Defining the Driver’s Car: Our Experience at IMPA’s Test Days

While many auto journalists will tell you they’re just trying to scratch a living out of whatever they can, it’s an undisputed fact that the job has some definite perks. Although we can’t live the life of the rich and famous every day, we do occasionally get invited to drive the cars we cover. For a couple of beautiful days in October, Monticello Motor Club—one of the most exclusive and impressive automotive country clubs in America—opens its doors for the International Motor Press Association‘s (IMPA) Test Days, where schlubs like us get asked to drive some of the best new cars in the world on both a technical race track and the back roads of the Catskill Mountains.

When the foliage is in peak season and you have your choice of winding back roads or a world-class race track, the hunt for a perfect “driver’s car” starts almost immediately. There is a balancing act of myriad criteria involved in this search, but it almost all boils down to the driver’s sensory experience. How does the engine sound? Is the transmission short and smooth? How is the acceleration? Is the braking sharp? Does the car corner tightly, and how secure do the seat bolsters hold the driver? A driver’s car needs to balance all of the minutiae, and excelling in one area does not compensate for failing in another. With thanks to Paul Licata and IMPA, we are thrilled to review our favorite driver’s cars from 2015’s Test Days.

2015 Volkswagen GTI

The auto manufacturers who brought their vehicles to test days did not hesitate to bring plenty of cars with a price tag well above the average budget (that green car just out of frame in the picture above is a $200,000 Bentley Continental GT). And given our choice of stupidly expensive super-luxury and super-performance cars, we thought we’d start with the modest Volkswagen GTI. Now really, the only modest thing about the bright red hatch pictured above is its price tag, coming in with an MSRP of $28,000. The rest of the hatchback has a lot to offer, whether it be the surprising amount of power it produces or how tightly it grips around corners. That GTI was an absolute beauty to drive… until we got into the Golf R.

The Golf R takes everything enjoyable and noteworthy from the GTI and cranks it up a few notches. Granted, the Golf R costs about 25% more than the GTI, so the bump to 292 hp and the Dynamic Chassis Control don’t come cheap. But these features make all the difference when you’re on a track. The Golf R makes a mighty fine track car, but may be hard to justify as your everyday driver. Our days at Monticello were bookended by the GTI—it was one of the first and one of the last cars we drove, and it still held its own against some of the powerhouses that were there. It definitely remains one of our favorite driver’s cars from those days.

That Golf R was sick, though.

2015 Land Rover Range Rover Sport

Land Rover usually focuses on proving grounds designed to demonstrate the full capabilities of its assortment of off-road-capable vehicles at Test Days (we’ll have more on off-roading at Test Days soon). This year, it also brought a Range Rover Sport SVR, a vehicle with the high stance and incredibly luxurious interior typical of Land Rovers, but with a big surprise under the hood: a 550-hp supercharged V8. That beefy engine provided plenty of get up and go and a great soundtrack, and the large, tall, relatively square truck had a dizzying array of switches and buttons to control its adjustable suspension and drivetrain. So the SVR would definitely offer a great way to get a group of people and their gear to a ski lodge or hiking terrain, and returning to the SVR in cold, wet clothes would be a huge relief. The Range Rover SVR would also offer a perfect captain’s chair for a long highway road trip in challenging conditions, but it’s not as nimble or close and connected to the road as the cars we wanted for repeated track or back-road laps.

2015 BMW i8

We may be beating a dead horse at this point, but the BMW i8 looks like it was pulled from “Back to the Future, Part II.” Its swan-wing doors, carbon fiber tub, and stunning interior come together for a very different look. Once you’ve managed to squeeze inside (which is an experience not dissimilar to falling into a toilet), the car’s driving dynamics only reinforce this. The car delivers impressive fuel economy while in Eco Pro mode, but once you engage Sport mode, the dashboard changes from a soothing blue to an incendiary orange, and the i8 transforms from car to spaceship.

With ever-inflating horsepower figures, the 2015 i8’s combined 357 hp doesn’t sound like a lot. Combine those horses with 420 lb-ft of torque and instant delivery from two electric motors, however, and the i8 feels quite a bit beefier than its numbers suggest. The i8 handles well, especially considering its relatively skinny tires, and the driver’s position is delightfully low in the car. The rest of the experience is extremely surreal. Because of the car’s relatively quiet ride and smooth acceleration, the sensation of speed is easily lost. The BMW i8 may be a revolutionary car, but of the BMWs we drove, it isn’t the best driver’s car.

