May 23, 2011

Confession #26: Get in and go for a drive

California State Highway 1 near Bixby Creek Bridge,
Big Sur, Calif. (Google Earth image) 
Easily one of my favorite things about driving is finding a good road without a lot of traffic, on a clear day with nothing else on your mind.

Trust me, it’s intoxicating.

Even though I lean towards the environmentalist perspective that we should all drive more economically and buy smaller, more appropriately sized cars, I don’t tell people it’s partially because we should be saving fuel for drives that aren’t to anywhere or really for anything other than the undiluted thrill of driving.

Finding a good road for this is a never-ending quest. Like a tough addiction, you can be happy with a favorite stretch of pavement for a while, until it becomes too familiar. Then you go out looking for something stronger, more thrilling. It could eventually consume you. Be careful.

The car for the job really matters. It has to be engaging on some level, meaning the Hertz special Ford Fusion isn’t a good fit. But get something that’s only powerful and not an able handler, and you’re again asking for trouble.

It also needs to be capable of passing a slow-moving Toyota Prius or Lincoln Town Car, should you encounter such a travesty on a straight piece of road between the curves.

1998 Saab 900SE Turbo Five-door
c. 2011 (Zac Estrada photo)
My Saab 900SE Turbo is surprisingly up to the job. It’s 13 years old (lovingly abused by me for four of those), has a power-robbing four-speed automatic and one of the cheapest sets of tires out there. And after 134,000 miles, its major suspension bits have seen better days.

That’s nothing a little turbo power can’t solve, though. Push the pedal on the right a little and watch the boost gauge’s needle kicks things up to 11. This is exactly what you want on a good drive, the ability to see the trees moving a little faster – and not caring you’re burning more fossils than you should.

If I had my pick though, my embattled Saab probably wouldn't be along with me on that perfect stretch of road.

2011 Mini Cooper S (MINI USA photo)
2010 Volkswagen GTI 3-door
(Volkswagen of America photo)
Certainly a MINI Cooper S would be high on my list, with its electric-fast responses and massive thrust from its own turbo four-cylinder. Perhaps a Volkswagen GTI is a solid trade-off, a little less terrier-like in reflexes, but with way less torque steer tugging at the wheels when you put your foot down.

2012 BMW 1-series Coupe
(BMW USA photo)
But good roads are probably made for rear-wheel drive cars, something Bavarian, of course. BMW’s been stuffing their turbocharged inline-six in just about everything these days, so a 135i, 335i or Z4 sounds perfect for the job.

2011 Subaru Impreza WRX Sedan
(Subaru of America photo)

I’m sure a Subaru Impreza WRX or Mitsubishi Evo, with power going to all four wheels, would be pretty entertaining as well.

But a Ferrari or M-powered BMW or AMG Mercedes defeats the purpose. Around here, you’re never going much more than 45. What you need are good reflexes and handling characteristics, not sheer brute force.

Perhaps that’s why I don’t complain when driving the Saab, with its perpetually lit Check Engine light. The car’s newness and blingy-ness isn’t an issue on a great day on a great road. Don’t get me wrong, if I were given a new GTI, Cooper S or 135i or anything similar, I’d love it. I’d drive the hell out of it.

To be brutally honest, I don’t need a new car. The Saab is like a worn, broken-in baseball glove – given the right conditions it just works somehow. All I need is an iPod connection and a tank of 91 octane.

So go out, find that great road, and introduce it to a car you really like. I highly recommend it.