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Starting Line: Driving in L.A.

I will never forget my first trip to Los Angeles. I was a small-town boy in just my mid-20s. This was back in the mid-1980s, and I stayed in the wrong part of Long Beach since it was cheap. My loaner for the week was a new Acura Legend coupe.

I got lost. I didn’t know to expect such horrendous traffic. I felt as if everyone was sizing me up. The smog was real, not just the media’s exaggeration.

Over the decades I have gotten comfortable navigating in and around L.A, and I’m happy to see the sky clear up. The traffic is still unrelenting, though.

Once, I was trying to make the 37-mile drive from Hermosa Beach to Jay Leno’s shop in Burbank. Okay, so it was rush hour, which in L.A. is all the time. This seemingly simple trek took nearly 3 hours. Nice guy that he is, Leno waited for me.

The 405 near LAX can be the worst. I have experienced jams there at midnight.

Despite 30 years of figuring out the L.A. Basin, driving there is still a special experience that takes a special car. One of the perks of the area is the ability to borrow a car from manufacturers’ press fleets, and I go about picking my car carefully.

First, you need something with power. In this case, power adds safety. Being able to merge quickly can keep you out of a lot of scrapes.

I like something that handles well, too. Sometimes you have to make quick lane changes, more often than not due to the speed disparity. You regularly see worn-out work trucks trudging down the freeway. At the same time, you have people who think they own the road, blasting away at 80-plus mph and weaving through traffic. Then there’s the tourists, creeping along at 10 under. And, of course, tailgating is a way of life in and around L.A.

However, I’d be willing to trade some lateral g-loads for a comfortable ride. Despite their reputation to the contrary, L.A. roads are really, really rough and largely worn. In fact, I would say that some of them are as bad as those in the Midwest–and L.A. doesn’t have the wide temperature swings. The problem isn’t the weather, though; it’s the overuse.

Sure, we all love our sticky, low-profile tires wrapped around beautiful aluminum wheels. When crashing into a pothole at 70 mph, though, those 35-series tires don’t always feel so wonderful.

In L.A., you also need a car with great brakes. For absolutely no apparent reason, traffic there can go from highway speeds to a complete stop–instantly.

Size matters, too. Parking in the city is a bitch.

While I enjoy expensive, flashy cars, in L.A. they are not the ticket. Sure, when you pull up in a bright-yellow Porsche Boxster–as I did this last trip–the car-crazy locals notice, but so do the haters and the thieves. Statistically, the area is a dangerous place to have a nice car. I confirmed with my friends at Hagerty Insurance: The Los Angeles area has more than its fair share of insurance claims.

One last factor is fuel efficiency. L.A. in particular and California in general always have some of the most expensive fuel in the country. At the same time, the highest octane you can find is just 91.

So what cars do I like to drive when visiting Los Angeles? I have fond memories of a particular Isuzu I-Mark. The year was 1989, and Isuzu was a real part of our scene. This particular model–call it their GTI fighter–had the twin-cam engine and Lotus-tuned suspension. It was light on its feet, could stop with the best of them, and scamped away from a standstill with some authority.

During a 2001 visit, I borrowed a Mustang Bullitt. Yeah, I know, a little flashy, but it was certainly fun. It was also quick enough. That BMW 6 Series convertible was another beautiful cruiser, but looking back, it was also probably a bit too showy.

That recent Porsche Boxster was pretty damned sweet. Okay, so it wasn’t too modest. It sure had the power and brakes, though. Surprisingly, and despite otherworldly handling, the ride quality was quite good.

The one near the top? I think it would be the Mazdaspeed3 that I borrowed last year. The ride quality was decent, yet it had monstrous power and nimble handling. It was also fairly discreet and easy to park.

The hatchback body provided a lot of storage room as well as space for more than one passenger.

What’s your favorite urban assault vehicle? Do you prefer something that squirts through traffic, or is large and in charge your preference?

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