This summer I joined my German friends Andreas and Josi on a road trip to a wedding in Romania. I knew little about the country, and even less about the bride and groom, but that didn’t matter. I was about to drive some of the greatest roads on earth in one of the Jalop-est new cars I could get my hands on: an all-wheel drive, diesel manual Mazda6 wagon.
It wasn’t brown, and it didn’t have a rear-mounted, air-cooled two-stroke flat-four, but my Soul Red Mazda6 Nakama-Line Kombi press vehicle, with its 2.2-liter Skyactiv-D diesel engine sending power through a six-speed manual to all four-wheels, checked enough boxes to get my Jalop-juices flowing like a torrent.
They don’t sell this version of the Mazda6 or its diesel engine in America (yet, supposedly), and let me tell you, that is a national tragedy.
Die Oberpfalz To Cluj, Romania
With its population of 4,000 propped up mostly by cardboard and glass factories, Weiherhammer sits about an hour east of Nürnberg and a half an hour west of the Czech Republic in an administrative region of Bavaria called “Die Oberpfalz.”
Andreas and Josi drove from the Nürnberg area and arrived in Weiherhammer at about 11 p.m. on Thursday after I had finished writing for the day (Germany is six hours ahead of New York).
They wanted to travel through the night to avoid heavy Autobahn traffic. As I am notoriously bad at staying awake on road trips, especially after a long workday, I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea.
Luckily, all I had to do was man the ship from Weiherhammer to the Austrian border 2.5 hours away, because—as I found out the night of the trip—my U.S. driver’s license is invalid in Austria and Hungary.
So at around midnight, Andreas, Josi and I chucked our bags into the black hole that is the Mazda6 wagon’s enormous rear cargo area, and we were underway.
Under the cover of darkness, the three of us—a German, a Romanian-German and a German-American—snaked the 2017 Mazda6 through rural farm roads and onto the unrestricted Autobahn, where Andreas repeatedly and justifiably made fun of my snail-like driving pace.
Our chariot was about the most bare-bones Mazda6 wagon available, though it did get LED adaptive headlamps, a seven-inch infotainment screen with GPS, an electric park brake, electric folding mirrors, heated seats, a heated steering wheel and all-wheel drive.
The seats were cloth and manually-adjustable, and the engine was the base 148-horsepower diesel, but, still, the car seemed comfortable, there was tons of room inside and that six-speed shifter was a thing of beauty.
Plus, this diesel oozes torque, as you might expect. It’s rated at 280 lb-ft, pretty damn healthy for a car this size.
I eventually got the car to a cruising speed of about 100 mph, and after a couple of hours, we landed at the most crowded rest stop I’d ever seen, where we bought the requisite vignette (highway toll sticker) to enter Austria.
Andreas then took the helm and fatigue quickly turned my body into a limp noodle in the cushy cloth passenger seat. I apparently missed a beautiful view of Vienna as we descended the alps, because—aside from Austria’s ridiculously fancy “ASFiNAG” rest stops—I recall pretty much none of the trip through the country. All I remember is a blurry haze that looked approximately like this:
The good news is that we eventually came upon Budapest, Hungary, where I had organized a meeting with fellow automotive journalist Máté Petrány, who showed us around his beautiful home city in his equally beautiful, modified Autobianchi.
I wouldn’t quite categorize the Italian hot-hatch as “comfortable” for four, but the charm factor was through the roof (like Andreas and Josi’s heads):
Aside from Budapest, much of the drive through Hungary took us through utter emptiness. At least in Germany we saw things like “cities” and “other cars,” but through much of Hungary, we saw nothing. I’m talking Western Kansas-Level, Brain Cell-Depleting nothingness.
Alas, after cruising along at the 81 mph speed limit (and scoring 37 MPG all the while), we eventually made it to the border, where—after an awkward exchange with the guard after I couldn’t initially find the registration in the press car—we cruised into Romania, land of the Dacia Logan, Dacia 1300 series, Chevy Matiz and ARO 240 series.
My American driver’s license was valid in Romania, so as soon as we crossed the border, I took the reins, and after a few hours, we arrived at our hotel in Cluj. It was there at a table, just out front of that hotel, that we met Andreas’s family—a big group of friendly Romanians and Germans, the former of whom I couldn’t understand in the least, and the latter of whom I spoke with in broken German.
We were all there to attend Andreas’s cousin’s wedding, which was held in a stunning Romanian Orthodox Church with tall ceilings, walls covered in paintings, and what I thought was a peculiar absence of seating (apparently this is normal for an orthodox church).
The wedding was something I’ll never forget. Two priests chanted back and forth, walked around swinging incense, while family and friends threw “blessed” candy on the floor of the church for the scores of people standing around the perimeter to pick up (I still have my piece of candy; I will eat it only when I need to harness its blessing powers.
Between that incredible ceremony, the awesome reception, and our short tour of the gorgeous city (which—you wouldn’t know it by looking at it—was actually embroiled in a revolution just 28 years ago), I was almost sad when we left Cluj on Sunday morning.
I say “almost,” because where we were headed was automotive nirvana.
Cluj To Transalpina
From Cluj, we headed deep into the Carpathian mountains, where I took the Mazda6 on what will surely end up being the best roads I ever drive in my lifetime.
Never before have I seen so many switchbacks, so few police officers, so little traffic, and such beautiful scenery all combined into a perfect stew of driving heaven.
Our objective when leaving Cluj was Transfagarasan (which is roughly pronounced “transfa” followed by a bunch of mumbling), the majestic mountain pass that you may recognize from Top Gear as “the best road in the world.”
