By on December 7, 2018

There are many things I don’t like about Los Angeles. The traffic, the cost of doing just about anything, the traffic, the sprawl, the traffic, the oversaturation of chain fast-food restaurants and billboards, the traffic.

However, there is one thing that makes me rethink my living situation. One thing that tempts me to move to the West Coast.

It’s not the weather, or the beach, or the chance at Hollywood stardom. It’s the roads.

I had about two hours of time to properly put the press car I was driving through its paces before I had to be somewhere, and I was going to make good use of that time. Never mind that the press car I had the keys to wouldn’t have been my first choice for the Angeles Crest Highway, aka California Highway 2. The Angeles Crest snakes through the mountains and the Angeles National Forest to the north and east of Pasadena. If traffic is moving smoothly, you can be at the bottom of the hill from downtown LA in about 20 minutes.

I was piloting a Buick Regal GS. A capable enough steed for mountain duty, but I’d rather be in a Mustang or Miata or one of the compact sports car group (Civic Si/Type R, Golf GTI/R, WRX/WRX STI, et cetera). Or maybe a Giulia Quadrifoglio or a 911 or…

But the GS is what was available, and I hadn’t driven it for any length of time yet, so I set out. I knew that even if it wasn’t as great as the cars listed above, it was still just sporty enough that I’d be OK.

I’ll get to that when I review the thing properly. This post isn’t about the GS. It’s not even about the specific road, as glorious and challenging as the Angeles Crest can be. Indeed, I’d initially targeted Malibu and the infamous Snake, but well, there were these fires, you see … perhaps you heard about them on the news?

2018 Buick Regal GS

No, it’s about driving. Really driving. The type that most of us don’t get to do often. Even those of us who do this for a living and get the occasional track excursion or the standard press-trip drive on good/great roads, probably spend less than 20 percent of our driving lives doing this kind of thing. Not to mention that on some press drives, the vehicle being tested isn’t anywhere close to the sporty car you’d pick for a blitz down a back road. Automakers have made strides in making crossovers better to drive, but the laws of physics don’t bend, and even the good ones generally aren’t quite right for most of these roads.

I love to say that I love driving, but I hate commuting. And this is true. Bumper-to-bumper traffic is no fun in any car, and even when you’re moving at speed, straight lines and gentle curves can get boring. Sometimes, you need a road that allows you to exercise the car, your reflexes, and your brain. You need the mix of acceleration, braking, turning. You need to have the radio off and your focus increased, hands at 9 and 3, seat positioned right. You need to be challenged.

That the Angeles Crest does. I’ve driven it twice before, once killing a Mustang thanks to a stray rock that ripped up the tire and fender lining (I remembered the corner, some three years later, and even shouted “this is that f—king corner” to myself as I bulled through. You don’t forget). It’s not just the corners that challenge, or the rocks – one must be alert for cyclists, wildlife, and stray auto journos. That last isn’t really a joke; I lost count of how many journalists I saw doing pre-show testing or photography. Scarier than any coyote, man.

I knew I could stop at Newcomb’s Ranch and swing a U-turn to get back to DTLA in time. In fact, I arrived at Newcomb’s slightly ahead of schedule.

As noted earlier, I’ve driven faster cars than the GS, and cars better suited for a mountain road, but it doesn’t matter. If you’re driving anything even mildly sporty in intent, you can make a road like this yours, even if just for a short time.

There’s something to be said for the dance. For getting on the gas between corners, and looking for a marker for a braking point as the next curve approaches. For trying to get the turn-in point and apex correct. For knowing you need to focus, since any mistake will put you in the weeds and maybe send you tumbling down a mountainside. No radio for you, no daydreaming, no worries about anything but accelerate/brake/turn.

There’s satisfaction in going faster as you learn the road and the car, speeds climbing a bit through each section of tarmac. Sometimes, the tires sing, and you adjust your speed and line, and all feels right.

Even the fight between your ego and common sense is fun, in a way. Your ego tells you didn’t need to brake there, but you know that if you didn’t, trouble lay in wait. So you learn when to listen to each. You learn when your ego was right and you were too conservative, and when you were best served by listening to your sense of self-preservation.

To be clear, I am not saying I am Mario Andretti or anything. There are doubtless other journos (including our own Bark) who are smoother and/or faster than I. And as noted, I was in a freakin’ Regal – it held its own, and brought me some grins, but as pointed out above, it wouldn’t be the first tool I picked out of the box.

Nor was I driving at full whack. I wasn’t racing anyone or the clock. The car didn’t belong to me, and I barely knew the road. I remembered the rock, knowing another one could ruin my day at any time; and with no cell service, I’d be waiting a long time for a tow. I kept all safety nannies on. Not to mention I was on a public road, one used by tourists in rented Sentras and Lance Armstrong wannabes.

