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.