Playing In The Sandbox

2013 Audi A4 2
One of several vehicles driven during the Midwest Automotive Media Association Fall Rally – 2013 Audi A4 2.0T. All photos by Randy Stern

Even mature adult working professionals can be "kids in the candy store."

How so? Put a group of people working within the same confines of their work – regardless of where they came from and other individual foibles they might have – and let them do what they love to do. The "geek" comes out from the hardened shell of cynicism and entrenchment. The sandbox is indeed open.

To play in the sandbox, one must sign their life away. They must agree that any stupidity while in the sandbox is billed to them when they get home. They also must take care of the "toys" being handed to them, while being respectful to their hosts, their fellow travelers and their surroundings.

Did I describe a convention? Maybe. Actually, what I described is one of the events held by the media association I am a proud member of.

Every year, the Midwest Automotive Media Association holds three major events annually, on top of monthly luncheon meetings near their Chicago area base. If you attend the Media Days at the Chicago Auto Show, the opening breakfast session is sponsored by MAMA. Then, we get to the real work of the association: The drive events. For MAMA, there is the Spring Rally normally held at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. This event is a huge deal over two days of driving on the track, into the nearby countryside and off road. Sadly, I missed that one.

I did finally make their other drive event – the Fall Rally. This event is a day-long program held outside of Chicago where we are given the opportunity to sample about 50 automobiles. We also get to network with representatives of the industry and amongst ourselves, attend informative sessions about products and services being introduced and simply enjoy a mid-week diversion from the craziness of our work-life (im)balance.

Being at MAMA's Fall Rally was exactly that – a much needed diversion from the Twin Cities.

To be honest, I work a day job that stresses the heck out of me. From sunrise to the time I leave my worksite, I am challenged with an onslaught of semi-organized chaos. Only my Blackberry serves as a window on the outside world – thanks to my e-mail, Facebook messages, Tweets and other indicators of my call to service outside of the chaos.

During my off hours, I have three media outlets to feed. That may manifest in social events one of the outlets are involved with, other community events I talk myself into attending (sometimes in the name of one of those outlets) and semi-futile attempts at being engaged socially with more than two people in the room.

There are times when I find solace in my laptop. From Twitter chats to simply emptying my mind onto a Word document, my small white MacBook has been a friend when I needed one. It was my muse as I craft everything from vehicle reviews to semi-coherent rants. That is why it gets thrown in my backpack for the oft chance I need to do something online or in Word.

The process of considering that my attendance at the MAMA Fall Rally would be worthwhile for this part of my career came about a month earlier at the Human Rights Campaign's Twin Cities Gala Dinner. Somewhere in-between the time T.R. Knight introduced Zach Wahls and United States Representative Keith Ellison's (D-MN 5) fiery speech, I decided I could no longer wait to be amongst my people – automotive people.

Fast forward to the first Wednesday in October. I had a not so great night's sleep at the hotel in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, thanks to a bed that game my right rear calf a cramp. The evening before, I enjoyed dinner as I reconnected with fellow MAMA members and other folks from the industry. In the back of my mind, I actually had a job to do – several, in fact.

For one, I needed to nail down stories for the next several months. I had a list of vehicles that would work in winter up in Minnesota, as well as key vehicles to feed both here and Lavender. It is also Vehicle of the Year wrap-up time, so I had some vehicles on the Long List to validate. That meant revisiting some of the stories written throughout the year.

2013 Chrysler 200 Convertible 3

There were several vehicles to validate that were available, including a lovely looking 2013 Chrysler 200 convertible. For the new model year, Chrysler stiffened up the chassis and toned-up the suspension for a better ride and handling mix. It certainly worked. The Dodge Dart was there, including the most talked about driveline that was missing from the original drives in Austin, Texas – the DDCT dual clutch transmission connected to the 1.4litre Multiair turbocharged engine. Having never driven the Multiair turbo, I was not surprised by the lag at the low end. Once the turbo began spooling, it was a fine motor. The new transmission actually worked well, but could not resolve the turbo lag.

The GMC Terrain was also given a validation drive in the new 2013 Denali model. New for 2013 was the swapping of the 3.0litre High Feature V6 for the larger 3.6litre version topping at 301 horsepower. For a smallish crossover, the 3.6litre V6 acted like a huge hammer under the hood. It simply went. The Denali treatment translated well in the Terrain, though you can tell the same attributes from prior models reviewed on here still existed.

To top its surprising performance at a BMW consumer event this summer, a 2013 Audi A4 was taken out for its validation drive. The new model year version went through several revamps inside and out – and it showed. Though I lost the S-Line package from the prior A4, I gained the Quattro all-wheel drive system in this one. Wet conditions helped made the Audi a pleasure to run, despite some softness in steering feel and ride.

