The Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most fabled roads in America. Perhaps only Route 66, the Mother Road herself, can conjure up a greater sense of open-road adventure than PCH. Starting in the north at Seattle, Washington, and extending south to San Diego, California, the Coast Highway runs more or less parallel to the country’s jagged western shoreline.
Many enthusiasts relish the thought of driving the Pacific Coast Highway from start to finish, and every year thousands embark on the more than 2000-mile journey by car or motorcycle. Regardless of where you choose to start, the scenery along the way is guaranteed to satisfy all five senses: the endless view of the Pacific Ocean, the smell of redwoods, the taste of fresh seafood, the sound of crashing surf, and the feel of G-forces as the road twists left and right, up and down for miles on end.
As breathtaking and satisfying as it may be to drive the entire PCH in one trip, it can also be a daunting and exhausting undertaking. Of course, there is nothing wrong with driving segments of the highway as time and budgets permit. This approach also allows more time to explore and discover all the treasures that lie just off the beaten path and to take in the majestic beauty of the landscape.
The hardest part of driving a mere segment of the Coast Highway is deciding which stretch of the road to drive. If you find yourself in Monterey in mid-August for the legendary classic car weekend, the decision suddenly becomes much easier. The thirty miles of California Highway 1 between Carmel and Big Sur are some of the most extreme anywhere in the world. In that 30-mile journey, the road will rise from just a few feet to nearly a thousand above the ocean. You will experience heavy fog and brilliant sunshine in the same sitting. Intense wind and immense clam will take turns greeting you on the road. And in every direction you look you will see a different color: the deep blues of the Pacific, the lush greens of the mountainside, the reddish-browns of the prairies, the muted grays and tans of the coastal cliffs.
The highway itself is a fairly smooth ribbon of two-lane tarmac. There aren’t many places to pass slower traffic because there simply aren’t many straights between the corners. And there are plenty of corners. Not just corners either, but banked corners that seem to encourage spirited driving. The swift combination of sweeping lefts and rights, many of which are blinded by sheer rock face, makes for a very entertaining drive, even at legal speeds. The temptation to press harder is always there, especially when the road ahead is clear of traffic; a quick glance over the gaurdrail to the steep dropoff below serves as a strong reality check though. One wrong move, one miscalculation, one ounce of overconfidence could spell disaster.
As much fun as the drive is, at some point you will want to pull off and check out the views. Notable stopping points along the way to Big Sur include Point Lobos State Park, Point Sur Light Station and the Nepenthe restaurant. The peaceful bays at Point Lobos, located just south of Carmel, were once used for whaling, but now serve as a wildlife sanctuary and a great place to spot sea otters, whales, sea lions, and hundreds of birds. The lighthouse station located at the top of Point Sur is visible from several roadside turnouts. Take a minute to ponder what it must have been like to build a small village on the top of a rock in the middle of the ocean over a hundred years ago. And when you need to take a break from the exhilarating drive, stop off for a bite at Nepenthe, located on a steep bluff overlooking the Pacific to the west and the Big Sur coast to the south.
Where you go from this point is up to you. Another hour south is the famous Hearst Castle at San Simeon, and just beyond that is the spot of James Dean’s infamous, fatal crash in his Porsche 550 in 1955. Keep going south and you’ll eventually make your way to Los Angeles. Or head back north along the California coast toward San Francisco and beyond. Better yet, park the car in Big Sur and stay for a while; you won’t regret it a bit.
The Pacific Coast Highway between Carmel and Big Sur is an enjoyable road no matter what you may be driving. But I can tell you first-hand that the right car can change the trip from a simply wonderful experience to a religious one. The “right car” should possess a balance of all the key ingredients: ample power delivery, sure-footed braking, and a responsive chassis. It also helps if the cockpit is up to the task of serious driving, and there are no points deducted for being handsome as well.
The 2004 Volkswagen Jetta GLI fits the bill perfectly. Although more than a decade had passed since its last service, the GLI moniker was dusted off in 2003 for the sport-minded Jetta VR6. For 2004 however, VW decided to reshuffle the GLI package a little bit, bringing the sporty Jetta model more in line with the very popular 2003 GTI 20th Anniversary Edition.
The changes started with the engine, and worked their way to the rest of the car as well. Though the VR6 engine offers more stock horsepower and torque, VW elected to use the venerable 1.8T engine for the ’04 GLI. The turbo four-cylinder is the more popular choice among enthusiasts because of its supreme responsiveness to aftermarket tuning. The standard 180 bhp this engine pumps out can easily surpass the 225 (and the VR6’s 200) mark with a simple engine software revision. That so many owners are willing to risk warranty rejection in favor of the added power and torque is no surprise. Serious performance enthusiasts will find that getting more than 300 bhp out of this engine is merely a matter of money, as several reputable tuners offer turbo, intercooler, and exhaust upgrades.
That wonderful 1.8T engine is mated to a six-speed manual transmission. Still cable-shifted, the actuation of the six-speed tranny feels more precise than other VW manuals of the recent past. The gear ratios are ideal for spirited real-world driving, with sixth-gear only really being necessary for freeway cruising. The 180 horses proved adequate for corner-dashing in the mountain roads along the coast, so long as the correct gear was chosen; another 20 horsepower certainly wouldn’t hurt.
The real magic of the 2004 GLI is in the chassis. At last, VW has given performance enthusiasts a real sport suspension. Not only that, the chassis is connected to the road by a set of 18-inch BBS wheels wearing Michelin Pilot Sport ultra-high-performance tires in the same 225/40-18 size that has been so popular with the aftermarket crowd since the Jetta IV debuted in 1999. Gone is the “off-road” look of past Jettas; the suspension finally centers the wheels perfectly in the fenders and the classic German cross-spoke wheels fill them properly.