Instead, we’d take the comparatively humble BMW 340i. For roughly $80,000 more, the i8 may provide a carbon fiber tub, 90 more lb-ft of torque, and 37 more horses, but it fails to deliver the pure driving experience that has made BMW famous. Not only does the 340i handle beautifully, but with BMW’s xDrive all-wheel-drive (AWD) technology and a legitimately usable rear seat (complete with its own set of doors, no less), it provides value by being incredibly practical. Despite such refinements, the 340i isn’t subtle. Piped in or not, the engine sounds fantastic, throttle response is instant, and the steering is as direct as that of any car we drove. The M Sport and Track Handling packages on the 3 Series don’t come cheap, but they do turn a relatively tame sport sedan into an absolute pleasure to drive.

2016 Cadillac ATS-V

The 2016 Cadillac ATS-V was the first pure performance vehicle we got into, and it was a monster. We started with the 6-speed manual on the back roads, and we could quickly tell that the ATS-V did not hold back on any of the luxuries expected in a Cadillac. It was also very apparent that we needed to get it on the raceway to see its full potential. Needless to say, the ATS-V was a blast on the track.

The amount of control that car grants you as you gingerly speed through the turns is a powerful feeling. It gives you the illusion of absolute control—that there’s nothing stopping you from setting a professional-level lap time on the track other than your own hesitation. Well, we knew better than to drive with any sort of authority, and after seeing what Cadillac’s professional drivers could do in the ATS-V (they were just insane going around the track in that thing), our limitations as amateur drivers became clear.

Jaguar F-TYPE

Jaguar accomplished a mighty impressive feat by introducing its F-TYPE for the 2014 model year: It built a successful follower to the hallowed E-Type, the car one Enzo Ferrari described as “the most beautiful car ever made.” Since its arrival, the F-Type’s amazing supercharged 3.0-liter V6 has left a strong impression on driving fans, and the two of us who drove it loved its power and the way taking your foot off the gas produces incredibly menacing burbling, spitting sounds. But we also found the engine a little too screechy for everyday use, and while we loved the driver-focused cockpit’s beautiful, low-slung leather seating, we found the steering and suspension a little too communicative, feeling slightly tender after short drives on rural roads.

2015 Scion FR-S

Driving the 2015 Scion FR-S on a winding country road, especially in the fall, is about as good as it gets. The 2.0-liter boxer 4-cylinder engine makes a distinctive rumble, and the short-throw shifter engages one of the better transmissions we’ve used. Our own Liz Kim noted in her review of the 2015 FR-S that it’s a car meant to be driven hard, and if you like running the tachometer up to redline, the FR-S is for you.

During our second day on the back roads, however, we fell in love with a different car. Maybe it’s because it’s been with us since 2013, largely unchanged, but while the FR-S was in and out of its parking spot all day, the 2016 MX-5 Miata virtually never sat idle—it was a revolving door of journalists. Many enthusiasts will expound on the benefits of the FR-S coupe on a race track over the Miata MX-5 roadster, but honestly, we don’t care. Sure, the FR-S’s roof may add to the car’s rigidity, but realizing the benefits of that rigidity is beyond the scope of everyday driving. Likewise, although the Miata’s 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine produces 45 less horsepower than the Scion’s, the Miata is ultimately more enjoyable through every gear. The Scion urges you to delay your shifts until the last possible second, but the Miata is enjoyable without having to bounce the needle off the redline. It may be popular to claim that a Miata is always the answer, but both cars honestly provide a fantastic driving experience. Where the Mazda takes the edge is its “joy” factor; once we got it on the road, it took only about 15 seconds before we were wearing the biggest smiles of the week.

2016 Mazda MX-s Miata

What’s your favorite “driver’s car”?

–John Harrington, Matt Smith, and Steve Halloran

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Used Volkswagen GTI
Used Volkswagen Golf R
Used Land Rover Range Rover Sport
Used BMW i8
Used BMW 3 Series
Used Cadillac ATS-V
Used Jaguar F-TYPE
Used Scion FR-S
Used Mazda MX-5 Miata

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