Living Life Large: Driving $2 million worth of cars in one week

Notes From A Week's Worth Of Car Testing In California

Monterey Car Week has quickly become one of my favorite events of the year. There's something for everyone – classic car shows, modern concepts and new vehicle debuts, auctions, racing, and so much more. From a media perspective, there's also a chance to drive a ton of cars. Many automakers bring their latest wares out to Monterey for us to test during our limited free time, and it's a great opportunity to experience fantastic metal against a gorgeous backdrop.

That's exactly what I did this year. Instead of flying into Monterey and being driven around, my journey started in Los Angeles and ended in Napa, and I managed to get behind the wheel of some $2 million worth of new cars. Some were old favorites, and many were new experiences. But looking back, this was one of the best weeks of driving I've had in years.

Rather than try to come up with some common arc to tie these cars together, here are my notes on all the cars I tested in California earlier this month, presented in the order in which they were driven.

2016 Mazda CX-3

2016 Mazda CX-3

The CX-3 pictured here isn't the exact one I drove in California, but it's close. The only difference was color – my delivered-to-LAX tester wore Mazda's awesome new Ceramic hue (pictured below on the MX-5 Miata). I used the CX-3 to slum through crummy Los Angeles traffic for two hours on the way out to Santa Barbara, with a quick stop at In-N-Out Burger on the way for good measure.

  • A lot nicer inside than I remember. Everyone praises Mazda for its excellence in engineering and design, but there's a lot to be said for the improvements in overall interior refinement. Quiet, comfortable, and well-equipped; the CX-3 made sitting on the 405 freeway a lot more pleasant.
  • Not all that functional. I had a hard time fitting a week's worth of luggage for two people inside. The cargo area and rear passenger compartment were filled, with only enough room on top to see out the back window. A Honda HR-V would've swallowed all that luggage with plenty of room for more.
  • So good to drive. Not surprising, since this wasn't my first time in the CX-3. I knew this CUV would be good on twisty roads, but on the highway it's really exceptional. Road and wind noise are minimal and the overall ride quality is a comfortable sort of sporty. This is definitely something I could drive every day – it's enjoyable during commuting and entertaining on more interesting roads.

Mazda MX-5 Miata

2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata

I love the new Miata, and I've had the privilege of driving it in many different locations – Spain, at home in Detroit, and now along America's Best Coast, California. In terms of cars to drive from Santa Barbara to Monterey up the Pacific Coast Highway, none could have been more perfect than the MX-5. I got a pretty wicked sunburn, but it was worth it. In terms of ways to spend a Thursday at work, driving a Miata alongside the Pacific Ocean was one of the best days I've ever had.

  • It's comfortable on long drives. A lot of sports cars aren't great on long trips, but the Miata really is. The seats are comfortable and the sound system is pretty good (those speakers in the headrests are super cool). Mazda even designed the car to channel air up and over the cabin, so you aren't bombarded with wind. That means you can hold a conversation with your passenger, and you never, ever want to put the top up.
  • Man, is this car fun to drive. It's great on PCH's higher-speed sections, and even more fun on the tighter bends near Big Sur. I drove all sorts of different cars during my week in California, but the Miata is the one I'd have every single day. It's perfect.

Ariel Atom 3S

2015 Ariel Atom 3S

Caveat alert: While I technically drove the Ariel Atom, it was only for a super short amount of time. I was supposed to get a longer test, but the journalist who drove it before me reported some issues with the clutch, so the car's handlers were hesitant to let me take it out for a proper drive. Instead, I got two laps around downtown Carmel in the Atom. To all the pedestrians I freaked out while launching the thing in first gear as often as possible – sorry I'm not sorry. This car is a hoot, even if you only get to drive it for a few minutes. I even parked it next to the Miata for a proper "look how awesome my day was" photo.

  • What makes the 3S special is the turbocharger bolted onto the 2.4-liter Honda-sourced inline-four. The end result is a street-legal maniac with 360 horsepower that only weighs 1,350 pounds. It's freaking quick.
  • My car had the six-speed manual transmission, but you can now get a sequential gearbox. The manual is really easy to use, with crisp shifts. And by the way, if there was a problem with the clutch in this car, I couldn't tell. It felt perfectly fine to me.
  • I love how raw this car is. It's so cool to see the suspension components working while you're driving. In terms of feeling connected to the car, the Atom provides a truly unique experience.
  • This thing makes an absolutely addictive noise, hence my need to constantly launch the Atom through downtown Carmel. The main air intake is right next to your head, and the car sounds like it's going to suck you in with all that cool air. It's the best noise.
  • Note to self: Get more seat time in this car. Immediately.

Lamborghini Huracan

2015 Lamborghini Huracán LP 610-4

My first Lambo! Really. I've been writing about cars professionally for a decade, yet I'd never driven a Lamborghini until last week. In terms of first experiences, I'm glad I got the Huracán. It's probably not as raw and unhinged as the iconic Lambos of the past, but it was an awesome introduction to the brand.

