One of the best perks of being an automotive writer is the ability to join the Rocky Mountain Automotive Press group and attend the annual Rocky Mountain Driving Experience. I couldn’t make it last year – disappointing! – but two years ago we took over the Stanley Hotel parking lot in Estes Park and three years ago we were at the Devil’s Thumb Resort in Winter Park. This year the venue changed yet again, to the lovely Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs.
But this is a driving event, so we don’t drive directly, we meet at a starting spot and switch cars every leg of our far longer than necessary journey; the goal is to get maximal driving experience with as many cars as possible. Our starting point was the Woolley’s Suites Hotel, just off Denver International Airport. From there we headed directly into the Rockies and wound our way through some very scenic roads, ending up coming into Colorado Springs via Pike’s Peak and Manitou Springs.
Our vehicle lineup consisted of seventeen cars, ranging from the modest Nissan Versa (starting price under $15,000) to the ridiculously luxurious BMW M850i (a cool $131,000). Manufacturers with vehicles: BMW, Fiat, Dodge, RAM, Jeep, Nissan, Toyota, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, VW and Subaru. It’s really quite fun to walk into a parking lot full of brand new cars (2019 and 2020 models) knowing that you can jump in and take any of them for a spin!
In no particular order, here are all the vehicles I had a chance to drive and my thoughts on each:
2019 BMW M850i
I’d just spent the previous half hour zipping through mountain roads in the 850i when the above photo was taken. What an absolute joy to drive this powerful and luxurious vehicle. Yes, it’s quite a price tag – over $130,000 – but if you can afford it, this is one cherry of a car. It also has a surprising punch when you need to accelerate, with a deep, throaty growl as it kicks you back into the seat. One button and the top comes out of the back in inclement weather, but if it’s just a light drizzle, I suspect the hardcore owners just drive through it!
2019 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack Widebody
Half the price of the BMW, the Challenger is a vehicle for people who love muscle cars and demand a ride that goes the moment you push down on the gas. No hesitation, no hiccup, just G-force pushing you back into the driver’s seat as the car bounds ahead with a low, acoustically tuned roar. Sad to report that one of our drivers this year did get a speeding ticket in this vehicle, but given the experience, it was more surprising that more of us didn’t. A 55mph straight road up in the mountains is just made for a heavy foot!
I resisted, however, partially because we’re on our own for speeding tickets and partially because a gal from Dodge was in the car with me too: So we instead chatted about Detroit’s renaissance and what it’s like to work at Dodge and get to drive these beasts, including the Hellcat, and all the great Challenger color names. The above color isn’t red, by the way, it’s “octane”. My favorite remains Go Mango though, as I discussed a while back when I reviewed the 2017 Dodge Challenger.
2019 Fiat 500x
I know, I know, going from a Dodge Challenger to a Fiat 500x is a bit wack. Certainly it’s a completely different type of vehicle, but to my surprise, the Fiat 500x was pretty darn fun to drive too. The Fiat line is slow to gain market share in the United States but if you’ve been to Europe or Asia and love their cute little cars, that’s basically the purpose of the 500 line. The interior is also really fun and the color and even materials from the exterior body create the dashboard too, giving it a very classic Italian feel. This also has a much more accessible price tag, starting at a modest $24,740 base configuration.
2020 Hyundai Palisade Limited AWD
One of the biggest surprises of the entire event was the brand new Hyundai Palisade. It’s a big, heavy SUV with a great drive and luxuriously appointed interior. From Hyundai. It highlights how much all car companies have stepped up their game, even the more modest or budget minded manufacturers. If you didn’t tell someone the manufacturer, it’s unlikely a passenger would guess who made your burly new SUV. This color is Sierra Burgundy and it’s even more beautiful in person too. I’m definitely hoping to have more time behind the wheel of this vehicle to get a more substantial impression of the Palisade.
2020 Jeep Gladiator
I was quite enamored of the design when Jeep unveiled the Gladiator at the Denver Auto Show a few months ago, but driving it was a completely different experience and the Gladiator was my least favorite vehicle of the entire event. The idea of grafting a short pickup truck bed to the back of a Rubicon is genius, really, but it was a pretty rough drive (to put it mildly) and the impression it left was that Jeep hadn’t put enough effort into compensating for the radically different torque from the change in body rigidity and dimensions. To be less fancy about it, the Gladiator is one bumpy ride. It’s also darn expensive: the above priced out at over $60,000 which left us startled when we had to pull over and yank on straps and under-seat bars to adjust the driver and passenger seats. For that price tag I expected buttons.
On the plus side, it’s a Rubicon so the doors and roof panels can be popped off, which is, as always, awesome fun. Love that. Maybe it’s just “a jeep thing” and since I’m not a Jeep owner I don’t get the vibe of these vehicles, but to me, the Gladiator needs to go through one more pass on drive experience, from the too-narrow driver’s area to the seats to the actual drive experience itself.
