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May 1, 2005, by Bill Cawthon
One of my other jobs involves reporting on the auto industry. Unlike many auto writers, who do reviews and road tests, I deal with numbers and trends because the publication for which I work is dedicated to reporting for the auto industry. It's rewarding work, but we don't get to drive a lot of cars. Of course, I've been writing about some of the world's great cars for Promotex but in reality the closest I get to most of them is at an auto show, a scale model or a carefully monitored drive on a closed route. So I was delighted to have the opportunity to join the Texas Auto Writers Association at their 2005 Spring Challenge.
The TAWA Spring Challenge consists of bringing together a bunch of writers and a bunch of cars and turning them loose together. It's an opportunity to try out real cars on real roads in sort of an all-day drive-a-thon. This year, auto manufacturers brought almost sixty cars ranging from an assortment of Kias to the incredible $144,000 Ford GT.
Our day started with breakfast at the Omni Hotel in downtown Austin. After we finished eating, it was down to the hotel garage where we were assigned a car to drive to the Challenge area west of Austin at the Oasis Restaurant in the hills overlooking Lake Travis. I lucked out and drew a silver supercharged Jaguar S-Type R sedan. It was the beginning of a day filled with big smiles.
Driving out to the Oasis was a pleasure. I've driven powerful cars and I've driven luxury cars, but the Jaguar was both; surefooted and quite comfortable, just what you would expect from an automobile priced at sixty thousand dollars. The siren song of the supercharger was a temptation to risk attracting an altogether different type of siren, but the highways heading out of town did give me a chance to enjoy at least some of the Jag's capabilities while staying at least somewhat close to the speed limit.
Arriving at the Oasis, we gathered at a tent for some coffee, which was welcome as the morning was overcast and the wind was chilly. TAWA president David Boldt briefed us on the driving routes and the day's schedule and then it was off to the cars.
Talk about a bunch of kids in a candy store. Naturally, everyone headed for the choice morsels and I wound up with a Volvo XC90. Contrarian that I am, I don't like the XC90. I don't care that it's one of Volvo's hottest-selling vehicles and has won a number of awards. I think it's a bloated caricature of what was already a very competent AWD Volvo, the XC70.
Once inside and behind the wheel, however, it's a different story. The roads on our route were not selected for high speed, but twists and turns that would give us a good idea how each car would handle and ride. There were several different road surfaces from a patch of pavement in desperate need of repair to smooth blacktop. On this course, the XC90 was a very impressive vehicle. Ours had the new Volvo V8 and was a pleasure to drive, even on the serpentine roads we were using. Very little body roll and first-class interior appointments made me re-think my opinion of the big Volvo. So would I own one? Nope. I think there are better choices for my needs. Would I recommend one to a friend who actually needs what the XC90 offers? In a heartbeat; especially as an alternative to one of the truck-based SUVs.
After the XC90, I was happy to wind up with a new red Ford Mustang GT, one of the cars I was most interested in driving, as my wife really likes it. Both Marge and I had 1967 Mustangs, the inspiration for the new model. I am happy to say that, like its predecessor, the new Mustang was a blast to drive. Though it still has a live rear axle, which hopped a bit on the washboard, Ford's newest pony car is quite an improvement over the original.
Next up were a couple of Land Rovers, beginning with the top-of-the-line Range Rover. If you have the need for a go-anywhere vehicle and have about $80,000 to drop on one, the Range Rover would be good choice. Riding with me was Tiffany Heikkila of Hill & Knowlton, who was handling the event for Mazda. Tiffany fell in love with the rear-view camera display, which came on as we were backing up. I liked the fact that even on the narrow hill roads with their tight turns the Land Rover was stable and competent. It was also deceptively fast; returning to the Oasis on a short stretch of highway, I was very surprised to find I was doing seventy miles an hour. On the other hand, the newest Land Rover, the LR3, which I drove immediately after the Range Rover, was a bit of a disappointment. Even though it is lower than the Range Rover, it had more body lean and was not nearly as much fun to drive.
After well over a hundred thousand dollars worth of Land Rovers, it was time to come back to earth and I got a Ford Five Hundred for my next ride. To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from Ford's new vanilla-mobile, especially in a venue that is not its strong suit. To my surprise, the Five Hundred was comfortable and handled quite well. It is a thoroughly competent car unfairly hampered by unimaginative styling and not quite enough engine, problems I hope Ford will see fit to fix in the near future.
When I returned the Five Hundred, I had the chance to try one of the hottest American sedans: the Chrysler 300C, complete with Hemi. The Chrysler made me wish for a nice, long stretch of highway to see what the Hemi could do, but even on the twisties it was a fine automobile. Plenty of power on tap and a good ride, even on the worst pavement.
By this time, more than a few of the writers were testing the boundaries of our test route, going a little farther down the road before turning back. Frankly, I would have been a bit worried if we hadn't; there were too many wonderful cars to experience.
