For many drivers, California’s iconic Pacific Coast Highway is a dream, a genuine trip of a lifetime. There’s universal agreement that the route offers natural beauty and a sense of freedom that will live forever in the memory. You’ll struggle to find much consensus, though, on one key element: which direction to drive it. Some say north is the way to go, with the scenery becoming increasingly dramatic the further you travel. Others argue that heading south is more fulfilling due to the closer proximity to the Pacific Ocean and greater opportunity to stop and enjoy the spectacular views.
The solution, if possible, is to maximize the experience by doing both—and in the new Mazda3 hatchback and sedan, we have the perfect transportation for doing just that. Our journey north, in the hatchback, begins in Santa Barbara. Wedged between the ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, the city delivers classic California scenes at every turn—outdoor exercise classes of buff-bodied millennials with laser-white smiles, dog walkers out for a stroll with their charges, and ubiquitous palm trees.
But it’s in the city’s arty Funk Zone that our car feels most at home. Driving around, we’re conscious of the admiring glances the hatchback attracts: under the mid-morning sun the sporty silhouette and ever-changing reflections on the Soul Red Crystal Metallic bodywork make it an eye-catching presence on the road.
Despite the Funk Zone being labored with such a lumpy name—some say it’s a legacy of the “funky” smell associated with its fish processing past—it is an unapologetically fashionable area with an array of boutiques and eateries. Brian Garwood, co-owner of the Blue Door, a business that specializes in mid-century furniture and décor, believes the Funk Zone is changing the somewhat serene perception of Santa Barbara.
“There are some really excellent independently owned restaurants and wineries here,” he explains. “It’s a much more hip area than you’ll find elsewhere in the city.” Following a brief drive to Stearns Wharf to see the city’s famous pier, which was built in 1872, badly damaged by fire in 1998, and rebuilt by 2000 (at a cost of $13.5 million), we head out of Santa Barbara and on to the open road.
As we leave the city, State Route 1—aka Highway 1—skirts the gorgeous coastline, and the incomparable vastness of the ocean and beguiling views are a taste of the magnificence that lies in store. It’s our first opportunity to really stretch the Mazda3 and it adds to the exhilaration by proving so joyful to drive.
The pin-sharp throttle response sees us gain speed effortlessly, while the superb driving position—the seat was developed as part of Mazda’s new Skyactiv-Vehicle Architecture—really does make us feel connected to the car in a manner that somehow complements that sense of endless freedom the surroundings inspire. With the beauty of the landscape creating such positive vibes, it seems an appropriate time to soundtrack our adventure. There’s no shortage of Golden State-themed songs to listen to, courtesy of the carefully curated playlist on my iPhone®, so I connect to Apple CarPlay® and select tunes on the 8.8-inch screen via the rotary controller.
Our Mazda3’s impressive new tech really makes the playlist come to life. The audio system’s speaker layout delivers supreme clarity and there’s barely any road or wind noise to spoil the ambience. I’ve never been a big fan of The Mamas & The Papas, but for the first time I begin to understand the appeal of their biggest hit, “California Dreamin’”…
The majesty of Highway 1 is undeniable, but there is also fun to be had in some of the diversions en route, and so it is we find ourselves heading down the Jalama Road, a 14-mile collection of bends amid oak-tree-spotted hills leading to Jalama Beach. Although the destination is a famous surfing spot and feels like a charming advertisement for beleaguered city types seeking a simpler way of life, it’s the journey that makes this a detour to relish. The constant twists and turns should be a stern test for our Mazda3, but it positively thrives in this environment with plenty of cornering grip and excellent body control. Ally that to just the right amount of feedback from the steering and each bend becomes a genuine pleasure to tackle. And even though the road surface isn’t the smoothest, the car is remarkably composed over any imperfections.
Leaving Jalama behind, we continue north on Highway 1 past Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo towards Morro Bay and the renowned Morro Rock. This remnant of an extinct volcano is often hailed as the Gibraltar of the Pacific, but in reality, the picturesque bay that surrounds it, with an abundance of wildlife including sea otters and peregrine falcons, makes the analogy seem misplaced.
