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Drunk on Driving!

March 22, 2011 · 2 Comments

2011 Western Automotive Journalists Media Days – 80 cars in TWO days!
By: David Ray, www.hookedondriving.com
For: The Wheel

Once a year, there is an incredible event that puts auto manufacturers’ products together for poking, prodding and comparing in a rapid-fire format, with the enquiring minds of automotive journalists from the western U.S.  With two days to experience the cars; the first day is a “ride and drive” on public highways, and the second day (with some slackers taken out of the inventory), tested at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – compliments of Mazda. This is an amazing opportunity to be exposed to many brands and models in a compressed time.  If a car doesn’t make a good first impression, it’s not going to do well at the WAJ Media Days.    And – while there are liabilities with drawing snap conclusions…my guess is that most of them are right on.  With no standard format, this write up will be done highlighting or lowlighting the “personality” of each vehicle I drove – hopefully to give you a flavor of the experience.  And yes, we were on automotive “sensory overload” most of the time….just a little tipsy on too many cars at one time….

Fiat 500 – This car is just CUTE with a capital C.  For many, this is the size that folks wish BMW would have used for the modern Mini. Ah, but the modern Mini is a home run, so no complaints there.  The Fiat 500 somehow has a panache and crispness of style to make you smile.  And hopping in enhances smile into a giggle.  While the interior is very attractive, we must confess to obvious budget-level quality of materials….lots of shiny plastic but very cool too.  Seats are firm and feel excellent – back seat is short trip only….really.  But the car is just fun – zoomy  enough to feel that you’re not in a slug….the engine revs nicely and is more than adequate for a subcompact in this price range.  Fiat 500 – a future home run in the U.S. just like in Europe – ESPECIALLY with the latest gas price jumps.  NOTE: The Toyota exec at the event noted at lunch – Prius sales have jumped back through the roof – almost overnight!

Dodge Charger RT (Hemi) – The winner of the cool factor award, and I still like it, even though it seems to be just a facelift.  I drove this bad boy on the track and it’s a grinner till the brakes start smoking…but that’s not this street car’s fault. Seriously, this beast handles – crisp turn-in and very predictable body roll while not being sharp edged.  REALLY comfy with good seat bolsters as well.  The school bus steering wheel carried over in the new model to my chagrin.

Dodge Charger RT (Hemi)
I’ll add the “gear-head value award” to this car….it’s a lot of car for the scratch.  Maybe not going to give you 150,000 miles of trouble free tire smoke.  But a ton of fun, huge back seat and trunk and big league noise….tough to beat if that’s what you NEED.  I like that this car was not radically changed.

Chrysler 200 Convertible – A short ride had me thinking that the bucket seat I was sitting in felt like a rental car.  It was a beautiful day though and the updated design of the former Sebring is a good next step.

BMW Z4 sDrive 35is
  – Winner: Award for “Nerdiest name”….who thinks these up?  BUT Hold your horses…wait, don’t – these horses, 335 exactly are stashed safely aboard a ROCKET!!  This retractable hardtop two-seater is a SLED!!  After a few throttle punches on Highway 1, in a four lane freeway section, I knew I was jailbait.  This car, once you get used to driving a toucan sized proboscis, is a riot to drive and would have me at Driver’s Anonymous admitting to addiction and feeling unrepentant.  Sweet handling on the track, awesome brakes – yikes….why haven’t we seen a BUNCH of these at Hooked On Driving? 
BMW Z4 sDrive 35is
This car has the potential to really upset the Corvette and Porsche crowd.  Sure wish they still made the coupe for track day use….but that’s the rub of this design.  It’s pretty cool with the top down, but it seems the coupe look just didn’t catch on.  BMW – PLEASE build this car in a more classic and conventional style so you can sell more and we can get them to the track!  One major pet peeve – the guy who designed the paddle push/pull system had lots longer fingers than mine…you have to move your hands around on the steering wheel to operate the wheel mounted shifter paddles….BOO!

Ford Mustang GT 5.0 – what can I say, the dream Mustang.  Yes, it’s more expensive than we’d like, but 60% of the cost of the Corvette, with a back seat and trunk.  The Mustang now has the go to really justify the GT concept…and while I think they went one step too far on the clay model carving exercise, this is a gorgeous coupe to almost any eye…On the track and on the street; this model of Mustang represents the benchmark performance Ford product of the last 30 years.  Yes, they have dolled up special editions at much higher price points…but this is the car to buy.  With some cheap upgrades from many suppliers out there, the Mustang 5.0 is a venerable car that stands up to much higher level completion – with no apologies. Track days?  You bet!  Is she big and tall?  Yes, the dream car would be about 15% smaller than this edition, but we’re not going to bite the hand that feeds us this very sweet hot rod.
 
Lotus Evora
– OK, game over.  This car wins “Best of Show.”  Period.  There hasn’t been a car like this since…um…NEVER.  A comfortable for two, lightweight economical, SPECTACULAR sports car in the Colin Chapman interpretation. I’m old enough to compare it to the Lotus Europa, but I couldn’t fit my feet in the Europa, so this car is cooler.  At $65K, everyone considering a Porsche or Corvette should at least give the Evora a look. 
Lotus Evora
While the Elise and Exige have endeared themselves to the track attack junkies, the Evora opens brave new worlds.  Worlds of real people needing real cars that want to REALLY drive them.  The car is gorgeous (many mistake it for a 458 Ferrari, at least at first glance), has the reliability of a Toyota V6, mid-range torque powerplant, and handles like a go-kart.  Our second lap on the world-class Mazda Raceway circuit found me approaching a Mercedes SLS at a significant speed differential….begrudgingly the finger came out to point us by and I’m still suspicious at which finger was deployed.  I fell in love with this car.  All of the kit car issues of the Elise are gone – great sport seats and no sense of insecurity due to small car syndrome, or rear engine envy.  The car is JUST right.  If you are a sports car nut, especially one considering a jaunt to the track, you MUST include this car in your shopping and test drives.  Hands down, this car is the breakthrough car of the show for this humble journalist/driver/car junkie.

