By David Thomas on May 5, 2009
Last week, Cars.com’s editors took part in a rally at the Road America racetrack in Elkhart Lake, Wis. There were dozens of new cars on hand to take on the track or local roads. More so than in past years, we were surprised by many new models, and not always in good ways. Here’s what resonated most.
The lap that sticks out most to me is the one I took in the Audi TTS. It had lots of power and grip, and when it began to slide it was exceptionally controllable. I enjoyed the previous-generation TT, but that one was practically impossible to rotate on its axis. The TTS, even though it has a Haldex all-wheel-drive coupling — not the rear-biased all-wheel drive to which Audi is transitioning — was easy to fling around, drift and rotate.
The Nissan 370Z also gets high marks for overall greatness. The 2010 Mazda3 didn't disappoint. I always bear in mind that Road America is a large, fast track — too fast for almost all production cars — and that's why it stands out when a regular model like the Mazda3 handles as well as it did at the limits. The new Mazdaspeed3 should be a monster (unfortunately it's already unfathomably monstrous looking). On the street, the Volvo XC60 knocked me out: Nice, quiet interior, comfortable ride and better steering than you get in most Volvos.
— Joe Wiesenfelder
Taking a car you’ve never driven before straight onto the track at Road America is a pretty nerve-racking experience. It’s amazing how some cars feel perfectly natural from the first second to the last, and the new Nissan 370Z is one of those. Its engine roared louder than I thought possible, and it gripped like nobody’s business. No other new model impressed me as much, but old standbys like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo MR and BMW M3 still blow me away, especially going around that carousel.
Ford brought out a European version of its Fiesta subcompact, which amazed me on the local roads. Road noise was minimal, and the engine felt plenty powerful for its class. It turned out to be a fun ride instead of a typical economy-car test drive.
— David Thomas
From its eager and smooth-revving four-cylinder engine to its crisp handling, the Fiesta hatchback holds a lot of promise. As long as Ford doesn't mess with the formula too much for U.S.-bound Fiestas, the car will be near the top of the subcompact segment in terms of overall refinement and fun-to-drive factor. It's poised to seriously challenge the Honda Fit and others.
I'd heard others praise the Dodge Challenger's racetrack cornering performance, and after taking the 2009 R/T for a lap at Road America I can see what they're talking about. This two-ton muscle car defies physics with the way it stays mostly flat when pushing hard through a corner, and I thought it exhibited less body roll on the track than either the Ford Mustang GT or the Chevrolet Camaro SS.
— Mike Hanley
I had a great time driving the Pontiac G8 GT on a smaller track and the G8 GXP on the street, so I had high hopes for the GXP here. On one level, it was easy to drive faster than you'd realize, but the brakes weren't up to the task of slowing it down, and the comfortable ride quality on the street shows its ugly side in body roll and weight shifts. My prior experience with the G8's chassis was behind my high expectations for the Chevy Camaro, so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by more disappointment. Apart from being wicked quick, the Camaro SS' dynamics didn't distinguish themselves from the Mustang and Challenger as much as I'd hoped. Its chassis is more technically proficient than the Mustang's and more engaging than that of the capable Challenger, but it's likewise a heavy car with braking that's better than the G8's but not robust enough for a track. These three are best driven on the street.
Then there's the Hyundai Genesis Coupe, in 3.8 Track form, which is too electronically reined in by its stability system and not stable enough without it. Throw in the bricklike brake pedal, and the track experience becomes a downer. There's too much tradeoff in street ride quality and brake feel for this Track version not to be better on the track. I like driving sideways as much as the next guy, but I'd prefer putting a little effort into doing so — not a lot into preventing it.
— Joe Wiesenfelder
There was probably no car that disappointed me more than the new Hyundai Genesis Coupe. I took the same V-6 track-ready model out as Joe, and the steering immediately caused me some distress. The wheel felt wobbly during the entire circuit, and the power was less than impressive. The Camaro SS didn’t handle well on the track, either. Some might attribute that to it being a big muscle car, but the G8 GXP — sporting pretty much the same engine and transmission – took to the track quite naturally in comparison. Luckily, my drive in the V6 Camaro on the streets of rural Wisconsin was much more exhilarating.
— David Thomas
My faults came mainly on the street, not the track.
Ford has made a number of worthwhile updates to the 2010 Mustang, like improving its interior quality, but the convertible's body rigidity is a disappointment; even mildly rutted roads make the convertible's body and windshield frame shimmy. It's enough of an issue that I would think twice before buying this car if I were in the market for a convertible.
The new Honda Insight offers a relatively good hybrid driving experience except for in one area: Its suspension is very firm. Hondas tend to have stiffer suspensions in general, but I think the automaker has gone too far here and risks alienating efficiency-focused shoppers. There's no question firm suspensions have their place in the automotive world, but I don't think one is needed in the Insight for the car to achieve its mission.
— Mike Hanley
Managing Editor David Thomas has a thing for wagons and owns a 2010 Subaru Outback and a 2005 Volkswagen Passat wagon. Email David