Last week, I drove out to New York's Bear Mountain State park for the International Motor Press Association's (IMPA) "Spring Brake" event, at which a variety of manufacturers have a selection of cars and SUVs for IMPA members to sample throughout the day. The only bad thing about the event (which was blessed with ideal driving weather: warm temps and sunny skies), was that there were more cars on hand than there was time to sample every one. So I mixed it up, trying out rides that ranged from around $20,000 to well over $300,000. Read on for a quick take on each one.
While I was there, I also taped an appearance for Gary Gastelu's Fox Car Report on FoxNews.com, which you can watch below. Gary aptly describes the event as "speed dating for auto journalists." Can't say I disagree. Have a look and weigh in on the cars in the comments.
2013 Ford Mustang V6
The color is called "Gotta Have It Green" and this particular car is gussied up in the Mustang Club of America special-edition package (hence that grille, the graphics, etc). Underhood Ford's 3.7-liter V6, which, at 305 horsepower, is more powerful than the 4.6-liter V8 I have in my 2006 Mustang GT. As much as it pains me to say so, during my brief spin in it, this V6 felt every bit as fast, and it gets great fuel economy (19 mpg city / 31 highway / 23 combined with the 6-speed automatic, according to EPA estimates). While it's probably more fun to drive with the available 6-speed stick, this car with the automatic is an immensely appealing daily-driver combo.
This particular V6 car was optioned up beyond the $34K mark. That puts it in 2013 Mustang GT territory, except the GT has a fantastic 440-horsepower 5.0-liter V8 and might be the best performance-car value out there today.
2013 Dodge Dart
Chrysler, whose post-bailout resurgence has been marked by a slew of dramatically improved cars and trucks, brought along its new small car: the 2013 Dodge Dart sedan, which you should start seeing in showrooms any day now. Thanks to Chrysler and Fiat being joined at the hip, the Dart inherited its architecture from the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, a sporty hatchback that we don't get here. Those are, as they say, "good bones." This example was equipped with the 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo four cylinder engine, paired with a six-speed manual. (Obviously, you can get it with an automatic, too.) The interior is really nice (it makes the current Honda Civic's look 20 years old). The turbo engine packs a decent punch, and the overall ride is a pleasant balance between comfort and sportiness.
The Dart enters a space with some good cars competing for shoppers' monthly payments, like the value-laden Hyundai Elantra. Fortunately, it appears to have the necessary ingredients to make some noise.
2012 Mini Cooper S Roadster
A smaller Mini may seem like a ridiculous idea, but it works. The stylish, 2-seat Mini Roadster is like a slot car that you can actually drive, and in turbocharged Cooper S trim, it's absurdly fun and engaging. It also has better visibility than the regular Mini Cooper Convertible, whose top doesn't stow neatly out of sight the way the Roadster's does.
Typical Mini-related gripes: Interior ergonomics are sort of an afterthought, with some basic controls (like the radio) that are just unreasonably unintuitive. The Mazda MX-5 Miata is also one of the world's great driver's cars, gives you the same open-air experience, and has a straightforward, non-gimmicky interior.
2012 Infiniti JX35
Infiniti's brand-new 3-row crossover is good looking, has a beautiful, quiet interior, and a smooth 265-horsepower V6. The full arsenal of Infiniti's driver-aid technology is available, naturally. The V6 makes 265 hp, which seems "low" for the class, but is ample power in real life. Since I'm already seeing these on the road with regularity, it appears Infiniti has a hit on its hands.
The third row is a kids-only area, in my opinion, because the seat bottoms are too low to the floor for adults to sit comfortably. Also, this fully-loaded example stickered at over $55,000. You might want to wait for the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder, which should cost less, is based on the same architecture and will be mechanically very similar. There are also a variety of other well-received three-row SUVs out there, like the Dodge Durango, Mazda CX-5, and Acura MDX.
2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas
Honda is the only automaker to currently offer a mass-market natural-gas-powered car to retail customers. If you have access to compressed natural gas CNG filling stations where you live (there are around 1,000 around the country in total), you might consider this alt-fueled Civic. From behind the wheel, there's zero difference in how it drives. Unless you look at the understated "Natural Gas" badge on the trunklid, there's no way to visually differentiate it from a gas-powered Civic.
The CNG infrastructure nationwide is hardly robust, at only around 1,000 stations, with less than half accessible to the public. Also, the 2012 Civic's interior is a complete letdown compared to pretty much every small sedan it competes against. Absent the CNG powertrain, you have better options than the Civic right now (though continues to sell very well, regardless).
