Just Another Day at the Office (Road Test Day)
By Chris Haak
Several weeks ago, Full Metal Autos’s Kevin Gordon and I had the opportunity to journey to the Catskill region of New York to the sleepy hamlet of Monticello. A village of about 6,500 people, Monticello is about as unremarkable as any other point on the map. The town’s Wikipedia page is divided into Pre-Civil War and Post-Civil War sections, with the latter containing only four paragraphs of information against the former’s fourteen. Save for one thing – our main attraction today – Monticello is the very definition of “sleepy hamlet.” The main attraction is Monticello Motor Club, a members-only country club for [rich] car guys and gals. We’ll have more on MMC later this week.
IMPA, the first automotive journalism association in the US, is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. IMPA provides for networking opportunities between journalists and PR people and vehicle manufacturers with monthly meetings where industry leaders give timely presentations on topics of the day. Also, IMPA sponsors two behind-the-wheel events per year. The bigger and better of the two is IMPA Test Days.
The first day of Test Days began right after check-in. After our IDs and licenses were confirmed, we were presented with a fleet of new cars. From Audis to Volkswagens and nearly everything in between (Buicks, Cadillacs, Chevrolets – you get the idea) – dozens of new cars were at our disposal to drive on the roads in and around Monticello’s outskirts.
On the first day, I had the opportunity to sample nine new cars for the first time. Sadly, I didn’t take the time to write notes on the cars that I drove, but I am able to share a few quick impressions of each.
2012 Dodge Charger SRT8 – I really enjoyed driving the new-for-2011 Charger R/T when I reviewed it a few months ago. The SRT8 model is very much like the Charger R/T, only with more of everything: more weight, more power, more acceleration, more handling prowess, and more braking power. The new 475 horsepower 6.4 liter Hemi is a boisterous beast, yet driving sanely in fifth gear, I saw fuel economy of over 20 miles per gallon. Drop the hammer, though, and you’re almost in the gallons-per-mile category.
2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 – A sweet ride, and I love its more refined looks vs. the previous Grand Cherokee SRT8. Unlike in the lighter Charger SRT8 with basically the same engine, I really felt that the Jeep needed an extra three cogs in its five-speed automatic, since it always seemed to be in the wrong gear, and always at the wrong spot in the big Hemi’s powerband. The Jeep’s considerable (two and a half ton) weight definitely conspires against the fun too – but large, grippy tires offset some of the truck’s Newtonian problems. The JGC SRT8 was also more dependent on being put into Sport mode for fun than was the Charger (which is easy to do with a dial on the console – “regular” Grand Cherokees use that dial for terrain response selections).
2012 Buick Regal GS – I am fond of the Buick Regal, which brings a European sophistication to a Buick division that had nothing near it for a very long time. Moving to the new top-of-the-heap GS model gets you another 50 horsepower (270 total) with the highest specific output of any production engine in GM’s history. It also is one of the best-handling front wheel drive cars I’ve ever driven. If anything, the car is a bit too subdued, which makes the car feel like it doesn’t have as much speed as you would expect it to. The Regal GS has excellent seats and a really easy shift action, albeit with somewhat long throws. Pricing is a bit of a concern, as you’re paying a handsome premium for the GS trim and those extra 50 horsepower. One enhancement that all 2012 Regals will receive (the cars are now built in Canada rather than Germany, by the way) is a touchsreen navigation system. The display is still small, but you have different options for moving through menus, which improves its functionality.
2012 Nissan GT-R – We had only a very, very brief period in which to sample the refreshed-for-2012 GT-R; all journalists had only 15-minute windows with the car, and you didn’t want to be “that guy” who brought the car back. Or broken. I rode shotgun to start while Kevin piloted. My assignment: look up how to activate the revised launch control software in the owner’s manual. It’s really quite easy: you flip the switches on the center console to “R” mode, come to a complete stop, hold the brake with your left foot, floor the accelerator, then release the brake and hold on for dear life. Kevin and I agreed to record video of the other person’s launch. He went first and scared the daylights out of me – I wasn’t ready for the violence that comes from a 2.9-second zero to sixty run. As you can see from the video, he enjoyed himself quite a bit. After a few more minutes – and giving the GT-R time to cool itself down – we switched seats and it was my turn. Godzilla lost the element of surprise with the second launch; Kevin was ready for the G forces, I was ready for them, and we got a cleaner video. Still a blast to drive, and one of the greatest performance bargains on the planet.
