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Sometimes, we drive new cars, too – IMPA’s Spring Brake

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Terry Shea risking life and limb to get the shot. Photos by Terry Shea and Kurt Ernst, unless otherwise noted.

Don’t get us wrong – we love old cars, but part of covering what happens on four wheels (and two) requires that we drive the new stuff from time to time. Each year, the International Motor Press Association gathers a selection of vehicles at Bear Mountain State Park in New York for an event called “Spring Brake,” and for a modest fee, members get to sample whatever they’d like on local roads.

This time around, Hemmings associate editor Terry Shea and Hemmings Daily editor Kurt Ernst made the trip to civilization from the wilds of Vermont, and below are their impressions on a few of the vehicles driven.

2017 Ford F-150 Raptor

2017 Ford Raptor

KE: The idea of a hot-rod pickup truck is nothing new, but Ford hit a home run in 2009 when it debuted the SVT Raptor, a performance-focused pickup with legitimate off-road skills. Fast-forward to 2017, and Ford has debuted an all-new Raptor after a two-year hiatus. Gone is the old truck’s V-8, replaced by an Eco-Boost V-6 that produces 450 horsepower and 510 pound-feet of torque and comes mated to a new 10-speed automatic transmission. Thanks to its aluminum body (and lighter engine) the new truck tips the scales at roughly 500 pounds less than the model it replaces, but at 5,800 pounds this pickup is no middleweight.

Thanks to a computer-controlled terrain management system, the Raptor is equally at ease on road and off. Bear Mountain doesn’t provide any Raptor-ready trails, and on the park’s narrow and winding roads, it was hard to mask the trucks mass. “What’s it like?,” someone asked, to which we replied, “Like driving a really fast planet.” Still, Ford is selling all the Raptors it can build, with most going out the door well above the truck’s $49,265 base price. With options, expect negotiations to begin in the mid-$60,000 range.

2017 Volvo V60 Polestar station wagon

Volvo V60 Polestar

KE: Transitioning from a hyper-performance car like Nissan’s GT-R to a sensible-but-sporty wagon like the Volvo V60 Polestar comes with its own challenges. Not that the Volvo’s 362-horsepower and 4.5-second 0-60 MPH time isn’t impressive in its own right, but after driving Godzilla, nothing short of a Saturn V rocket (wisely, not loaned to journalists) is going to feel eye-opening. Like every Volvo we’ve ever driven, the V60 was comfortable, at least until the speeds went up and the pavement turned rough.

Volvo V60 Polestar

Initially soft, the suspension transitioned to surprisingly harsh mid-corner, particularly over rough pavement. Given the top-shelf components specified by Volvo (including manually adjustable Öhlins dampers), we’re placing the blame on a previous journalist, curious to see what the car would feel like with shocks set fully to firm. Much like aquavit, we suppose we could develop a taste for this, given more time behind the wheel (and the shock adjusting tool).

Volvo V60 Polestar

TS: Having previously owned a couple of Volvo wagons, including a factory hot rod 2004 V70 R model (300-hp turbo five-cylinder, six-speed manual, Brembo brakes, Recaro seats, adjustable suspension, etc.), I had high hopes and perhaps higher expectations for Volvo’s latest blue pill. As Kurt pointed out, the V60 Polestar is indeed a rather quick machine, with that fabulous turbocharged engine and quick-shifting eight-speed automatic. And if wagons are your game, the Polestar might just be the best-looking one on the market. Those sharp looks extend to the interior, one of Volvo’s strengths in recent decades. From the sensible controls to the excellent gauge layout to the very high-quality feel of the materials, the V60’s interior seems second to none to this scribe.

Volvo V60 Polestar Volvo V60 Polestar Volvo V60 Polestar

Where I felt a bit letdown, however, was in the V60’s handling. On smooth, gently curving surfaces, the ride felt firm, but compliant. But when attacking an entrance ramp, admittedly a chunk of tarmac seemingly neglected by the State of New York since the day it was first paved many decades ago, the V60 understeered, and not in a bacon-saving-at-the-limit way, but in an obtrusive way long before I expected it to.  Kurt may place the blame on someone else monkeying with the Öhlins suspension settings, which requires a lot more than the simple push of a button on the dashboard. He also probably gives journalists too much credit for their mechanical skills. Polestar buyers apparently can take their cars to the Volvo dealer for a number of free adjustments.  Perhaps some suspension tuning was in order, as this car was otherwise exactly what the wagon doctor ordered.

2017 Nissan GT-R Premium

2017 Nissan GT-R Premium

TS: Kurt has had the pleasure of driving Nissan’s all-conquering GT-R several times in years past, so I get to share my first impressions of some wheel time with the beast. I think I can best sum it up by saying that the GT-R is the closest thing to an open-class, 1000-cc, supersport motorcycle that exists in the domain of street legal, four-wheeled vehicles.

