the roads themselves.
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Skewed the way of the mountain, off-road trail, and even the snowstorm, Colorado’s car culture is among the most unique– and best– I’ve experienced. It contributes to the snowy, woodsy, rough-and-tough feel and adds a bit of charm that I’ve yet to find elsewhere. People here understand their compromised 4WD SUVs as utilitarian, opportunity-enabling, and simply better for their region. But this isn’t to disregard the appeal of the street-going car: the roads are otherworldly, and that Pikes Peak is barely hours away speaks for itself. Perhaps it was the Rocky Mountain High, the amazing beer everywhere you turn, or perhaps it was that just being there was a life goal come true, but Colorado is a stunningly beautiful place that provided me with only amazing experiences, and its car culture definitely played a part in my enjoyment and comfort there. I’ll be back…
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Note: all pictures taken by myself and are unedited. The severe lack of 4Runner/4×4 pictures is simply because I was too busy looking at them in shock as another and another and another drove by. I even started pointing them out…just ask my girlfriend.

About Ross Ballot

Host of the Off the Road Again Podcast. 4WD and four-wheeling enthusiast and expert. Formula 1 fanatic. Contributor to Hooniverse, ATVRider.com, UTVDriver.com, and Everyday Driver. Usually found getting a vehicle stuck in the mud or on the rocks and loving every second of it.

0 Comments

        1. The typical stuff that does just that…work, family, girlfriend who is finishing up her doctorate, etc…

  1. I was in Arizona a couple months ago, and was equally impressed by the quantity of proper 4×4’s (and also the roads). I’m jealous, but at the same time, I’m somewhere that’s completely devoid of any worthwhile nature, so it just doesn’t make any sense.
    Also, not entirely shocked that there wasn’t a run on Camaros in November, although it’s a little surprising they hadn’t purged it from the fleet by that point.

    1. Where in AZ?
      The Camaro only got sketchy at higher elevations where the roads did have spots of snow and ice covering them entirely. Then it was a momentum game…

      1. All over, sort of – my wife had a conference in Phoenix, but we flew in a couple days early to get up to Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon as well, and I went down to Tucson to see the Boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB.
        And yeah, no doubt the Camaro was fine – modern tires and stability control neutralize plenty of RWD’s snowy weather issue, just for something like that, the demand is very seasonal unless you’re somewhere permanently warm.

  2. Wonderful post! I can identify with most of what you said, but as somebody living in a similar environment and having moved there from something entirely different, I’d also like to say that: Yes, 4wd helps, but good tires, skills and patience will usually be enough to get where you want to go anyway. There are exceptions, though.
    http://s26.postimg.org/e22paqueh/P1070466.jpg
    http://s26.postimg.org/rjz7jo2uh/bild48.jpg
    http://s26.postimg.org/ban5ombxl/P1150499.jpg

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