If we label hard driving on the tenths scale – with ten-tenths being racing, and one-tenth being commuting, I was between five and seven. There was some occasional tire squeal, but I was probably never even within the same ZIP code as “the limit” – I save that kind of effort for the track (and given that I had a bit of a brown-pants moment when testing the Veloster N last month, there’s a reason for that).

Even with the limit in the far distance, I was having a moment of automotive Zen. My run wasn’t perfect – I could’ve had better lines through some corners, and at times I was a little too slow. That’s fine, though – I returned the Regal and myself in one piece. I probably faced more danger when I nearly tumbled down a hiking trail after addressing nature’s call than while driving on the road, and I am OK with that.

While some people see a “curvy road ahead” sign and get nervous, I get excited. And a drive like that is why.

2018 Buick Regal GS

This isn’t the usual “self-driving cars are coming, we’re going to have to give up the wheel, oh noes!” lament. For one, I think (perhaps naively), that full autonomy is a long way away.

No, this is a more pedestrian complaint. You see, even those of us who get to test cars for a living and get to spend some of our work days on lovely roads or a racetrack just don’t get to experience the pure joy of driving nearly enough.

Thanks to the crossover craze, much of our testing involves vehicles that aren’t a particular joy to drive on a great road. Second, even us spoiled auto journos spend more time commuting or running errands than we do on sun-splashed mountain roads behind the wheel of some exotic. We don’t all work for the buff books.

I mean, I’ve taken some pretty fast cars to the grocery store.

2018 Buick Regal GS

I get it. Most of us don’t have the free time to take off and drive the nearest “fun” road. Many of us don’t even have “fun” roads within easy driving distance. So even those of us who own fun-to-drive vehicles don’t get many chances to really exercise them.

That’s life. We all only have so much free time to pursue our interests, and we all want more of it. If you’re a rock climber, you probably climb less often than you want to. If you’re a golfer, you probably want more time on the course. And so on.

It’s life, but it’s also a bit of a shame. Because if you enjoy driving – and if you’re reading this site, you probably do – there aren’t many things in life that feel as good as a great run on a great road in a worthy car.

If you have the right car, and the right road, and the weather is right – get out there and drive. Just watch out for rocks.

[Images © 2018 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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40 Comments on “Driving Joy Rekindled, High Above L.A....”

  • avatar

    Nice piece, I enjoyed it.

  • avatar

    Real good looking car. Few are better.
    Not crazy about ‘fire engine red’ tho.

  • avatar

    I adored the waterfall grilles; hate the pterodactyl wings.

    • 0 avatar

      The Opel pterodactyl wings are very ’99 Cirrus.

      I liked the looks of the 5th-gen Regal and thought the waterfall grille was a clever way of Buick-izing the 1st-gen Insignia. Had they been selling at dealerships down the street from one another, it would’ve seemed very Roger Smith Era. But given that the Regal was alone in the North American market, I thought it was a nice nod to Buick history.

      • 0 avatar

        To me this Regal is FAR better looking than the previous gen. It’s not waterfall grill, it was fine. The car was just too oddly proportioned. It and the previous gen Lacrosse had a kind of blobby look to them – the Regal more than the Lacrosse.

  • avatar

    I’ve wasted a few trips through the mountain roads in West Virginia driving a full size van filled with gear and children. It’s terrible knowing what fun it could be under different circumstances.

    That same van however catches really good air over a certain crest near the campground we visit for our annual camping trip. The kids get hang-time in the back row, and the squeals of delight are a joy to hear.

  • avatar

    How does this thing weight 1,000 pounds more than a Malibu?

  • avatar

    While some people see a “curvy road ahead” sign and get nervous, I get excited. And a drive like that is why.

    Hooray for this man.

    There are several roads near me where the speed limit suggestions on the curves are a joke and if the weather is clear, the pavement is dry, and the traffic sparse I can take the curves at 20 mph over the suggestion even in my Highlander.

    • 0 avatar

      for this same reason, i am seriously trying to justify buying my first convertible in over 30 years.
      come to think of it, it was a triumph spitfire, 1977.

      but since relocation to dripping spring, tx and experiencing the hill country roads, i have to try really hard to make this happen.

      so far…2019 miata, mustang or even the bmw2 or audi.

    • 0 avatar

      Curvy road ahead – my favorite sign! The primary reason I bought a sports car. I’m a g-force junkie.

  • avatar

    I live in flat, boring FL… as such we have no fun mountain roads. Instead I run my car at the track. While that allows for much higher speeds and an excellent margin of safety it is not the same. No elevation changes on the tracks I visit (Homestead and Sebring, at some point Daytona), only great curves taken at maximum speed. In contrast I have driven a Civic (mine) in West Virginia and a Mazda 6 (rental) in upstate NY on the back roads and it was a blast. The views, the surprise around the next bend, the dips, the pavement changes, all true driving experiences.

