NSX, Special Tribute Highlight MAMA Rally

June 1, 2019 by
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Acura’s second version of the NSX combines mid-engine V6 with three electric motors for the ultimate hybrid. (Photos — Jack Gilbert.)

By John Gilbert

Elkhart Lake, Wis.

Driving the newest cars around Road America’s road-racing course at Elkhart Lake, Wis., is one of the highlights every year in the auto writing business. It’s called the MAMA Spring Rally, and it lures nearly all manufacturers to bring their newest offerings and allow nearly 100 Midwest Auto Media Association journalists to drive them one lap around the classic 4-mile layout.

The event lived up to all expectations on a couple days in mid-May, including two nights at the Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake and some fantastic meals in addition to the cars. This year included a couple of special highlights for me, on a course where I once took a race driving school and competed in a Showroom Stock race nearly 50 years ago. I’ll explain my highlights in reverse order. First, the finish.

Mercedes C63s AMG is a factory-modified high-performance sedan.

Two cars I had hoped to get into provided my last two thrills. I had been told that there were 37 drivers on a waiting list for the Acura NSX, the amazingly low-slung, mid-engine two-seater sitting there in gleaming Casino White Pearl. If I could come back just before the end of the final track session at 4 p.m., they would get me into it for my lap.

At about 3:45, the Mercedes C63 S AMG became available. You get one lap, out of the pits on signal, and all the way aroul14 turns and up and down hils before coming back into the pits. No passing. With this car, a co-driver sat in the passenger seat, filling me in on the complexities, and making sure I didn’t sail off into the next dimension.

This car, tuned and prepared by the crack AMG performance arm of Mercedes, is beyond just a slick-handling powerhouse. It has a 4.0-liter V8 and is called “Bi-Turbo” because it has twin turbochargers. These are not what you’d call mass-produced. The engine is build by hand, by one engineer, whose signature adorns the engine. This one had 503 horsepower and 516 foot-pounds of torque, which is more than enough. I would say I drove at about 40 percent of the car’s capacity, and it was awesome. Of course, it should be, for $97,830.

Amazingly, you could get a version up to 630 horsepower and 554 foot-pounds of torque for another $60,000 or so. But with front engine and all-wheel drive, 503 seemed enough.

The NSX combines race-car power and performance with legendary Honda/Acura workmanship.

Finally, just a couple of minutes before 4, they called me back into my helmet for the NSX. Same deal, with a passenger as my guide. Without hesitation, I will say that in all the years I’ve done these test runs around Road America, the new NSX was the best car I’ve experienced on that track. It is a jewel, a very tight two-seat coupe, with the super-tuned 3.5-liter V6 in a mid-engine layout, and it’s augmented by three electric motors to total 573 horsepower and 476 foot-pounds of torque. How’a that for a hybrid?

It also has a 9-speed, dual clutch transmission, and because so much of the cart is carbon fiber — like the roof, deckled, spoiler — it is extremely light even though it feels completely planted because of the mid-engine balance and all-wheel drive. It’s remarkable that the engineers can coordinate the gas engine powering one axle’s wheels and the hybrid motors matching with the others. It was a genuine thrill to drive that car.

I thanked the guys with both the Mercedes and Acuras and said it worked out great to leave those two until last, because they were the two best, and driving them earlier in the day might have reduced sone excellent other cars to anticlimactic.

There were dozens of new vehicles, and many were limited to driving on the roads surrounding the track without being allowed on the track. The next day we drove an assortment of trucks off-road, and had the chance to try numerous cars on a short speed test around a short course laid out for go-karts.

Looking like a rugged Wrangler pickup, new Gladiator is strong on and off road.

Among the highlights: The just-introduced Jeep Gladiator, Jeep’s long-awaited pickup, is like a combined Wrangler and pickup with a 3.6-liter V6. The Ram 2500 Power Wagon, and the Durango SRT 392 with a 6.4-liter Hemi were other highlights, along with an overwhelming Challenger SRT Hellcat Redeye.

Compact and stylish crossover revives Blazer name.

The Lincoln Nautilus is a new SUV, very slick. The Kia Telluride is also a large SUV, sll new and filled with class. A pleasant surprise is the new Chevy Blazer, an old name restored on a compact crossover that should be a huge success, with a 3.6 liter V6.

Honda had a couple of its new Passports, another old name recirculated on an impressive new crossover that falls between the Pilot and CR-V and is aimed at more rugged duty than either of those siblings. Cadillac had a new XT4 available to drive. The Kia Soul is redone, with a 1.6-liter turbo that gives it more kick for under $30,000.

New version Mazda3 has more fluid style, Skyactiv-G power, AWD.

Another very impressive drive were a stunning pair of dark red sedans. First was the new and revised Mazda3 compact, this one with its Skyactiv-G 2.0-liter engine with an amazing amount of horsepower, enough to power all four wheels. It comes as a hatchback, which I prefer, or a sedan that looks like a downsized Mazda6.

Limited production Acura TLX PMC is built at the same plant as the NSX.

The other among many red-is-the-magic-color cars was the Acura TLX, which is a specialty version of the sedan Acura made by combining the TSX and the TL, but this one is so special it doesn’t have a price yet assigned. It will be lots. The car is shipped from Honda’s Marysville, Ohio, plant to the PMC — Performance Manufacturing Center — plant, where the NSX is so meticulously built. One of the colors you can order on the NSX is a fantastic red that is so special it is a $6,000 option, and takes a five-day process to complete. Meanwhile, there are only going to be 360 hand-built TLX PMC sedans, and the decision was made to limit it to one color — that same special red. So at least there’s no option fee for it.

New Honda Passport fits between CRV and Pilot.

The first day started, in a misty fog and chilly 40-something gloom, so we gave the track some time to dry out. When it was ready, my son, and assistant, Jack Gilbert, and I hopped into a light and bright blue Hyundai Veloster N, a letter designation which sets apart specialty high-performing Hyundai models from now on, to carry out a special task.

In my early days at Elkhart Lake, a great friend from college days, Tony Swan, also reported on races and later raced on that track as a writer at Car & Driver. As I wrote about late last year, Tony finally gave out after a nasty battle with cancer, but he drove and reported until the end. I wished I could have attended services near his home near Ann Arbor, Mich., but his wife, Mary, drove Tony’s GTI to Mound, Minnesota, where Tony grew up on Lake Minnetonka, and set up a small ceremony there for Tony for friends and relatives.

That one included a couple of guys who attended the University of Minnesota with Tony and me. Mary also brought a few envelopes with some of Tony’s ashes enclosed, because he had some selected places he hoped to have them scattered, including Lake Minnetonka, and at a race track or two.

I knew Tony loved Road America, so I requested one of the envelopes, which I carried down in my jacket pocket. I asked Jack to drive while I sat in the passenger seat, and we picked the Veloster N as being appropriately spory. We went around the track semi-fast, and nearing the end we went through a low

The Veloster N worked the autocross track, after our secret mission.

part called Thunder Valley, then made a hard right turn through Canada Corner. I had told Jack my plan, and I readied the envelope. As he started up the hill, into a fierce wind, I opened the window, and let Tony fly.

It was, indeed, Tony’s final ride. Afterward, I notified the MAMA board of what I had done. They all knew Tony, and one of them said how appropriate it was and that forevermore, driving around that corner and starting up that hill will rekindle Tony’s memory.

He’d have loved the high-potency Veloster N, too.

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