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The opportunity to test drive a car or two every week of the year adds unquestionable zest to the life of an auto journalist. And then there is the MAMA Spring Rally, which sets new standards every spring for members of the Midwest Auto Media Association.
This year’s Rally was conducted on the week leading up to Memorial Day. Over the course of the two days, I drove 17 different vehicles, and that left almost that many more I wanted to get into, but ran out of time.
Starting in reverse order here, the top vote-getters for Family Car of the Year established the early top candidates: the Hyundai Kona compact SUV, the Ram 1500 full size pickup truck, the new-for-2019 Volkswagen Jetta, the renovated Mazda6 sedan, the Buick Regal Tour-X station wagon, and the Ford Expedition large SUV. In the companion Luxury Car of the Year category, the early favorites are the Volvo XC40 compact crossover SUV, the Acura RDX midsize SUV, the Kia Stinger large performance sedan, and the Range Rover Velar SUV. These are not in order of votes, but make a preliminary list of favorites for the two categories, awaiting final vote-offs at the MAMA fall rally.
My personal picks were the Kona, the Ram 1500 and the Jetta and Mazda6. Among luxury vehicles, the Volvo XC40, the RDX, and the Jaguar E-Pace were my anticipated favorites, but the vehicle that stole the show for me was the new BMW X2, a low and flashy compact SUV with a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. Maybe it’s too new, but it somehow escaped the scrutiny of most voters.
What we do is gather at the Osthoff Resort in the tiny southeastern Wisconsin town of Elkhart Lake, which includes the legendary 4-mile road-racing circuit in the rolling hillside just outside of town. Our esteemed group’s board of directors stays in running contact with all the auto manufacturers, and they work out agreements to bring their newest vehicles to the track, where close to a hundred media types get to take turns driving nearly a hundred vehicles for one-lap circuits around the track.
Driving all these new cars on the nation’s most legendary road-racing track would be highlight enough for us, but we also get to make some real-world road tests around the winding roads outside the track, and, for good measure, some hot laps around a special autocross track located within the track’s borders. In addition, the folks from Range Rover have set up a special inside off-road track amid the hills and trees of the far side of the track property to test off-road vehicles.
There is no competition, just the fantastic chance to drive several vehicles that you may or may not have previously driven, getting a preview of what might be coming to your driveway in the coming weeks.
We also vote for what we think would be top candidates for Family Car of the Year. This is not for the fastest or swiftest, but for a legitimate, 4-door family vehicle. In fact, there is a price limit, so this year the board decided to add a Luxury Car of the Year category to take care of the ever-escalating price structure of the newest cars.
There certainly were other sensational cars we got acquainted with, such as the Lexus GS-F coupe and the Lexus RX350, a familiar crossover SUV that has been extensively redesigned.
My older son, Jack, has long been a helper for New Car Picks, shooting photos whenever possible, and road-testing as many test cars as he can get his hands on. So as a member of MAMA, and someone who grew up accompanying us on family trips to Road America races, the Rally is also a highlight of his year. And this year, he made his own impact.
It would be fulfilling just to attend and listen to the presentations, and eat the fantastic food presented by sponsored breakfasts and dinners from Hyundai, Nissan, Acura, and Volkswagen. But Jack did his thing on the autocross course on Day 2 at the track.
Years ago, I did a little road-racing, and I was always proud of achievements such as recording the fastest autocross time at a Mercedes event, which won me an expensive Bell racing helmet, autographed by all the event’s professional driving instructors. In fact, I still wear that 15-year-old helmet because it’s an excellent one, and why leave it stashed in careful wrapping?
Times change, and my primary focus on such events these days is to get a true feel for the cars’ performance, engineering, steering, handling and braking. There were six or eight cars lined up for us to queue up for and take a turn on the autocross course, and some of the more eager drivers sought to make repeated runs in their favorite. I instead tried to take turn in each vehicle. Not a good formula for setting a lap standard.
My times weren’t that good, but were comparable, whether in the amazing-handling BMW M5, the surprisingly quick Toyota 86 — the unfortunate name given to a sprightly and agile little sporty coupe, the Miata MX5, the Fiat 500 Abarth, the Mini Cooper JCW special coupe, the Volkswagen R — a deceptive GTI-like beast with all-wheel-drive, or a couple of other entries.
Son Jack, on the other hand, was very impressed on the big track with the John Cooper Works Mini and liked it on the small autocross track, too. But he did extremely well in the Golf R, and the large, heavy, but potent BMW M5.
We didn’t know how well until lunch on the second day, when the official timer gave out the names and times of the top drivers. There was a morning session the first day, and we were in the afternoon session, when it was much hotter on the track. When they read off the top three in each segment, the afternoon session showed: 1. Jack, in the Golf Type R, 2. Jack, in the BMW M5, and 3. Jack in the Golf Type R.
On the highway, Jack has never had a speeding ticket, and he is quick to caution me if the speedometer sneaks up and past any speed limit. But on the track, his great athletic coordination and driving instincts are best examples of his skill behind the wheel. I just didn’t realize how good he was.
Other surprising vehicles included the new Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross, named for a previous sporty coupe but representing the latest in crossovers; the Jaguar tandem of the XF Sportbrake, and the sleeker, wagon-like E-Pace; the Cadillac ATS-V Coupe; the Maserati Levante Q4 Gran Lusso SUV; and the 2019 Nissan Altima with variable compression.
The Acura RDX always has been among my favorites, as a sporty SUV. This one is all new, with an all-new and exclusive platform, and a new 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine and a slick-shifting10-speed automatic. If it seems to be crowding the larger MDX, maybe Acura is planning a smaller SUV as an entry-level, because the base price of the RDX is over $43,000.
Hybrids and electric cars continued to expand their presence at the rally, including even am electric Mini Clubman. On the trip from Duluth to Elkhart Lake, we covered 520 miles in a new VW Passat 2.0 TSI, and on the way back, we got a new 2019 Jetta, on its new platform and its new 1.4-liter turbo 4. I’ll be writing about those in coming weeks, but for now, suffice it to say we were unbothered by gas prices that we found climbing over $3 per gallon for regular — because we made the entire 510 miles down without stopping for gas in the Passat, and the new Jetta registered 44 miles per gallon on the return.
And because of his outstanding driving to place 1, 2 and 3 in the Autocross, I even let Jack drive two-thirds of the way home.