    I drove from Vegas to LA once just to go thru the desert, climb the mountains and drop in. I had a day to kill between job tasks/locations and it seemed way more enjoyable then just jumping on another plane. I had a loaded up Ford Fusion as a rental. Unfortunately I didn’t leave early enough and spent the drop down into LA in difficult light conditions (pitch darkness) only to reach the already mentioned horrible Cali traffic when I was cranky due to driving all day.

    When I was driving my C7 ‘Vette from NJ to FL we avoided a traffic mess in Virginia by jumping on a side road. For about 3 miles we zipped thru all kinds of enjoyable twists and turns. Then just as confidence and joy was growing we encountered a slow moving line of other cars who apparently also got the same Waze notification as us and the fun grinded to a halt.

    • 0 avatar

      You inspired me to verify this: Florida does indeed have the lowest high point among the 50 states.

      New York, IMO, is a state that’s really underrated in terms of its natural beauty. And it has some great driving roads once you’re off the beaten path.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve had a blast with my Civic (stick) on twisty New England roads. And yes, upstate NY can be a blast, too. Also, Skyline in Virginia–provided you drive it in the off season, when the traffic is sparse.

  • avatar

    You describe how I feel when I take my Miata out on weekend mornings, except I add in the extra bonus of a manual transmission. Having the right tool for the job is important. I don’t want to drive the Miata everyday to work/traffic. And I don’t want to take the Sienna on a twisty back road. As car enthusiasts, we would all like to have a car that can do both. But in my experience, you wind up with a compromise on both fronts. A buddy of mine has always had at least two different motorcycles throughout the time I have known him (dirt bike and/or sport bike, cruiser and/or standard, etc). He says if he had one bike to do everything, he would soon get bored or lose enjoyment because one universal bike can’t excel at anything.

    I realize not everyone has the room or means for multiple vehicles. But it sure makes live easier from a driving perspective.

  • avatar

    This reminded me of the 12 years I spent in SoCal in the late-80s to early-2000s. While typically owning economy cars, I once rented, for a day, a Mustang GT, and once, a Miata, and both were memorable in the foothills of Orange County. But nothing has ever come close to what I experienced after unexpectedly being tossed the keys to a new “Guards Red,” mid-90s 911 Turbo one night while visiting someone in LA. It was the woman’s recently-deceased husband’s car, she didn’t know how to drive a manual trans, and I was in the right place at the right time. It’s only a distant memory now, that driving a particularly, amazingly, joyous car for maybe only 20 minutes, with somewhat more-than-sensible aggression (and with its new – and now laughing – owner sitting beside me), felt life-changing.
    And now, it’s all straight roads in an SUV.

    • 0 avatar

      You’re comment made me smile, and reminded me of a drive with my mother. She had multiple sclerosis, and she loved it when I took her for rides on the back roads of Cape Cod, where they had a summer house. I had a ’93 Saturn which, though lacking power, handled beautifully. Anyway, we were on a twisty byway when an AMC pacer came in the other direction. I’d been wanting to photograph a Pacer for a number of months (I love photographing classic cars). I did a quick 3-pointer and drove hard after the Pacer. After maybe 4-5 minutes hard driving, and having lost sight of it in the twisties, I came upon it, stopped on the side of the road, and I pulled up behind it. I looked at my mother, fearful that I’d scared the whatever out of her. But she was grinning ear to ear!

  • avatar

    How much?

  • avatar

    Does this one use the HiPer Strut front suspension, to mitigate the effects of torque steer?

  • avatar

    Circa 1970, I spent a couple of years in Pasadena. After sunset, traffic on the Angeles Crest was negligible. It was fun to drive even in a VW Beetle with 53 hp. I never did hit any rocks.

  • avatar

    The death of driving enjoyment comes not at the hands of a far-flung autonomous future, rather at the steering wheel of the bland crossover.

    Take a car. Any car. Doesn’t matter what it is – a Toyota 86 or an Olds Eighty-Eight – and you can find some enjoyment out of hustling it around a corner.

    Can’t do that in a Rogue. Sorry. Not even an Edge ST.

  • avatar

    “you can find some enjoyment out of hustling it around a corner”

    You’re more likely to find the broadside of a junked-out minivan full of Dreamers exiting a Shell station cuz the driver never glanced in your direction.

