How to Have a Happy Automotive Overdose
All the cars you want to drive, all at once. Inside a test day for automotive journalists.
One final fling in a Mitsubishi Evo. A opening “hello” to Ford’s Super Duty F-250. A feast of test laps and drives – from a Dodge Viper GTC and Jaguar F-type SVR, to BMW’s underrated X4 M40i. Taken together, it all turns New York's Catskills into a fantasy showroom.
Welcome to Test Days, the annual confab of the International Motor Press Association (IMPA). Manufacturers bring dozens upon dozens of their latest models. Journalists jostle for position, for cars, and later, at the “wine table.” Schmoozing and comradery aside, the event has a serious purpose, with an opening day of touring drives, a second day of on-track evaluation, even an off-road course. IMPA has been staging these events for more than 50 years, beginning at the now-shuttered Bridgehampton circuit on Long Island, with intervening years at both Lime Rock and Pocono Speedway, before finding our latest, gracious host in Monticello Motor Club – the 4.1-mile driver’s paradise in the heart of what used to be known as the Borscht Belt.
For me, a big part of the fun is one-stop-shopping, the chance to see and drive cars I’d overlooked or that had fallen through scheduling cracks. This year, they included the oddball Range Rover Evoque convertible, the handsome new Infiniti Q60 coupe and the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth. As one of the jurors in the North American Car of the Year awards, I also use Test Days to re-familiarize myself with cars that may be front-runners among voters, such as the Volvo XC90 SUV.
Any car fan would quickly realize the rare conundrum of Test Days: Which manufacturer’s tent to dash to first? Will it be a quicksilver Mazda Miata, the BMW M2, or a Mercedes AMG C63 S? Should I grab the Corvette Grand Sport now, or hit up the Nissan GT-R first?
Our Alex Roy shows up in his record-setting cross-country 2000 BMW M5 in Team Polizei livery, but he ignores my entreaties to come out and play on track. As our resident expert on semi-autonomous cars, Roy is here to compare-and-contrast technology that appeals to certain subset of car fans as much as horsepower does to others. The next thing I know, Roy ropes me into a Honda Accord Hybrid, and we’ve set out on back roads, futzing with the Honda Sense suite of lane keepers, adaptive cruise control and other driving aids.
Upon our return, I detour for a few off-road runs on the Land Rover Experience trails that Monticello operates – including a little wheel time in a Polaris RZR 1000 High Lifter, a thrilling side-by-side with a 110-horsepower V-twin engine, 29.5-inch mud-bogging tires and 16 inches of front suspension travel.
And despite the clock ticking on this track day, I take time to vault into the Ford Super Duty, its $76,000 sticker as lofty as its mile-high cab. I knew the Platinum-edition pickup was sumptuous and strong, but this was ridiculous: A class-whupping 925 pound-feet of torque, 440 horsepower, and a 21,000-pound towing capacity; enough to cart several test cars away from Monticello. Next time, Ford, bring a trailer so we can experience that 10 tons of fun.
My day’s highlight comes courtesy of Monticello driving instructor Jacob Solomon. I’d made sure to pencil in a nostalgic lap in the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, which waves bon voyage with 1,600 copies of the 2015 “Final Edition.” (Yes, we know it’s nearly 2017, but don’t tell that to Mitsubishi. Let them, and the car’s fanatics, enjoy a well-earned farewell). This rally-bred car was the absolute shit not so long ago, and I mention to Solomon that I’d bet it might still give the Ford Focus RS a decent tussle on track.
“Let’s find out,” Solomon says. After some sweet talking from Solomon, the starter bends the day’s safety-first rules and lets us lap the course nose-to-tail, rather than separating us by several seconds. Solomon starts up front in the 303-horsepower Evo, while I give chase in the brilliant 350-horse Focus. Shod with Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires, the Ford quickly shows an advantage in ultimate grip, as I start reeling in the Mitsubishi through the bends. But the Mitsubishi is no slouch, accelerating virtually neck-and-neck with the Ford through straighter sections. The Evo’s exterior design is played out. Cabin plastics befit a Big Wheel. The manual shifter makes do with five speeds. Yet this last-gasp Lancer can still squirt to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, a few ticks quicker than the Ford. The Evo may be antiquated, but this ballsy brand of performance is hardly obsolete.
That takeaway also exemplifies what’s so great about Test Days. Road or track, nothing beats driving models back to back. It’s something that even auto critics, engineers and designers don’t get to do often enough: Jumping from one competitor to another to see who does what well, to separate contenders from pretenders. It's the shakedown of your dreams, minus the shakedown from salesmen in plaid jackets.
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