How do I make up for a lost year?
I thought I did when I returned to the Midwest Automotive Media Association's Fall Rally last year after skipping the larger Spring event at Road America. Yet, there was that void of not being in Elkhart Lake, the confines of one of the best motorsports venues in this country and of the many colleagues I do not normally see even on an annual basis.
That lost year was not intentional. The hospitalization from the prior month was a major factor in my not being at Road America with MAMA. I heard that I missed a lot. I also heard that I did not. Either way, I knew I had to come back.
My return was not a sure bet, either. I was concerned about having enough money to self fund the trip to and from Elkhart Lake. That eventually resolved itself and I registered for the media association's largest event. Through client work, contracts and magazine work, I was able to hit the road eastbound from The Cities to Road America.
There was one factor that has come up running up to the event and through it: My soul. Not the Kia that I drove to the event, but of some persistent issues regarding my status as a respectable automotive media content provider. It is one thing to be read, but it is a huge numbers game. If you don't yield hundreds or thousands of hits, views, and so forth – you're nothing. I always feared that this message would affect my writing. From your reading of this article of reflection and storytelling, you gave me a vote of confidence. And, I thank you for that.
There were many thoughts that had been persistent in my mind, even as I went through the work of being at the track and such. However, I know that I am still a standing member of this media association…and the show must go on.
The show did go on. There were warm welcomes, but we had our own agendas. There was plenty to drive, but I had to choose very carefully among the 110 or so vehicles for us to choose from.
Granted, my agenda was not completely fulfilled. I did accomplish getting into a couple of BMWs, few Infinitis, a Mercedes-Benz, a couple of General Motors products and one of the most revered and meanest cars on this planet – the Nissan GT-R. Plus, a Rolls-Royce. I will get into those later on in this post.
We did get some treats during our meal breaks. Our first breakfast was served with the new 2018 Lexus LC 500 as the centerpiece. It remains one of the cars I wish to have a go in. From what I was told, I will be able to do that. For the first day's lunch, Subaruy trotted out their 2018 Crosstrek. While it looks like the new Impreza hatchback, Subaru made sure to add a lot more content and traction technology for better off-road driving. This will be Subaru's weapon in the growing subcompact SUV/crossover segment.
Our annual banquet was fueled by a couple of mean motors. First, Dodge showed up in the 2018 Durango SRT – a 392 HEMI-powered, three-row SUV for six people. It is absolutely perfect for the family – trust me. However, the main course was even meaner – a B5 Blue colored 2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon. Whether your opinion of this 808 horsepower, drag-race ready monster worth around $85,000 is positive or not, you have to give Fiat Chrysler Automobiles one thing: They can pull off such a car for those who yearn for it. They will do it for the Moparians and for those who want to explore the upper reaches of performance. After seeing this one, I had to look at my own Mopar heritage (thanks, Dad) to give it the ol' thumbs up to it.
If social media was an indicator on how much the Demon has permeated our consciousness, I have to look at my Instragram traffic to see that it garnered more "likes" than any other image from this event.
The final half-day were of items previously seen, but still significant. Breakfast was presented by Nissan who wanted to engage us with the 2018 Rogue Sport and its relationship with its larger sibling. I have a good feeling the smaller Rogue will be a success for Nissan. Kia finished up the day with the 2018 Stinger – the eagerly awaited new halo car. This is going to be a huge lift for Kia and will provide an entry for upscale customers looking for a sporting car to drive.
I believe it is time to talk about what I drove at the MAMA Spring Rally. After all, you seem to be more interested in that..
First, the sole Mercedes-Benz I got a stint in was not the one you'd expect me to sample. It was a 2017 Metris cargo van. Mercedes-Benz has been getting into the commercial vehicle game in this country for years. This time, they got serious with a right-sized van that is priced right where most businesses would budget. Yet, it is not as big and spacious as a Sprinter or Ford Transit. But, for those who cannot use a tall-roofed big van will find the Metris a reliable choice. One thing to note is that the Metris cargo van does not have a rearview mirror on the glass. Instead, throw the Metris in reverse and the rear view camera will pop up in the screen on the dashboard. I wished that screen was larger and clearer, however. It is actually decently priced with this example at $38,417 – even with almost $10,000 of options to keep the Metris safe and secure.
At Infiniti, I caught up with a trio of their latest offerings. First, the 2017 Q50 Red Sport 400 was a huge revelation. After driving the first Q50s with the VQ engine, I was pleased to see how the new twin-turbocharged VR V6 fared with its 400 horsepower, all-wheel drive, 7-speed automatic transmission and superb driving dynamics package. The adaptive steering was a bit much, but I can work with it through the curves. Otherwise, this Q50 was the best of the trio – the most comfortable of them all. For $62,220 complete, it would be worth rolling with Minnesota Nissan Infiniti with.
The other two Infinitis were not completely disappointing, but I was hoping for a higher standard. The 2017 Q60 coupe will give the Lexus RC a run for its business. Sales are soaring for the Q60, which is a good sign. If my back was not acting up, I would enjoy the seats inside of the 300-horsepower twin-turbo VR engined coupe much better. Otherwise, it is a lovely ride for $57,255.
