The track was just a recent memory.
Adrenaline is not my friend. It used to be, but it seemed to seep away when I got older. The ride alongs on Road America's wet 14 corners awoke that kernel in my DNA during the first day of the 2013 Midwest Automotive Media Association Spring Rally. Sadly, the desire to actually do it went away as quickly as the adrenaline kernel popped up.
The weather was still wet. The rain subsided, but there was still enough tarmac that were challenged and exacerbated by untreated grease and oil on and off the track. Some decisions had to be made as to the approach to the second day of the Rally.
First off, the off-road experience was truncated to ensure safety and enjoyment for those who participated. I considered doing it, but I decided to skip it. Instead, I fulfilled another first to check off my bucket list. A breakfast conversation with the representative for Rolls-Royce yielded a morning drive in the Ghost Extended Wheelbase sedan.
The quick answer to the obvious question is "yes." This car is simply without words to describe the experience, since all of the adjectives are already taken. You wonder if the Ghost was for real. The gentleman from Rolls-Royce said that it is simply "just a car." Is it? I beg to differ. It is an experience in the far reaches of luxury only many of us can dream of participating in.
Since this event was all about "ticking the boxes" on my "bucket list," the track experience was still a quandary for me. I was on the track, but not driving it. How do I redeem myself?
Eventually, a few drives of other vehicles convinced me to take a final stab at some motorsport activity. Along with the off-road course, MAMA members were able to participate in a very quick autocross course. I checked my "fear talk." It never showed up. I figured "what the hell" and went for it.
Autocross is a combination of speed, agility, reflexes and vision. The cones are either your friend or your worst enemy. Without lines, you rely on the cones to guide you through in less than a minute of adrenaline. I felt ready and did not care if I took out a cone or two.
My first run was in a 2013 MINI Paceman Cooper S – the two-door version of the Countryman crossover with the turbocharged 1.6litre engine. It is taller than the Hardtop, so it may not hug the tarmac like one. It is still a MINI, however – I could do fine in this.
Forget what time I got on my first run in the Paceman, I loved it! I may have blown the slalom, but no cones were hurt in the process. Who cared if I did not – this was a good game! What was next?
The 2013 Fiat 500e was my answer for my final run at autocross. How could anyone autocross an electric car? Consider the 500 for the moment. If you drive anything from the Sport up through the Abarth, you know that the little Fiat can shake and bake like the rest of them. It has good grip, despite some complaints about its stance with its high body.
Keep in mind that an electric motor usually serves its torque immediately. It is all torque to begin with. Combining the 500 with an electric motor was designed to induce maximum fun. Why not autocross one?
The 500e was indeed fun through the course. However, the Fiat's tires were screaming for mercy. They were not made for such activity, but for efficiency. It appeared someone went sideways and rode on the sidewall a bit on the 500e I drove. I know it was not me…
The autocross exercise absolutely redeemed my lack of track experience. The "fear talk" was gone. My confidence in my driving abilities had been enhanced by lessons from various people at the Spring Rally. I was certainly glad to be able to do something worth talking about amongst you all.
There is one bit of business to tend to before wrapping up my time at Road America and Elkhart Lake. I mentioned a few of the vehicles I got to drive at the Spring Rally. There were plenty of others that I took the wheel that should be mentioned here.
For starters, I revisited the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport – this time it is the 2013-1/2 Limited Edition. What this model does is to give us a preview of further improvements to the Normal, Illinois-built small crossover for the 2014 model year. They added balance shafts to its 2.0litre engine, which silenced and calmed down the engine quite a bit from the vehicle that was in for review.
The other occasion for the Outlander Sport Limited Edition was to celebrate Mitsubishi’s 30th anniversary selling cars in the USA.
The 2014 Subaru Forester 2.0XT yielded a surprise. The turbocharged boxer engine was a huge reason for the leap in competency and excellence for Subaru's crossover. I now understood why the new Forester has been earning good feedback from pundits and consumers alike. I simply love how the Forester drives – a great balance of ride, comfort, handling and road management. The glass area alone is tremendous – great for optimal outward visibility.
It took a couple of years to get around to it, but I was able to drive the Buick Verano. Though I was skeptical as whether the Verano was the right move for the brand, adding the turbo certainly helped the small sedan. Buick did more than just drop a 250HP turbocharged engine under the Verano's hood. They worked on the overall driving dynamics package ensuring that the Verano can run while being motivated by this engine. That certainly surprised me. Some interior shortcomings, however, will not spoil the rest of this fine car.