Volvo S60 T6 AWD – Didn’t get to drive this very handsome sedan on the track, but somehow that’s ok.  The S60 and I got along very nicely, thank you.  A beautiful California day, gorgeous scenery, and a car that shows a lot of pride of manufacture. The interior blows away the competition in this segment. Excellent cosmetics and quality of material, winning ergonomics (the “waterfall” center dash tipped toward the driver is state of the art), and space utilization is just excellent.
Volvo S60 T6 AWD
At a price point under $50K, it became apparent to me early in to the drive down the coast that this is a VERY capable competitor to the A4 Audi and 3 series BMW.  With a rapidly spooling turbo five cylinder providing the motivation, I felt that we had more than enough go for a spirited tour of any coast.  Super quiet, maybe too much so for a sport sedan, this car wins the “Best kept secret” award of the event.  I had a long conversation with the manufacturer’s rep from Volvo and I heard a lot of genuine enthusiasm.  With a very capable and savvy Chinese investor who has given the reins of the company back to the Scandinavians, there might just be a winning formula here for the long haul….naughty Volvo?  Maybe not, but definitely not boring!!  One last thing…the next journalist to take this car for a test was a photographer with a ton of gear. He opened the trunk and I saw two things:  A huge cutaway to make it easy to access the space, and a LOT of space! 

Cadillac CTS-V Coupe – If you look in the Webster’s dictionary under “Too much horsepower” you are liable to find this screaming beast amongst other bad actors.  OK – that was the macho introduction to a very special car that is made for a very, very, narrow demographic.  Who can swing the $70K, wants a coupe with a real back seat, likes the wedgy, edgy style, and is willing to be caught in a car designed for the older guys who rule?  Plus – add 550+ horsepower – now we’re asking our demographic to know how to drive!!  This is a tall order.  Alright, I’ll get serious about this serious car.  If you need more than a Corvette, appreciate the American look and feel, and like to make mincemeat out of just about anything on the road, this is the car for you. 
But PLEASE go to Hooked On Driving!  You can get into trouble with this spacecraft in the blink of just one eye.  You either love or don’t this style, but you gotta love the ZR1 powerplant and its product – blinding, linear, neck snapping acceleration.  I drove this supersonic wedge on track for three laps.  It’s a very TALL and tippy, but otherwise sweet handling coupe, but the steering disappointed.  Very vague and slow to respond on turn-in, which was a big surprise.  As a big fan of the entire Corvette line….me thinks the numb steering is a dumbing down of the handling to prevent the driver from learning about a snap spin the hard way.  In the end, a spectacular car by any measure – this IS the car for the “Most interesting man in the world.” Thirsty or not.

Smart Car – This car has been around for a while, but has one of your friends driven one?  I have.  I’ll describe the drive: I started the car and put it into gear, only to have very unpleasant lurching activities beneath me – making me think that there might be a little man in a box shifting manually for me.  I then left the hotel and turned right.  Listened to the moaning powerplant try to join traffic on a modest side street…with effort, it achieves this.  Once at 45 miles per hour, I felt unsafe.  I came to the next stop light, did a U turn and returned to the hotel.  This is not a vehicle that I would recommend.

Roush Mustang 5XR – Yes, I like Roush Mustangs. Once I got over how big these cars are, they became easier to drive.  This car is the equivalent of the old “Stage 3” package, with a Roushcharger (supercharger), major upgrades to brakes and suspension along with the obligatory graphics and loud muffler.  At 101 db on Turn 5 at Laguna, the sound tester was not amused.  But everyone else was smiling.  ;)  The car has a bark that is up there with its bite.  We’d rather have the stiffer track pack suspension on the track, but there is a definite home for this go-wagon at our place.  Take a really good Mustang 5.0 and make it a lot better.  Not a bad business model.

Roush Mustang 5XR
                 Jack Roush, jr. standing next to the Roush Mustang


The WAJ Media Days is a real happening, and I’m lucky to be invited. And yes, I was downright woozy and almost drunk with exhaustion after testing so many cars.  While the audience for this article is not huge in numbers, it seems that folks realize the importance of communicating with influencers in the car world – and you are that.  The cars are the stars of the show, but there is one other aspect that should be noted.  The manufacturers PR executives are out there doing battle on a regular basis. This event is a civilized opportunity for them to co-mingle and shop the competition without shame – as everyone is doing it.  To paint the picture concisely, my final visual from the event as I drove away, was a high level executive from a leading Japanese manufacturer, sitting in the driver’s seat of a Hyundai EQUUS, studying intently, with a frown on his face. 

Whew….Until next year, for another edition of the WAJ Media Days.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Rob Schermerhorn // Mar 23, 2011 at 6:57 AM

    Nicely done David! What a treat to read reviews biased toward the driving enthusiast and track day driver. Is that Jack Jr. standing by the Roush?

    Btw, as a new Mustang owner I think Ford got the styling spot on...
  • 2 David // Mar 23, 2011 at 1:28 PM

    Yes, that's Jack Roush, jr. Current Grand Am GS class Mustang racer.

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