My first "extended" drive was in the gorgeous Mercedes CLS. Ever since DaimlerChrysler unveiled the CLS in Geneva, I have been in love with this car. The reality did not disappoint - this is a grand touring car in every sense of the word. By the time I got a turn in the CLS, the sun was out and it was a beautiful day for a drive in a car that goes for a very large chunk of the Cawthon family's annual household income. Driving the wine-red CLS down a tree-lined road overlooking the lake was intoxicating.
For a change of pace (plus a nagging feeling that I had been neglecting the more realistically priced cars), I tried the Chevrolet Cobalt SS Coupe. Chevy has a lot riding on this car and I wanted to see how it stacked up against the Cavalier it replaced. After driving the little coupe with the new supercharged engine, there was obviously no contest. Though not as refined as some of the other cars, the Cobalt SS was eager and willing and packs a lot of driving fun into an economical package. I think the Cobalt deserves a lot more looks than it's been getting from the buying public.
Having tried the Cobalt, I was eager to drive the Dodge Neon SRT-4. This one is a real pocket rocket with a willing engine and a better shifter than the Cobalt's. Tossing the Neon around the curves and seeing how far it could be pushed was a hoot. Frankly, it was my favorite Mopar of the day, even better than the 300C.
By this time, most of the writers had headed to the Oasis for lunch, leaving me with a delightful selection of cars. While most manufacturers had brought several cars, there was only a single Bimmer. But perhaps BMW thought the new M3 would be enough.
The BMW M3 is wasted on American roads. It challenges you to drive at speeds that will have you on a first-name basis with every law enforcement officer in town. The M3 was my first experience with paddle-shifting and I must say I like it. Since everyone else was eating, I figured they wouldn't mind if I took the M3 on a slightly longer drive.
Driving the M3 is a test for the soul: If you don't get a huge grin while behind the wheel, you don't have one. The instant response of an engine that never seems to run out of room and handling that won't quit is almost magic. During the morning briefing, David Boldt admonished all the drivers to observe the posted speed limits. I can honestly say I observed them while driving the M3, but some I passed by too quickly to actually read the numbers.
Next on my personal lunch menu was a Mercedes-Benz SLK55 AMG roadster. While it took me a couple of minutes to get used to the Speedshift transmission, once I got the hang of it, it was sheer joy. Incredible power and grip made taking the turns through the hills a pleasure. In fact, it was such a pleasure that I took off exploring some of the Hill Country back roads. Fortunately, I made it back just as the other writers were coming back from their luncheon.
As I mentioned, Ford brought one of their new GTs to the event. This was the only car with any real restrictions. Each drive was limited to fifteen minutes and a Ford representative rode shotgun. Even with these limitations, there weren't enough slots for all the writers and we each had to draw a slip of paper from a hat. I was lucky enough to draw the 3:00 PM slot. The first couple of minutes were taken up just getting into the car. The Ford GT is just 44 inches tall and even with the cutaway in the roof, it takes some serious folding to get inside. Once inside, though, the car is quite comfortable as long as you are not a claustrophobe.
So what's it like to drive? Outstanding. For a car that can do far more than most of those lucky enough to own one are capable of asking, it's surprisingly easy to drive. The best part of the deal was the Ford representative, who was along to help you with the car's idiosyncrasies and to make sure you didn't get in over your head, but was quite happy to let you explore the car's limits while you pretended you were Dan Gurney or A.J. Foyt at LeMans.
There were more cars, like the wonderful Audi A6 and the stately Jaguar XJ. I thoroughly enjoyed the Mazda RX8, my first experience driving a rotary, and the Mazda6. But while it's great to drive all sorts of cars I could only dream of owning, either because of income or the fact I do have a family, I did take some time to drive a few that could grace my driveway.
The first is the new Volkswagen Jetta. What a great car. Really comfortable, good road manners and fun to drive, all in a four-door sedan that gets good gas mileage and is reasonably priced. First-class fit and finish, too.
Second is the Nissan Altima SE-R. Steve Parrett, Nissan's corporate communications manager for the southern region of the U.S., had been after me to drive the new Infiniti M. I didn't get to drive the Infiniti, but I did drive the Altima and was very impressed. It's a lot of car for not a lot of money.
The third is almost a guilty pleasure. My first car was a 1970 MG Midget, a tiny car you that was more something you wore than something you got into. However, I used to love driving my Midget on some of the same roads we were driving for the Spring Challenge. I got a big taste of that same pleasure driving the Mini Cooper S convertible.
I say it's a guilty pleasure for the simple reason the Mini Cooper is my soon-to-be-licensed daughter's dream car. For months, I have patiently explained to Wendy why the Mini wouldn't be a good car for her yet I came back from Austin trying to figure way to explain to my wife why the Mini would be a good car for me.
All too soon, the day was over and it was time to leave our automotive fantasies behind. When I got home, one of the first things I did was get out some of the models of the cars I had driven. Maybe I can't have the real thing, but I can look at my miniatures and dream.
See you next time!
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.
In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for just-auto.com, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.
He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.
Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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