2012 Bentley Mulsanne
2012 Volkswagen Beetle
This was one of my favorite rides of the day. The Bug you see here was not a highly-optioned car, either. It had the base 2.5-liter five cylinder, a manual gearbox, a decent stereo, and (my favorite), this retro-fantastic wheel package, which mimics the look of basic steel wheels with the dog-dish hubcaps. All told, you can get one like it for a smidge over $20,000. It's cool-looking, torquey, and endearing. An older couple who were hiking the mountain were all smiles and full of questions. The wife reminisced, "In 1965, I bought one of these new, took delivery in germany, and drove around Europe with a friend. I think this is just wonderful."
Retro's not for everyone. But that's why the VW Golf exists.
2012 Range Rover Evoque
Land Rover's new pint-sized Range Rover starts at $44,000 and has gotten rave reviews so far. No wonder. It's gorgeous -- there is no better-looking SUV or crossover right now, period. And while its Land Rover credentials mean it has to be able to handle itself off road, on pavement (where most Evoques will live most if not all of the time), it's great to drive. AWD is standard, and power comes from a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Fuel economy is very much the opposite of the larger, thirstier Land Rover and Range Rover models, at 18 mpg city / 28 highway / 22 combined. The interior is appropriately snazzy as well. Also, it's available as a two-door if you're looking for a more "personal luxury" experience.
Land Rover's overall reliability record to this point is discouraging. If the Evoque can shake that, it'd be a good thing. Meanwhile, newcomers like the redesigned 2013 Acura RDX offer plenty of luxury, tech, and performance for less, even though they don't match the Evoque's show-car styling.
2012 Volkswagen up!
First things first: You cannot buy one. The up!, VW's new microcar, is a European model that is not sold in North America. It was at the event because VW brought it over last month to appear at the New York Auto Show, where it was named World Car of the Year. Power comes from a 3-cylinder engine making around 75 horsepower, and this one had a 5-speed manual. It's nimble, feels well-built, and is surprisingly roomy, all things considered. (it's a little longer than the Scion iQ, which competes with the Smart ForTwo -- as you can see here) There are no current plans to offer the up! here. Pity. I think they'd sell tons of them.
2012 BMW 650i Convertible
BMW's big, 4-seat grand-touring convertible is sleek, expensive (this V8-powered example starts at $90,000) and luxury drenched. Because I am not a wildly successful real estate agent in Boca Raton, I didn't think I'd be really into it. Because the twin-turbo V8 is a 400-horsepower monster, I was, in fact, quite into it.
Listen, there's not a lot of competition here, unless you climb higher up the ladder into something like a Maserati (foreshadowing alert!). If you have the desire and the means, more power to you. The big 6 will not disappoint.
2012 Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG Ststion Wagon
It's got 550 horsepower, sounds like a violent thunderstorm, and it's a station wagon -- a glorious, ridiculous $130,000, build-to-order station wagon that I would like to have in my everyday life. The crazy attention to detail extends to seats whose side bolsters actively react and adjust when you drive through curves turns to help keep you firmly planted in them. It even incorporates a stop/start system that automatically kills the engine at stoplights and restarts it when you lift off the brakes, which helps contribute to fuel economy ratings that are surprisingly not dreadful: 15 mpg city / 23 highway / 18 combined, according to the EPA.
The Cadillac CTS-V Station Wagon matches the AMG Benz's power and performance at around half the price, AND you can get it with a stick. It's like an amusement park that fits in your garage. That said, once you climb inside, there's no comparison -- the E63's interior puts the Caddy's to shame. Also, when driven as intended, the aforementioned fuel economy numbers are total fantasy. Not that you care if you buy one of these.
2012 Maserati GranTurismo Convertible Sport
The latest addition to Maserati's lineup, the GranTurismo Convertible Sport has a 444-horsepower 4.7-liter V8 that sounds as if it was tuned by God's personal mechanic. It's easy to drive (it has an automatic transmission with paddle shifters), and the back seat actually can hold adults. $142,000, and you can have your own. During my test drive, we needed to top it off with gas. I thought kid at the pump ahead of ours was going to have a nervous breakdown. Oh, and yes, it's fast. Duh.
I know 142 grand is a ton of money, but in the case of the Maserati, it comes off as a bargain. A genuine Italian exotic, with all the associated cachet. You can buy a drop-top Bentley or Aston Martin, both of which are similarly high-profile, but you'll pay more for both. You can also get similar performance while paying less in a car like the aforementioned BMW 650i Convertible, though it lacks the Maser's visual and aural shock and awe.
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
This is the one that got away -- I never got a chance to drive it. There was always a wait, so I wound up invariably drifting to something else. The Abarth is the hotted-up version of the adorable little Fiat 500, only it trades "cute & cuddly" for a mean snarl. Seriously, this was one of the best-sounding cars on hand, right up there with the Maserati and the AMG Mercedes. If you haven't watched the Fox Car Report clip embedded above, go back and do so, and you'll hear what I'm talking about.
Hey, to be continued. I'll try and drive one this summer and report back.