Carving Colorado: We have specific requirements, but taking high-country cars up mt. evans is simply bliss


Please stop telling me that all you want to do is drive along the coast in a convertible with the top down, salty air, sunsets and all that crap.

It’s nonsense. I’ve been there, done it and in case you haven’t read the news in the last 50 years, California is full of people who can’t find a partner to drive with.

You’re not cruising by the bay, you’re languishing on hot asphalt with frazzled hair and nerves — with the top down.

I’ll take Colorado every day for one reason alone: the air’s better. But it’s also thinner, which presents a very specific problem in our case. Of all the things cars burn, they burn oxygen the most. Hell hath no fury like an engine gasping for air.

Now, there are ways to mitigate. Forced induction on an engine force-feeds oxygen in the best way imaginable: B y using exhaust gases or belts to spin a turbine, cool air is jammed into the cylinders at an atmospheric rate equivalent to driving at 1,000 feet below sea level. Engineering is great.

But force-feeding oxygen to a hypoxic car doesn’t make a high-mountain machine. More than 20 minutes spent in the metro area underscores the need for all-wheel drive, or at least a tow company in the speed dial.

Um, and that’s bad. Because like anyone who’s ever skied here before can tell you, it’s probably easier to be pushed from behind than pulled from the front. Rear-wheel drive cars, like people, are better machines because their power comes from slightly behind. When we lean forward too much and put too much weight in front of us, we’re less stable. Same goes for cars. All-wheel drive is the least fun of both worlds.

Which puts our 2015 Subaru STI and 2014 Audi S4 at natural disadvantages. All-wheel drives are heavier (but necessary) and turbos are less linear in power delivery (but necessary). On the highest road in North America, both are assets to the climb but detriments to the car’s overall appeal when you’re not running around Mt. Evans.

Until you’re wrong. Somehow, despite working so hard to conquer physics and elevation, the Audi S4 and the Subaru STI are tongue-wagging worthy cars that work up in the mountains.

Allow me to do the walkaround. Both cars are turbocharged, all-wheel drive four-door sedans. Both have manual transmissions (because they’re fun, end of story) and both have more between 300 and 350 horsepower. Both are also “hotted up” versions of cars we see every day around here, which is why it was necessary to wring both out on the crucible of North America’s tallest, twistiest and windiest road. (The last two feel that way at least.)

To each his or her own, however. The STI, for all its Japanese practicality in the mountains, has a deck spoiler the size of a toddler rising out of the rear window. The S4, for all its German splendor and speed, can empty your bank account faster than a night in Vegas.

And they diverge further from each other from there.

The Audi S4, at $56,000, is the more serious of the two on paper. Although the STI approaches nearly $40,000, it doesn’t act like a grownup. The S4 sports Audi’s drive select mode that ranges from comfort to dynamic. The STI’s intelligent drive mode ranges from fistfight to bar brawl. Not that we minded as we carved up the corners heading up Mt. Evans.

As logic goes, the STI is largely a carryover from last year on paper. The same engine and the same transmission were planted in an all-new body and chassis. It’s hard not to notice that the steering, a hydraulically assisted box, is nearly telepathic. For all the guff Subaru gets for porting over a decade-old engine and gearbox, on these roads, we’re chuffed they went old school on the steering too.

Meanwhile, Audi is joining the ranks of nearly every other automaker and asking electrons and printed circuit boards to do the work of power-hungry steering pumps. For daily duty, there’s no perceptible difference between the two types of steering, and even on the twisty road up to Summit Lake it’s hard to tell the two apart, except: when the tires start to slide or lose grip.

The bottom half of North America’s tallest road is marble smooth with bends and curves that are something like a dream. The road crests, drops, bends and kinks at will, and before you’re done marveling at the last turn, you’re reaching for a lower gear and looking into the next one. I love it.

When the tree line passes below and the only animals left are small rodents the road’s character changes. Here you become keenly aware how wide cars have become and how much wider trucks are. The bends become longer straights with gasping cyclists sharing the road and the road surface becomes a little looser. Faith in traction control to step in at 11,000 feet isn’t for the faint, but natural feedback through the wheel is preferred, and in the Subaru it’s appreciated.

You could frame a picture in the rear seat of both these cars, they corner so flatly, but if you’re hammering nails I’d suggest the Audi. The S4 is every bit as keen as the STI in throttling up a mountain, but it’s the only one you’d be proud to drive back down and valet at a 4-star restaurant. And it’s the one that isn’t too nervous to drive to work every day. For the split personality you’ll pay $16,000 more than the STI, which is no small task, and roughly the same as a small work commuter car anyway.

But as the descent wore on and the fall colors came back into view only one winner came out: Colorado.

You can keep your convertibles in California. Colorado’s signature cars are better anyway.

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