Mountain Wheels: Real racetrack experience brings out the beast (review)
You always see the fine print on those fancy car ads on TV saying “closed course — professional driver — do not attempt,” so what happens when you really do head out on an actual racetrack and experience a vehicle at the limits of performance, in a safe environment?
This week provided a chance to do just that at the High Plains Roadway, a full-blown racecourse located way the hell out near Deer Trail, east of Aurora, as the Rocky Mountain Automotive Press held its yearly track event.
There, we journalists had the opportunity to go all-out in a range of track-oriented vehicles. You can probably guess what happens when the 707-horsepower Dodge Challenger Hellcat or an unbelievable monster like the 503-horsepower Mercedes-Benz AMG C63 get to run at full speed, but we also experienced some nice surprises from machines that aren’t, let us say, your car insurance company’s worst nightmare.
Consider the Toyota 86, formerly known as the Scion FR-S — the sister car to the Subaru BRZ I recently wrote about. Out on the street, with 200 horsepower and a noisy four-cylinder Boxer engine, it’s not necessarily the fastest thing on four wheels.
But on the track, holy cow. The car’s old-school rear-wheel-drive setup means you absolutely feel those corners, in a blissfully organic fashion, and the racing seats and tight driving position really make sense. Push it hard and I was able to get it to nearly 100 MPH on the long straight (of course the C63 was pushing 120-plus at that point), which was also impressive.
Likewise, the Fiat 124 Spider’s Abarth edition — the Italian-ized rendition of the Mazda MX-5 Miata soft-top — also ran like a demon and swung into corners with molto gusto. I cruised in the Fiat with Summit County-based race instructor Branden Petersen and got some extra help in hitting the apexes and keeping the car in control.
Equally delightful were both the Volkswagen GTI and, not so shabby, the Kia Forte 5. In the seventh-generation GTI’s case, the 200 horsepower is really very sufficient in throwing that lightweight but superb-handling machine around corners like nobody’s business, with plaid seats just to remind you of the car’s heritage among performance fans.
Kia’s hot hatch is quite similar, with 201-turbocharged horsepower, a dual-clutch transmission and a short-wheelbase stance, all of which contributed to a totally decent on-track experience.
I am hoping for more seat time than a couple of laps in the event’s most impressive offering, the all-new, 505-horsepower Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio (yes, that’s a mouthful), the much-anticipated bruiser of a sedan that’s set to seriously compete with the BMW M5.
It’s a particularly striking vehicle, beautifully sculpted and definitely unusual given Alfa’s long absence from the U.S. market, and man, does it go like a bat out of hell. Fingers crossed for some real-world driving experience, as well.
I would like to say that the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT is going to be even more exciting when its Trackhawk version finally appears — with the Hellcat motor, versus the still-impressive 475-horsepower 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 — but that, like the Challenger or Charger Hellcats themselves, is moving from the ridiculous to the even more ridiculous.
Still, despite the Grand Cherokee’s size and dimensions, it does a pretty credible job of hanging in corners and offering handling and poise that seems absolutely impossible in a vehicle this size. The addition of a 707-ish-HP engine will suddenly ratchet that up a couple of insane notches.
And finally, that brutal Mercedes. Hand-built by the company’s AMG performance division, the 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 C63 S we drove was fitted out in the Edition 1 packaging, with additional subtle touches of yellow race stripes, yellow whitewall stripes on the tires and compound brakes.
The latter was a nice touch as they rather effectively shave off the eye-popping terminal velocity the car can develop. Unlike the Brits on the online videos you might find describing the car’s malice, we did not spend the whole day smoking the tires, but the exhaust noises and ferocity were certainly worth the trip.
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