S(no)w fun: Two autos not at all geared for winter delights | SummitDaily.com
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S(no)w fun: Two autos not at all geared for winter delights

Andy Stonehouse
summit daily news
Mazda 2009
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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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