Under the Hood: A chance to take top cars for a spin

April 21, 2014


I recently attended the Western Automotive Journalists Media Days in Monterey, Calif. On the day of the ride and drive, we took turns driving a host of really fun cars through a well-planned, beautiful route through the Monterey Peninsula.

My first ride was a Mercedes CLA 45 AMG, a compact Benz with slinky wheels and really big brakes lurking behind. The turbocharged, 2.0-liter engine took me by surprise, nailing me into the seat at the first green light and most after, offering up 181 horsepower per liter and massive torque. Mercedes says this is the most powerful four-cylinder turbo engine made, and I was equally impressed with the broad, easy to use torque band. A super-sweet transmission and all-wheel drive put the power on the ground with intuitive grace. Handling and overall performance were right on par with the spectacular engine ó it was difficult to hand this car off.

The next car driven was a Cadillac ELR (extended range electric) with an already-depleted battery. I was amazed at how well the tiny 1.4-liter, 82-horsepower gasoline engine/generator could dutifully create enough energy during cruise and deceleration periods to allow fairly impressive bursts of power as we wrung out the many turns near Elkhorn Slough. I carefully tried using the adaptive (radar) cruise control on the road and later in stop-and-go traffic (foot hovering above the brake pedal just in case) as we encountered heavy traffic near Carmel. The system did a remarkable job of pacing the car ahead during a variety of maneuvers, including full stops. An interesting yet pricey car.

Jaguarís XJR was my favorite of all, on the road and on the track the next day. Itís a large and luxurious vehicle, yet the 550-horsepower, supercharged engine and eight-speed transmission provided launches like a 1960s muscle car.

I found the Fiat 500 Abarth to be about half the fun of my electric version of the car, even with its high-performance tires and wheels and assorted upgrades. Compared to the 500E, it was noisy and lethargic in the twisting turns above Carmel ó there is just no substitute for the silent and massive low-end torque of an electric vehicle.

At our evening banquet, I was delighted to discover my tablemate was Graham Henckel, the very personable head engineer for the Dodge Viper. Instead of all the many questions about his car I could conjure, I was eager to ask him how he progressed professionally through his organization to achieve such a prestigious spot, and how one balances the dreams of an engineer with the realities of politics and production. I try to inspire my students to consider building cars instead of just fixing them, and Grahamís experiences will be great to share.

The following day we tried out most of the cars driving Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, running each car 2.8 laps before trading off for the next one. Mazda was gracious enough to lend us the track for the day, and we put it to highly enjoyable use.

Chaperoned by the great folks with Hooked on Driving, we played hard, while being sure to stay within our limits and those of each vehicle. Volunteer coach Mike helped me better find the right lines and go smoother and faster than I would ever have attempted on my own. Other great-to-drive cars included the Corvette Z-51, Chevy SS, Dodge Viper, Mazda 3S GT, Dodge Challenger RT Shaker, Mercedes E63 AMG, Subaru WRX, and BMW M5.




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