I’ve said it before: sometimes you get lucky.

The company sent me to Colorado for a few days. That was already a nice break from the usual, as Colorado is one of my favourite places to visit. It has great scenery, lots of great twisty roads, and I have dear friends there who I don’t get to see near often enough. Would my rental car be on par with the other things in Colorado to which I was looking forward? Or would the question of the day be, which Dodge Caravan would you like? Don’t laugh, that’s pretty close to the situation the last time I visited Chicago.

There were only three of us on the rental car shuttle. One disappeared to another row, the other zeroed-in quickly on a red Camaro. I was in last place due to the amount of stuff I had to carry, and I strode the row with some trepidation, noting all the chunky SUVs and vans and dull sedans. Then, miracle of miracles, I spotted a Mustang! It was a beautiful dark metallic grey convertible and I knew that it needed me. After loading my gear I started the engine to get the aircon going and tune the radio and adjust everything, and a moment after starting I noticed that something didn’t sound quite right, a bit noisier than it should be. Was the exhaust system broken? I tickled the pedal to check- was that a rumbly burble? Oh my. Look on the side in front of the door, and sure enough, it says 5.0! And a GT badge on the back end! A Five-O Ford right here in the regular section, not over there in the special upgrade section. How could it be? I decided to take my chances and drove away with it. The gate attendant assured me that all was well, that the car was where it was due to some administrata that I won’t bore you with except to say that the upshot was that I got this V-8 Mustang for the price of the turbo-four Mustangs I’ve driven in the past. So there I was, in Colorado with a Mustang GT convertible, and nowhere to be until the next morning. What would you do? Naturally, I took it to Pike’s Peak.

What would you do?

Pike’s Peak is famous for having an annual hill-climb racing event that lasts a week and features every class from Lightweight Motorcycle to Unlimited Car. The road up the mountain is a 28-mile, two-lane ribbon of asphalt that starts out pretty tame but once above a certain altitude it has a lot of steep grades and tight turns, as in chasing-your-own-tail-light-tight hairpins.

Seriously, what would you do?

There are also very few guardrails and only limited shoulders, and many places where going off the pavement will result in a long and steep tumble, which is of course combined with scenery that will make you want to watch anything BUT the road. The summit is at 14115 feet above sea level, one of only three places in the United States where you can drive your car to above 14000 feet. Speed limits are low, and higher up in the thin air neither your engine nor your brakes will be able to cool themselves as effectively as at lower altitude. Add in the usual tourist traffic, and the reality is that most of the time you can’t go very fast- but it doesn’t take much speed to screw up on this kind of mountain road. Unless you go to some really unusual places, this is probably the most dangerous road you’ll ever drive.

Be careful on this road.

The cruise down the interstate to Colorado Springs was effortless. Colorado has some 75 MPH speed limits on I-25 and the Mustang’s cruise control handled them easily. The forecast for the day predicted a high of 100F, so I left the top up and kept the aircon working hard. The vented seat kept cool air at my back, and that’s a very nice thing. Once off the Interstate it’s a few more miles to the Pike’s Peak Highway toll-gate, and the road curves through some canyons and passes interesting places like Garden of the Gods and Manitou Cliff Dwelling. A few miles shy of the toll-gate I pulled over and dropped the top. I figured the adventure ahead was worth some sweat, although it really wasn’t bad since the Mustang’s vents allow the air to be directed almost anywhere you want it, better than in most cars, and keeping the side windows raised helps create a ‘bubble’ of more comfortable air. But it didn’t take long for things to get more comfortable anyway, since the temperature falls as you climb, and I would later observe about 30 degrees difference at the summit.

So how did the Mustang do on Pike’s Peak? It did just fine, and it didn’t miss a beat at all. The miracle of modern electronic engine management kept it accelerating eagerly at every altitude, and I had no issues with brake fade. In fact, there’s a mandatory brake temperature checkpoint on the way down, where a park ranger takes a second to aim an infrared thermometer at your left front brake. “You’re good, you’re doing it right,” the ranger said with a smile as he waved me away. That brings up technique. One thing I did do during both the climb and the descent was use the manual-shift capability of the Mustang’s automatic transmission. I’m not generally a fan of so-called ‘flappy paddle’ shifting, but combine it with the sort of throttle-technique that you’d use shifting a real manual transmission and I was able to get very precise shift-responses in either direction. I mostly used second and third gears on the way up, with first now and then in the tighter turns. The descent was mostly just second and first, since gravity’s pull is strong on the 3825-pound Mustang.