2011 Kia Optima Turbo – Among the many entrants in the crowded mainstream midsize sedan segment, the Kia Optima stands out with arguably the most interesting design and most pleasing interior. It’s also a pretty good value given the equipment that Kia includes. I talked a good friend into considering an Optima Turbo having only previously driven a non-turbo Optima EX, so I was glad to get the opportunity to put a few miles on the fastest Optima. I continue to really like the Optima’s interior – although the seats seem to be a bit thin, with my almost-200 pound body seemed to bottom out in the driver’s seat. Like the Regal GS, you don’t really feel the sensation of the extra horsepower, but Kia has a nice, efficient alternative to competitors’ V6s.
2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI – Auto journalists piled scorn on the then-new 2011 Jetta for the harsh (and obvious) de-contenting that VW heaped upon the car for [paraphrasing] fat, dumb American tastes. The 2011 Jetta lost niceties like fabric-covered A-pillars, a soft-touch dashboard, and independent rear suspension. Guess what? The 2012 Jetta GLI “found” nearly all of the things that were “lost” in the translation from 2010 Jetta to 2011. It has IRS, a soft dash, and even fabric-covered A-pillars. Coupled with VW’s very good six-speed dual-clutch DSG gearbox, it’s also a nice little sport sedan. Oh, and another thing that the GLI finds is the GTI’s well-regarded 2.0T direct-injection four cylinder. If I were to get a new Jetta, I’d probably go with the GLI except for one thing – the re-instatement of the “good stuff” brings the price point far above that of the loss-leader entry-level models that start well below $20,000.
2012 Infiniti M35h Hybrid – I liked the 2011 M37 when I had it for a weeklong review. In the M’s third generation, the car has finally come into its own from a design standpoint, no longer living in the shadow of its frisky little brother, the G37 (and previously, the G35). That being said, the wavy swage lines on the car’s flanks do remind one a bit of the previous-generation Hyundai Elantra. The new hybrid model features Nissan’s first application of its internally-developed hybrid system, and it’s a good one. There’s still plenty of power, and economy is decent (27 city/32 highway/29 combined vs. 18/26/21 for the rear wheel drive M37, a gain of 8 MPG combined), but the driving experience still isn’t seamless in eco mode. Switch to sport mode and there is much better throttle response, but at the cost of economy. The Infiniti force feedback accelerator pedal is an irritant that I would leave turned off almost every time I drove the car. It’s designed to literally and figuratively push back against your right foot if you’re not driving economically.
2012 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport Convertible Centennial Edition – The C6 Corvette, which debuted for the 2005 model year is clearly showing its age as it enters the eighth model year of this generation. The car’s appearance is almost identical to what we had eight years ago except for different wheels (and, in the Grand Sport model, different fender gills), and the interior – despite the addition of optional leather wrap starting in 2008 – is showing its age even more dramatically. The Corvette’s radio and navigation system is a pathetic relic of a bygone era, and in a car that costs nearly $80,000 (MSRP $77,935), it’s inexcusable. However, despite all that, the LS3 engine (hand-built in the Grand Sport models) sounds heavenly – especially when the exhaust butterflies open above 3500 RPMs – and pulls like a race car. The Centennial Edition package ($4,950) on this tester included really cool Carbon Flash Metallic (aka, dark, dark gray or light black metallic), black wheels, magnetic ride control, and satin black exterior graphics. There’s also a somewhat-disturbing picture of Louis Chevrolet in his racing goggles staring at you constantly from his perch in the middle of the horn button. Nevertheless, I think he’d really enjoy driving this car.
2012 BMW 650i Coupe – BMW’s previous 6 Series never found much love from critics; it took Chris Bangle’s “flame surfacing” design language to the extreme, it had a frustrating and annoying iDrive interface, and it was just too big to be a credible performance car. Well, BMW has addressed the design issues with the 2012 version, removing the controversy, but also some of the old car’s design personality. iDrive continues to enjoy further refinements, and I was incredibly impressed by BMW’s best-in-class iPhone integration (until, literally, the music stopped playing and I couldn’t get it to start again). BMW’s solution for iPhones is to install a dock within the center console that securely holds the phone and keeps it out of sight, although plugging in your phone with every trip may not be terribly convenient. As for the car itself, it’s fast as hell with the new 4.4 liter twin turbo V8, and when set to the proper Sport+ drive mode, has some very sharp throttle response. The eight speed automatic doesn’t even sap as much fun as you might think it would, though of course a manual would be more fun. Back seat room is tight, and the steering – though accurate – felt a bit artificial. There have been many large coupes that have come and gone over the years (Eldorado, Lexus SC, Mark VIII, etc.), so it’s nice to see that BMW still has a play in this segment.
Note: Click here to continue reading with part two of this series, where we hit the track at the Monticello Motor Club.