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.