Editors' Picks: The Worst Drives In America
As auto industry writers and car reviewers, we do a lot of driving (shocking, right?). Between the editors at AOL Autos and Autoblog, it's probably safe to say that we've been on the road for long periods of time in every state in the U.S., as well as in many other countries.
Just recently, Autoblog Senior Editor Steve Ewing and AOL Autos Associate Editor Erin Marquis took a long road trip from Michigan to Colorado, where they met Autoblog's West Coast Editor Michael Harley in order to swap two of our long-term test cars. Doing so required driving some of the most boring stretches of road our country has to offer. After several days of staring at seas of corn, the two returned utterly exhausted and joyous that the trip was over.
This got the rest of us thinking about the worst stretches of road we've been on. We discussed and debated for a while until deciding that we would each list the road that we've found to be our own hell-on-earth. In addition, we each came up with a car we thought could make the trip a little more palatable. Head on through to see what we picked (sorry in advance, Midwesterners).
David Kiley (Editor-in-Chief, AOL Autos): The Washington BeltwayThe Washington Beltway is a place that can take years off your life. My brother has lived there since the 1970s, so I have been going down to D.C. for decades. Each time, I navigate 95, 495, 395, 195, 295, I can see the pages of my life calendar peeling off and burning as they float through the air.
I used to work for USA Today, based in McLean, Va. right on The Beltway, and fended off discussions about working at the home office. No thanks.
If circumstances required that I endure this daily torture, I would want the most comfortable and connected car I could find. My choice is the Chrysler 300 sedan, loaded to the hilt, with leather and Chrysler's excellent UConnect system, which would have me connected easily to my email, song collection, satellite radio, texts, Pandora, etc. There are other systems out there, but UConnect won our 2012 Technology of the Year Award because of its ease of use. Since I will be sacrificing years of my life and sanity driving the beltway, I don't want to compound the problem with a complicated telematics system.
John Neff (Editor-in-Chief, Autoblog): I-75 Between Toledo, Ohio And DetroitBorders between states are usually invisible, marked only by a sign on the side of the road that welcomes you to wherever. The trees on either side of those imaginary lines look the same, as does the grass and the flowers. One thing, however, can change in an instant when crossing over: road quality. Driving from Cleveland to Detroit, a trip I make often, is marked by one such meeting of vastly different road surface grades: The Ohio-Michigan border on I-75 between Toledo and the D.
Traveling from Buckeye country into the Wolverine State on I-75 North is like driving out of a freshly paved parking lot onto a lineup of crushed cars. The speed limit on I-75 is also higher in Michigan than Ohio, which means the higher velocity only amplifies the tired road surface's imperfections, upheavals and patched joints. What should be a fun blast on a fast-moving highway inevitably becomes a wheel-gripping, teeth-chattering, car-dodging practice session for driving during the apocalypse.
Short of a military-grade hovercraft, the vehicle I would choose to make the transition from Ohio's asphalt to Michigan's concrete is the new 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The reason? The newest Big Benz comes with a technology called Magic Body Control, which combines the company's Active Body Control hydraulic suspension with stereoscopic twin cameras mounted ahead of the rearview mirror. The cameras scan the road ahead and automagically adjust the suspension to accommodate the upcoming road surface. Armed with this technology, the border between Ohio and Michigan should once again disappear.
Steve Ewing (Senior Editor, Autoblog): I-75 Through OhioThere's this weird rivalry between the people of Michigan and Ohio, and despite being a resident of the former, I don't really get the hatred toward the latter. (You football fans take things way too seriously.) That said, when pressed to think of my worst drive, a stretch of Ohio is the first thing that comes to mind – specifically, the north-to-south length of I-75 that runs through the state.
Sure, there are plenty of boring stretches of road like this in America, but none are as bad as the I-75 through Ohio slog. For starters, there isn't anything to see once you pass through Toledo (you Ohioans should really do something about all those empty fields – build a second Cedar Point or something), and worst of all, the speed limit is 65 mph with cops that don't respect the usual "five-over" rule. (At least you can comfortably do 80 in boring states like Nebraska or Iowa.) Nothing like having to slam on the brakes the moment you cross into the wonderland of Buckeye Buzzkills.
