I've had the good fortune of trying out several brilliant
cars for Popular Science. But usually on the traffic-choked streets of Manhattan or the congested freeways outside the city. That's why we metropolitan journalists love Test Days, hosted by the International Motor Press Association (IMPA). Many of the hottest 2008 models were sitting in Pennsylvania's Pocono Downs raceway, with keys in the ignition, just waiting for us.
Well actually, quite a few journalists were waiting for the cars-superhot models like the Audi R8. By the time I got to the 185-mile-per-hour übercar, the list of eager drivers was longer than anything Santa Clause would have. Alas, the closest I got to driving it is this photo of me in the next car over, waiting to launch onto the track.
I was actually sitting in its little brother, the 2008 Audi TT, and it was a very worthy consolation prize. I had tested the TT a few weeks back, in said New York traffic. But it was a different car on the open track. The 3.1-liter, V6 engine shoots up to 5000rpm in the blink of an eye, so you've gotta be fast with the 6-speed S-tronic dual-clutch transmission. (You can also put it in fully automatic mode, but where's the fun in that?) It being my first time on racetrack, I drove "conservatively," hitting hairpin turns at only 40 miles per hour and flooring the car to just about 110mph on the straightaway.
That's so much more than you can do in the real world. (My one attempt to hit 100 on the highway, in a Lexus LS600 hl, stopped at 96mph and a big fat ticket.) The track experience changed my original impression of the car from meh to yeah!
But the big surprise, for me and many other journalists, was the new Volvo C30. Bearing no resemblance to the tofu soccer-mom Volvos of old, the C30 is closer to the "rice rockets" of Japan--little cars with small, souped-up engines that convincingly imitate sports cars. The C30's 2.5-liter, five-cylinder turbocharged engine delivers 227 horsepower and shot me down the straightaway not nearly as fast as the Audi TTs 250-horsepower motor. And the C30 held the road nearly as well as the TT, too. Considering the prices: $22,700 for the C30 vs. 45,900 for the Audi TT, the C30 is a far more realistic option.
From realistic, we now jump to pure fantasy: The AMG CLK63 Black Edition. The name obviously doesn't describe the color of this beefy Mercedes, but rather its crossover to the Dark Side of the automotive force. Unlike with its siblings of other colors that cap out a mere 150 miles per hour, Mercedes allows this a street-legal version of its official Formula 1 safety car to hit 186 miles per hour before its dotting-nanny engine computer says "enough!"
Channeling its 500-horsepower V8 through the silky-smooth seven-speed MG Speedshift transmission, I managed to eek the car up to about 130mph. And I swung through sharp turns at about 50mph with a barely audible tire screech. I was a little nervous about driving this hard—mainly because the car came with a Mercedes-appointed minder in the passenger seat.
That I completely failed to alarm him makes me realize that I have a lot more to learn about pushing supercars to their limits. I'll study harder.