The Beasts’ Brawl!

A dream come true…an invitation to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to watch some seriously fast cars race around.  Who wouldn’t want to go?  I REALLY wanted to go, so I went.  With my dad (who also REALLY wanted to go!).  So we went.  If only you could be so lucky…One of the many items on my automotive bucket list is to meet Randy Pobst.  I met him, and I can cross another item off my list (it never ends…)…

Just over a month ago, Motor Trend‘s Senior Features Editor, Jonny Lieberman, invited me and my dad out to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.  For what?  To watch a 2013 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 face off against the 2013 SRT Viper GTS.  To be there by about 10:00 AM, we had to wake up at 4:00 AM.  It was worth it, though.  When we arrived, Motor Trend‘s hired racer, Randy Pobst, was warming up the Vette.  What a nice way to start off the morning, don’t you think?  The ZR1 was a bit on the cold side too, so it wasn’t super loud.  Yet.  Randy was taking it slow – “warming up” in Randy’ eyes is a steady 130 mph, as the track was still cold. Words don’t do justice to how nice both these cars look and sound!  We sat around and talked for most of the morning with the lovely sound of the ZR1 blasting around the track at ridiculously high speeds.  Both cars were black cherry with black racing stripes on a black interior.  Well, the Corvette had a grey and black interior that certainly wouldn’t be very comfortable for a six-hour blast back down to Los Angeles.  While these cars are fast, nice cars to drive, they really aren’t meant for drives up and down the state.  Jonny, and Scott (Motor Trend‘s Road Test Editor) had to drive both cars up to Laguna Seca, and down to Los Angeles.  Jonny had driven the ZR1 to Laguna Seca, and he said that it got very hot in the interior.  Why?  Think 6.2 liters of V8, supercharged to the tune of 638 horsepower!  The engine is so big that it made anything below his knees start to get hot and sweaty.  Yuck.  Scott was lucky enough to drive the Viper up.  He said that it was very loud (at one point, he was listening to the radio, and he had to turn the volume all the way up to just barely hear it.  Plus, it’s bluetooth system wouldn’t sync to his brand-new iPhone!), AND it was uncomfortable.  Anything below his knees got very hot, and his left leg got really hot from being so close to the exhaust pipe!  He couldn’t wait to take the Corvette back down!  The photo crew was taking about a billion pictures of the Viper and the Polestar Volvo S60 (see future blog post).  The technical crew was in a corner of the garage (their choice, I’m pretty sure…) analyzing data of the ZR1 as it was lapping the track.  Idling in the shade of an outbuilding was an ambulance (standard procedure for all Motor Trend articles, a little bird told me).  Throughout the day, various people from the track came to gawk at the cars.  As Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca borders a regional park with a bike path, many bicyclists were riding up to the top of the hill to get a bird’s-eye view of the ZR1 flying around the track.  Awesome! At about noon, pizza was delivered and devoured by the starving camera crew (photographers CAN move fast!).  Jonny’s boss, Ron Kiino (the Executive Editor) called the pizza parlor for more pizza.  Unfortunately, all the Motor Trend staff were busy, so my dad HAD TO (yeah, right) go get the pizza.  Ron graciously let him take his 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLi to go fetch the pizza.  My dad drove out of the 30-acre parking lot like, well, a guy in a Volkswagen Jetta GLi.  To get to Laguna Seca, one has to go driving on a pretty curvy road.  My dad had some fun with the GLi (brakes WERE used, Ron!) on the road, but thoughtfully declined to do so when returning with quite a few boxes of pizza.  The pizza was good, but it was even better to eat it while listening to Randy drive the Viper around Laguna Seca as fast as he dared.  Randy may be an amazing driver, but he was scared to get a 1:35 lap around Laguna Seca in the Viper.  Why?  At one point, he was going along one of the two straights at Laguna Seca, which leads to a sharp turn and dip at around 150 mph.  He didn’t have time to downshift or brake, so he went flying over the dip and hurtled into the turn.  He wasn’t sure what was going to happen.  What happened was he nearly spun, but was able to wrangle the car into a drift.  Impressive.  What was more impressive is that he grabbed it by the scruff of the neck, and gave it a lesson on how to drive around a racetrack.  Really well done.  Randy also had to be reminded multiple time not to touch the doorsill of the Viper (he likes getting in and out of a car that way), as the tailpipe exits right by the door.  It makes the interior REALLY hot, and it gets very noisy inside the cabin.