If I have to do this drive again (I will), I'm hoping to secure an Audi A7 TDI for the journey. In addition to being an incredibly gorgeous car, the A7 is hella comfortable, quiet and packed with every technological goodie I can think of. I choose the TDI specifically because it isn't engineered for speed like a more powerful S7, and that'll help my often heavy right foot avoid speeding tickets from the overprotective Boys in Blue. What's more, with a cruising range of over 700 miles, I won't even have to stop and spend any extra/unnecessary time refueling – I can instead focus on powering through, making my way into more interesting states as quickly as possible.
Pete Bigelow (Associate Editor, AOL Autos): I-80 Through Gary, Ind.Flat and featureless landscapes may make for popular choices in this worst-roads compilation. But give Nebraska and Iowa some credit. The vast expanses of nothingness they offer can be perfect in the right circumstances.
For me, there's no more cringe-inducing highway than a 20-mile stretch of asphalt southeast of Chicago that, at various times, bears the markings of Interstates 65, 80, 90, 94 and a portion of the I-294 connector.
It'd be disingenuous to bestow the dubious honor of "worst" on any particular one. They weave around each other, occasionally share the same numerical designations and contain such poor signage that it's difficult to determine with any degree of accuracy which segment you're actually driving upon at any particular moment.
"Driving" is perhaps a generous description of what takes place on this corridor, which roughly stretches from Portage, Ind. to Hazel Crest, Ill. Spread across six lanes, traffic slinks along at hours per mile. Construction is a nonstop nuisance. It started the day Eisenhower bestowed funding on the interstate highway system and has never relented.
Sightseeing amounts to watching the nation's bleakest terrain pass outside the window. Gary, Ind. and its cadre of sooty smokestacks sit along the northern side of the road, spewing pollution into the sky and nearby Lake Michigan. If there's any place that resembles Hell on earth, this underbelly of Chicago, which hasn't changed since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, is it.
Lucky enough to navigate through the inordinate amount of tractor-trailers sharing this road? Next, drivers can guess at which exits keep them on their desired route with such little guidance from road signs, the odds of success are the same as a blindfolded child playing Pin The Tail On The Donkey.
Relax. The nightmare does end. Headed westbound on I-80, you'll eventually pass the I-294 connector. Traffic will return to normal.
Beyond this point, motorists can slingshot across the open prairie. Mock the dullness of Iowa and Nebraska if you must, but after enduring the automotive spaghetti bowl southeast of Chicago, the flat ribbons of highway in the nation's heartland deserve nothing but appreciation and gratitude.
Car: Forced to travel through the Interstate 65, 80, 90, 94 and 294 mess again, I'd choose a Ford Econoline E-250. Then I'd hire a driver. That way, I could be tied down in the rear of this windowless, commercial-grade vehicle and shield myself from these eyesores.
Jeremy Korzeniewski (Managing Editor, Autoblog): I-10 Between Phoenix And Los AngelesThe first time I traveled from Phoenix to Los Angeles on the I-10 was aboard a Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special. I looked at the map and thought to myself, 'Self, that's an arrow-straight stretch of road with a speed limit of 75 miles per hour through Arizona and 70 through much of California. How bad could it be?
As it turns out, the answer was bad. Very bad. Couple the riding position of the aforementioned motorcycle – think of it as an open clamshell splaying your arms and legs out in front of you, leaving your torso to catch the wind like a parachute in between – with gusty crosswinds, hundred-ton loads pulled by semi trucks and a slew of manic drivers with nothing but their final destinations on their minds and you end up with a painfully frightening experience worthy itself of yet another Final Destination movie sequel.
The only thing worse than that event was the return trip home, in which I was aboard an Aprilia SXV 500 supermototard motorcycle – basically a futuristic torture device disguised as a dirtbike with sportbike wheels and tires... and a seat that's as hard as a board and as thin as a thong. I knew going into the ride that I would be making it on two of the worst possible motorcycle choices available, but they were the options offered. I supposed I could have walked.
Forced to make the ride again, I'd choose a much different motorcycle from the Harley-Davidson lineup: a 2014 Ultra Limited. As part of the iconic company's latest Touring range, it comes equipped with a powerful infotainment system and stereo along with enough comfort features, such as heated grips and cruise control, to change the trip from a nightmarish chore to an enjoyable experience. I'll take mine in an Amber Whiskey and Vivid Black two-tone.
And if I had to choose four wheels? Perhaps a Ford Raptor pickup, which would enable the random off-road slingshot through the desert in between the unfortunate stretches of slog.
