In 2013, I arrived at the Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin confident, but nervous as I attended my first Midwest Automotive Media Association Spring Rally. Each year yielded its own experience – both good and otherwise.
Now, I attended my fifth MAMA Spring Rally at Road America. Let's see what this time around would bring experience-wise.
The momentum going into this year's MAMA Spring Rally was on the upswing. I turned in the third "hot/big headline" car in-a-row, I regained momentum from my outlets, readership, and personal life. Even an old outlet of mine reached out to me to cover Spring Rally for them. It almost felt like an Ice Cube track…
I figured that this would not be my first time at the rodeo. But, I needed to concentrate on how to make this a positive, productive, and satisfying experience. These were my goals coming into Elkhart Lake. Could this be the best time among five trips to MAMA Spring Rally?
Forget about all of that. Let's talk about what was newsworthy…
Nissan showed us a prototype of the 2019 Altima Edition ONE with the only big headline of the opening of the reservation books on June 15. The new Altima is sharp and full of superb content. I did not sit in it, but the interior looks future-thinking while maintaining many of Nissan's design attributes. The first edition units will have Nissan's VC-Turbo engine with the variable compression ratio system currently found on the new 2019 Infiniti QX50.
The only real news that came out of the Rally was the announcement of a reservation program for the first 2019 Nissan Altimas called "Edition ONE." They had one for us to look at, which is much better in person than in the photos from the New York International Auto Show. If you appreciate the look of the current Altima, you will absolutely love the next one.
What was announced elsewhere during our time was the 2019 Ford F-150 Raptor. This came up in discussion with Ford Performance’s Matt Leaver, as he told me how the Raptor is taking a further leap in suspension management through the FOX Internal Bypass shocks with Live Valve technology and the addition of Trail Control – a quasi-cruise control for the low-speed maneuvers through rougher terrain. Not to mention, you will get the 2019 Raptor with Recaro seats.
In all, the Raptor's updates for 2019 will further raise the bar on off-road pickup trucks. Considering how much you loved the Raptor from last year, I bet you want me to bring that the 2019 version in to see these changes. Um…we'll see…
…and, that's all the news.
As for the Rally itself, here's what I did during my day-and-a-half at Road America. I did not go on the 4.048-mile course of excellence that is Road America. I have not done any track work in over a year and I was not confident in my skills. I could get someone from CGI Motorsports to help, but I wanted to take it easy this year. Instead, I did more "street drives." This a short loop in the outskirts of Road America through the town of Crystal Bay. Since I do not work with some luxury automakers, MAMA Spring Rally serves as an opportunity to get some "wheel time" in these machines.
The first car I drove was a 2018 Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge. It was not exactly my idea, but the PR rep from Rolls-Royce Motor Cars informed me that I forgot to log off from the computer at the Osthoff's business center. A moment later, the same rep invited me to take the Wraith on the street course. How could I say "no?"
About the Wraith, it is sublime. Yet, this is Rolls-Royce's "driver's car" emboldened with "effortless performance" cottoned by a "magic carpet ride." Don't worry, I'll dive deeper into this supreme machine soon.
In no particular order, I also drove a swath of luxury machinery that offered a mix of good and not so good response. In the "not so good" bucket sits the 2018 BMW X2. Understanding the platform entomology with the X1 and MINI Countryman, I found the X2 practically "off" in various ways. Maybe I felt that it took too many shortcuts to attract their potential buyers, such as instrumentation, the center console design, the seats, and its overall performance. I'm not convinced that this is the right product for BMW, especially when it sits next to the 3-Series and M Performance lineup. And, not at a starting price of $38,400.
I do like how the 2018 BMW 640xi Gran Turismo drove. After all, it rides on the platform of the 7-Series with the 3.0-liter turbocharged inline six. The front cabin is almost at the level of the 7-Series, but I felt that I was driving a low-slung crossover. Granted it was quiet, offered superb handling and ride, and a great driveline to boot. My biggest issue was the exterior. It just didn’t do it for me. I'm sure people looking for a $70,000-plus hatchback would get one for the practicality and perhaps overlook the exterior design.