Next up on the agenda was basking in the sun and talking to various people like the managing director of Polestar, Hans Bääth, and the fleet technical manager of the Prietive Group, Ryan Minor.  Hans, Ryan, my dad and I had a wonderful time talking about the Polestar S60.  What did we talk about?  The history of Polestar and Volvos, and just about everything related to Polestar and the S60.  Awesome. Then, the Polestar had a chance to go out onto the track.  While 508 horsepower is weak compared to the 640 horsepower put out by the mighty Viper, it’s still more than enough to move the Polestar 60 around Laguna Seca for a 1:41.26 lap.  If you see a regular S60 driving along, you know that it won’t go nearly that fast around Laguna Seca.  But, if you see a blue S60 with big exhaust pipes and big wheels with fat tires, you can rest assured that whatever you’re driving is about to be smoked.  Anyways, Randy came off of the same hill that he almost spun in the Viper, landed at 120 mph, and lost all power to the rear wheels (the car is AWD).  He then, er, limped in at 100.  He wasn’t happy.  Nobody was.  It was amazing to listen to Randy tell the Polestar techs how the front left wheel was spinning 10% faster than the front right wheel.  Somehow, he was able to calculate this while simultaneously knowing that the AWD system had failed, all while going 120 mph.  If I could do all of those calculations, I would never get a speeding ticket or get into an accident…The Polestar techs jacked up the car, one went under and checked out the AWD system while the other was checking out the engine.  They don’t know what happened, but they took it for a few laps, and it was fine.  Randy jumped back in and banged out a 1:40 flat.  Two times in a row.  It had a nice sound.  You know how turbos make the engine sound like a boat engine?  This engine sounded like it was ready to blast around the Nurburgring – at full speed. As soon as Randy got out, he said it was a challenge to drive around Laguna Seca near the car’s limits.  It kept understeering when he needed it to oversteer, and it leaned a lot in the corners.  He said that it’s the type of car that you can comfortably drive at 8/10 of the car’s limit, but take it up to 9/10, and you’ll wish you didn’t.  For those of you who don’t know what 8/10’s of the limit of a car is, it’s 8/10’s of the technical limits of the car.  There really aren’t many other ways to describe it.  The feeling is nice, especially when the car is comfortable like this one is.  Otherwise, it can be boring, or scary.  Hans, if you just read that, when can I become a test driver for Polestar?

The next beast of a car up on the agenda was the Volkswagen Golf R.  With a powerful 256 horsepower, 2.0 liter turbocharged engine wedged under the small hood, it made a lot of nice sounds.  It was slower than the others, but that could be a variety of reasons.  Power is definitely one of them, handling is another, and speed is yet another.  But, it was pretty darn fast for something it’s size.  If you think about it, many of it’s competitors couldn’t go that fast at Laguna Seca without drifting and understeering all over the place (I’m talking to you, Subaru STI, Ford Focus ST).

I just have one thing to say to the whole Motor Trend crew:  THANK YOU SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO MUCH!  It was an amazing experience! And to all my faithful readers, feel free to tell me which car you think should win, and why.  If you have any experiences with a Corvette ZR1, Polestar Volvo S60, Volkswagen Golf R, or a SRT Viper GTS Launch Edition, you can tell us in the comment section.  It’s okay, I want to know your experiences!  Thanks again, Motor Trend!  It was an awe-inspiring experience!

The Family’s New Car – What Will it Be?

So many people have been driving their old cars.  The economy, ya know.  Well, the old cars need CPR (or most likely, a quick and painless retirement).  I decided to research options.  So here you are, a comparison, and contrast, of  the:  Toyota Prius Plug-In, the Toyota Camry Hybrid, and the Chevrolet Volt.  I thought that this topic would interest you, so this post is going to be a bit longer than usual.

Toyota Prius Plug In:  The Toyota Prius plug-in is virtually indistinguishable from a normal Prius.  The only way one can tell the Prius Plug-In apart from a regular Prius are the silver paint on the mirrors, door handles, and tailgate, the car looks the same.  Of course, the blue-and-white PLUG-IN HYBRID stickers help.  There is also a cutout in the left fender that houses the outlet for the charging cord.  In terms of the inside, there are only a few PLUG-IN HYBRID stickers and logos.  The cargo floor is also a couple of inches higher, due to the larger battery pack.  From the driver’s seat, the car is virtually the same as a regular Prius.  The only differences are the fact that the battery pack is much heavier (it is made out of lithium-ion).  The car will take a tortoise-like 11.3 seconds to reach 60.  In three hours (from a 110-volt current), the car will be completely charged.  However, if you have a 220-volt current, you will be on your way in an hour and a half.  If you drive like a senior, you can get 13 miles of range before the car starts the normal hybrid cycle of a Toyota Prius.  If you drive faster, the range will subsequently go down.  Quickly.  You can go up to 62 in full electric mode, but that will drain the battery within minutes.  Accelerating to freeway speed or going up a hill will bring a moan that sounds like Leo when he’s tired from the engine.  Car & Driver gingerly drove the car in the city and were sustained by pure electric power 39% of the time, and got an average of 56 mpg neatly displayed on the navigation screen.  However, there are limited dealers that are authorized to sell the Prius Plug-In, so be sure to contact dealers near you.  The Toyota Prius Plug-In that I configured on the Toyota website came into a grand total of $33,208 (including an $850 destination charge/shipping tax).

