Rocky Mountain Driving Experience: 16 Cars, 24 Hours

As an automotive journalist, I have access to a lot of really cool experiences related to cars, including of course being able to drive different cars for a week at a stretch and write about them. It’s very different to go on a 15min test drive and have a chance to try out a car for a longer period in your daily life. If nothing else, I have a chance to figure out the dashboard controls.

When I was invited to the 2016 Rocky Mountain Driving Experience (RMDE) two-day event up in the Colorado Rockies, I made sure that there was space on my schedule to attend, and so Wed morning I showed up at the staging spot in Golden, Colorado and picked up a car for the drive up: A 2017 Nissan Pathfinder Platinum. Along with another car writer and two guys from the Nissan marketing team, we headed up to Berthoud Pass, about an hour of primarily uphill driving and a final elevation of 11,306 feet. The Pathfinder ate up the road, even the long uphill stretches that dragged less powerful vehicles down to 30mph or even less.

Once we got to the intermediate stop, I switched into a gorgeous 2016 Lexus GS-F, a car that really begged to exceed the posted speed limit, as you can see:

2016 Lexus GS-F

This time I was driving solo, so it was a chance to check out the delightful stereo system in the Lexus too. Destination for the RMDE event was Devil’s Thumb Resort & Spa, just outside Winter Park, Colorado.  I got there with zero speeding tickets, just in time for my first real test drive on the winding mountain roads that surround Devil’s Thumb Resort.

Just for automotive journalists, the Rocky Mountain Driving Experience is sponsored by the major automative manufacturers (meals were sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Volkswagen, Land-Rover/Jaguar, and Nissan) and it’s pretty phenomenal if you’re a car person: a parking lot full of vehicles with the keys inside, and you can take anything you want and head out for as long a drive as you’d like.

Here’s what the parking lot looked like at one of the few points when there were actually cars in the lot:

rmde 2016 rocky mountain driving experience, devil's thumb lodge, colorado

Because journalists drove the vehicles up, it was essentially 1:1 so there was always a car or two available to drive. And they ranged from the gorgeous 2017 Acura NSX (lower right corner) to the hulking Dodge RAM 1500, to a Mini Cooper and a Jeep Rubicon, so it was quite a variety of vehicles whether you wanted to relive your late teen driving fantasies or check out something more practical like the 2016 Chrysler Pacifica mini van.

So I drove almost all of them over the following two days, and found that the overall state of car tech has gotten so good that sophisticated technologies like lane departure warnings and in-dash navigational systems have even migrated into even the more entry-level vehicles. On the top end, the $70K SUVs and $75K trucks, you really are now sitting in the lap of luxury and the range of features is staggering (and bewildering too, as I’ll explain). Heck, that sexy Acura NSX? That had a $190,000 price tag on it, and that one wasn’t available for a drive without an Acura rep accompanying you — and warning you to take any bumps at an angle!

Here are my comments and thoughts on the cars I drove, in no particular order. If you have one or are interested in one of these, please feel free to leave comments, questions, or disagree with my assessment of the vehicle.

2016 Mercedes-Benz GLC-300 4Matic

2016 Merceds-Benz GLC-300

This first is the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLC-300, and it’s a very nice SUV with a relatively modest $58K price tag as configured. Handing was great and it’s got lots of get up and go. As you would expect from a Mercedes, the interior detail is very nice too. Except it took me a few minutes to figure out how to put it in gear: the gear “shift” is actually just another stick off the steering column:

2016 Mercedes-Benz GLC-300 gear shift control

Once I figured it out, however, it was a fun, peppy drive and certainly comparable in purchase price to the more mainstream luxury SUVs, though being a Mercedes it might well have a higher price tag on the maintenance down the road.

2016 Volkswagon Jetta 2.0T GTI SEL

2016 VW Jetta GLI SEL

Next up was the fun little VW Jetta, a more entry level vehicle in thrilling “Tornado Red”. This is a standard SEL configuration for the Jetta and it has an MSRP of just a bit more than $30K. So maybe it’s not an entry level car as in “your first car”, but compared to the more expensive vehicles featured at RMDE, it was reasonably affordable. And fun to drive, though the shifting was a bit jerky at the lower gears. Or maybe that was the heavy foot I had on the pedal to try and assess performance. 🙂

2016 Toyota Prius Four Touring

2016 Toyota Prius Four Touring

I owned a Prius before my current car, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, so I’m a bit biased in this regard, but the 2016 Prius was a great ride, very fun and peppy. It’s weird how most people seem to think that a hybrid is going to have less power than a more traditional engine, but the opposite is quite often true, and coupled with the terrific Toyota Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), it’s a peppy little rabbit of a car. Not a VW Rabbit. A bunny. You know what I mean!