But we didn’t go there straight away; instead of cruising the most direct route from Cluj (the A1), we were lured in by the beautifully named road, Transalpina, which starts just near Sebes, and runs 83 miles south up and down steep mountainsides, along beautiful lakes and waterfalls, and through thick forests.
Our stretch of the Transalpina—the highest paved road in Romania—ended at Obarsia Lotrului, and though the map says we missed the twistiest parts, that’s hard to believe, because what we drove on was simply astonishing.
Tight curves abounded, traffic was almost non-existent, the road surface was actually fairly decent (better than southeast Michigan), and the views—my god, the views.
The clip above shows some of the typical terrain we encountered on Transalpina (lots of streams, lakes, mountains and woods), and the one below shows why we took the road in the first place. Just gander at the serpentine outline of the road on the Mazda6's seven-inch infotainment screen:
Josi, Andreas and I drove that windy mountain road for hours and hours, eventually finding ourselves in the middle of nowhere as the night fell, with still many miles of euphoric driving ahead.
We continued on until our bodies could go no further, forcing us to turn off of the Transalpina to find a hotel in Sibiu (whose receptionist was nice enough to take us grocery shopping in her Dacia Duster in the middle of the night).
Stopping was a good call, because we would need the energy the next day to tackle a drive so good, it would forever define in our minds what a proper enthusiast’s road really is.
The next day was a dream—one that I wish every Jalop could somehow experience. We woke up from our Airbnb in Sibiu, headed east on the highwaym and then turned south onto Transfagarasan.
Out of our windshield we saw towering mountains ahead as we passed through small farm town after small farm town, each of which had its houses crowding tight against the roadway.
The terrain quickly went from straight and pastoral, to jagged and steep, and the drive quickly transitioned from a cruise into a rollercoaster.
I couldn’t actually recall the Transfagarasan Top Gear episode Andreas had told me about, so I kept wondering how this one famous pass could possibly be better than what we were already driving—the roads leading up to the destination were that good.
And so were the views. Here’s where we stopped on the side of the road to hike up to a waterfall.
Here’s a look up close:
Transfagarasan continued to get better and better, snaking up and down the Carpathians along steep cliffs that seemed to climb endlessly into infinity.
But even though I couldn’t remember that Top Gear episode, once we did finally arrive at the fabled pass, it was immediately apparent to me that we were somewhere special. The place had a powerful aura.
We approached through an enormous valley, with tall mountains flanking our sides, and a steep majestic ridge ahead with dozens of straight lines zig-zagging to the top, above which a beautiful pillow of clouds painted the bright blue sky, animating the green and gray terrain as it shifted in front of the sun.
A herd of cattle and a sounder of pigs roamed in the field below the twisty road, where we couldn’t help but stop to gaze at what almost looked like a portal into heaven. In a lot of ways, it was.
So how was the car?
The Mazda6's torquey diesel roared as I downshifted into second to make the first hairpin, then punched the gas on the way out, and upshifted into third for the short straightaway, only to stab the (very good) brakes again shortly thereafter.
The big all-wheel drive wagon handled the turns well, tending a bit towards understeer, though the traction control stepped in to put an end to anything more than a short tire chirp.
The shifter and clutch were as pleasant to engage as any, and though the car’s 148 HP and 3,400 pound curb weight meant it wasn’t exactly quick, this road was really more about handling prowess than straight-line acceleration, and in that respect, the Mazda6 wagon was good enough to make this amazing road genuinely fun.
Aside from a few times that we ran into traffic, the road never stopped entertaining, making for a vomit-inducing ride for the passengers, but true bliss for the person behind the wheel ascending the steep, serpentine roadway to driving heaven.
After zig-zagging back and forth dozens of times, we reached the top of the pass and stopped at two calm and quiet lakes whose tranquility helped bring me down from the high of that amazing road I had just driven.
Just beyond those lakes was a tunnel through a mountainside, whose exit revealed yet another set of gorgeous roads down below as the Transfagarasan continued to tempt with its twisty lure.
Eventually, after Andreas and I got our fix (Josi decided not to drive the pass), we headed back down into the valley to begin our nearly 14 hour drive back home.
That time on that stretch of Transfagarasan in Romania will forever be etched into my mind as the day I reached peak-Jalop. It was a day that I couldn’t stop thinking about on the (rather uneventful) ride back home to Germany.
The Forbidden Fruit
I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t at least somewhat wish I had a louder, more powerful car for that majestic road. The Mazda6 handled great, but it was a bit too sensible for a road as brash as Transfagarasan; part of me just wanted to terrorize that mountainside with a powerful V8 engine, and huge plumes of full opposite-lock tire smoke. And I will also say that I expected to score better than 37 MPG in a diesel Mazda6; after all, the U.S.-spec gasoline sedan is rated at 35 MPG.
But overall, I thought the wagon was an excellent car for three people with lots of luggage on a long trip in a place where fuel costs over $4 a gallon.
And really, the reason why so many people like the idea of a diesel manual wagon so much is that it’s the pinacle of practicality, likely meeting the needs of 90 percent of drivers on this earth.
The Mazda6 had tons of space, all-wheel drive for better handling in the snow, enough power and torque to accomplish passing maneuvers without drama, decent enough fuel economy, solid handling, and a fantastic shifter.
Plus, there’s just something about that Soul Red paint that looks beautiful no matter how much dirt and dust we drove through, and no matter how many thousands of kilometers of bug-swarms we splattered.
For years, I’ve lusted over Germany’s cornucopia of diesel manual wagons, and after hundreds of miles behind the wheel on the world’s greatest roads I can say: I have tasted the forbidden fruit that is the Mazda6 Diesel Manual all-wheel drive wagon, and it left me yearning for another bite.