In the meantime, I finally got to drive a Range Rover – the big one. The 2018 HSE model offered a level of luxury one expects from the top of the Land Rover/Range Rover lineup. It also offered a level of refinement, including the two touchscreens in the center stack. This system is not the best and can be downright fussy. Plus, the new 3.0-liter turbodiesel underneath its hood struggled a bit in a few instances. Not because it's a diesel since there are plenty of them that are indeed refined and responsive. Even at 4,958 pounds, it was a bit much to drive through our "street course." At a starting price of around $96,000, I'll mark this up for experience.
On the same side of the income bracket, there was something very special to discuss. Actually, I will save that one, along with the Rolls-Royce in another piece. Here is a spoiler alert…it's German.
On the mainstream side of things, I continue to be amazed at how well the 2018 Chevrolet Traverse drives. It feels light and nimble on its feet – even with the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine underneath its hood. Though I have my reservations about the MyLink infotainment system, the voice commands are much better. Plus, the new RS model adds a new layer of sport to a family conveyance that took a dramatic leap forward from the previous model. I have a feeling that this $42,000 mid-sized SUV will make a deeper dent in the marketplace.
If you ask me what the best electric vehicle out there would be – my answer is the Nissan Leaf. The new 2018 Leaf just looks like a normal Nissan – and drives like one. Except for the mass of torque that you get from the throttle, which feels responsive and joyous. Plus, the Leaf is very comfortable – and the range is superb! I saw 154 miles left at 94% charge. The next time you proselytize about your Tesla, let me point you towards the $36,200 Leaf SL model I had the pleasure of sampling.
If you want two of the most improved new vehicles in the marketplace, look no further than Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The 2018 Jeep Wrangler is awesome! I had the Unlimited (4-door) in the Rubicon trim, and I cannot find fault with it. Even at a starting price of $40,495. The ride has completely improved, as was the maneuverability, the comfort, the controls – heck everything else that made the transition from the JK to the JL a huge leap in progress.
Lastly, I have never been happier taking the 2019 Ram 1500 through its paces. This truck is as good as advertised. I sampled two of these trucks – both Crew Cab models with four-wheel drive and the HEMI 5.7-liter V8. The Big Horn offered cloth seats that were comfortable and enjoyable to drive. The second one, the Laramie, offered balanced luxury and comfort inside – including the reclining rear seats. The models I drive ranged in price from $42,000 to $64,000 in base pricing. In all, the new 2019 Ram 1500 has set a new standard in full-sized pickup trucks. I cannot wait to spend more time in one.
During my second day at the MAMA Spring Rally, I went back to the karting course for autocross. I chose my weapons wisely but had more success in one than the other. The 2017 Fiat 500C Abarth could have been better in tracking through the course, but I found it wanting to fight through the corners and making me work harder on both the throttle and steering wheel. That posed no problem on the 2018 MINI John Cooper Works 2-door Hardtop. It was exactly the kind of autocross weapon one really needs – balancing power, handling, the low center of gravity, and precise maneuverability. Guess which one I had the better time in?
To be able to catch up with colleagues and industry friends, sample vehicles and network with the OEMs are great opportunities to expand the work I am already doing. Compared to last year, it was a better experience this time around. Lessons from years past are helping to guide my time there.
It also helps that I have the MAMA Spring Rally bookended with a much needed working vacation away from home. Having someone – yes, I said it – to come back to after my time in Elkhart Lake is incentive enough to make this year’s attendance at the Rally a more positive experience.
Now, to more adventures in Wisconsin on Memorial Day Weekend…
DISCLAIMER: Vehicles driven at the 2018 Midwest Automotive Media Association Spring Rally were provided by the manufacturers and brands, as mentioned. Accommodations and some logistics were provided by the Midwest Automotive Media Association and its sponsors
All photos by Randy Stern