But if you get away from the numbers and the details, how was the experience? The best single-word answer is FUN! I’ve been up Pike’s Peak a couple of times in the past, once on a motorcycle and once in a VW Mk IV GTI 1.8T, and this time was as fun as those. A powerful convertible is a really great way to experience high-mountain driving, probably beating the motorcycle by a narrow margin since I didn’t have to wear a helmet and therefore had the wind in my hair at all times. Whatever conveyance you use on the Peak, horsepower is your friend because in most places you don’t have much distance to change speeds, so whenever you can steal a little speed it’s good to be able to take it. Of course you want great handling too, so if your car is optimized for drag-racing, it’s probably not the ideal choice. But get yourself in that curve-handling state of mind, start twisting the wheel, and you’ll have a great time. It may be a dangerous road, but don’t do anything stupid and you’ll be just fine. I find that there’s a certain rhythm to the hairpins, not in how one comes after another, but in the very similar way that each hairpin is constructed. They have a similar radius and a similar grade, so the right timing of throttle and steering will work over and over again.

Relax at the summit. Find a place to park up there and take the time to walk around, enjoy the views, and by all means, go into the gift-shop and get yourself some liquid refreshment and definitely get some of the donuts they make there. They can’t be replicated at low altitude and they’re delicious, so enjoy this special treat. The calories plus some hydration will recharge you for the drive down, which can be every bit as enjoyable as the drive up. On the way down it can be tempting to put the car or bike into neutral and let it coast, but this is probably not the best idea due to how fast brakes can get hot in the thin air. Use low gears to keep your vehicle from runaway speeds and still allow you to use some throttle on the less-steep parts between turns. At some point you’ll pass the tree-line, and I find that I notice the trees coming back on the way down more than I notice them going away on the way up. Stop where it’s safe and take plenty of pictures- the views are spectacular!

You can see a lot from up here!

Of course I had other fun too with the Mustang while I was in Colorado, like picking up my friend Craig from his office to go have a bite and a beer before returning him to finish the evening part of his shift. We made sure to leave some tire-marks in a distant parking lot before we parted. I was also able to visit my fried Ross and go for a spin in a couple of Lotus Elans he owns, and the contrast between their light, zippy quickness and the Mustang’s heavy powerfulness was really something to behold: great fun at two very different extremes. But eventually all things must come to an end, and so it was with a bit of sadness that I bid the Mustang farewell at the airport. I couldn’t have had a better rental-car for driving a fun, challenging, performance-intensive road. I really, truly enjoyed my high-altitude adventures with this ponycar and if you get the chance, you will too!

You can’t help but to have fun on Pike’s Peak.
With scenery like this, you’ll never want to leave.
Have a donut at the summit- they’re tasty!
Views in every direction make open cars ideal for this environment.
You’ll see lots of breathtaking views!
You might even see Bigfoot!
Hit the road for Pike’s Peak. You’ll be glad you did.

Lately I’ve been shifting much of my rental-car use to a different company because they have locations nearer me, which is a lot more convenient for getting myself on and off the road. The variety of cars usually isn’t as nice or as interesting, and they don’t have a full aisle from which to take my pick (three Impalas in a row…wake me up when it’s over!), so this plus being crazy-busy on the job has made for fewer opportunities for Rental Car Reviews. But this week I got a little bit lucky. It’s a short week due to a holiday on Monday, and in the remaining four days I’ve got one of those trips where I fly out and drive back, seeing customers along the way. The far point was Columbus Ohio, an airport where I’m usually disappointed by what they’ll let one-way customers take from them, but this time was an exception- especially nice since my flight had been delayed.

The rental car agent asked me if a Volvo XC60 would be OK, and having almost nothing to inform the choice but knowing it was a rare opportunity, I said yes without hesitation. I knew that the XC designation made it one of the chunkier models, but I couldn’t picture exactly which one. I knew that there were XC models and Cross Country models, but XC seems like an abbreviation for Cross Country so that muddies things a bit. Just to clarify the models up-front, I’ll mention that the next day I checked Volvo’s website and the Cross Country models are wagons and the XC models are SUVs. The XC60 is the middle of three models in the XC range. The XC60 has a starting MSRP of $38900 and can go up above an eye-watering $75000 if you tick enough boxes on the trim levels and packages and options. Staggering on one hand, but on the other, it’s kind of cool to have such huge flexibility in one model. I had the low-end Momentum trim and the T5 Engine, a 250 hp 5-cylinder. That’s right, FIVE. Not completely unheard of, but rare for sure and at least in the US market, only something you see from a few European brands.

