The great American road trip. It’s on many an Australian traveller’s bucket list and had long been on mine. I ticked that box recently via a Brady Bunch/Griswoldstyle holiday minus the misadventures. The West family’s month-long holiday in the United States included a week clocking up 1200-plus miles (over 2000 kays) taking in California’s Yosemite National Park, Eastern Sierras and Death Valley, en route to Las Vegas, Nevada and our ultimate destination, the Grand Canyon, in Arizona.
Our travels through America’s western states followed a few days in San Francisco, inclusive of enjoying the 2018 Indycar nale at Sonoma Raceway. Of course, with the journey being just as important as the destination, the choice of vehicle for a car-guy like me was critical. As the editor of a publication with the words muscle car in the title, I was eager for the ‘Griswest family truckster’ to be an Americanbuilt performance car. However, the size of our travelling party – two adults, two long-legged teenage boys and four big suitcases – ruled out readily available two-door rental cars such as the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger. This left a high-performance Dodge Charger model as our only practical option. Fine by me, as I’ve long considered it a travesty Chrysler hadn’t produced modern Chargers for righthand-drive markets. Given the heritage and halo that surrounds the Charger nameplate in Australia, surely any of the hot Charger range (encompassing R/T, SRT, Daytona, Scat or Hellcat models) would nd a willing customer base down under. Encouragingly, several major rental companies’ websites promoted the fourdoor Dodge Charger RT as being readily available, with Avis displaying a big, red and clickable “Reserve” option on its site. That’s all well-and-good in theory, but in practice big rental companies cannot guarantee a speci c vehicle. The use of the phrase “or similar” during the booking process is a pointer to the fact individual rental outlets don’t actually know what cars they will have on-hand when you pick up your rental. Their inventory is too uid to guarantee a particular car. They might not even be able to provide a vehicle from the class/ category, let alone a speci c model supposedly ‘reserved’. Smaller rental companies may offer the guarantee of a speci c model, but require the vehicle to be returned to the pickup location, which we could not do as we wanted to offload the car in Vegas.
Thus, I spent hours pre-trip attempting to secure and guarantee a Charger from Avis’s big downtown San Francisco outlet. My efforts included overseas phone calls, emails and pre-paying to increase the odds of uttering ‘Hey Charger’ when rst sighting my rental car.
Yet, when we lobbed on pick-up day, Avis had allocated me... wait for it... a Nissan Altima! Fair dinkum!
Thus, an ugly Australian tourist – me – was heard to utter words to the effect: “Our bags won’t t in the boot, so I’ll be standing here at
the counter until you nd me a car in which they will.”
Not wanting a SUV, the only model they could offer that had any appeal was a Chevrolet Impala, mostly for the name. It conjured up mental images of 409s, SS badges and the TV shows of my childhood.
Yes, I know... the modern Impala is a world away from my daydreaming and certainly no muscle car, but at least we could tackle our big American road trip in a large American sedan before the genre disappears. Ford already announced it’s ceasing production of sedans and it’s entirely possible the other members of the big three will follow suit.
Truth be known, I was just relieved our bags tted in the boot and the missus was happy. Besides, the initial driving involved negotiating rush hour traffic in a car-clogged foreign city, driving on the opposite side of the road in a LHD car. When you’re in survival model, the model of car is inconsequential.
It was a different story when we cleared the city and was on the open-road, but I found I actually enjoyed the Impala – a big, comfortable American car that nicely tted the stereotype. While not bouncing along like large yank tanks of old, our ride was certainly sprung softer in the rear than the last of the Aussiebuilt equivalents.
The four-hour drive from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park became increasingly scenic and we were soon paying the park entry fee to a felt-hatted ranger straight from central casting. One who didn’t appreciate my joke about Yogi Bear sightings and stolen “picker-nic” baskets.
Yosemite is less about bears and more about towering granite mountains – like El Capitan, an imposing vertical rock formation that towers a kilometre from its base. Yosemite is also about giant Sequoia conifers, with the odd plunging waterfall thrown in for good measure – if you lob in spring and early summer when the snows melts. We visited in fall (autumn) so there was little water spilling over, but this detracted little from a spot that lives up to the hype. We spent a day-and-ahalf in Yosmite, which was enough the see the main sights and sites, for those not undertaking walking treks.
The 100km stretch of the Tiogo Road that crosses Yosemite NP – and therefore the mountain range – from east to west is a magni cent drivers’ road. It’s the highest sealed road in the state of California, with a different stunning vista around virtually each of its thousand or so bends. Magic!
The Impala handled the twists and turns remarkably well. It wasn’t until we hit this winding mountain road that, courtesy of its steering dynamics, it dawned on me that it was frontwheel drive. It wouldn’t be its only surprise. And I’m not referring to nding a bowling alley with its own locally-acclaimed steak restaurant after this second day on the road.
Death Valley and 40 degree-plus temperatures awaited us the following day in the aptly-named Furness Creek, ahead of negotiating the maniacs on Vegas’s freeways at the end of a six-hour driving day.
Hitting the road the next day our destination was Tusayan, the gateway town to the Grand Canyon National Park, four hours driving time east of Las Vegas. The canyon’s southern rim is the tourist hub with an extensive system of shuttle buses the only way to reach the prime viewing spots.
The Grand Canyon is everything you could hope for and more – just make sure you book well in advance. The lodges within the NP are booked out at least six months in advance. Tusayan hotels, 10 minutes drive outside the park, also need to be booked in advance, otherwise you’ll have to stay about an hour away.
We retraced our steps back to Vegas, with the speed limit 75mph (120.7km/h) for about half of the four-hour journey. Lost Wages was where we offloaded the Impala... at the Excalibur Casino on The Strip, strategically chosen for its Avis counter.
The mighty Silver Ice Metallic-coloured Chevy proved an ideal, surefooted and unstressed interstate cruiser. Although built for comfort and far from a rocketship, it proved a surprising performer. At least in the sense that when I Googled the capacity of the Impala’s six-cylinder engine I was stunned to nd out that our LT model was actually tted with a 2.5-litre normallyaspirated