You're speeding up a mountain pass in a fast car, racing uphill, exploring an unfamiliar route as you cross a great natural barrier. You're not just driving, you're traveling, and it fills you with a sense of solitude and purpose. Such fine thoughts are in short supply when you're stuck in traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway, so it's no wonder the idea of driving a legendary mountain pass holds so much romance.
But no matter what some guy in a tweed cap will tell you, great mountain driving can be found in places other than the Stelvio Pass in the Alps, and you don't have to be in an Italian sports car from the 1930s, either. Think about the Sierra Nevada, the picturesque range of mountains in California. Think about the new Mazdaspeed 6, a grand touring car disguised as a four-door sedan.
About 5000 examples of this derivative of the Mazda 6 will come to the United States this year. It surprised us to discover that this turbo-charged, all-wheel-drive sedan is nothing like the adolescent rally-car clone we expected. It's more like the Audi S4 than the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, a sophisticated all-wheel-drive sport sedan that takes you places.
The Mazdaspeed 6 took us to the Sierra Nevada, "mountains topped by snow," as Padre Pedro Font, a Spanish cleric and explorer, called them in 1776. It's the remote, eastern slope that presents the most imposing spectacle, as the peaks rise more than 13,000 feet and even today can be crossed in only a few places. It's not exactly an evening commute from Los Angeles, though, as it's a solid 200 miles to Whitney Portal, where the mountains get serious.
Fortunately, the Mazdaspeed 6 is up to long-distance highway cruising, which not every sport sedan can claim. The driving position is excellent, a product of a steering wheel that adjusts for rake and reach, a supportive and squirm-free seat, and no sign of the offset pedals that usually curse cars originally engineered for front-wheel-drive powertrains. More important, the resilient suspension calibration helps the 215/45YR-18 Bridgestone RE050A tires follow the road faithfully instead of trying to pound the bumps into submission, although the stiff suspension bushings transmit an awful lot of road noise into the cabin.
The Mazdaspeed 6's engine also has the right kind of personality for the highway, as it's supernaturally smooth with an elastic range of power. This turbocharged and intercooled version of Mazda's MZR 2.3-liter four is stout enough to deliver 274 hp, thanks to a new forged crankshaft and connecting rods as well as the MZR's customary two-piece block. A relatively small, single turbo spools up quickly to fatten the power curve between 2500 and 5500 rpm, providing a broad, usable powerband. Moreover, this version of the MZR also incorporates Mazda's new direct injection system (Direct Injection Spark Ignition or DISI) that helps make a relatively high compression ratio compatible with lots of boost at low rpm, so the throttle response is quick and crisp. The drivetrain's only liability is the abrupt pedal action of the heavy-duty clutch, which can make stop-and-go traffic a torturous and sometimes humiliating experience.
U.S. Highway 395 follows the route of the Los Angeles aqueduct into the Owens Valley, and the Sierra Nevada rise straight up in the air to your left. As you reach Lone Pine, the rocky peaks become a real-life, IMAX-size print of the famous Ansel Adams photograph, "Winter sunrise, Sierra Nevada, Lone Pine 1944." These mountains stretch nearly 400 miles from south to north, a giant block of granite that covers almost as much ground as the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps combined. The crystals of quartz, mica, and feldspar that make the granite sparkle led nineteenth-century American naturalist and conservationist John Muir to call these mountains "the Range of Light."
The road to Whitney Portal doesn't take you across the mountains, but it lets you get your first close-up view of the peaks. In less than thirteen miles, the road climbs from an elevation of around 4000 feet in Lone Pine to some 8360 feet at the campground, where hikers can undertake a further eleven-mile climb to the 14,491-foot summit of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower forty-eight states. Oddly enough, this road was the site where the Audi Quattro coupe was introduced to America in 1983. Ferdinand Pich himself bashed the car against the roadside snowbanks of early spring like a rally car to persuade us that all-wheel drive could enhance performance, not just mobility.
All-wheel-drive systems have come a long way from that first Audi Quattro, yet the Mazda's setup still shows evidence of the same philosophy. It begins with a new, compact, twin-shaft gearbox adapted to the transverse engine. This gearbox features a unique, water-cooled power take-off that spins a driveshaft connected to an electronically actuated clutch pack just ahead of the rear wheels. Finally, a torque-sensing, limited-slip differential distributes the power between the rear wheels themselves. The amount of torque that the fast-acting clutch pack transmits to the rear wheels is determined automatically by electronic data input from the steering angle, yaw rate, lateral g forces, and engine performance, and the torque distribution falls into three modes: normal, sport, and snow. The normal calibration distributes most of the torque to the front wheels with some directed to the rear wheels for stability, while the sport mode varies torque distribution front and rear according to acceleration and cornering inputs. The snow mode delivers a more constant distribution to all four wheels for optimum traction.
