It started out as a lunchtime discussion over tri-tip BBQ back in January. One of the two Suzuki Kizashi models that participated in Motor Trend's "Tokyo to L.A. the Hard Way" 7,000-mile drive would be wrapping up its auto-show duties at the New York International Automobile Show in April. After that, the well-broken-in vehicle needed to get to Suzuki's North American headquarters in Brea, California... eventually.
I suggested to Suzuki's Jeff Holland and Shamit Choksey that Automotive Traveler drive the car back to California--not really knowing what I was letting myself in for. Remember, gas was averaging less than $3.00 a gallon in those good old days. By early May, when I was set to take the wheel, the national average was almost a dollar more, busting the budgets of households and road-trippers from coast to coast.
Things tend to work themselves out though, and the Kizashi drive ended up forming my return trip to SoCal after my Cruze Across America drive.
When first conceiving my itinerary, I thought I'd head from New Jersey to Chicago. There, I could pick up Route 66, following as closely as possible the route taken in one of our recent magazine cover stories. As I mentioned, we were eating tri-tip, so Jeff, Shamit, and I jokingly thought it would be fun to find the best BBQ and sushi along the Mother Road.
By the time my May start date approached, a more direct five-day route was selected. I decided to pick up Route 66 in St. Louis instead.
The return trip west commenced on Thursday 5 May. My golden retriever Savannah positioned herself in the passenger-side foot well of the Kizashi as I left Basking Ridge, New Jersey, heading to Wayne Suzuki to have the car checked out.
I had noticed something out of the ordinary up front--a slight noise that turned out to be the right front wheel bearing. It had been damaged during the Kizashi's drive on Russia's rough roads last fall. Although the problem had been addressed long before I was handed the keys, something still wasn't quite right. Shamit assured me the car had traveled almost 7,000 miles since then and would be okay.
I needed to get home as soon as possible, and with as little damage to my credit card at the gas pump. So, I reset the trip odometer to zero and headed out on I-80 for my first night's destination, Columbus, Ohio. While my Passport iQ combination radar/laser detector/GPS unit said the quickest route would be via I-80 and then I-76 through Akron, having just driven I-80 route, I opted for a shorter route through Harrisburg, Pennsylvania instead, down the I-287 to I-78.
I was familiar with the route, having driven it many times while attending college in southwest Pennsylvania. In Shartlesville, about an hour east of Harrisburg, I took a short pit stop to check out Roadside America, a gigantic miniature train layout that has been a landmark along I-78 (and U.S. 22 before it) since the Thirties.
Getting back in the car, I got a phone call from friend and fellow writer Mark Fletcher telling me of an automotive literature collector in Columbus whom I should visit, as well as a rare Hurst Pontiac Grand Prix located north of the city that I could photograph. First adjustment to the schedule: I decided to meet up with Pete Serio Thursday night, then shoot the Hurst-equipped Grand Prix owned by Mark Beyer the following morning before heading to St. Louis.
Driving west, I started to plot my fuel-stop strategy--with as few stops as possible being the overriding goal. Having topped off the tank in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, I traveled 360 miles to Westerville, Ohio. There, I needed 14 gallons to fill the tank, returning just over 25 m.p.g. in real-world driving, right in the middle of the Kizashi's 29 highway/22 city EPA rating. With a 16.6-gallon tank, I planned to do 400-mile legs between each fuel stop for the duration of the trip. It should be noted that the "Tokyo to L.A. the Hard Way" Suzuki Kizashi was equipped with all-wheel-drive and the CVT transmission.
When I pulled up to his home in Columbus early that evening, Pete Serio extended a warm welcome. I spent the next four hours photographing his literature collection for a future project. Savannah and I then made our way to a newly renovated (and always dog-friendly) Motel 6 north of I-70 to bed down for the night.
The plan for Day Two was simple: Hook up with Mark Beyer north of Columbus in Johnstown, grab some shots of his rare 1972 Hurst-equipped Pontiac Grand Prix SSJ, and head southwest to St. Louis for the night. The "problem" with that plan was soon evident: Mark's Grand Prix is a highly unusual car.
Most Hurst cars from the Sixties to the present day are white or black with gold accents, especially the Hurst/Olds muscle cars. Not Mark's Grand Prix. His was a beautiful shade of blue without much in the way of Hurst accents. Setting it even further apart, even from so many of the collector cars I've photographed over the last decade, were all the options and accessories--some factory installed accessories and some dealer-installed, plus options specific to the Hurst SSJ series.
