Testing a car on a race track is a patently different experience than testing on back roads. It’s true—there are some details you simply can’t derive from a track test. It’s difficult to gauge how the car’s suspension will handle rough pavement (poorly paved race tracks are, thankfully, few and far between) or how the car’s mirrors will mitigate blind spots (if you’re checking your mirrors on a track, you’re doing something wrong). But for each closed circuit’s shortcomings, it offers one major benefit: With today’s powertrains, the only place you can legally find the limit of a car’s power, its grip, or its brakes is on a track.
Earlier this week, we had the pleasure of driving some of 2016’s most exciting new cars at Monticello Motor Club, nestled in the Catskill Mountains of New York. The International Motor Press Association (IMPA) invites journalists and automakers for two days of car testing on the track, on back roads, and through the woods, thanks to Land Rover’s always entertaining (and enlightening) off-road course.
Curious to find out just how extreme the cars we had at our disposal were, I strapped on a heart-rate monitor for each test drive. The tricky thing about data is, while you can definitely manipulate existing statistics to support an argument, it’s also not uncommon for collected data to refute a hypothesis. Lucky for us, as I tracked my heart rate throughout the day, the information collected highlighted some very clear conclusions. Primarily: There’s no comparing spirited drives down public roads with a session at a race track.
First, to establish some context, I measured my resting heart rate the morning of our track tests at 65 beats per minute (BPM). The first lap of the day is always accompanied by some extra nerves, but the Subaru BRZ has been around for a few years now, and although this was the first car I tested with a heart rate monitor, I also had a fair bit of experience behind its wheel. The 2017 BRZ and its twin, the Toyota 86, serve up 205 horsepower and 156 lb-ft of torque, meaning top speed and blistering acceleration are sacrificed for great balance and handling. Despite my comfort with the BRZ, from the time I started the engine to the moment I stepped out of the car, my average heart rate had increased 63%, to 106 BPM.
The track obviously has an effect on your heart rate. Racing drivers are often said to have “ice water in their veins,” but as a corner rapidly approaches and vision-warping deceleration ensues, only to be replaced by a roaring engine and brutal acceleration as you track out past the apex, the only thing flooding my bloodstream was adrenaline. Few cars have generated as much excitement this year as the 2016 Ford Focus RS. Its 350 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque grabbed headlines, making it an immediate competitor to the Subaru WRX STI, but it’s the car’s all-wheel-drive system and incredible grip that make it an all-time great. The exhaust emits a series of pops with every hard downshift, and the insane grip makes corning seem manageable at nearly any speed. Even with the extra confidence, driving the Focus RS proved more exciting than the BRZ, jump-starting my heart rate 66%, to 108 BPM.
After driving the Focus RS, the assumption was basically, “more horsepower, more noise, more excitement.” Then the Lexus RC F came along, and we learned better. Lexus debuted this car in 2015, proudly exhibiting its 5.0-liter naturally aspirated V8 engine, rear-wheel drive, and a starting price below those of its primary competitors: the BMW M4 and the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. Yet, even though there was more power on tap in the RC F than any other car I drove on the track, at 467 horsepower and 389 lb-ft of torque, and that power was delivered alongside one of those most rewarding V8 rumbles you can find on sale today, the RC F only bumped my heart to 99 BPM. Sure, a 52% increase is a welcome reaction, but the RC F’s luxurious interior, sizable dimensions, and nearly 4,000 pounds definitely made for a more insulated driving experience.
The BMW M2 lives on the other end of the spectrum. Its interior is far from spartan, but everything about the vehicle, from the unfinished carbon fiber accents to the minimalist dash, points toward a “driving first” ethos. No other car managed to connect the driver to the road quite like the M2, which gripped aggressively through turns and applied immediate and direct acceleration at every corner’s exit. The term “raw” gets thrown around when talking about cars that deliver performance like the M2. This word, however, doesn’t do the M2 justice. After one lap raised my heart rate 70%, to 111 BPM, I would describe it as “precise,” or—as BMW puts it—the ultimate driving machine.
To fully grasp the impact the track has on your experience with a car, it’s worthwhile to also enjoy some spirited (but legal) runs on public roads. The Fiat 124 Spider stays flat through corners, and its turbocharged 4-cylinder gives it plenty of power at speed, but while driving the Abarth trim on public roads, my heart rate jumped only 23%, to 80 BPM. In the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Cabriolet, with it’s 503 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque, my heart raced up 27% to a middling 83 BPM. And in the Toyota 86—a car nearly identical to the BRZ that had my heart racing at 106 BPM—I managed only 82 BPM, or 26% above my resting rate.
The next time you find yourself sitting at a stop light or carving through some twisty back roads, eager to bury the throttle and feel that adrenaline rush, head toward home and look up some directions to your closest race track. Not because it’s safer or more challenging (although it happens to be both), but because you’ll enjoy better results.
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