  • One of my non-car-enthusiast friends said she'd rather drive around in a Huracán with me than visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. That's how cool this car is.
  • I didn't think it'd be so easy to drive. Once you get accustomed to the controls and interior layout, the Huracán is actually quite simple to use. Everything in the cockpit is logical, except for maybe the turn signals on the steering wheel. It's kind of a pain in the ass in terms of visibility, but that's easily forgiven considering everything else is so good.
  • The poor sightlines make this car feels huge at times, but still very nimble. It turns in with immediacy, the car stays flat during corners, and there's a ton of power available. I was surprised how confident I felt behind the wheel after only a short time. The Lambo never feels like it's fighting you, rather, it helps you go faster. Up and down 17 Mile Drive in Pebble Beach, the Huracán was less a huge supercar and more a slick sports car.
  • The Huracán looks amazing. I never had a chance to really look at one up close, on the road, but now that I've had the chance to study the Lamborghini coupe, I find it stunning.

Fisker-Galpin Rocket

2015 Fisker-Galpin Rocket

Speaking of stunning... wait, never mind. It's the Rocket, a tuned Ford Mustang created by Henrik Fisker and the folks at Galpin Auto Sports. I already published my full thoughts on this car, so I'll just recap a few real quick.

  • The ugly is strong with this one. Yeesh.
  • I love driving it. It's your typical fast Mustang in a lot of ways – fierce acceleration, vague-feeling steering – but Galpin's suspension tuning is fantastic. More than any Mustang I've driven to date, the Rocket is extremely poised in the corners.
  • 725 supercharged horsepower and excellent handling can make up for a lot of things. If you can get past the unique styling, there's a really charming car here.

Rolls-Royce Wraith

2015 Rolls-Royce Wraith

The Wraith is the first of three Rolls-Royce cars on this list. (Fun fact: Of the $2 million worth of cars I tested, these Rollers alone accounted for $1.3 million.) Following the Monterey Car Week festivities, I headed up to Napa Valley for a day of superb luxury – more on that later – with the Wraith as my chariot. Anyone who says Rolls-Royces are big, heavy barges are... well, they're right. But they're also really nice to drive, and the Wraith is definitely my favorite.

  • It may be a big car, but the Wraith is powered by a 6.6-liter, twin-turbo V12 with 624 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque. That means this car is exceptionally quick, but in a very Rolls-Royce-esque wafty way. Mash the throttle, it lifts its bow, and takes off toward the horizon.
  • The Wraith is obviously tuned for comfort above all, but in the bends, its surprisingly good. Yes, it feels heavy, but there's still good communication through the steering. It's not a car that begs to be driven hard, though.
  • I love the profile of the Wraith. That roofline is really attractive from all angles, and it's a hugely important part of this car's design.
  • If you only think of Rolls-Royce as being soft, prim, proper, luxurious cars for one-percenters, you aren't giving them enough credit. The Wraith is proof positive that Rolls-Royce makes a truly exceptional car to drive, too.

Rolls-Royce Ghost

2015 Rolls-Royce Ghost

The Wraith may share its platform with the Rolls-Royce Ghost, but the two cars are very different. You need to drive both in order to fully realize that. Of course, the Wraith is more for drivers, while the Ghost is a passenger-oriented machine, but it's still very lovely to steer.

  • Another change compared to the Wraith, the Ghost uses a detuned version of the 6.6-liter V12. In the sedan, this engine makes 563 hp and 575 lb-ft of torque – still big numbers, for sure, but a decrease from the two-door Wraith.
  • I love the bright blue of the Ghost pictured here. I'm always happy when big, fancy cars let down their hair and put on more vibrant hues.
  • The Ghost feels like the perfect cross-country road trip car. It's fast, it's pretty, it's got everything you could want in a luxury sedan. It's great for drivers and passengers alike, and I actually find it better to steer than a Bentley Mulsanne. Perhaps its the modern BMW 7 Series roots underneath, but the Ghost is less a stuffy old Roller and more an up-to-date, world-class luxury cruiser.

Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe

2015 Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe

This car was hilarious. The Phantom is super old, but there's nothing like it on the road. It is the pinnacle of Rolls-Royce luxury, and while it's kind of awful to drive from a dynamic standpoint, it's amazing at the same time. I got behind the wheel of the Drophead Coupe on my final leg of the drive from Monterey to Napa, and as far as wine country cruisers go, there's no finer machine than this. It turns heads at every corner. People get the hell out of its way. It's $552,950 of badassery and refinement.

  • The Phantom still uses the ancient 6.75-liter V12 with 453 hp and 531 lb-ft of torque. So yeah, it's slower than all the other Rollers, but that's okay. This car's mission is comfortable cruising, and nothing else. It's got an eight-speed automatic transmission, but you'd never know.
  • If I drove the Phantom over any broken pavement, I didn't know. This car is so serene, so smooth, and so calming. That is, once you get used to the size of the thing. The Phantom is huge; a proper four-place convertible with a massive hood and generous trunk.
  • Bad as it is in terms of driver involvement, I love driving this thing. It makes me happy, and it is unique among modern cars in that it genuinely feels special. Riding in the back of a Phantom sedan is really cool, but if you ever get the chance to drive one, do it. You'll be amazed.

I've got more musings from my week in California to tell, including a story about living the one-percent dream from the back seats of these Rolls-Royces with a belly full of wine. Stay tuned.

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