Toyota Camry Hybrid:  The Toyota Camry Hybrid has crisper handling than the basic Camry.  The Camry Hybrid has a larger trunk than the previous generation (a gain of 2.5 cubic inches to 13.1 cubic inches) and the right side of the rear seat is now the only side that can accommodate long objects.  Passenger space has increased to 102.7 inches from 101.4 inches.  Toyota has trimmed about 220 pounds from the previous Camry Hybrid, thanks to the use of high-strength steel.  The low-rolling-resistance tires and a slicker drag coefficient of 0.27 makes the Camry Hybrid more fuel-efficient and faster.  The three “optitron” dials in the car’s multi-information display show:  mileage, range, and very important energy flow.  In uplevel XLE models, a leather interior and an infotainment system will run you $1160.  The eco setting accessed through the multi-information display will significantly inhibit throttle openings and will lower the air-conditioning power consumption to a dull roar.  When in pure electric mode, one can travel 1.6 miles below 25 mph.  While the Camry Hybrid won’t win a drag race against a Mustang, it will win a drag race against the basic Camry.  The Camry Hybrid rockets to 60 mph in a monumental 7.3 seconds!  The Camry Hybrid will brake shorter and sooner than the previous generation Camry Hybrid.  Stops have been measured at 178 feet, compared to the older Camry Hybrid’s 200.  Also, the new electric braking system is so smooth that you won’t feel queasy, even if you stomp on the brake pedal.  There is not enough lateral support in the front seats during hard cornering.  There is more rear-seat room, thanks to the car’s redesign and the center console and front seatbacks being redesigned.  This is especially better for the passenger in the center seat.  The Camry Hybrid LE that I configured on the Toyota website came into a grand total of $27,033.  That includes the $850 destination charge/shipping tax, which puts the car on par with the Chevrolet Volt (in terms of pricing).

Chevrolet Volt:  Changes in the battery pack in the Chevrolet Volt have made the car’s range go up to 38 miles in pure electric mode.  The EPA fuel economy for the car has gone up to 98 mpg.  The larger battery pack means that the charging time from a 120-volt current will snap up 10.5 hours of charging time.  With a 240-volt current, that time is dramatically reduced to 4.25 hours.  Any Chevrolet Volt sold in California will automatically come with a low-emissions package that will make it legal to drive in the carpool lane with only one person.  For many owners, work is just within reach of the electric range, so they can charge the car at work and come home without ever turning on the gas generator engine.  When owners DO use the gas generator engine, the cost is usually less than $100 a month.  This is mainly because of the massive amounts of technology stored in the Volt.  The regenerative braking system can eke about 8 more miles of range into the car.  The car will give owners neck-snapping performance in sport mode, and very little acceleration in eco mode.  The Volt that I configured on the Chevrolet website was $42,720, but of you add in the $10,000 discount on the Volt, the Volt will run you a mere $22,720.  Add in the $7,500 tax rebate and the Volt will run you $25,220.

The Kia Optima Hybrid is a hybrid family sedan that competes (ish) with the Camry Hybrid.  It has a lot of bang for the buck, but it has surprisingly bad fuel economy for something with a hybrid logo.  The Optima Hybrid is stylish, fun to drive, relatively fast, and did I mention that it will cause traffic jams because of its looks?  It only costs a mere $26,000 base price!

Here’s where the fun begins!  Comparing and contrasting the three cars won’t be easy.  I never thought it would be.  The Prius won’t win a beauty contest.  That goes to the Volt.  In terms of range, the Volt wins again.  In terms of being family-friendly, hats off to the Camry Hybrid.  In terms of technology, the Prius Plug-In and the Volt are tied.  The Volt wins the performance criteria.  In terms of utility, the Prius Plug-In wins again.  In terms of pricing, the Volt is REALLY trying to end up in your driveway.  The Camry Hybrid is REALLY good at making it into your driveway.  The Prius Plug-In has the potential to sell as well as the conventional Prius.  Which car would I recommend to my parents, or their friends?  I would recommend the Volt to them, as it is the most efficient, fun to drive, and has a good deal of storage space.  Plus, it wins the beauty contest (in my eyes).  It also comes with leather at no added cost, an HOV sticker, and a REALLY cool sound system.  Oh, and did I mention that it was the 2011 Motor Trend Car of the Year!.  My second choice?  The Camry Hybrid.  In years to come, the Camry Hybrid will be easy to find parts for, and it should last us a very long time.  Plus, it’s still family-friendly and it’s a winning formula that’s been proven many times over.  It’s also got crisp handling (a much-needed improvement for Toyota), and it has over 600 miles of range.  Why wouldn’t I recommend the Prius Plug-In to them?  Well, it’s not as fun to drive (important), it looks like it came out of Star Trek, and only certain dealers can service it.  That’s a BIG, BIG problem.  The Optima Hybrid lags behind the others in everything but looks.