Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Car Culture in Colorado

Car Culture in Colorado
A brief glimpse at the cars, trucks, roads, and society in the Denver/Boulder region

[Note: my business-and-play vacation to Colorado spanned four days, enough to get a taste and enough to leave me wanting more. Though the following observations are limited to Denver, Boulder, Golden and the surrounding mountains, it was pretty easy to get a sense of the area's car culture from these few places. Things may be different elsewhere (and if they are someone should tell me otherwise) but the following is what I gathered from my far-too-short stay.]

4Runners. 4Runners everywhere. I must have laid eyes on more of these Toyota SUVs in ninety-six hours than the rest of my life combined. Colorado is teeming with them, and the best part is that about half are lightly modified and sit on fairly aggressive tires, the kind best suited to the mountains and less so to basic civilian chores. A fairly clear representation of the vehicular populous in itself, the dirt-covered, not-washed-in-a-while 4Runner handily describes the function over form mentality maintained by most drivers. People out in the Denver/Boulder region thoroughly enjoy outdoors activities and vehicles are the means to their madness. And while I expected so much, it was something that struck an entirely different chord in person rather than in my feeble little imagination. I'm being too narrow-scoped though: this doesn't start and end with the 4Runner, it's just the tip of the iceberg and what I'm using as a symbol for car culture as a whole.

Continue reading after the jump...

Rear windows are littered with stickers from ski-snowboard destinations; “I do outdoors stuff” racks fill the space on most roofs. Scratches are ever-present and worn with pride, and the 4Runners look like they've been properly abused. More likely than not their owners bought them to actually take advantage of their capabilities rather than to drive to their favorite strip mall; this was the overall theme that resonated with me, a reminder of how back in New York the 4Runner that was once an ordinary sight in suburban and rural communities is of late one commonly sacrificed for something the likes of a crossover. But accordingly, New Yorkers demand less in the way of capability from their vehicles, and a machine better suited to the tarmac on which it will likely spend close to all of its life putting about is of no issue for those whose winter driving consists of rushing to the supermarket in a frenzy the day before a major snowstorm is forecasted to hit. In Colorado, the SUV is still the purposeful, working-class vehicle that is used for its functional and active-lifestyle-favoring characteristics-- as it was intended to. This makes me happy.

Spotting a 4Runner in lower New York means either it's brand new or it's a more weathered example used by landscapers or high-school/college students as cheap reliable transportation. That's not the case in the Centennial State, where having four wheel drive means making manual use of a transfer case (even if by button/knob/switch), and anything less might not get you home in the out-of-nowhere blizzard-like conditions. And yet, the Colorado residents don't fear this the way New Yorkers do. It's something they're accustomed to, something they embrace, something they accept and deal with and even somewhat enjoy. If there's a metaphor for how different this mentality is out in Colorado, it's one that translates directly to the vehicles.

Accordingly, roll around in a lifted 4x4 in any town in Westchester County and you're bound to land onlookers' stares, from the eco-minded (who will hate you for your rainforest-murdering, gas-guzzling off-roader) to the outdoors-wannabe's (those stuck in a mostly developed county but with their mind to the north or west where they could be in the woods, in their calling). Not the case in Colorado; a lifted 4x4 fits in just as well as does a CUV or midsize sedan, and only garners second stares from enthusiasts and “outsiders” like me. What I said about different, more adventurous lifestyles being fully embraced in Colorado? Again, look at how differently people oogle modded rigs and are instantly understanding of said rigs' purposes.

Everything above goes for the Toyota's competition, and there's a massive assortment of lightly-modified or stock-but-on-good-tire Xterras, Grand Cherokees, FJ Cruisers, Wranglers, Tacomas, Frontiers, Land Cruisers, and on and on and on. And, of course, there's bro trucks (though where aren't there?). Yet the smaller off-roady vehicles are everywhere and they all look like they've been used hard and put away dirty. Better yet, the variety of heavily-modified but still street-driven 4x4s is vast, so much so that everywhere you turn another lifted rig is within eyesight.