The XC60 doesn’t look that distinctive on first impression. Cover the front and rear faces -which are somewhat understated themselves- and at a quick glance you could easily mistake it for a similarly-sized Jeep Cherokee. But the Swedes have always been known for an aesthetic that is simple and clean while still being stylish and even beautiful when they really get it right. In my opinion they did get it right with the XC60. They styling is clean and balanced without being boring, has just enough accents, and looks like it belongs in Volvo’s current lineup.

The XC60 resembles a Cherokee, but it’s Swedish.

Inside, there’s more understated Swedish goodness, with simple styling that’s pleasant to the eye. The downside of this is that so many features and functions -too many in my opinion- are completely dependent on touchscreen control, and some of them aren’t very intuitive, and by the end of the second day I still hadn’t figured out how to manipulate some of them. To Volvo’s credit, if all else fails the owner’s manual is viewable on the touchscreen when the vehicle is not in motion. The Swedes are also known for a little bit of quirkiness, and one quirk became apparent as soon as I tried to start the engine. Like most modern cars, the XC60 uses a proximity-type key, which usually means pressing a button located either on the dashboard and almost always to the right side of the steering column, or in a few cases on the center console near the dashboard. No button in these locations. I soon found an oddly-shaped and interestingly-textured knob that was labeled as START located a bit farther back on the console, reminiscent of where Saab usually located their ignition locks. Instinct made me push down on it, which did nothing. Then I gave it a twist, and the engine started. The knob is spring-loaded and only turns a few degrees. Another quirk of this knob is that you turn it the same direction to shut off the engine.

Quirky controls.

Another quirky control is the drive-mode selector, a cylindrical roller in the center console. It has its own interesting texture and you press down on it to bring up the mode menu, then roll it to scroll through the choices, then press down on it again to select the mode…then wait…an interminably long time…for the screen to revert back to whatever was on it before. The drive-modes are Eco, Comfort, Dynamic (high performance), and Off Road. Comfort is the default mode and sadly, it reverts back to Comfort when the car is shut off. I say sadly because I found that Dynamic mode had two advantages over Comfort: quicker passing on the highway, and much less lateral wiggle when going over less-than-smooth defects in the pavement such as patches and shallow potholes. In fact the amount of lateral wiggle caused by such defects was a bit shocking. Not dangerous, but quite noticeable, much more than should be expected from any modern vehicle. Other than that, the two modes felt the same going down the road. The handling is easy and responsive, and I had no problem carving some tight and twisty roads in the hills of West Virginia, although a more progressive steering rate would have been welcome in some sections.

While we’re on the driving experience, I’ll say that overall it’s pleasant. The ride is smooth, maneuvering is easy, the controls give acceptable feedback, the turn-radius is good, and the brakes are quite competent. The various safety-systems all do their thing, and one in particular impressed me. There was a moment when everybody in front of me on the highway went into a panic-stop for reasons that were never apparent. As you may know from experience, due to accumulating human reaction times, the farther back you are in the line of vehicles, the more quickly you must react and brake to prevent hitting the car in front of you, sometimes faster that what a two-second-plus following distance will allow (read Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt for some insights into this and other human factors in driving). I was on the brakes, smoothly but very firmly, and the XC60 responded in kind with all the stopping I needed, and no collision occurred- but the front collision warning sensors weren’t happy and I got audible warnings, and the really impressive part was that the seat belt began to tighten and hold me firmly into the seat. This was no mere inertia-reel action; this was a motor retracting the belt gradually as dictated by the increasing forces of deceleration, and then gradually releasing it once I was off the brakes. I like that feature, and I hope to see it in more vehicles.