The GLI’s suspension not only makes the car look good, it also works exceptionally well. Volkswagen engineers have accomplished the nearly impossible task of striking the ideal balance between ride comfort and handling prowess with this setup. Without a doubt, this is the best sport suspension VW has ever bolted to a Jetta. Even hardcore enthusiasts would be foolish to mess with this harmonious accord. If you absolutely must modify something on this car, don’t go beyond the addition of a rear sway bar, which can help to dial out that last bit of understeer.
The GLI enthusiastically charged at corners whenever traffic allowed. The low-profile tires provided excellent feedback through the steering wheel, inspiring confidence at every turn. High-performance rubber often develops a mind of its own, following surface imperfections at will; the GLI never exhibited this behavior. Minor inputs at the steering wheel were rewarded by small corrections on the road. The car simply went where it was directed to go.
Power and handling are good, but when you are hustling through chicanes with the chance of falling rock on one side and falling off the edge on the other, you also want to know you can stop in a hurry if the need arises. To that end VW has fitted the GLI with the massive 312mm vented front rotors from the Audi TT 225. The rear rotors are an inch larger in diameter than those found on other Jettas, and are vented rather than solid for additional cooling. The brakes offer great pedal feel, and lack the sensation of over-assistance that is common in other Mk IV-platform models. Combined with ABS, this setup inspired assurance in the challenging conditions of the Coast Highway.
The cockpit is dressed for business. Most impressive is the pair of Recaro sport seats up front. With deeper bolsters and a more contoured shape, these seats are a classy and functional upgrade over the standard Jetta sport seats. Cloth upholstery is the only option for the GLI, but the simple black fabric with silver pinstripes recalls the simplicity of earlier Jetta GLIs. The red GLI logo embroidered into each of the seats adds a bit of flair and sophistication. On the road, the Recaros served perfectly, keeping us planted in the twisties and comfortable on the longer stretches of traffic returning to San Francisco.
The view from the driver’s seat is a visual feast. The vast blackness of the cabin is broken up with aluminum accents throughout. Silver rings encircle the instruments, alloy strips accent the door panels, the pedals are a functional combination of aluminum and rubber, and the aluminum shift knob is capped in black leather. Red stitching adds contrast to the leather shift boot, park brake lever and steering wheel cover. The steering wheel itself is the traditional three-spoke number with a thick grip. Nice, but not quite as nice as the king of all steering wheels, the one found in the R32.
The rest of the interior of the 2004 GLI truly recalls the best days of the second-generation Jetta GLI. The headliner and door pillars are trimmed in black fabric. There is even an MFA multi-function gauge integrated into the center of the instrument cluster. Thankfully the stereo is better than in old Jettas, with a standard AM/FM/CD player connected to eight speakers with integrated subwoofer thanks to the Monsoon audio system.
The trunk is everything we have come to expect from a Jetta: large and rectangular. It easily swallowed all the luggage my wife and I brought along for a week’s stay in California. Had we needed more space, the rear seats could have been folded down for additional storage.
The most obvious differences between a 2003 GLI and the 2004 model can be spotted on the outside. The ’04 version sports a subtle but aggressive body kit, including a lower front valence, deeper side skirts, and an extended rear valence, all painted to match the body. There is no trunk spoiler, though all Jettas received an updated trunk lid with a bit of an integrated spoiler for 2004.
Also common to all 2004 Jettas are the chrome accent strips on the sides and bumpers. Though somewhat controversial at first, the chrome accents effectively update this aging model. So as not to over-do the shiny, happy treatment, the GLI gets a more menacing face by sporting black-trimmed headlight housings, which also include integrated foglights. Tasteful GLI badges adorn the grille and trunk lid to round out the visual theme.
The combination of its appropriate stance, classic wheels and subtle body kit drew nods of admiration and words of encouragement throughout my time with the car. I don’t think the Tornado Red paint job was a setback either; you simply can’t miss this car coming down the road. The most common remark I heard was something like, “Hey, I like what you did with that car. What exactly did you do to it?” Most were utterly amazed when I told them the car was completely stock from the factory. Hats off to Volkswagen for a job well done!
As my week in California drew to an end, so did my time with the little red GLI. We packed it up for one last run up the coast. I couldn’t help but think the Pacific Coast Highway has inspired cars like the 2004 Jetta GLI. The two were simply made for each other.
If you have ever considered driving the Pacific Coast Highway, just do it! But before you head out down the road, do a little research. There are numerous books about this magical road. A fairly new one is Pacific Coast Highway by Nick Freeth.
Mr. Freeth, who also authored a book on Route 66, has compiled all of the highlights of a trans-coastal trip, starting in Seattle and moving south all the way into Tijuana, Mexico. The book is full of color pictures depicting local points of interest along the way. Pacific Coast Highway also features historical insight into the highway and the communities it passes through.
One of the great features of this book is that the author has broken the 2066 miles into various segments. Those who may be considering driving only a portion of the highway can use his suggested segments to get the most out of their visit. Those considering taking the whole trip will like find this feature helpful as well.
For anyone who has ever taken the journey, or just dreams about it, Freeth’s Pacific Coast Highway will be a favorite.
Pacific Coast Highway, by Nick Freeth. $29.95, distributed by MBI Publishing Company.
Available in bookstores everywhere, through Classic Motorbooks at (800) 826-6600, or online at www.motorbooks.com
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