Driving impressions from the MAMA Spring Rally
Track testing a car is one of the true joys of the job, but winding out 10 cars in one morning makes for a special day indeed.
And that’s just what we had the chance to do this week at one of America’s premiere regional events for auto journalists. Each year the Midwest Automotive Media Association holds its Spring Rally at one of the most impressive tracks in the country: Road America.
With over 90 different cars available to test, at least two dozen were available to be evaluated on the impressive and intimidating 4.048 mile track. Here are a few initial impressions from 10 different cars we were able to test, ranging from a Mazda3 to a Mercedes E63 AMG.
Ford Focus ST
Toss it into a corner and the feeling is unlike any front wheel drive car. Immediately it’s like you’re sideways in a rear-wheel drive drift. It’s a bit unnerving at first, but just remember it’s a front-driver, hammer on the throttle and it pulls you out of the corner. At a big track like Road America, however, it isn’t long before the Focus ST feels like it was running out of steam once the revs start to rise, and with 252 hp total, it’s unsuitably equipped for this track.
Hyundai Genesis Coupe 3.8
Wow this thing is fast! After hopping out of the Focus this naturally aspirated V6 pulls impressively and never feels wanting for power. And the engine just loves to rev freely. Hyundai often gets critiqued for making products that have only skin-deep beauty, but this engine is some serious engineering – and sounds as good too.
Besides the terrible location of things like the window controls on the doors, the cabin is great and makes you feel like you’re in a real sports car. Unfortunately the brakes aren’t really up to Road America standards and the Genesis’ six-speed manual really does have to be one of the worst stick-shifts available on the market. That 3-2 downshift just doesn’t want to happen.
Mercedes E63 AMG Wagon
“Holly sh*t balls”. . . is exactly what I said punching the throttle after turn one in the 550 hp station wagon. And down the back straight it did 140 mph!
In the corners you do feel the weight of this big car, but you don’t feel the wagon. You’d never know this was a machine built for families. Oh, and it sounds spectacular. When it’s not letting out a massive grunt shifting up between gears, the spooling turbos amplify the sensation of speed as you blast out of each and every corner.
Mercedes CLA45 AMG
It feels reasonably fast.
The only reason I’m not blown away by the CLA45′s power is that I just got out of the E63. The fact that anything still feels fast after that car is a testament to the CLA’s capability. In fact the CLA is deceptively fast because at speed it retains a high-level of Mercedes refinement. It’s not the sort of car where you feel the front tires are pulling you out of a corner or that the rears are pushing you through; it all just seems to work together to make sure you don’t know what’s going on, other than the fact that you’re going fast, effortlessly. Yes, it’s a true AMG.
If this were an auto-x or even a smaller track, I’d say great things about the Mazda3. And to be fair I have nothing bad to say about it, it’s just that a world-class high-speed racetrack is really no place for a compact hatchback with 184 hp. No matter how you slice it, it’s got more body roll than I remember, especially after getting out of a long list of stiffly sprung sports cars. I never noticed it before but the 2.5L engine doesn’t rev all that high. With peak power coming on at 5700 rpm it’s not all that exciting to ring out either. The nice thing is car really is very predictable and controllable at the limit.
If we all drove cars like this there would be no hate in the world. We’d all just go around with a grin on our face as big as the Miata’s front grille. Big tracks have a way of making even powerful cars just feel OK, but even at Road America the MX-5 feels plenty fun. And that fun can make up for a lot a discrepancy of speed.
With just 167 hp it still gets into third gear quickly and while the Miata is known as a “momentum car” it’s amazing handling makes keeping the momentum up easy.
You really feel like you’re driving the car, not some modern electronics. There’s a feel, and sound, to moving the shifter through the gates and the thin rimmed steering wheel is a classic touch that’s far removed from the big beefy steering wheels on modern sports car. With the MX-5 you also feel like you are the car’s center, and during a quick chicane it’s easy to feel and see the hood dropping under braking and popping back up once you apply the throttle.
Nissan Juke NISMO
The only car making more noise from its tires on the track was the Bentley, being professionally drifted around in a true display of hoonage by a pro driver. Apart from that, it was rather forgettable. For a crossover, sure, it’s plenty fun, but in a field of sports cars and hot hatches… move along kids.
Nissan 370Z NISMO
No, it’s not the super-new 2015 model, but driving the older 2014 370Z NISMO is sweet. It looks track ready and it delivers. It’s like a dialed-in Genesis Coupe that delivers the power but with everything else sorted out too – including the gearbox with short and precise shifts. Plus, the SynchroRev match feature means you can get the most out of your lap. Sadly, many interior bits are antiquated at best and the digital displays have GameBoy graphics.
The steering is a lot twitchier than I remember. Still, the FR-S’s balance makes it such a breeze to control the car. Pulling out of corners, especially those with an incline isn’t easy, however, and because of the lack of mid-range torque the car really struggles if I didn’t keep the RPMs WAY up.
It’s low center of gravity pays huge dividends, however, achieving what may have been the highest speeds around the 210 degree right handed sweeper known as the Carousel. Sustained speeds were right at 74 MPH and up to 80 MPH at the apex, which is seriously impressive when you consider the lack of grip the FR-S’s tires have.
Subaru WRX STI
The rawness and turbocharged fun of the WRX STI might make it feel even faster than it is. But make no mistake, it is raw.
Blasting out of the pits, shifting into 2nd and 3rd isn’t the smoothest experience with my neck bobbing forward and snapping back with each clutch movement.
An absolute riot it’s not quite as quick as the CLA45 AMG, and with 50 fewer horsepower that’s not surprising, but it’s certainly more engaging. You can really feel every part of the car working, which is both good and bad. The down-side is the strange feeling of the front differential pulling you forward with the chattering feel as each tire scratches at the asphalt intermittently. In a front-drive that’s usually a comforting feeling, but in an all-wheel drive car with power also coming from the rear it’s a touch odd.
Despite that observation, the STI emerges as one of my hand’s down favorite cars to drive at the MAMA Spring Rally.