Cars bearing modifications are even well-respected out in the streets. Tasteful mods seem more common than tacky ones, and though tuned cars are far outnumbered by that of their trucks/SUV counterparts, those that have been worked over were done so nicely...for the most part. The occasional supercar can be sighted too; I spotted a questionably modded F430 (red wheels on a red car are always a no-no), and a bright yellow McLaren 650S stood out nicely against the drab desert-like plains northeast of Boulder. There was even a rare Tesla-meets-Hellcat (Jekyll & Hyde?) sighting in the Union Station area. And how have I failed to mention the Subarus? The sheer number of them rivals that of the northeast, though ski racks are even more common and stanced/slammed WRXs are thankfully less so.

But most importantly there's the roads themselves. Oh, the roads. I'd be remiss if I didn't do my best to describe how spectacular the mountain and canyon roads are. Every stretch of pavement is more rewarding than the next, each subsequent turn more perfectly laid out for enthusiastic driving than the previous, each bit of asphalt ascending into the sky as if it were deliberately set to be something best described as paradise. The apexes, the banked corners, the sweepers, the elevation changes, the consequences of screwing up; I've never driven the canyon roads of California or the passes over the Alps, but in the mountains of Colorado just west of Denver and Boulder I found absolute hooning heaven. Even the highways between the cities themselves were buttery-smooth (albeit compared to my horrid NY/CT commute), and there's never a point in the city of Denver when you're more than a half hour to forty-five minutes away from bliss. Short of finding a patch of snow or ice or a stray fallen rock, you're damn-near guaranteed to have a great time. The only thing that can even add to how dramatic and demanding the roads are lies in the views you're rewarded with upon reaching outlooks or summits; it's something that needs to be seen in person to be fully understood.

I do have to thank the Enterprise employee who “had too many Camaros and would do one for the same price as a 'Standard' rental” for gracing me with a RWD coupe rather than handing over the keys to a four-cylinder front-wheel-drive sedan, knowing going into it that I would thrash it like a 24 Hours of LeMons car. The Camaro took some getting used to with its awful blind spots, laughably bad visibility, and suspension that verged on painfully crashy over joints (which could be in that it was a rental), but I can absolutely see how it would be a fun daily driver with a proper V8 and the right suspension setup.

Driving it in the canyons certainly surprised me, especially after loathing it upon leaving the airport, and though it wasn't great the alternatives looked far worse. It most certainly could have been better (add: V8, manual trans., etc.), but being that I should have been trying to quell body roll, understeer, and torque steer behind the wheel something the likes of a Jetta/Civic/Corolla, the Camaro was a treat as a rental. Occasional paddles-to-transmission lethargic disconnect may or may not have caused an accidental mid-super-slow-corner downshift into first gear once or twice, but let's be real: it was just a rental, and I paid for all of the insurance. And despite the onslaught of full-throttle blasts on my switchback-laden self-proclaimed race track, along with the nonstop cornering as if it was a timed run in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, somehow the car managed to do about 250 miles on only ~$30 worth of gas, credit to about 200 of such cruising at the highway's speed limit in top gear on low-rolling-resistance tires...not bad MPG considering the way I treated mistreated the car. Despite the car's downfalls, the roads and environment and nature of such such a foreign environment all encouraged limit-testing driving. Rarely have I found a locale in which juvenile and smile-until-your-face-hurts behavior such as pushing oneself and one's vehicle is rewarding and rejuvenating as much as it was in Colorado. Everything I thought I knew about good roads was thrown clear out the window. Here, the rental Camaro was perfectly fine, but the real enjoyment came from the roads themselves.

Skewed the way of the mountain, off-road trail, and yes, the snowstorm, Colorado's car culture is among the most unique- and best- I've experienced. It contributes to the snowy, woodsy, rough feel and adds a bit of charm that, for me at least, can't be found elsewhere. People here understand their compromised 4WD SUVs as utilitarian, opportunity-enabling, and simply better for their region. But this isn't to disregard the appeal of the street-going car: the roads are otherworldly, and that Pikes Peak is barely hours away speaks more than words can. Perhaps it was the Rocky Mountain High, perhaps it was specific to where I was, perhaps it was all actually as real as it seemed; Colorado is a stunningly beautiful thing, and it's car culture definitely played a part in my enjoyment and comfort there. I'll be back...

-Ross, 12/2/15

All pictures taken by myself (on a Samsung Galaxy S6) and are unedited.  The severe lack of 4Runner/4x4 pictures is simply because I was too busy looking at them in shock as another and another and another drove by.  I even started pointing them out...just ask my girlfriend.


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