Another thing that worked really well was the air conditioning. It did a great job of cooling the car quickly on hot days, but I wish the fan was quieter. Being the warm part of the year, I didn’t test the heated seats or steering wheel, but I did note that all four seats have heat, and the rear seat heat is controlled by buttons where the rear passengers can reach them. The front seats are really comfortable, enough to earn a spot on my comfiest car seat list, and are electrically adjustable in multiple directions. In addition to the usual fore-aft and seatback angle, the height and tilt of the base is adjustable, the lumbar is adjustable for both the amount of support and the height of the support, and the thigh-rest at the front edge of the seat is adjustable fore-aft. The lumbar and thigh support adjustments are a bit clever, using a circular button that can be pressed in any of four directions, surrounded by a ring with a tab on it. Push the tab down to select thigh support; pull it up to select lumber support. Luckily the screen goes to a pictorial guide on how to make these adjustments work whenever the tab is moved.

Tabbed ring selects the function of the multi-button in the center. Elegant prevention of button-clutter.

I have to give some credit for the design of the key. Its shape is kind of big and square, but it’s thinner than just about every modern electronic key I’ve seen, which means that it’s not a chunky bulky thing when it’s in your pocket. The buttons are along the edges, and up next to the hole on top where a key-ring can be attached is a small slide-button that allows the release of the plastic cover on the side with the Volvo logo. Once this cover is removed, the physical backup-key is revealed, as are tiny words next to each button that explain what they do when given short or long pushes. Unfortunately, those words are not only tiny but also are merely molded into the plastic with no contrasting colour added, so you’ll need both good eyesight and plenty of light to read them. There is also another slide that is revealed when the cover is removed, and this one releases the cover for the other side, allowing access to the battery, the size of which is indicated on the plastic so you don’t have to look it up in the manual when it comes time to change the battery.

Better key than most: it’s not chunky.

Cargo space is ample in back, and for this trip I had TWO Pelican 1610 cases to carry, plus my tool-backpack and personal bag. I managed to fit everything in back without going vertical into the cargo-cover’s plane of existence. This cover is the retractable type, and a nice touch is the raised position you can click it into for easier access without having to fully retract the cover. The hatch is electrically operated, no surprise in this class of vehicle.

Enough space for lots of your stuff.

Volvo has been owned for the last few years by the Chinese automotive conglomerate Geely, whose holdings include Lotus and… Thankfully, Geely has taken a very hands-off approach with its holdings and allowed them to make cars their own way, building success the way they know how to do so. Like Volvos of the past, this one can be summed up as quirky comfort and after four days in the XC60 I almost didn’t want to give it up. It was comfortable it and did everything well and with mostly minimal fuss. If I had to drive it long-term I would go through the manual and learn more about how to work some of those cryptic controls, so as a rental car that’s a weakness- and possibly as a bought car too, since so much modern tech is so easy to use that some potential owners may find this discouraging. But if those few quirks don’t bother you, give the Volvo a try. I enjoyed it and would not hesitate drive an XC60 again.

A comfortable place to while away the miles.

Even the column-stalks have quirky designs, but they work really well once you figure out how some of the functions work.

Have you ever wandered around a car show, looking at all the cool cars, wishing that you could be one of the judges? That you could help determine who gets to take home those shiny trophies? I recently had that honour, and I’m here to tell you- it’s not as easy as it looks.

Recently, The Thing About Cars was contacted by the organisers of the Mountain City Mayhem Festival, who invited us to provide a judge for the festival’s car show. After some discussion among the TTAC team, it became apparent that I was the only one who was available that day. So I volunteered, eager to add show-judging to my growing list of automotive experiences. Look at a bunch of cars and evaluate them in a competition? This should be fun!

The day finally arrived. I had recently done a bunch of electrical work to my trusty BMW mo’orsickle and was eager to road-test that stuff, so I threw a leg over the saddle and told the GPS to take me to the small-town airport where the show was to be. I mention this because I arrived at a car show, noted that some cool cars were present, and found a text message from fellow TTACer Mickey, who said he was by the stage. What stage? There was an EZ-up with a band set-up under it, but Mickey wasn’t near it. After some asking, I learned that I was at the wrong show! A kind person informed me that the show I wanted was on the other side of the airport. Back into my gear, back on the bike, and around the airport. Too bad all those cars weren’t at the same show! Finding the Mountain City Mayhem Festival on the other side of the airport was no problem, although everybody there was so nice that I’m left wondering where the mayhem was. Maybe I should come back after midnight to see it? That will remain a mystery for now.

