WAJ Test Days Overview: So Many Cars, So Little Time.
By Carey Russ
My local automotive press association, Western Automotive Journalists, recently had its annual test days. As has been done the past few years, it was a two-day event, with one day of driving on roads near Hollister, California or off-road driving at Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreational Area (SVRA) and a second day on the track at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, near Monterey. It was an interesting opportunity to sample a wide variety of cars both on relatively untraveled rural roads and at higher speeds on the track.
With upwards of 70 cars for the street driving, 20 for off-road, and 40 for the track there seemed to be plenty from which to choose. With 50 or so fellow journalists attending, there was also plenty of competition for the more desirable vehicles. I chose cars with an eye toward ones that I would be reviewing in coming months, and also anything new, different, or interesting. Or, sometimes, I took whatever was available at the moment.
At the start of day one, we were to drive the street driving cars and trucks from the hotel in Monterey to the ride and drive base in the Hollister SVRA. I told myself "no big vehicles", and then saw the Dodge Sprinter Plug-In Hybrid. Interesting... so far there hasn't been a Sprinter in the press fleet, but a friend who collects and rides vintage motorcycles bought one a year and a half ago. It's a perfect vehicle for that, as it will hold three full-size bikes easily - and securely, inside and locked - and loading and unloading is a snap with the high ceiling. No need to watch your head! Plus, with the standard five-cylinder turbodiesel, 22 mpg except when hauling a heavy trailer. And a turning circle smaller than that of many sedans.
So much for "no large vehicles". Like many other current hybrids, this Sprinter operates on internal combustion, a mix of internal combustion, or pure electric power. The "plug-in" refers to its ability to charge its battery pack by being plugged into a regular power outlet as well as by regenerative braking and direct generation by the diesel. This allows it to operate in all-electric mode more, especially in low-speed city delivery driving - which is its design spec. Currently, the experimental Sprinter hybrid can go a maximum of 20 miles at low speeds on electric power.
And it silently, electrically, eased its way out of the hotel parking lot and onto city streets. As soon as we got on the freeway, it was back to diesel power, with a seamless transition. Off the freeway, back to electric on level ground - but there is precious little of that where we were. Driving it was pretty much like driving a regular Sprinter, not at all difficult, even on the rather narrow and twisted road into the Hollister SVRA. NVH levels were higher than in a car, or the standard Sprinter, and since this was an experimental vehicle it was not as refined as a production vehicle. Still, very impressive. Don't expect a production version of the hybrid any time soon, but if you're in the market for a full-size van, the Sprinter is hard to top.
In the interest of space, I'll combine my impressions of the track and street cars. Many were present in both venues, anyway. Street driving was at a sane, keep-my-license-but-have-fun pace. Track driving was not an attempt at breaking lap records. It provided an opportunity to push the cars a little harder than would be prudent on the street, but nowhere near their, or my, limits. Six or seven-tenths at most. "Drive it like you own it", not "drive it like you stole it". In order to drive more cars, I passed on the off-road part of the program.
Most pleasant surprise? The 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS. It's no secret that Mitsubishi has been in dire straits lately, but with new products like this they have a very good chance for a strong turnaround. Big fun, small price, what's not to like? New engines and an Evo are coming, and interesting new technology including, according to the PR representative present, a German double-clutch paddle-shift manual gearbox. Stay tuned.
The three most fun form me, regardless of venue? A tie between the Volkswagen GTI 4-door, the Mazdaspeed3, and the Honda Civic Si 4-door. Why? Bang for the buck - all three provide an entertaining driving experience, useful interior space, should have reasonable operating costs, and attainable prices. They differ in many ways, among them power delivery, chassis tuning, and interior layout, but all are a hoot and a half to drive, anywhere. For torque and midrange, see the GTI and Mazda. For screaming top-end (and a healthy midrange) it's the Honda. Interestingly, the Mazdaspeed3 seemed a little soft on the road, but was the pick of the litter on the track. Maybe that's not so surprising - it's Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca these days and Mazda does a lot of testing and development there. Including development and suspension tuning for the Mazdaspeed 3....
Honorable mention to the new Mini Cooper S, still the closest thing to a shifter kart that's street-legal. It's just a little smaller than my top three, and with more focus on sport it's really a serious small sports car disguised as a hatchback - very much in the same vein as the original Mini Cooper S of 45 years ago.
Also an honorable mention for the Nissan SE-R Spec V. It lives up to everything implied by its name. 200 horsepower, a six-speed manual gearbox, and sport suspension, plus appropriate interior improvements over the regular Sentra, are just what was needed. As a bonus, it's much more refined than the previous car to bear the name.
In the unlimited-price category, the Audi S6 and BMW M6 are both V10-powered supercars in disguise and seriously fast. I'd give the nod to the Audi as its DSG gearbox is much more pleasant than the BMW's SMG, but, as the saying goes, your mileage may differ. Both are high-tech, low-flying executive jets.
Both varieties of the new BMW 3-Series convertible were available, and I availed back-to-back. Top-up it was hard to tell that I wasn't in a coupe. Yes, the twin-turbo 335 has significantly more power - it's right up there with the now previous-generation M3 - but the 328 is no slouch, and like any good, Autobahn-bred German car, seriously overqualified for life on American roads.
Significant improvements have been made to the new Audi TT. The improved chassis stiffness paid off in reduced flex and improved handling response. The 3.2-liter V6, matched to the DSG gearbox and quattro all-wheel drive made for a lovely combination on the road or on the track. No longer can the TT be considered to be "almost" a sports car, it's as good at the mission as any other even if it is a bit different.
I'd already had the Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT Spec B as a test car, and did my track driving test in it. Hey, it was early in the morning, the pavement was damp, and I wanted something relatively moderate but with good traction. Later, I took it out for a couple of laps. Yes, it's softer than a WRX or STi, and so less of a track car. But it's still capable, and far more comfortable for everyday use. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, it's a WRX for grownups.
Besides the GTI four-door, Volkswagen also had a 3.2-liter V6-powered Eos in both venues. It's more sporty than sports, and the trick convertible hardtop with integrated moonroof adds significant weight high and to the rear, but it acquitted itself well. After a couple of laps around Laguna, the VW PR guy in attendance asked me how it felt. "Like a GTI with a couple of bodies in the trunk," I replied. Meaning, similar in character - high praise indeed - but even though it's heavier and softer and more comfort-oriented it's still a car for driving, not merely top-down cruising.
When it debuted a few years back, the Infiniti G35 signaled a renaissance for Nissan's luxury division. I last drove one of the originals a year ago, after the new model had been announced. It was still a most pleasant and capable car, and the closest any Japanese manufacturer had ever come to BMW in chassis and engine specification and refinement. The new one is the same, only even better. And I thought the original would be hard to improve on.
For my first drive on the track, I wanted a car that was well-behaved, with spirited, balanced power. The Acura TL Type S beckoned. It served well on a damp track, and helped me get into the groove. In Acura parlance, "Type S" is relatively milder and more comfort-oriented than "Type R", but still sporty. That fit the TL well. It's a fine sporty touring car, with plenty of power and refinement.
All in all, it was a pleasant and informative experience with a good group of cars. There were some high-performance machines that never seemed to be available when I was, and some high-dollar exotics for street driving that failed to excite my rather proletarian tastes. I'm impressed with the abilities of the cars that are available and attainable today. Which would I have liked to have taken home and kept? The GTI, Mazdaspeed3, or Civic Si. Flip a coin, there are no losers in that group.