First, the rare sunroof and full vinyl top. Most Hurst vinyl tops cover just the rear of the roof. Next, on the inside I found an early Delco dealer-installed cassette deck and an early 1970s mobile phone--which is still operational. Sitting on the back seat was a black-and-white portable Sony television along with a battery pack, an option (like the mobile phone) offered by Hurst. Best of all was a period correct Radar Alert radar detector, the precursor from four decades ago of the Passport iQ I was using for this trip. For complete details on the Hurst SSJ package for the Grand Prix, check out the 1972 Hurst SSJ brochure.
The photo session went well, but as there was no one around to drive the Kizashi, I had to give up on the hope of any car-to-car tracking shots. I headed back south to Columbus to pick up I-70, still thinking I could overnight in St. Louis. And then, I called an editor whose publication I've written for before. He loved hearing about the Hurst SSJ and wanted it for an upcoming issue--but he had to have car-to-car shots. Since I was still in the Columbus area, I called Mark to tell him. He got in touch with his wife, who rushed home from work to serve as our camera-car driver.
It worked out well. I got the shots I wanted, but the result was that making St. Louis for the night was wishful thinking. My friend Mark plotted my route west, locating every Motel 6 between Indianapolis and St. Louis. I decided I could make it as far as the Motel 6 in Effington, Illinois, still two hours east of St. Louis.
Facing the long drive of more than 300 miles, much of it at night when I would be tired, I was in a position to appreciate the Kizashi's comfortable seating position. With a seat that could be adjusted to suit my 5-foot-8-inch frame, and a fully adjustable steering wheel, I was able to get quite comfortable. And even though I knew the vehicle had been to hell and back on Motor Trend's "Tokyo to L.A. the Hard Way" journey, the car was surprisingly tight with no rattles.
The high-powered Rockford Fosgate audio system had plenty of punch but lacked an activated satellite-radio tuner. Still, with a flash drive holding more than 1,000 songs and a box of CDs, I was set for the trip. The monotony of the drive was punctuated only by a food stop at a Wendy's in Cloverdale, Indiana, and a fuel stop in Vandalia, Illinois. I calculated that the Kizashi had delivered just over 27 m.p.g. on the leg from Columbus.
I pulled into Effington just after 11:00 local time, exhausted. After feeding Savannah and taking her out for a run at midnight, I was ready for bed. Since I had to be in Oklahoma City before sunset on Saturday 7 May for a photo shoot, I was facing a 600-mile drive that would take between 10 and 11 hours, not including any stops. Calculating that I would have to get out the door no later than 8:00 a.m., I fell soundly asleep.
Coming next: The Suzuki Kizashi on Route 66 and its final journey back to California.
Among the Automotive Traveler team, I probably have the least experience traveling with dogs. Editor Robyn Larson McCarthy is the expert on that subject with her Go Dogs Go! column and Chaucer Sees America site. Convenience and economy were my main criteria on this trip. And, when it comes to dog-friendly accommodations, Motel 6 is the choice of many traveling with pets.
The budget hotel with one of America's most-recognized advertising themes (Tom Bodett's folksy "We'll keep a light on for you") traces its roots through several owners to building contractors William Becker and Paul Green. In 1962, the business partners built the first unit in Santa Barbara, California. After factoring building and operating costs, they decided on a $6-a-night room rate--hence the name.
Today owned by France-based Accor (which operates the similar Formula 1 chain in Europe), Motel 6 continues to offer the lowest rates of any national chain, as low as $29.99 a night in some areas. Although the price comes with a no-frills approach to overnight lodgings, the company has been working since 2009 to upgrade rooms at certain locations across the country.
More than 80 of the chain's 900-plus motels now offer flat-panel televisions, wood floors, granite vanities, and new color schemes. And while some Motel 6 locations charge $2.99 a night for wifi access, the service was complimentary at more than half of the eight motels I stayed at on my two recent cross-country journeys (due in part to local market competition).
If all you need for your U.S. road trip is a clean room in a pet-friendly motel, Motel 6 is a good choice. And if you're looking for a little inspiration, Going6.com highlights more than a dozen American road-trip itineraries.