Chris Tutor (Social Media Manager, Autoblog): The Natchez Trace ParkwayThere's a stretch of road between Nashville, Tenn. and Natchez, Miss. that is flat, straight and, for most of its 444 miles, perfectly paved. It's called the Natchez Trace Parkway and tall, beautiful pines and oaks on both sides harbor wild deer and turkey. Numerous historic markers provide ample rest areas for weary, curious travelers. And since the Trace is a federal parkway, commercial trucks are prohibited from using it.
So why is the Natchez Trace not a driver's nirvana? The two-lane highway's speed limit is 50 mph. To legally drive its entire length would take almost nine hours. Any attempt to exceed the speed limit is met with swift, expensive justice from the plethora of federal park rangers who have little else to do but write speeding tickets all day long. Trust me, these citations are not at all cheap.
Meriwether Lewis of the famed Lewis and Clark duo, died on this roadway in 1809. Some say his death was a suicide (true story). I expect he was most likely inspired to end it all by the road's mind-numbing monotony.
If ever asked to drive that road again, I'd prefer something underpowered and slow. A 20-year-old Miata hitting on only three cylinders would be nice. Better yet, a bicycle (which are more commonly spotted on the Natchez Trace than even the plentiful wildlife) would be appropriate. In fact, any vehicle known for 0-60 times measured by tree rings would be perfect the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Michael Harley (West Coast Editor, Autoblog): I-15 Between Las Vegas And Los AngelesMy worst drive: Southbound on the I-15 from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on a Sunday afternoon. The two-lane road is packed with tourists, commercial traffic and hungover partiers - a mix that coagulates into near stand-still traffic with no alternate routes. When the flow finally moves forward, it's a free-for-all to grab any open spot in an adjacent lane which causes everything to again grind to a halt.
If forced on that particular stretch of road again, the car I'd like to have is a Mercedes-Benz GL350 BlueTEC with Distronic Plus. The large SUV is quiet on the open road and it has a cavernous 7-passenger interior, which provides plenty of elbow room for the occupants. A long list of amenities provides all of the necessary creature comforts, and the optional dual-screen rear-seat entertainment system keeps passengers engaged. From the driver's perspective, the diesel GL-Class offers a tall driving position to see over the traffic, radar-based cruise control to lower anxiety levels and plenty of range so nobody will have to mingle with the unfamiliar crazies at the various fuel stops.
Michael Zak (Consumer Editor, AOL Autos): I-5 Between San Francisco And Los AngelesDriving between Los Angeles and San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the best trips you can take. The road slinks along the Pacific shore, passing through great towns and cities like Santa Barbara and Monterey, providing the driver with gorgeous scenery. The problem, though, is that this drive can take about nine or ten hours.
If you want to get to LA or SF more efficiently, you're stuck taking I-5. A long stretch of freeway that is a straight shot through California's bleak Central Valley, this part of the interstate is among the worst drives in the country. Scenery is limited to brown expanses of desert, endless rows of produce and gigantic globs of horrifically smelly cattle. California Highway Patrol cars are a frequent sight. Big rigs are constantly trying to pass each other, one going 65 mph, the other going 67. The sun bakes the inside of the car, making controlling the climate an incessant game of minute changes to the temperature knob. And it still takes around six hours, if you're lucky.
I-5 can get dicey through The Grapevine, which is a stretch north of Los Angeles that runs through the Tehachapi Mountains. Though the scenery improves, traffic can often come to a standstill due to various construction projects or accidents. It also snows up there in the winter, causing total road closures that can extend one's trip by four or five hours, as you're forced to cut across the state to US-101 or I-15 along two-lane highways.
If you're unfortunate enough to time your arrival or departure in Los Angeles with rush hour (which is basically every hour between 7 am and 10 pm), you're greeted with mind-numbing traffic jams, especially where I-5 intersects with I-405, I-210, CA-14 and I-10, which are some of the busiest roads in the country.
Faced with this drive, which I'm sure I will be in the near future, I'd take the new Acura MDX. I just spent a week in this car and it is spectacular for long road trips. It's remarkably comfortable and quiet, has a great sound system, rides smoothly and comes with adaptive cruise control and a wonderful lane-keep assist system that automatically steers the car to keep it between the lines. Since it's so easy to space out along this drive, having the latest safety technology is an absolute must.
Erin Marquis (Associate Editor, AOL Autos): The Seney StretchMichigan, in general, is a beautiful state to drive through. Highways meander around lakes, hardwood forests, impressive cliffs and gently rolling farmland for much of the state.