Fortunately I did also have some time behind the wheel of the 2019 Jeep Renegade with a sporty 1.3L turbo engine. Bright orange. And that was really fun, a much better driving experience than the Gladiator.
2019 Mazda 3 Sedan
I own a 2017 Mazda CX-5 so I’ve a warm spot in my heart for the Mazda brand. I’m also quite familiar with every element of their vehicles, from drive experience to electronics, safety tech to seat controls. And the Mazda3 didn’t disappoint, it’s a really comfortable sedan that might not win any motorway races but is a well designed vehicle for your drive back from the track. Mazda’s really mastering its design language too, as you can see in the above photo, and they have a signature deep red that looks good on every vehicle in their lineup. The Mazda3 starts at $21,000.
2020 Nissan Altima
Nissan had two of its sedans at this event, rather a bold move when so many other companies focused on their utility vehicles (think SUV) and pickup trucks. RMDE organizers were driving Nissan Rogues, but for us, there were the Altima and the new Versa, both 2020 model years. And I have to be candid, I have rather a love/hate relationship with Nissan. Their design is great, but it still feels like they need to revamp their entire interior design and featureset. This was the only vehicle, for example, that had Apple CarPlay but couldn’t recognize my iPhone when plugged in. Yes, I used the same cable as I moved from car to car, so it’s hard to say what was wrong, but still, why didn’t it just work?
To be fair, the Altima was a fun ride and the Nissan design does make me recall the Nissan Maxima my parents drove for many years. Nissan also keeps a close eye on their vehicle prices to cover the entry market – the Versa starts at $14,000 at its base configuration – and I appreciate that too; not everyone wants to spend $50,000-$75,000 on a vehicle. The Altima base price is $24,000, so it’s just a little bit above the Mazda 3…
2020 Subaru Outback Onyx Edition
One of the best surprises of the entire driving experience was the 2020 Subaru Outback. My experience with Subaru is that they’re underpowered and I never quite understand their cult-like loyal following. Certainly in Boulder, Colorado, my home base, one out of four cars on the road is a Subaru. The 2020 Outback could change my mind about the brand, however, because it’s not only matched with really good performance, it’s also a fun drive in the mountains too. Featuring around 30mpg highway and AWD, it’s going to make a lot of Subaru fans happy and possibly convince some others to check it out during their next round of research. It also has a base price of about $36,000 which means you’ll probably be looking at $40,000 out the door. Still, huge props to Subaru for the 2020 Outback. It’s a solid option for a modest, compact outdoor vehicle if you just can’t stand that compact SUV form factor.
2020 Toyota Corolla XSE
Speaking of vehicles that surprised me, the venerable Toyota Corolla – they’ve sold over 46 million units worldwide! – was a delight for 2020 with its new styling and well-appointed interior. You can see notes of the Prius design on the front hood and windshield, but the interior of this sedan is roomy and feels very modern. It’s also a peppy drive with its relatively modest 2.0L engine and 35mpg mileage. Most surprising is that this comfortable new Toyota starts at only $25,000. But don’t bring your Android phone along: while the 2020 Corolla does finally have Apple CarPlay it still doesn’t support Android Auto. The Toyota rep just highlighted that “just about the entire rest of the Toyota line” does have support for CarPlay and Android Auto in the 2020 lineup.
2019 Volkswagen Arteon
This was another delightful surprise; a sporty new VW sedan for the US market. The Arteon is inspired by the popular European “CC” Volkswagen model and features an eight speed automatic transmission and turbocharged 2.0 litre engine that makes this a surprisingly delightful drive. Zipping down those mountain roads as we headed out of the Rockies and back to Denver? No complaints at all on handling, power, responsiveness or comfort. This is a relative unknown vehicle for the VW lineup but you’ll want to check this out if you’re in the market for a sporty sedan. Base is $35,800.
Wrapping Things Up
It’s hard to express the fun of walking up to a lineup of beautiful new vehicles, knowing you can jump in and drive any of them to get the feel of their strengths and weaknesses, but imagine this parking lot and knowing they’re all part of the program:
It was a terrific experience and I look forward to trying out lots of cars at next year’s Rocky Mountain Driving Experience. Thanks to the Rocky Mountain Automotive Press board and all the car companies who helped make this happen! I am hoping to have a chance to spend more time with each of the vehicles from the event, and will write about ’em all here on my GoFatherhood site, so make sure you subscribe today!
Disclosure: While a wide variety of car companies participated to make this event happen, this post is obviously my own opinions and assessment of the vehicles I drove. Your mileage – literally and figuratively – will vary.