On the other hand, the 2017 QX30 could be better. As it shares itself with the Mercedes-Benz GLA subcompact premium SUV, there were a few things that were carried over from it to the Infiniti. I had an awkward seating position and the power from the 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder could be better. I could go on, but I would be accused of chronic nitpicking. However, the design is very compelling – which is the saving grace for the $46,035 small SUV.
While on the topic of Nissan, one cannot be an automotive journalist without driving one of the most desirable vehicles on the planet. The $115,980 2017 GT-R is a beast. It is never calm, even though Nissan did improve on the interior and sound deadening to make Godzilla easier to drive. Yet, its constant anger is probably why enthusiasts covet it. Now that I have driven one, I can die happy. You can continue reading this site. All is well in the universe.
Rounding out my Nissan experience was the all-new 2018 Rogue Sport. Called Qashqai outside of the USA, the easy-to-pronounce Rogue Sport is an easy subcompact SUV to drive. Without getting into details, let's just say that the $31,500 SL Premium model is a prime example of Nissan's want to lead the SUV market. One drive in this and you'll forget there is another vehicle in its class – the Juke. Yes, it is very good.
Toyota threw its hat in the subcompact SUV ring with its Juke-like 2018 C-HR. I had a few issues with Jukes – the messy design, the confusing instrument binnacle, the semi-comfortable seats and the turbo lag. Toyota made amends on some of these items. The seats are much more comfortable, the ride is superb, it feels lighter and the instrument panel is much better to live with.
There were two divergent General Motors products I drove at the Spring Rally. The 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV drove quite well and offered plenty of advantages that garnered more than enough awards in its early stages. You do have two options to put on the brakes – the regenerative paddle on the left behind the steering wheel or the traditional brake pedal. It does take some time to get used to them. However, I found the front seats too hard for my back. Still, the Bolt EV will prove itself, even with the $43,905 price tag for a nicely-equipped Premier model.
On the flip side, the 2017 Buick LaCrosse is fantastic! The comfort, the execution and the design are all compelling and superb. Granted, the Premium model driven would send people into sticker shock at $50,270. But, given the competition and how far Buick has come in the overall package, it is worth driving one.
The last trio was simply the best. They all come from a company based in Munich and stretched over two brands. Care to guess what they are?
Though I have never forged a relationship with the BMW Group, I will say that I have been extremely pleased with the trio of products I sampled from them at Road America and its environs. The first one would be a 2017 540i and its 3.0 liter turbocharged six-cylinder engine. It is easy to anoint the G30 5er as the best of the line, but there is further proof to that fact. It offers the highest level of technology, including gesture control for the iDrive. That's great, but one has to experience the comfort and driving dynamics the 5-Series offers. After loading up with every package available on the order sheet, the $81,900 price tag seems a bit high, but well worth it.
Further up the food chain is the supremely superb 2017 M760i. The new 7er already earned high praise form my colleagues. Let me join the chorus by saying how well executed the new 7-Series is. Is it better than the S-Class? Given my short run in the V12-powered flagship – a mix of sport and absolute luxury inside – I would say so. That V12 is a monster – a growling tiger looking for its prey, ready to eat it all up. That sound is intoxicating! For $179,595, this is a supreme car to aspire towards.
Saving the greatest for the end is perhaps one of the biggest surprises of Spring Rally. When you think of Rolls-Royce, you think of being driven by one – even if you;re the one driving. Starting the Wraith coupe, Rolls-Royce began to produce cars that engages the driver. This leads to the 2017 Dawn convertible, which is based on the Wraith. For the $374,880 advertised on its sticker, it is an absolute experience. It engages the driver and encourages him or her to take the wheel with confidence. It was indeed my highlight of Spring Rally.
I did some laps at the karting course with a car I am looking forward to work with – the 2017 Hyundai Elantra Sport. With 201 horsepower on tap, it did its best to help get me from a horrible lap to an 11-second improvement. All I can say about the latest sports Hyundai is this: if I can work this hot compact on a tight, twisty course for of elevation changes, wait until I get it on the road.
It was not a huge list of vehicles, but they were specifically targeted based on brands I do not work with regularly and other interested vehicles. Maybe next time I can get some drive time in some even more compelling vehicles.
However, considering what I did drive this past week – I could call it good for a while.
In the end, I am grateful for a few things. I did not damage any vehicle. Though my autocross performance on the second day was a mess. With instruction, I regained 11 seconds from my first run. My track work has gone rusty, which was why I avoided any track work even with the rain coming down in the morning of the first day.
My fourth Midwest Automotive Media Association Spring Rally was intended to make up for a lost year away from it. The Road America course, the nearby countryside and the Osthoff Resort were fine hosts for a well-run event.
Before I close out here, let me express my sincerest thanks to MAMA, the Rally Committee and the red-shirted volunteers for making this a solid event this year. They made sure that the Rally was incident-free on the track and that everyone knew what to do.
I also wanted to thank my colleagues in the media and industry for being a part of this, as well.
My fourth MAMA Spring Rally accomplished. The lost year was made up for. I can move forward from this experience.
All photos by Randy Stern