Lastly, I validated the 2013 Nissan Altima. Even though it is very early ion its lifespan, the new family sedan just simply gets better behind the wheel. The 2.5 SL model felt similar in driving dynamics to the SV version I drove in July, but the top model’s appointments were truly befitting of its mission. I still contend that the Toyota Camry’s leadership amongst passenger cars will be challenged by one of a few different models. If I were a gambling man, I pick the Altima to lead the charge.

2013 Chevrolet Spark 1

After I fulfilled my validation drives, it was time to do some exploring of other vehicles amongst the 60-70 choices available to drive. One of the new vehicles that I drove was part of a missed opportunity. It was known over dinner on Tuesday that I was actually considered for a drive event featuring the Chevrolet Spark last month. Work prevented me from doing so. As the conversation ensued, I balked at the General Motors folks because I felt I was too big for the city car. A challenge was given – a few laughs ensued, but it was "on."

My turn in the Spark provided a mixture of good and maybe. Yes, I did fit in the Spark. In fact, I had plenty of room behind the wheel, including space for wavering knees. It drives fine, except the small 1.2litre engine felt out of place on suburban/rural roads and there was plenty of play at the steering wheel at center. The Spark truly makes sense in various Chicago neighborhoods – Logan Square, Lincoln Park, Andersonville, to name a few – than out in Hoffman Estates or Barrington.

Another drive came from a suggestion by one of my contacts at General Motors to talk to a mutual MAMA member and the head of Consumer Affairs at the company. James Bell and I had our discussion in the 2013 Cadillac XTS Platinum sedan, which yielded some insight on my approach to you in terms of demographic and how automobile firms see cultural communities in that framework.

In the XTS, I came away with two thoughts. One, it really comes down to vehicle registration when sales comes into play. No one at a motor vehicles licensing agency asks your ethnic and cultural affiliation. Though some companies recognize the diversity amongst their ownership (and the faces amongst those working throughout the company) more than others, it truly does not matter who buys which vehicle the most.

The second thought is simple – the XTS is a pretty good big sedan. The cabin is not a carryover from the DeVille or STS, but rather an international one with proper seat bolstering and an advanced driving atmosphere. It drives extremely well. If one pops up at the V&R Garage, you bet it would make a wonderful story.

Back in February, I witnessed the unveiling of the 2013 GMC Acadia at the Chicago Auto Show. There were two to drive – and a call to drive one. It came as I popped out one of my complaints about the 2011 SLT I reviewed last year – the steering column height adjustment. The two GMC representatives said that I sat too high for the Acadia. I disagreed – and I was challenged to find a driving position in the 2013 model.

In the SLT, two GM reps came along as I took the Lambda crossover through its intended route. I gave my feedback as we drive – to the point, I came away impressed. The Acadia has always been the most solid version of the Lambda family. What enhanced this feedback was an improved cabin, especially the instrument panel. By integrating the IntelliLink system, the GM touch screen and a new set of switchgear onto the center stack, they upped the materials and made the gauge cluster a nicer set up.

The 2013 Acadia is a handsome devil in both the regular and Denali models. I would welcome one back to the V&R Garage.

2013 Subaru BRZ 4

I ended my day with perhaps one of the big stories this year – the 2013 Subaru BRZ. This collaboration between Fuji Heavy industries and Toyota yielded a twin sports car attack. Subaru’s version offers a higher content than the Scion FR-S, but has the same rear-wheel drive, boxer-style four-cylinder engine under the chassis.

Driving the BRZ was quite a challenge. Not that it was difficult, but rather it needed to be on a track to truly show me what it could do. The automatic gearbox is not bad, but it is hurt by 150 pound-feet of torque against 200 horsepower. I needed to keep he revs up to ensure the engine’s power band would take the shifts properly. The handling is superb and controlled by the traction control on the wet conditions we experienced for the Fall Rally. The seats were fine for the track and short spirited drives. I would feel uncomfortable if I had to drive one back to the Twin Cities that day.

Though I was reminded by the Datsun 240Z when driving the BRZ, I do miss the fluid force of the old carbureted in-line six of older car. For now, the BRZ (and the FR-S) will have to do.

The vehicles may be the stars, but the best part of my first MAMA Rally was the reconnection with my fellow members and other industry contacts. I am fortunate to know some of the most talented, creative, enthusiastic and astute people in my business. There would be plenty of names to drop, but I figure you already know who they are. All I can say is that it was a crazy time catching up with everyone. Plenty of conversations ensued – some will last quite a long time.

American Express was right – membership has its privileges. I am indeed privileged to be a part of a great organization that provides opportunities for us to play in the sandbox to fulfill our passions. Being an automotive journalist is a lot of hard work. It takes understanding several competencies that goes beyond the simple essence of an automobile.

It is a passion I enjoy doing. Being around others with the same passion is healthy for the soul. Being around a swath of automobiles worth driving was equally satisfying.

The "toys" have been put away and the sandbox has been closed. Memories of these two days near Chicago will last for a long time, indeed. Thank you, MAMA, for having me there.

However, sadly, reality calls…

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