Our Carey Russ Reports on Western Auto Journalists Driving (FAST) Days at Laguna Seca

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WAJ Media Days Overview

Being that I am an automotive journalist based in Northern California, I'm a member of Western Automotive Journalists (WAJ), a professional organization for automotive journalists based primarily in California, but with members from other areas as well. One of the benefits of membership is Media Days, a two-day event during which a wide variety of cars can be sampled both on local loads and, at higher speeds without damage to one's driver's license at a race track. Most recently, the event has been based in the Monterey,CA area, with the track Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca.

Sponsorship note: I usually ignore sponsor names for venues because all too often corporate sponsorship is done for the benefit of the sponsor, not the entity sponsored.

The case with Mazda at Laguna Seca is different. Mazda is a company of enthusiasts, judging by the employees I've met. Laguna Seca is regarded as one of the finest and most challenging short road courses in the world, with massive elevation change and tricky blind corners like the infamous Corkscrew at the top of the hill. (Aim for the tree and believe…)

It opened in 1957, in the middle of the Fort Ord Army base. Which meant that it could only be sparingly used, originally one or two times a year and later a few more times but never as often as necessary to actually turn a profit. When Fort Ord closed, the surrounding area became a county park -- and a little further off, housing developments.

Upscale, expensive housing, the perfect habitat for people looking for peace and quiet. Yes the track was there first, but you know the story… so Laguna Seca still is limited for race and competition testing dates, and all but a very few of those dates are subject to noise restrictions. As are non-competition events.

Mazda sponsorship was welcomed, and Mazda has put much effort and no doubt money into infrastructure maintenance and development. Mazda also gets to test its cars there, and unsurprisingly they all work very well at the track. Even crossovers, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The first day's street drive was on highways and backroads to the north and south of Monterey, in mostly rainy weather. Fortune smiled on the second day, at the track, as the rain stopped. Following are impressions of the more memorable cars driven.

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2013 Subaru BRZ: After much anticipation, the first fruit of the partnership between Subaru and Toyota is here, and should be in showrooms soon. It's small, light in weight, and has a proper front engine, rear-wheel drive layout with fully-independent suspension. Exterior lines are clean and elegant -- put an Italian designer label on it, charge two or three times the circa-$25,000 base price, and no one would blink before putting down the cash. The engine is a 2.0-liter boxer four, pure Subaru, with Toyota's direct plus port fuel injection system. Its 200 horsepower are developed without a turbo, and drive the rear wheels through a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. This one had the automatic. On the street, nimble and responsive. The best interior I've seen in a Subaru, but as expected in a small 2+2 coupe, the rear seat is more suited as a padded parcel shelf than a place for humans over four feet tall. On the track… wonderfully balanced, plenty quick enough and ultra-responsive. I was disappointed that it was an automatic but shouldn't have been -- in D no shift over-ride was necessary. The chassis can handle more power than the engine makes, and Subaru has plentiful turbo experience, so one has to wonder about development potential. But no complaints as is, and more chassis than engine always beats the opposite. I'll see and drive the Scion (Toyota) equivalent in a few weeks and it will be interesting to compare the two.

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2012 Fiat 500 Abarth: The regular Cinquecento (500) is a stylish and fun small car, but it's not particularly quick. Nothing wrong that a good turbo can't cure, and here it is. Just like the 500 but more so. Tall people fit, in front at least, with no difficulty. With 160 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque from its turbocharged 1.4-liter engine driving the front wheels via a five-speed stick, it's noticeably quicker than the regular 500, and very well balanced. The suspension is only moderately firm, so plenty comfortable for street use. It's a bit soft for serious track use, but no demerits there -- if you want to race or autocross one, make suspension changes. The obvious comparison is to a Mini but the two have very different characters. Think Italian versus English.

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2012 Mini Cooper Coupe: Speaking of which… this is an interesting concept. Toss the rear seat, clean up the aerodynamics, and give it chassis dynamics that make it one of the best-handling front-wheel drive cars ever. Think big shifter kart. Sir Alec Issigonis would be proud. There were two examples available, the 121-hp standard model and 208-hp turbo John Cooper Works (JCW) version. There's a 181-hp turbo S between them. All engines are 1.6 liters. I drove the standard version on the roads north of Monterey, where it was perfect. And although the pavement was poor and the suspension firm, no discomfort and quick reflexes and direct steering. Fun with a capital F and plenty of power for the street. On the track in the JCW, same but turn it up to 11. I took it out twice. In any trim, the Mini Coupe looks to be a unique small sports coupe, with enough luggage space to make it surprisingly practical.

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2012 Volkswagen Golf R: When I drove it at the launch event a month ago, I was hoping that VW would bring the Golf R to Media Days. Thank you very much, VW! I didn't get any street time in it here, but had that previously. On the track, its 256-hp/243 lb-ft turbo 2.0 and six-speed manual could be used more fully. And that made them, and me, happy. As with the Abarth, a realistically-tuned (for the street) suspension was a bit soft for serious track silliness, but if you buy one, you'll likely use it on the street more than the track. And appreciate the comfort. Best GTI derivative yet, and the all-wheel drive system allows all of that power to be used. Lovely car, and as only 5000 are being brought here act early if you're interested.

