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BMW 335i twin-turbo (left) 2007 MINI Cooper 2 (right) Click to see larger image

MAMA Spring Collection 2007

By Larry Carley, copyright 2007


Every spring, the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA) hosts a special ride-and-drive event for automotive journalists. As in previous years, the Spring Collection 2007 was held in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin at the Road America race track. The event is attended by newspaper, magazine and online automotive writers, and representatives from the various auto manufacturers. It's a great event because it gives writers a chance to drive similar cars back-to-back on the race track, on the highway, or int eh case of the four-wheel drive trucks and SUVs on an offroad course.

This year, I drove a 2007 BMW 335i to the event (about 160 miles from Chicago). The Bimmer is a slick two-seater that retails for around $45,000 and has all the features you would expect in this price range. The twin-turbo six-cylinder engine delivers gobs of power, and pulls strong in every gear (six speed manual gearbox). It is also rated at 29 mpg on the highway, but heavy-footed driving will deliver something less than that. The BMW has a well refined suspension and provided a comfortable ride until I hit the washboard section of I-43 north of Milwaukee. Then the BMW rode more like a pogo stick until the pavement smoothed out again.

Mustang Mashed

(BEFORE) . (AFTER) Click to see larger images

The first day at the track started out with rain in the morning, so the track was still wet when the first cars were taken out for their test drives. I jumped into the 2007 Mustang Shelby anxious to experience the thrill of its supercharged 500-horsepower engine. The car sounded great and pulled hard. But even with traction control on, the Mustang would twitch and slip sideways anytime I mashed the gas pedal. This car was an accident waiting to happen, and sure enough, the third or fourth person to drive it after me spun it into a wall of tires, denting the driver door, front fender and rear quarter. Nobody was hurt and the Mustang was retired for the rest of the event.

2007 MINI Cooper S turbocharged Click to see larger images

After the track dried off, I took out the new MINI Cooper S with its more powerful turbocharged engine (the previous version was supercharged). This car was a blast to drive. It handled like a go-cart and scooted around the track just as fast as most of the other performance cars. I really liked this car in spite of its pint-size. Even so, the interior is surprisingly roomy with more than enough head room for the tallest drivers. I also like the oversize speedometer int eh center of the dash. My son drives a 2003 MINI Cooper S and he absolutely loves it.

Lingenfelter Pontiac GTO . . . Lingenfelter Pontiac GTO supercharged engine Click to see larger images

There was also a Lingenfelter modified Pontiac GTO at the track with a supercharged 500-horsepower engine. The car looked and sounded like it meant business, but unfortunately I did not get any ride time in this vehicle. But I did get to chase it around the track in a Mazdaspeed 3. The Pontiac GTO obviously had much more horsepower than the little turbocharged Mazda, but I managed to catch up with the Pontiac and stick right behind it through the curves much to the chagrin of whomever was driving the Pontiac. On the long straights, it was a different story as the more powerful Pontiac raced ahead. Right after the Mazda, I drove an Infiniti G35 sedan, which is also a very nice car. But the Mazda felt just as quick as the Infiniti on the track and probably costs $10,000 less.

Mazdaspeed 3 Click to see larger image

They also had a number of other exotic cars at the event including an Audi R8, Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder, a Dodge Viper, a Corvette Z07, and even a Bentley Continental GT coupe (for highway driving only). What can I say except that the fast cars were very fast, and the Bently made one feel like a millionaire CEO behind the wheel.

Other cars I drove on the track included the Chevy Cobalt SS (lot of torque with its supercharged engine but did not handle as well as some of the other European and Japanese sporty cars), and a Dodge Magnum SRT8 (a family man's performance car with tremendous throttle response from its powerful Hemi engine, and great handling in spite of its size). Unfortunately, I did not have an opportunity to drive all of the cars that were available because of the limited time and the number of journalists who all wanted seat time. Some of the cars would also mysteriously disappear for long periods of time. I assume some of the journalists were taking track cars on the highway for an extended drive or a photo shoot (which meant less drive time in those vehicles for the rest of us). Oh well...

Autocross

BMW Z4 Click to see larger image
Another part of the event on day two was a timed autocross that involved zig-zagging between tiny orange cones on a large parking lot. We rotated cars for this event, and I drove a BMW Z4, the MINI Cooper S, a Volkswagen GTI, a Saturn Sky (or was it the Pontiac Solstice GXP?) and an Audi TT. The BMW Z4 felt the quickest and best balanced in terms of handling in the autocross event, followed by the MINI Cooper S and the VW GTI.

Offroad

Range Rover offroad Click to see larger image
The offroad course was where we could test the metal (and anything else that might bend or break) and traction of vehicles by driving over hills, off of cliffs, through mud bogs and over rocks. The four-wheel drive trucks and SUVs were divided into three groups based on ground clearance, overhang and off-road capability, and three different routes (hard, harder and hardest) were identified with colored dinner plates. Vehicles I drove in this event were the BMW X5, Land Rover Range Rover, Jeep Patriot, Jeep Grand Cherokee diesel, and Kia Sportage. All did exactly what they were designed to do, and navigated the terrain with ease.

On Highway

A variety of vehicles were also available for ordinary highway driving outside Road America on the scenic rolling blacktop roads that surround the race track. Vehicles I drove on the highway included General Motors new Arcadia SUV (very nice and very refined, should be a winner), the Ford Edge (also nice but a bit pricey), Ford Escape Hybrid, Mitsubishi Outlander, Nissan Altima 3.5 SE, and Saturn Aura Greenline hybrid. The Ford Escape is a true hybrid like the Toyota Prius in that it has a full-electric mode from a dead stop up to about 25 mph (depending on the throttle position and load). It's a smooth system that should deliver excellent fuel economy for a vehicle the size of the Escape. The Saturn Aura Greenline does not have a full electric mode, but has a start stop system that saves gas. Even so, the combination alternator/starter in the Aura does provide a little extra boost to the engine when accelerating at wide open throttle (though you can hardly feel it). The continuously variable transmissions (CVT) in the Nissan is smooth as glass, allowing the engine to rev and hold at about 3500 rpm while the car accelerates. The lack of gear changes takes a little getting used to, but the CVT also delivers excellent acceleration. There is also a manual shift mode for those who need to play with a shifter.





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