Best Cars from the Rocky Mtn Driving Experience, Part 1

Just got back from another great Rocky Mountain Driving Experience, this time based in beautiful Estes Park, Colorado, on the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park and, coincidentally, just up the canyon from my own house. As I have written about elsewhere [A Million Dollars Worth of Cars], RMDE is an event organized by the Rocky Mountain Automotive Press for us auto journalists and writers. it’s a chance to get behind the wheel of dozens of different cars, compare their comfort, driving, handling and appearance, all in one of the loveliest places in America.

I’m not a complete gearhead, so when my fellow car writers start talking about piston designs, bore ratios and suspension tuning, my eyes undoubtedly glazed over, but put me behind the wheel of a new car and I’m happy to drive off! My reviews aren’t scientific, of course, but a product like a car or truck is mostly all qualitative anyway.

Without further ado, here are some of my favorite drives from the event, with commentary. And yeah, this is just part one…

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Ti Sport

I have very little experience driving Alfa-Romeo vehicles, but it’s a storied company out of Italy that still makes delightful little two-seater convertibles. And this, the 2018 Stelvio Ti Sport. It’s what I call a luxury SUV, but with a reasonably affordable price tag: $53,640. It’s a sports car hiding in an SUV, with Italian racing heritage, featuring a 2.0 liter GME T4 inline 4-cylinder engine putting out 280hp.

Much to like about this – it was one of my surprise favorites from the event – with one notable hiccup: Like many upscale cars with racing heritage, it features what are known as paddle shifters, paddles or bars behind the steering wheel that let you manually shift up and down the gears. Except in both Alfa-Romeo vehicles, the paddle shifters were so darn big and intrusive that they got in the way of driving. For a feature I’d guess less than 5% of drivers use, that’s just bad design.

2017 Nissan Titan King Cab

I actually found a construction site to do a bit of rugged off-roading in this next vehicle, the massive and roomy 2017 Nissan Titan “King Cab” edition. I find the modern generation of pickup trucks a bit peculiar because I grew up in the era when people bought a pickup truck because they couldn’t afford a car. This is clearly not that, with its hefty $45,835 price, but boy, is it fun to drive.

Do I need to haul a ton of gravel or a couple of motorcycles? No, which is why it’s not really the vehicle for me, but modern trucks are far nicer and more well equipped than you may realize! From high-end acoustically tuned stereo systems to a center armrest that’s almost the width of a regular car seat, if you need to haul stuff, Nissan‘s got a solid entry in the big truck category. The Titan is powered by a monster 5.6 liter V8 engine pushing out 390 horsepower. That’s a lotta trailer pulling or load hauling.

2018 Toyota Camry XSE V6

At the other end of the vehicle size spectrum is this cute little Hot Wheels of a car: The 2018 Toyota Camry XSE V6. Powered by, you guessed it, a V6 engine, the 3.5 liter dual injection 24V engine puts out 301 horsepower, which makes this small, light car surprisingly peppy and really fun to drive. The interior is a wee bit small, but this was a sleeper hit with many of the RMDE attendees, a Toyota that shows its Scion and racing heritage with its suspension, handling and traction.

Even better, even tricked out the Toyota has a modest sticker price: $38,698, and that’s with the upgraded navigation and premium audio, the two-tone paint surcharge, and driver assist package with “birds eye view camera” (which I personally find weird and off-putting). Much fun, a great second car for a 20-something once they’ve figured out the basics of driving!

2017 Nissan Rogue

A car in the same price and performance class as my brand new 2017 Mazda CX-5, the bright orange 2017 Nissan Rogue is a pedestrian compact SUV that isn’t a standout in the category, but is nonetheless a popular vehicle on the Nissan lot. This particular vehicle was the SL Hybrid AWD model, with the hybrid delivering a respectable 33mpg combined. The price for the Hybrid configuration is $35,590, including the “HEV” performance package including sunroof.

One nice thing Nissan’s done with the Rogue series is make most of the best features standard rather than optional add-ons, including the 9-speaker premium audio package and navigational system. It’s a good choice in the CUV category, and if you’re a Nissan fan, you’ll appreciate its trademark features.

2018 Alfa-Romeo Giulia

The other Alfa-Romeo we had available to drive I liked less than the Stelvio Ti SUV, though it had a lot of the same design and performance features: This is the 2018 Alfa-Romeo Giulia, featuring a 2.0 liter 280hp turbo engine and 8-speed automatic transmission. As you can see, it’s a lovely design (though the wheels are a bit boring for the overall style), but for a total price of $46,490, I wasn’t blown away.

This Alfa-Romeo had the same paddle shifter design hiccup as the Stelvio Ti too, and I commented to the Alfa rep that I’d probably want to remove them entirely if this were my car. He wasn’t impressed.

Lots more cars to write about, including the gorgeous Mercedes-Benz SL450, the beast Dodge Challenger Hellcat and the disappointing 2017 Mini Cooper S Countryman, but I’ll wrap this up for now and offer up a “part 2” shortly. Stay tuned!

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