On the theme of surprises, one might wonder if putting a 340HP V6 in the latest Jaguar XJ would work? It did. When this current generation of Jaguars was introduced, they only offered variations of their 5.0litre V8. By returning the six to the XJ, it did so without taxing it. The XJ may seem big, but it is lightweight. You are not inclined to waft about in the corners, but rather run through them. The agility of the Jaguar is astounding. The V6 only served as a compliment to an amazing piece of British aluminum, hide and technology.
There was quite the quandary when I drove two premium sedans back-to-back – the 2013 Toyota Avalon and the 2014 Chevrolet Impala. Some of us were evaluating vehicles for MAMA’s annual Family Vehicle of the Year award and the discussion stemmed from which of these full-sized entry-premium sedans was best. Some sided with the Avalon and its well-executed design, 3.5litre V6 power and Toyota quality. Others sided with the Impala and its advanced technology, notable design and 3.6litre V6 performance. This goes beyond having a coin flip amongst us, since we each had our arguments for either sedan.
The Avalon was good, though I hoped for more driving dynamics refinement. There was some noise from the road as it felt every gap in it. The dials and controls were a hodgepodge of good quality, Camry-familiar ones to some unnecessarily large ones for certain functions. The interior was nice with solid seating.
My edge went to the Impala simple because it did what I told it to do. It went through corners like no other big sedan in its class. The V6 power was fluid and the tech accessible. The seats got to me with its headrest jutting out at my neck. The Impala was not perfect by any means, but it is really very good indeed.
Continuing on the General Motors theme was a drive in the 2014 Chevrolet Silverado. A discussion with one of GM's staffers revealed a drive unlike any pickup I have driven before. You can judge a book by its cover, but you need to get deep into to understand why it is good. The same was to be said of the new Silverado – it is best driving pickup in its class. Steering was quick and easy, while its frame yielded a suspension system that provided a smooth ride and very competent handling. I was very happy with how GM worked on the 5.3Litre EcoTec3 V8, pumping it to 355HP and over 380 pound-feet of torque. The interior is a serious improvement – a great workspace to drive in.
This is a good problem to have when thinking about the Silverado and the Ram 1500. I love Chrysler’s truck – a lot. However, I have to saddle the new Silverado (and the GMC Sierra) to the Ram and roll a few dice to see which one to take to Home Depot.
Laced throughout my time at Road America, I had the chance to be in some amazing vehicles – both as a driver and a passenger. Aside from the Bentley, the Rolls and the Jag, if there were one vehicle that stood out amongst those mere mortals costing under $75,000, it would be the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT. After being driven in one on the track, I finally got the chance to take command of one outside the property. This was the only vehicle that induced real excitement on the road.
The simple roar of the 6.4litre V8 as it chucks through the curves. It is about absolute power – though the Bentley and Rolls had 12 cylinders of it at its disposal. There is nothing like stepping on the throttle and letting the SRT Jeep rip. Inside, it is an awesome place to sit and command everything in front it – that new interior is astounding.
What more can I say about the new Grand Cherokee SRT? It resides on a day-and-a-half pedestal of the best experiences at Road America along with the Bentley Continental GTC, the Rolls-Royce Ghost EWB and the Jaguar XJ. That is pretty cool company, if you ask me.
This whole experience is one for the books. It ticked a lot of my bucket list, while enhancing my membership and presence within the automotive media corps. The backdrop is not bad either. I agree that Road America is one of the best motorsport venues this country has to offer. The road course needs to be tackled – someday.
The town of Elkhart Lake is simply wonderful. It is a quaint small town that has a world-class motorsport venue in its backyard. We dine at some fine restaurants for the two dinners scheduled on this event. The hospitality by the locals was second to none. I suppose we automotive media corps members were seen as important folks to the people of Elkhart Lake to roll out the red carpet and treat us like visiting dignitaries.
I am forever grateful to the board of MAMA for inviting me to come to the Spring Rally. I am grateful for the support of my fellow members, the manufacturers on hand and the staffs at both Road America and the Osthoff Resort for making this experience an amazing one.
The Spring Rally is an event worth attending for the members of MAMA. Even if you have never been, understand one thing: Membership definitely has its privileges. This is one opportunity not to miss out on in your life.
Maybe it was all a dream after all…
DISCLAIMER: The vehicles featured as driven in the article were provided by Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, MINI Division of BMW of North America, LLC, Fiat, Mitsubishi Motors North America, Subaru or America, General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover North America, LLC, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., and Chrysler Group LLC.