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2012 Range Rover Evoq: The first Land Rover/Range Rover not designed with serious outback duty in mind, the Evoq is meant for the habitat in which most upscale SUVs and crossovers are found: wealthy cities and suburbs. Monterey and, especially, Carmel qualify quite well. The coupe-like Evoq crossover is the lightest and most fuel-efficient Range Rover ever, with a 240-hp turbocharged and direct-injected 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic giving quick acceleration and EPA ratings of 18 mpg city/28 highway. Full-time all-wheel drive, of course, and all the comforts and technology expected in a Land Rover or Range Rover in three- or five-door form. A rainy day drive on the Monterey Peninsula was perfect. It's every bit a comfortable and luxurious British crossover, a perfect conveyance to high tea and a Range Rover for the real world.

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2012 Jaguar XKR-S: New atop the Jaguar XK line this year is the XKR-S. It builds on the "mere" supercharged XKR with revised fuel mapping and an active exhaust for 550 horsepower and 502 lb-ft of torque from its 5.0-liter V8. 0-60 time is 4.2 seconds, and top speed is limited to 300 kph / 186 mph. On the tight Laguna Seca course it's a not exactly the perfect vehicle as it's large, heavy, and exceedingly powerful, a wonderfully civilized beast. But it's quite competent with a smooth driving style, and with extra louvers and spoilers looks the part of a fierce feline. The first time I drove a modern supercharged Jaguar, the Pink Floyd song "Interstellar Overdrive" played in my head. In the XKR-S, turn it up to 12.

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2013 Lexus GS 350 F-Sport: Step on the loud pedal and this makes very un-Lexuslike sounds. As in a 306-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 with both direct and port fuel injection, driving the rear wheels through a six-speed automatic and with a well-sorted sport suspension tuning. Earlier Lexuses aimed (successfully) at American luxury; this one has its sights on Germany. It goes nicely through the corners, and the stability and traction control systems are now unobtrusive -- which was not the case with a previous GS some years back that would stutter and drop power when coming off Turn 11.

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2012 Mazdaspeed3: Mazda's little hooligan was expected to work well at MRLS and no disappointment. It's mostly civilized, with just enough torque steer to let you know there's far more than just enough torque -- 280 lb-ft worth at 3000 rpm for a fat and useful midrange. 263 hp at 5500 courtesy 2.3 liters of direct-injected turbocharged four-cylinder power. A trick torque management system takes gear position and steering angle to reduce torque steer, and there is much less than before, but the Speed Triple still has more character (in the best possible way) than most cars made today. And of course it works stunningly well at MRLS -- where do you think Mazda did development work?

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2013 Mazda CX-5: The second generation of Mazda's compact crossover is quite a change externally from the original. It's boxier, less coupe-like and more like a mainstream crossover. Or someone pushed the "enlarge" button on the CAD-CAM program after looking at a Mazda3. It's the first Mazda to fully embrace the company's "Skyactiv Technology" philosophy of efficient performance. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine delivers 155 hp at 6000 rpm, with torque peaking at 150 lb-ft at 4000. For efficiency, the compression ratio is 13:1, but it burns unleaded regular, not high-octane race gas. Transmissions are six-speed manual or automatic, with automatics available in all-wheel drive form as well as the standard front-wheel drive. This one was FWD with a stick. An apparently unlikely vehicle for a quick few laps around a race track but appearances can be deceiving -- and are here. In vehicle dynamics the CX-5 can embarrass many a sports sedan or coupe.

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Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR: I went around the track as a passenger to a driver who I trust at "ridiculous speed", and who is much quicker than I am around the track. Partway around the first lap I thought to myself that this car was remarkably quick, capable, and smooth and the best I'd been in up to that point. Half a lap later my driver turned to me and said the same thing. `Nuff said. This is an exceptionally well-balanced and capable piece of machinery.

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2012 Nissan GT-R: It has a reputation as a monster. This one was a 2012 model, so merely 530 hp and 448 lb-ft through a six-speed dual-clutch transmission and all-wheel drive. Merely… I first got the regulation instruction laps as passenger to Nissan's instructor. Nice E-ticket ride… Then it was my turn. This thing is remarkably easy to drive, at least moderately fast. As fast as I cared to go, and at what on the street would be go-directly-to-jail-do-not-pass-go speed. The GT-Rs limits are far about mine. It's massively quick, corners extremely well, stops Right Now, and yet is a very civilized bit of machinery.

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2013 Roush Stage 3 Mustang: This one's the company development car. I don't think it's street-legal. It has pretty much ever bit of kit that Roush offers for the Mustang, and is to a regular Mustang V8 as an F-4 Phantom is to a single-engine Cessna. I say F-4 instead of a more modern fighter because this is not a by-wire electronic showcase, just pure American muscle. 500+ supercharged horsepower, track-ready suspension and brakes, and racing seats with five-point harnesses. I didn't drive it, better I got chauffeured around the track by Jack Roush, Jr. The five-point harness was a Good Thing considering the acceleration, deceleration, and cornering force involved. Price commensurate with how fast you want to go, and that could be upwards of one hundred large. Which would get you somewhere very, very fast. Interestingly, because of the noise regulations at the track, it and its slightly less-radical sister car had stock exhaust systems. Exhaust noise was not detectable outside of the cars. The superchargers, however, could be heard almost all the way around the track. Hey, who brought Andy Granatelli's turbine Indy car?


Point of interest: as quick and violent as this beast was, it doesn't even begin to compare with an ALMS prototype or Indy Car. With Formula One a ways beyond those… If you think that driving a race car is no different than driving your family car, Not Even.

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