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New Car Test Day at Laguna Seca – Martin Swig on Motoring

By Martin Swig
Suzuki Kizashi SedanEach Spring, the auto journalists in Northern California gather at Mazda’s Laguna Seca Raceway to evaluate an array of new cars on the racetrack and on nearby roads. While the quality differences in new cars have narrowed, there’s still plenty to experience in terms of car characteristics. Most cars meet their manufacturer’s objectives, but those might not be yours. And often, your preconception can be blown apart.
Example: For $25,000, you could have a Volkswagen Jetta, 2.5 SEL with sports package, or a Suzuki Kizashi 4-door sport. VW is automatic; Suzuki a 6-speed. Vinyl seats in the VW, nice leather in the Suzuki. Horsepower: VW 170, Suzuki 185. Based on prior experience, you might expect the VW to have a premium feel and provide a crisp driving experience. That’s not what I felt. To me, this Jetta is merely adequate. On the other hand, the Suzuki reeked of Audi-like quality. And it begged to be driven with enthusiasm. A real bargain.
Some other bargains came from Hyundai. The new Elantra, at well under $20,000, manages to outshine the other cars in its price class. It feels able and refined. The Hyundai Genesis R-Spec V6, 6-speed coupe was a surprising and immensely pleasing car on the race course – and only $27,000. Too bad about that rear side window beltline dip. In a quest for a difference, this design feature manages to disrupt.
Many industry observers think Hyundai has overreached with its $65,000 Equus. But a recent Car & Driver road test found it to essentially equal the $97,000 Lexus 460L. My short drive has me believing Car & Driver. Just as Lexus forced Mercedes-Benz to look at their quality and pricing 20 years ago, Hyundai has a pricing lesson for the industry.
These three cars help to explain why Hyundai is the #4 car producer in the world, trailing only Toyota, GM and Volkswagen.
At about the price of the Equus is the spectacular Cadillac CTS-V wagon – a 556 horsepower, 190 mph marvel. Driven normally, it’s smooth, tractable and refined. Put your foot in it and few cars can stay with you. Feels durable, too. But the exaggerated looks would prevent me from buying.
Cadillac CTS-V Wagon - Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
Another great driver/bad looker is the Nissan Juke. Few cars in its class are so quiet and genuinely fun to drive. Well worth its low-$20s price if you don’t mind looking at it. And apparently lots of people like it; Juke sales are about equal to the whole Mini line!
At $47,000, a big Dodge Challenger in white with blue stripes, and a bold white and blue leather interior, seemed to suit its 6-speed, hemi power. On the race course, this Dodge didn’t seem so big and was easy to drive. WELL DONE, and suggests that Chrysler is on the right track.
Many reviewers have suggested that Honda’s charming CR-Z comes up short; either too slow or too thirsty for a hybrid. I didn’t explore the economy angle, but the 6-speed version available was a nice drive around Laguna Seca. I’d almost consider being an owner, and I don’t say that about many cars. Compared to the CR-Z, the Volt seemed like an overpriced, ordinary example of what GM has long done well: bore people. Count me out.
Audi A7 Sportback The Mini Countryman is a perfectly good car, and plenty useful. But it discards the primary appeal of a Mini: its to-die-for cuteness. I’d settle for a little less space and drive home in a Clubman.
Unless a Fiat 500 got to me first. I had the original Fiat 500 back in 1959; it was feeble, but charming. The new one is NOT feeble – in fact, it’s quick enough and retains all the charm that Fiat has so expertly built into so many small cars over the years. I only wonder if Chrysler dealers will provide as understanding a home for Fiats as BMW dealers did for Mini.
From time to time, I drive a new car and think, “They built this car especially for ME. It’s got everything I like – tasteful style, great interior, civilized but toned down suspension, and crisp performance.” This week, that car was Audi’s latest A7, the 4-door, fastback coupe that shows how dumpy BMW’s efforts to do a fastback are. At about the same price as the Cadillac CTS-V or that Hyundai Equus, the Audi is the one that could keep this owner happy for years.
[Source: Martin Swig; photo credit: Suzuki, General Motors & Audi]