  • avatar

    I commuted everyday on the road like that (not exactly but you get the idea, I avoided it in dark though). It is in Bay Area, road is called Niles Canyon highway 84. Beautiful road. There never was a traffic. But still cars traveled in groups, in line like trains – it wasn’t possible to drive alone on the road but still you had to keep focus on the coming turns (I knew all turns and which ones were most dangerous ahead of time). There was opposite traffic too, so you did not want to end up in wrong lane wrong time. Max I did there was 65 mph. When it was raining I chose to drive on freeway 680 longer but safer and stop and go most of time.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Alexander

      Love Niles Canyon, amazing driver’s road. And if you crossover 680 to the Livermore side, 84/Vallecitos used to an amazing driver’s road once you got closer to the hill, but alas, they expanded and rerouted that area and it’s no longer the curvy driver’s spot it once was.

  • avatar
    Tele Vision

    I build roads for a living. They’re all in the Foothills of the Rockies and, as such, full of corners. As the grader operator I’m the final arbiter on crown and drainage, both of which are related. Crown is between 1.5 and 3 degrees on a straight – and this is built into your alignment in your road car. The super-elevations ( corners ), however, are harder to judge. We don’t ‘bone’ our roads so it’s entirely up to the grader to set the super. I’ll wash the crown up to the high side and create a flat corner that will, obviously, drain very well. I’ve heard intimations – not outright accusations – that I build my supers too steeply. It’s true – I do. Primarily because the drainage is better and the surface will last longer; secondarily, because the farmers and bus drivers out there do 100 Km/h everywhere, including corners, and thirdly; I get to drive my roads on my way home. It may be just a Gen I CTS-V in a 300m 90 degree corner but, damn, it hunkers down and powers out of those ‘generous’ supers.

  • avatar

    When were those pictures taken? During Thanksgiving dinner? It definitely wasn’t the weekend, when driving that road is a different kind of challenge altogether. As in, crawling along behind a minivan or a forest service maintenance vehicle, hundreds of cyclists, or spiritual retreat buses, packs of drivers from japanese car clubs, porsche clubs, motorcycle clubs jumping at every chance to pass in both directions, traffic jams at turnouts, lost u-turners, people in the road taking selfies…

  • avatar
    Jonathan Kleinbart

    Love driving Angeles Crest, but I never turn the radio off. It’s much more enjoyable in my GTI with the sunroof open and a favorite album playing.

  • avatar

    I grew up in Northeast Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until I moved out of the area that I realized how entertaining our roads were. I don’t go home often, but when I do, I try to hit some of the roads I remember from my youth.

    My in-laws lived in Sevierville, TN, not that far from the Tail of the Dragon. After my FIL passed, I had to help shuttle relatives to and from the airport in Knoxville. I mostly drove my in-law’s minivan back and forth on those delicious country roads, thinking constantly how much more fun I’d be having if I drove almost anything else besides that damned Freestar…

    • 0 avatar

      Very true. The Hocking Hills aren’t too far from me, and when the mood hits and I know traffic is light, it’s a great place to stretch a car’s legs a bit. There’s a reason why C&D tests there! I’ve seen them once with a supercar test a while back.
      You can’t overlook SE Ohio and eastern Kentucky for some driving fun! It’s not all flat farmland here!
      I lived in the LA area also and loved the roads between the 101 and Malibu. You had to hit them early on a weekend to miss traffic.

  • avatar

    I live near a few parks and water supply areas here in the Northeast. While busy with hikers and campers in the summer, once it gets near or below freezing, they are empty…just endless twisty roads in a lightly patrolled area. I have a few stretches I consider “reference roads”, most of which are below 50 mph top speed….you learn quickly what cars are tossable and which aren’t. There aren’t any signals, stores, cross roads, homes and very few people, so you can play a bit without being a public menace.

    A bit further upstate and there are lots of 55 mph posted road rolling along the hills, through farms. Watch for bambi, but they too are enjoyable.

    Drive anywhere in NYC, and it’s like taking a hammer to your car at random.

    My experience in Cali was endless traffic. I did catch a nice canyon road briefly, but overall, torture, made up for with some car spotting by the fact that there are some great older cars out there in the land of no rust…..

  • avatar

    I am pretty lucky. We have miles and miles of curvy county roads full of elevation changes and off camber corners. Now and then you get some bad pavement, but for the most part they are in decent shape.

    When I lived in CA we would take a trip up to Julian from Brawley every now and then, but here in the midwest I can take a nice drivers road on the way home from work, or the grocery store.

  • avatar

    Start off in Uhrichsville, OH, take 800 south to Woodsfield and pick up 26 to Marietta. Have lunch, turn around, rinse and repeat. You’re welcome.

    • 0 avatar

      Even better are the roads that cross and parallel 800 and 26: 255, 260, 536, 145, etc. Qualifier: some of those may be better on a good sportbike. The triangle formed by interstates 70, 77, and 79 contains some of the best roads in the country, and I say this living four hours south in the Virginia Blue Ridge country, no slouch itself for hosting world-class roads.

  • avatar

    Not a bad car, certainly in Insignia form. At least you were tackling the LA hills in a European fastback rather than a 21st-century-Malaise crossover.

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