The Prius is a successful line for Toyota and they’ve clearly figured out a lot of the design and build issues too, though there was one aspect to the interior that was shockingly ugly, what-were-you-thinking ugly:

2016 toyota prius interior

The picture doesn’t really do it justice, but the white plastic molded center portion and details on the dash were horrible. Indeed, this is why I’m giving this particular Toyota Prius the Ugliest Dashboard award. I suspect my reaction wasn’t unique and it looks like the 2017 models have a redesigned interior. Good.

2016 Dodge Ram 1500 Rebel Crew Cab 4×4

2016 RAM 1500 Rebel Crew Cab 4x4

I’m not much of a pickup truck person as I don’t need to haul tools and payloads, nor do I need to tow anything, but if you’re like me and think of pickup trucks as crude scaled down trucks for cowboys and construction workers, you owe it to yourself to check one of these vehicles out. Like the Ford F150 and Nissan Titan, the RAM 1500 is surprisingly luxurious and comfortable, riding more like a car than a truck at all.

Not convinced? This particular RAM 1500 has an 8-speed automatic transmission and drive as smooth as any of the cars tested during the RMDE event. Lots of room inside, and, of course, it’s wide so the center console area has tons of space, as does the back cargo area. It’s certainly a different feeling to drive a big half-ton truck versus a little car like a Mini Cooper or a Volkswagen Beetle, that’s for sure!

2017 Fiat 124 Spider

2017 Fiat 124 Spider

In terms of sheer fun factor, it was hard to beat the 2017 Fiat Spider 124, a delightful little two seater convertible. Look like a Mazda Miata? Turns out that there’s a lot of similarity between these two vehicles, and Car & Driver says that the Spider is built “atop Miata bones”. Whatever the deal, this is one really delightful vehicle, and the $31K price-tag as configured seemed quite in line with what I would expect at this level.

Except I’m 6’3″ and the car’s not really designed for tall people, as you can see when I wedged myself in to take a test drive:

too small 2017 fiat spider 124

Because of the vehicle design, there’s nowhere for the seat to go so I quickly realized I’m just too darn tall. Which was hugely disappointing since it was so fun to drive. But if you’re shorter, it’s definitely worth a test drive, if nothing else.

Fortunately there was a second convertible that was a much better fit…

2017 Volkswagen Beetle “Dune”

2017 volkswagen vw beetle dune

This was one of my favorite cars from the event, fast, fun, and a rational size for taller drivers. Indeed, VW’s gotten just about everything right with this vehicle and it’s expected to be priced around $30K too, so it’s a tempting second car, particularly if you’re in a beach community. Heck, with “Dune” as its name and design inspired by the classic Beetle, it’s just waiting for you to cruise Malibu or Zuma beach!

As a bonus, the convertible top is remarkably easy to lower and raise at the touch of a single button. The downside? Like all the classic cars that added a second row for insurance purposes (as it was rumored) not for actual passengers, when the front seats of the Beetle Dune are pushed back, there’s not much room left for those back passengers. To put it mildly:

2017 vw beetle dune back seats legroom

Can you see in the photo? Barely enough space for a tennis racket, let along actual human legs. Still, as a two passenger convertible, the Beetle Dune is terrific!

2016 BMW X5 xDrive 40e

2016 bmw x5 xdrive 40e

There’s a lot going on with this BMW Sport Utility Vehicle, as is captured in the name. It’s an X5, but it also features the xDrive intelligent all wheel drive and it’s a plug-in hybrid (the “40e”) which can fully charge the electric battery in under 3 hours. Combined with the twin-turbo engine, the BMW X5 is unquestionably a good drive, with terrific road handling on tight curves, but the dashboard and overall complexity of the vehicle with its eDrive system and video-game-like dash controls left me dissatisfied. Like other manufacturers, it felt like BMW has shoved too much tech into this $76K vehicle.

2017 Nissan Pathfinder Platinum

2017 nissan pathfinder platinum

A very different SUV experience than the BMW X5, the Pathfinder is aimed at a different demographic and Nissan has found a good compromise between luxury and efficiency, with its third row seating and spacious interior:

nissan pathfinder 2017 interior seating

I’m not a fan of the embedded entertainment systems for backseat passengers (read “children”) but a lot of parents must feel differently since they’ve found in a lot of “family” cars nowadays. But compare the legroom with the VW Beetle, above. This vehicle I could imagine being in the back.

The 2017 Nissan Pathfinder also drives very well: it was the vehicle I drove up into the Rockies from Golden, a 6000 foot increase in elevation. For the entire drive, I never felt like it was underpowered and I was able to stay in the fast lane zipping along the whole time. A very pleasant drive with lots of family friendly features.

2017 Subaru Outback Touring

2017 subaru outback touring

I live in Boulder, Colorado, where the Subaru is the unofficial official car. There are a lot of Subaru drivers in town, and the Boulder Subaru dealership is the #2 by sales in the entire United States. I really wanted to like this brand new Outback with its Touring package, and the interior design and entertainment system are nice enough, but it wasn’t until I tried to merge onto the highway that its Achilles Heel became obvious: it was distressingly underpowered. I had the pedal to the floor and still almost caused an accident because it was soooooo slow to accelerate up to highway speed.

