Driving Joy Rekindled, High Above L.A.

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

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?

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.

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.

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]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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  • Roadscholar Roadscholar on Dec 14, 2018

    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.

    • Rocketrodeo Rocketrodeo on Dec 20, 2018

      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.

  • WallMeerkat WallMeerkat on Dec 18, 2018

    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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