S(no)w fun: Two autos not at all geared for winter delights
summit daily news
If you’re an avid reader of automotive literature, you’ve surely noticed that we car writers tend to act as though largely winter-weather-free Southern California is the norm, and not the exception, to driving life.
But it only takes a few big East Coast storms (or, as you know, a typical winter in Summit County) to rather seriously separate the real-world autos from the summer-only machines.
For the last week, the car delivery gods have either blessed or cursed me with two rear-wheel-drive January testers that, as fair-weather-awesome as they are, I could just not imagine traversing the High Country entirely safely between, oh, say, October and April.
First up was the 2011 Mazda RX-8, a fantastic racer and runabout that, even when equipped with day-old Bridgestone Blizzak snow tires, was rendered almost completely useless by Denver’s weekend snow and subsequent cold snap.
Secondly, a sparkling, high-powered Lexus IS-F, the 416-horsepower, sub-supercar re-do of the IS sedan, sitting on well-worn, super-fat, ZR-rated summertime slicks. See if you can guess the outcome.
The larger, heavier (3,780 pounds) and painfully fast Lexus I imagine might have a tad more seasonal chutzpah with some pricy winter footwear, but then again, I’m not sure, given the IS-F’s lowered chassis, curb-hugging aerodynamic and … 371 lb.-ft. of torque to those rear tires.
RX-8, son of the long-running and popular RX-7, comes off as a vehicle not really much more than a high-powered Miata with an ersatz, two-passenger back seat (reached through a set of curious suicide doors).
It’s the lone, industry-wide holdout of rotary engine technology, the idea being that a smaller, lighter 1.3-liter engine could turn out V6-level power, although the side effect was usually V6-level gas consumption.
The RX-8 debuted in the U.S. in 2003 and while it too got the recent, company-wide smiley face and interior makeover, the basics of the machine haven’t changed tons in almost a decade; a new Renesis engine improves mileage, though 22 MPG highway is about it.
On dry pavement, RX-8’s torquey 232 horsepower (or 212 for the automatic transmission, which can’t connect to all that juice) is a hell of a lot of fun. At just over 3,000 pounds, you’re truly one with the road and I can see why it’s become a popular race car; it’s also nearly as tight as a Miata on the inside and my medium-height frame left me with less than an inch of head clearance, seat at bottom height. Wet/snowy pavement, an entirely different story. And not a good one.
Better, however, than my experience with the IS-F, which was left dead in the water by the same storm system. My sole snow-day outing saw that range of motion best remembered from scenes of 1970s El Caminos trying to navigate in the winter – sideways sliding rather than forward motion, even with the torque-limiting “snow” button in full effect.
Again, not a fair shake to the Japanese, four-door Corvette, though my pre-snowfall shenanigans on mountain roads also reconfirmed much of what I’ve heard about the IS-F since my initial lovestruck test drive two years ago.
The not-especially-large IS-F (based as it is on the not-especially-large IS) becomes a little more claustrophobic with all that hood-bulging 5.0-liter V8 up front and fighter jet-stiff and over-bolstered sport seats.
Flat out, it goes like hell and sounds like Satan, though the carefully tuned, full-pedal exhaust note is only synthetically baritone. The eight-speed automatic transmission, while a technical marvel, tends to keep the F in precariously high gear, which will eke out 23 MPG highway, but means huge five- or six-gear downshifts for passing power; I needed to keep it in manual and work the gigantic paddles to add consistency.
And the much-discussed stiffness of ride … oh, goodness. This Lexus is everything that every other Lexus isn’t: seemingly hard-tailed, intolerable on muddled cement and abundant with road noise from those big slicks. That produces race-track-worthy handling, to a point-I got it loose on dry pavement much more easily than expected.
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