Since the logical question is “how big is the engine”, this one was configured with a 2.5L horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder engine featuring the Lineartronic CVT with 6-speed manual mode. I did drive it in automatic, not manual, and it’s possible that they’re still tuning the CVT system, but I can only report on my own experience with the Outback.

Perhaps people don’t buy a Subaru because they expect it to be powerful and ready to hop onto the highway, but my experience with the brand has always been a bit mediocre, from poor build quality (admittedly that wasn’t an issue with the Outback) to an underpowered drive system. Still not a fan, but my many neighbors clearly disagree. My advice: take it for a good, long test drive before you decide whether this is the car for you.

2017 Jaguar XE 20d

2017 jaguar xe 20d

One of the last cars I drove was the 2017 Jaguar XE 20d, a sleek four-door sedan that was a lively drive with solid road handling and good acceleration. Surprise, it was a turbo-diesel! They’ve come a long way since the black-smoke-belching diesel of those old trucks on the road, and this had no noticeable emission issues and with the turbocharger system, its 2.0L engine put out plenty enough power for a car of its class.

Better yet, it was very quiet inside too, a very comfortable ride. With a $43K price tag associated, so it’s not entirely clear who Jaguar is trying to appeal to with this vehicle. But worth a look if you’re in the market for a sub-$50K sedan with all the proverbial bells and whistles.

Two cars left, saving the best for last…

2016 Mazda CX-9

2016 mazda cx-9

An SUV as one of my favorite cars? Well, there’s a back story: I’m in the market for a new SUV to replace my Highlander Hybrid, and the CX-9 is in the running (as is the smaller Mazda CX-5). So I was quite interested in this vehicle, and was appreciative when it was the car I was able to drive back down to Golden after the event (a 90 min drive). The 2016 Mazda CX-9 is a surprisingly luxurious SUV with plush leather seats, a well designed dashboard and a smart in-dash navigation and entertainment system.

It also has a heads up display (“HUD”) that makes tracking navigation and speed a breeze while driving, as shown in this photo:

2016 mazda cx-9 heads up display hud

See the display data just in front of the car? It shows current speed (56), posted speed (the white box, 55mph), and information about distance to and direction of the next turn on your navigation. Put it in cruise control and it’ll show that too. I’m a big fan of the heads up display when it’s simple and not distracting, and being able to see your current speed without looking away from the road is a definite win for safety.

I like the Mazda CX-9 a lot. It’s a big step from the more truck-like 2008 Highlander I’m driving, a car that looks like just another SUV from the outside but owes more to a Mercedes or Lexus with its interior. As configured with its Signature package that features a 2.5 liter turbo engine, 6-speed sport mode and all-wheel drive, it’s $44K, and it compares favorably against the other SUVs I drove that were $10-$20K more.

And then there was the capper, the car that blew everything out of the water…

2017 Acura NSX

2017 acura nsx

Well, sure, it cost as much as any three of the other cars at the RMDE event with a cool $192,000 price tag as configured, but boy was it crazy fun to drive this completely redesigned supercar. It was like being in a rocket when I was in Sport+ mode (it has four different driving modes that affect steering, transmission, suspension and even which of the four exhausts are utilized), going from 30 to 60 in just a second or two. A second or two of “oohhhh yeah!”

Acura is moving into a rarified category with its supercar, but the original Acura NSX was the first sportscar made by a more traditional car manufacturer and was quite a hit back in the day (it was first released in 1990), so they have some experience in the space. The company sales target is under 1000 units/year, and only certain dealers will qualify to even have one in the showroom, so it’s not a Ford F150 or Toyota Corolla (two of the best selling cars in the United States).

Wrapping It Up

I drove up every side street and tried to push the edges of every car I had a chance to drive at the Rocky Mountain Driving Experience RMDE event. One poor journalist actually got pulled over by the Sheriff while driving the Lexus GS-F, but I never heard if he got a ticket or not. I will say that by the time we left, the main road leading up to the Devil’s Thumb Resort had some additional tire marks from writers trying out the 0-60 acceleration!

Now, back to reality. Back to my own, well loved vehicle. And back to dreaming of uber-luxury SUVs and supercars…

2 comments on “Rocky Mountain Driving Experience: 16 Cars, 24 Hours

  1. A fun post after what looks like it was an awfully fun day. My takeaway… as I cannot afford the sexy new Acura NSX… instead I’ll just go ahead and buy six new VW-Beetles, and have money left over for gas! 😀

  2. I drive a 6 cylinder Outback and it’s a dog up mountain roads and I’ve just come to accept it. That being said, where the Outback has always made its points is in the snow. And I’d bet it could handle better than most of the cars and trucks you’ve mentioned… Still be slow, but it’ll stay on road.

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