As you leave Mt. Whitney and follow U.S. Highway 395 farther north, you reach Lee Vining, on the shores of desolate Mono Lake. Here, Tioga Pass begins with California Highway 120, the first genuine road across the mountains. A trail initially blazed by the Mono Indians and then followed by mountain man Joseph Walker in 1833, Tioga Pass climbs the sheer rock wall of the Sierra. As you negotiate the last steep pitch, it's like entering a huge matte painting of Mordor as seen in the recent The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The road seems to go straight up into the sky, cresting at 9945 feet and making this the highest pass in the Sierras. At the top, newly restored gates welcome you to Yosemite National Park and the alpine meadows along the Tuolumne River. We appreciated the turbo's work on the way up, as it packs the engine with enough oxygen to compensate for the speed-sapping effect of altitude, which reduces a normally aspirated engine's output by three percent for every 1000 feet of elevation. On the way down, we equally appreciated the upgraded brakes, which feature large, 12.6-inch rotors in front and 12.4-inch examples in the rear.
You meet an even greater challenge when you turn off U.S. Highway 395 just beyond Bridgeport into the Sonora Pass on California Highway 108, an old pack trail pushed across from the western slope in 1861. When you pass the U.S. Marine Corps's mountain warfare training center, the road through the tall Jeffrey pines rolls up and down and back and forth like an amusement park ride, and you roar into switchbacks that unexpectedly pitch upward into twelve-percent grades. To keep the Mazdaspeed 6 on the boil, it's best to short-shift the engine, since the thrust diminishes after 5500 rpm. Fortunately, the six-speed gearbox is terrific, and the compact twin-shaft layout promotes clean, low-effort shifts even when it's loaded up with torque.
The 9624-foot crest of Sonora Pass is only twelve miles away from Highway 395, but the road is also great across the western slope another twenty miles, all the way to Strawberry Lake. The Mazdaspeed 6 is generally up to this task, as the Mazda 6's chassis structure has been reinforced to deliver a 50 percent improvement in torsional rigidity: the suspension spring rates are 25 percent stiffer up front and 37 percent higher at the rear, and the antiroll bars are firmed up as well. At the same time, there's no denying that this is a heavy car at 3589 pounds, and 60 percent of that weight is distributed over the front wheels. As a result, you have to drive the Mazdaspeed 6 with a sense of anticipation, as stabbing too late at the brakes and clumsily flicking the steering wheel will make the car feel slow, heavy, and obstinate.
Ebbetts Pass is remote, but we used the optional onboard navigation system to find it at the top of California Highway 4. Jedediah Smith, one of the very early mountain men and a famous wanderer throughout the West, first came this way in 1827. The road winds through dense groves of silver-tipped fir trees next to a creek where silver miners once prospected, and the center line soon disappears as the asphalt shrinks to a one-lane track over the crest at 8730 feet. Thick tree trunks and steep cliffs are just inches from the pavement, and the Mazdaspeed 6's hood (about an inch taller to accommodate internal ducting for the intercooler) limits forward visibility a bit. Yet the car steers crisply, with none of the delayed response and lumbering torque reaction of the Audi S4.
Farther north, legendary scout Kit Carson first marked out Carson Pass when John C. Fremont's expedition came this way in 1844. This windblown, 8573-foot pass at the top of California Highway 88 is at the edge of the tree line, and you get a close-up view of snow-covered cirques in the very bones of the Sierra. Just over a ridge or two to the north lies 7377-foot Echo Summit on U.S. Highway 50, once a wagon road and the route of the Pony Express, but now a winding, two-lane highway that connects the San Francisco Bay area to the gambling casinos on the southern shores of Lake Tahoe.
Donner Pass is the northernmost and most famous of the passes through the Sierra Nevada, and you can stand not far from the 7239-foot summit at the lookout beside old U.S. Highway 40, see the road looping up the mountainside below you, and look all the way to Nevada. It's a frigid place in the winter, when storms blow down from the Gulf of Alaska and the snowpack reaches upwards of eighteen feet. When the Donner-Reed party arrived here in October 1846, snow already choked the pass, and they were forced to set up camp next to the lake below, where half the party died of starvation before help arrived in the spring.
Things have come a long way since then, of course. The Lincoln Highway-the first transcontinental road-arrived in 1913, and the bridge near the lookout was built in 1925, but only when nearby Interstate 80 was built in 1968 did this become a genuine all-weather route. Down below, the old railroad town of Truckee has become an Aspen-like resort, and the former saloons on Donner Lake Road have been remade into fine restaurants like Pianeta, with its menu of elaborate Italian specialties.
The automobile has come a long way, too. Once, only an exotic, temperamental GT car could have turned a trip like this into an adventure, and now we've done it in a sedan that you can happily drive every day. When it comes to a cross-country driving adventure, you need a mixture of comfort, speed, and all-weather capability. An all-wheel-drive sport sedan such as the Mazdaspeed 6 is comfortable enough to get you there, yet exciting enough to have fun along the way.
In a way, the Mazdaspeed 6 delivers on the promise made by Ferdinand Pich's Audi Quattro coupe so long ago, combining efficient turbocharged power with the control, stability, and traction afforded by all-wheel drive in a package that delivers great driving performance instead of simply bad-weather mobility. Even when you're commuting on the freeway, you're thinking about driving to some overlooked place high in the mountains.