I found the guy in charge, got the basic rundown, and we had to find the other two judges. Once everybody was there, we got the judging forms and clipboards and were turned loose. There were thirty-five cars to judge, and each needed a form filled out. The form had basic information at the top: the car number, which was found on a slip on the dashboard (or tucked under the seat of the two motorcycles in the show), and fields for make/model and class. The classes were things like Domestic, Import, Truck, Classic, Motorcycle. Then we had to give 1-10 points on body, paint, interiour, engine compartment, and tires/wheels, and then there was one more field for extra points for dual class (e.g. Classic and Domestic) or whatever bonus-points we wanted to assign. I had some fun with that last field.

The first thing I did was to walk up and down the line and just give everything an initial glance so I’d have an idea of the overall field of entries. They ran the gamut from a first-generation Mazda 3 with tired paint and no discernible custom-touches beyond a sticker, to a fully show-worthy 1963 Impala with tons of chrome under the bonnet and custom leather inside. There was an early ’50s GMC truck that was immaculately restored without being over-restored, four or five old Toyota pickups converted into lowriders in desperate need of paint, a Suzuki GSXR 600 that bore some battle-scrapes, an old Dodge truck with faded, patina-ridden paint carefully protected under matte clearcoat, an immaculate ’57 Chevy, and so on- you get the idea.

After my once-over, it was time to get down to business and start filling out 35 forms. Time to start giving one to ten points in six categories, thirty-five times. Anywhere from 210 to 2100 possible points to allocate. How do I do it? The first one seemed easy, then it felt trickier, then as I became aware that I needed to finish them in time for the tallying, it felt like pressure. On top of that, it’s really subjective. REALLY. Subjective enough that I started to envy the concours judges at the prestigious events, because they have solid criteria for originality and authenticity to guide them. On top of that, I needed to try to make it somewhat objective too, so that I could judge fairly. A certain car might not be my personal taste, but it deserved a fair shake. Regardless of style, the owners put a lot of effort into their vehicles. Then there’s the fact that I’ve been a car-nut all my life, which means a certain amount of my own jadedness that I had to be careful with. And how do you fairly judge both a dead-stock car and one that has been highly modified, in the same contest? How do you give everybody a fair chance, especially when some show up with working-class daily drivers and some show up with cars worth more than the guys with the daily drivers make in three or four years? And on top of that, I’m inherently enough of a nice guy that I want to be generous with the points for every car. I know what you’re saying, it’s just a small-town car show that doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. Why get so deep into it? Why? Because I’m a car-nut, and I want to make my fellow car-people happy. In the aforementioned grand scheme of things, this is a hobby for most of the people involved. Hobbies are supposed to be fun. I want everybody to have fun. Therefore, I wish I could make everybody a winner. But it’s a judged show, and I was there to judge. There weren’t enough trophies for everyone. So I had to make choices. It was difficult, but I managed. And on top of that, it was HOT out there, and I had to juggle my clipboard and pen and a big cup of lemonade. The ice melted quickly.

But I got through it, and I’m glad to say that I only overheard one person trying to make me overhear them about bribes. They mentioned dropping some twenties on the ground around their car. I pretended not to hear them and went about my business. There were a few buckets of candy by some of the cars, but I’m trying to watch my sugar-intake so it was lost on me. Nice try, although I wonder if it got more votes from the kids for the Kids Choice Trophy. The few owners with whom I came into contact were very nice, and that’s one of the things I love about being into cars: the people. I can say the same thing about the motorcycling world, but we’re talking about cars here. I’ve had great conversations with people of all socio-economic levels who just plain love their cars. From the guy with whom I worked years ago who felt a close kinship and devotion to his somewhat beat Geo Prizm that had seen him through thick in thin to the guy who brought a truly gorgeous 1963 Ferrari to a recent show, they’re all great people who love to commune with other car-lovers. But back to business.

The people in charge were already tallying when I turned in my forms, and I made a lot more work for them. As it turns out, the other two judges skipped a bunch of cars. I don’t know how, but they did. So I guess that means that my judging was even more influential on who got the trophies. If I had a bigger ego, I’d be proud of that. The tallying got done and the winners were announced. Several people won two trophies, and I’m happy to say that two trophies were decided by children. One was the Kids Choice Award, and the other was the Queen’s Choice Award, given by the Marble Queen and Princess, a high school kid and elementary school kid, respectively. I assume the marble in question was the rock rather than the game, since the local business association had something to do with the festival. The winners were happy with their trophies, everybody had a good time, and the lemonade sure was good. Not a bad day.

So the next time you find yourself at a judged car show, have some sympathy for the judges. It’s hard work.