While the first day of our road trip has lived up to every expectation, day two promises what for many is the headline act of the PCH: Big Sur. As the miles pass, the ocean spreads out before us on the left, while on the right, sharp inclines hug the road. Some are peppered with flowering ice plants, creating the effect of a virtual red carpet to give our journey a suitably regal feel. Every stop brings something new to savor.
We see condors and vultures circling, contemplating their next meal, and we stand transfixed watching herds of seals on menacing-looking rocks and marvel at sweeping waves battering into alluring inlets at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. We decide to take a detour and head to the redwoods through the heavily forested Palo Colorado Road, which brings uncomfortable flashbacks of The Blair Witch Project. The shadowy route through dramatic, towering trees and run-down log cabins make us relieved to be enveloped in the reassuring comfort of the Mazda3, with its exquisite stitched leather upholstery.
Monterey feels like a suitable place to swap over to the elegant Mazda3 sedan that will be our wheels for the journey south. The smart, well-heeled city has an enviable location on the Monterey Peninsula, where a cluster of golf courses of championship pedigree, including Pebble Beach and Cypress Point, make it an essential destination for golfers across the world. As we park and go to investigate, the handsome sedan cuts an attractive figure among the lavish vehicles of those locals lucky enough to be playing a round.
While the courses are undoubtedly challenging, what elevates their status further is the sheer rugged beauty of the coastline which they cling to so tightly. But the wonder of Monterey Bay is perhaps best observed by driving around Ocean View Boulevard—where, naturally, there is another golf course, Pacific Grove—and taking in the wealth of activities going on at any one time.
Out in the ocean an army of fishing boats bob about scouting for squid, on the shoreline marine biologists study tagged sea otters, on the road a steady stream of joggers and cyclists get their daily dose of exercise, and in the background the golfers soldier on. This part of the world is clearly loved by its natives. Nobody is in a hurry here, and can you blame them?
Our time is not limitless, though, and we head south towards the Pacific Coast Highway’s most recognizable landmark, the Bixby Creek Bridge. As we power towards it, we see that the sedan’s focus on elegant styling doesn’t mean it can’t be driven spiritedly. It has the same eagerness to rev as the hatchback, while the Skyactiv-Drive automatic transmission shifts through the gears seamlessly.
Despite its status as a perennial Instagram favorite, the bridge’s impact is not lessened by its familiarity, as is clear from the hordes of day-trippers who have stopped to take pictures and admire its meticulous arched construction 260 feet above Bixby Creek. While traversing such a forbidding canyon provides a genuine thrill, we double back once we’ve made it across to join the throng. We’ve been fortunate on our trip not to encounter too much in the way of traffic, but the Bixby is one spot where plenty of people are likely, so patience pays if you’re after the perfect photograph.
Yet there’s perhaps more satisfaction to be had by simply breathing deeply and taking it all in; the amazing engineering of the bridge, the gently lapping water, and, if you’re lucky, a Pacific sunset that will provide lifelong memories. As I savor the moment, a like-minded individual beside me says: “You know, we’ve got a lot of problems in this country at the moment. But places like this make you forget them.” It’s hard to think of a more appropriate sentiment.
Our concluding day on the road sees us heading back towards Santa Barbara, but there’s one last minor detour in the shape of the Painted Cave Road, a 5.5-mile route of blind turns and switchbacks snaking up the Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park that affords glorious views of our final destination and the greenery that surrounds it. The sheer number of corners means it’s potentially another tricky challenge for the Mazda3, but the sedan is eager to help me courtesy of its G-Vectoring Control Plus system, which subtly moves grip to the front wheels at every turn. Each one is negotiated with ease.
As the sun melts away and another wondrous Californian day draws to a close, it seems fitting to stop and reflect on the question we posed at the start of our trip: north or south on the Pacific Coast Highway? There’s a case to be made for both, but the reality is that the sights are so spectacular, the air so clean, and the drive so life-affirming you’ll have no regrets whichever you choose. And the same can be said for the Mazda3 hatchback and sedan that have served us so well. Whatever your preference, and whatever your journey, either will make a wonderful companion.