If you're in the Upper Peninsula, however, there is one boring stretch of road that is almost impossible to avoid. M-28 is a highway that traverses the length of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from East to West. Again, this is mostly beautiful country, except for one 25-mile portion known as The Seney Stretch, which runs between Seney, Mich., and Shingleton, Mich.
This portion of highway runs arrow straight through a flat, featureless area known as the Great Manistique Swamp. Boggy low-lying wilderness surrounds this patch of road for over 90,000 acres. There is nothing but bleak wilderness for miles around, no towns, no standing structures, and no cellphone towers. The most thrilling view you might get on this road is a few scraggly pine trees or a wayward moose wandering along the shoulder. Since the population is already sparse in this portion of the state you could sit for hours on the shoulder and never see another car.
My ideal car: Snow storms are serious business in the UP, and can happen as early as October and as late as May. Storms often cause white out conditions. Having a car die on the side of The Seney Stretch could quickly become less of a pit stop and more of a camping trip. You’ll want to drive something that can take on anything, which is why a 2014 Range Rover Sport is a great best bet. You will be able to power through white-out snows or torrential rains, and if you do become stranded you won’t mind lounging around the roomy interior of this comfortable luxury SUV as you wait, and hope, for help to arrive.
Sharon Carty (Executive Editor, AOL Autos): The New Jersey TurnpikeIf you've ever been to New Jersey and you left the state thinking it smells like rotten eggs, then you've been on my least favorite stretch of highway in the world. I-95 has popped up a lot on this editor's choice list of our least favorite roads, but the stretch of I-95 has a triple whammy of traffic hell: It smells, it looks awful, and it's prone to heavy traffic. Oh, and you have to pay for the honor of driving on this stretch of pavement.
Get on I-95, also known as the New Jersey Turnpike in these parts, at Exit 12 in Carteret, and you get treated with a view of huge power line towers. If there isn't any traffic, you might find yourself humming the theme song to "The Sopranos" in your head as you head north into Elizabeth. ("Woke up this morning, got yourself a gun." And so on.) Most of the Sopranos introduction was shot on a different section of this hellish road — known as the Turnpike extension — but there are some shots of Elizabeth and its, um, contribution to New Jersey's infamous reputation as being a pollution wasteland.
Keep heading north, and the noxious odors might start to get a bit overwhelming. On your left, you might spy the abandoned Hydro Pruf building, which got its 15 minutes of fame from the Sopranos opening credits. As the folks at HBO helpfully point out, New Jersey has the most toxic waste sites in the country. In this building, a chemical company made a spray that turned textiles water-resistant. When the EPA came in to clean up the site in 1985, they found 1,800 55-gallon drums of an unknown chemical, and 20,000 smaller containers, many of which had spilled.
There are more views along the way, like Newark International Airport after Exit 14. When you're passing the runway, don't forget to look to the right. There's the IKEA! And a huge shipping yard, known as the Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal. This is, incidentally, where many security experts predict we'll see our next terrorist attack come from — something snuck in through containers dropped off here. (To be fair, they could also sneak in through other shipping yards in the U.S.)
From here it gets a little boring. Depending on the day, it can also get less smelly. After Exit 15, you can see the Meadowlands surrounding the highway. This is a pretty important wetland, and in any other setting it could actually be a cool bit of nature. But it just seems out of place here, in the middle of this big toxic highway, and if you're stuck in traffic you might start wondering how many bodies have been dumped in that swamp out there and if the fish swimming around in there have grown any toes.
I hate this stretch of highway because, much like Theresa Giudice of The Real Housewives of New Jersey and Snookie from Jersey Shore, it gives New Jersey a bad name. I spent 25 years of my life living in the Garden State, and I can tell you that the vast majority of it is really, really nice. From the mountain lakes in the northwest corner, to the ritzy suburbs in the northeast corner, to the miles and miles of amazing beaches, New Jersey is not what you see on I-95 heading north to Exit 16.
So, when I have to drive on this road, I would opt for a minivan like the Toyota Sienna or the Honda Odyssey. Hopefully something with heated seats to keep my back muscles from tensing up, and in-car DVD systems so I can keep my kids distracted in the back seat. I'd rather they remember the state of New Jersey the way I remember it — hanging out in my mom's in ground pool surrounded by 100-year-old trees — than by the views on this part of the road.