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Spring Brake 2010: So many cars, so few hours

Posted by Bill Griffith  June 1, 2010 12:37 PM

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In the normal course of events, automakers host media events to promote their new vehicles. Generally, the only place to see all the models in one place is on the auto show circuit. The operative word is that you can see those cars, but not drive them.

Three years ago, the folks at the International Motor Press Association (IMPA) in New York came up with an idea for a spring picnic, with automakers and journalists invited.

IMPA would bring the food, the automakers would bring their cars, and journalists would bring cameras and notebooks and get to drive the cars.

This month, the groups convened for the third annual of these get-togethers, called the "Spring Brake," meeting again at Bear Mountain State Park, a 5,067-acre recreational area on the west bank of the Hudson River just south of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The park offers a nice variety of twisty, hilly roads for testing cars ... and a potential field day for the New York State Troopers stationed nearby.

If there's a downside, it's the long ride down to New York before you start driving the array of vehicles followed by the long drive home after you spend the heart of the day driving.

Here are just five of the cars we tried that left an impression.

Mini E

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com)

Powered by lithium-ion batteries, these Minis have been leased to fewer than 500 drivers in the New York-New Jersey and Los Angeles areas for a mere $850 per month. The car can be charged in three hours if you wire in a 240-volt, 48-amp line; otherwise, it's a 26.5-hour job for a 110-volt, 12-amp line.

It's only a two-seater Mini because the battery pack takes up the rear seat. The realistic everyday driving range is a bit more than 100 miles. Acceleration is impressive but the regenerative braking system may be even more so. If you quickly take your foot of the "throttle," it's as if you've immediately braked heavily.

BMW is planning another electric test fleet of 2011 1-Series coupes, showing that electric may still be in the automaker's mainstream plans or that they're ready if EVs take off. Meanwhile, at least half of the current lessees jumped at the chance to keep their Mini Es for a second year.

Cadillac CTS-V


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Who'da thunk it would be Cadillac that stuffed a 6.2-liter supercharged V-8 into a luxury sedan? The car puts out 556 horsepower via your choice of a six-speed manual or automatic transmission and transports the 4,300-pound vehicle from zero to 60 mph in just over 4 seconds. Electronic suspension controls give the CTS-V equally impressive handling. If this is your daddy's Caddy, he was holding back on you.

At a price point in the mid 60s, the CTS-V is a serious player in the premium performance sedan category, a neighborhood populated with the likes of BMW's M5 and Mercedes-Benz AMGs.

Ford Fiesta


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Few cars other than the still-awaited Chevy Volt have had a longer introductory period than the Fiesta, which will be available as a hatchback or sedan. My notebook has a big star next to "mirror inserts" — a convex piece in both side mirrors that apparently will be standard on coming Ford products that don't have an electronic blind sport warning system.

Other notes: "Not fast, but peppy, with plenty of usable power" and "goofy upshift arrow," a driving aid for those out to max miles per gallon in this under-$20,000, over 30-mpg vehicle. It will be the entry-level car in Ford's lineup, competing against the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Kia Soul, Hyundai Accent, and Nissan Versa. The handling was pretty good, too, until we jumped out of the Fiesta and into a Mercedes-Benz SL550 roadster at six times the price.

Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup "Street" Edition


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Several weeks back we wrote about local driver Ari Ouimet's early success in VW's TDI Cup racing series. We've been a fan of the TDI (you hardly know you're driving in a diesel-powered vehicle) since it was introduced almost a decade ago. This street edition has the front bumper, side skirts and rear valance found on the TDI Cup cars, along with larger brakes, sway bars, and sport-tuned suspension.

Most notably, it's also available with the acclaimed DSG automatic transmission. Where most modern automatics aim for smooth shifts, this one makes fast shifts with notable changes in rpms. And it's a sports sedan with a $1,300 tax credit!

Cadillac SRX


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In truth I wanted to drive the CTS sports wagon but the SRX was available, and I'd just spent a weekend with my daughter in an Acura MDX that she was inclined to buy. The SRX is a competitor of the MDX, and I liked it — a lot, and that's saying something for a driver who's never been enamored by the SUV movement.

The all-wheel-drive SRX had a 2.8-liter turbocharged V-6 that offered V-8 type performance but smaller V-6 economy when driven conservatively. But what really blew me away was the instrument panel, which was as striking as I've seen. The gauges glow bright white, with black numbers and red needles. In the center is a blue oval with compass direction at the top, digital speedometer, and vehicle information available to toggle through.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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