2017 Nissan GT-R Premium

A modern liter-bike, like BMW’s 200-horsepower/400-pound S1000RR, has such extreme limits that only the most experienced and skilled riders can truly explore them, and even then, not on the street. A mere mortal simply can’t grab the throttle and twist it all the way for more than a brief moment and expect to live through the process. The GT-R is like that. On a twisty, two-lane, Alpine-like road that I know extremely well, I could only ever dip partly into the throttle as the distances between corners became much, much shorter than I remembered them. For sheer accelerative forces, the GT-R provides a wallop in your lower back. As the GT-R is not a one-trick pony, the rest of the machine keeps up, with accurate and precise steering, forceful “right-now” braking and a suspension that makes those wide, sticky 20-inch tires perform as best as possible. Unless your name is Sebastien Vettel, everything your car does, the GT-R does better. From acceleration to handling to braking, it rivals dedicated race cars. Hyperbole was invented to describe the Nissan GT-R.

2017 Nissan GT-R Premium

Nissan incorporated an exhaustive list of go-fast technologies in the GT-R, including: that 565-hp, 3.8-liter, DOHC, 24-valve, V-6 with variable valve timing; a rapid-shifting, dual-clutch, six-speed transmission; an all-wheel-drive system with a rear-mounted transaxle and transfer car that normally delivers 100% of power to the rear wheels but up to 50% to the front axle when needed; massive 15.4-inch front and 15.0-inch rear Brembo brakes with six- and four-piston calipers, respectively; a fully independent and adjustable suspension featuring Bilstein dampers; and much, much more.

2017 Nissan GT-R Premium 2017 Nissan GT-R Premium

Surely, this isn’t the first time you’ve heard about Nissan’s ultra-high-tech, 565-horsepower GT-R over the past nine years it has been on the market? It is indeed everything you’ve heard or read about—and more. It’s also a veritable bargain, delivering all-around performance that bests cars costing multiples of the GT-R’s $110,000 base price.

2017 Honda Grom 125

Honda Grom 125

TS: If it looks a little cartoonish to see a grown man tooling around on the Honda Grom, I can assure you that the experience of riding it brings more than its share of giggles and fun. The exact opposite of the Nissan GT-R, where I felt I was only beginning to scratch the surface of its performance by just shredding the local roads, the Grom required absolutely full throttle at nearly all times going up hill and most of the time on flat surfaces, too.

Honda Grom 125

It’s 125-cc, air-cooled, OHC, two-valve single is good for a fire-breathing nine horsepower at 7,000 rpm or so. It has 12-inch wheels and a 1.45-gallon fuel tank and weighs a mere 225 pounds. If you think you can’t have fun with nine horsepower, think again. The Grom is a hoot to ride. It can be manhandled in a way that bigger bikes simply can’t. And you can ride it all full tilt and barely be in danger of cracking 60 mph, but you probably want to try that going downhill.

Honda Grom 125 Honda Grom 125 Honda Grom 125

To Honda’s credit, this little fuel-injected bike does not feel like a bargain-bin special using leftover parts from something first designed in the Eighties. It sports disc brakes on both ends, an inverted fork and four inches of suspension travel to absorb the worst roads you can take it on. At $3,299, it also represents one of the least expensive and most fun street bikes out there. Oh, and it’s rated at 134 mpg, so even that tiny tank will get you to nearly 200 miles of range, though probably not with the throttle pinned.

2016 Chevrolet SS six-speed

2017 Chevrolet SS

KE: In 1962, one could walk into a Chevy dealer and put money down on a 409-horsepower, V-8 powered “bubble top” Bel Air. It was the golden age of performance, never to be seen again according to some, but consider this: In 2017, one can still walk into a Chevy dealer and drive out in a 410-horsepower sedan (with four doors, not two) equipped with a manual gearbox (six-speed instead of four). That won’t be the case for much longer, since Chevy’s SS was built by Holden in Australia, and Holden will be closing its doors in October. In fact, the last Chevy SS (black, with a six-speed manual transmission) rolled off the production line during the week of May 22.

2017 Chevrolet SS

That’s a shame, because there’s something very appealing about a rear-wheel drive family sedan with a the V-8 from the previous-generation Corvette, a sport-tuned suspension (featuring Delphi’s superb Magnetic Ride Control dampers), and Brembo brakes, especially if its wrapped in conservative sheetmetal. There’s been no finer Q-ship in recent years, and despite what we’ve been told, fit and finish was surprisingly good, as were the seats. Sure, the clutch is stiff and “precise” isn’t a word we’d use to describe the shifter, but it’s hard to imagine a better bang for the family sedan buck.

TS: I shed a bit of a tear when I learned that the last rear-wheel drive, full-size, V-8-powered American sedan with a stick shift rolled off the (Australian) assembly line just a week after getting my first taste of this combination of wholesome goodness.  If the SS is indeed the last of the line, Chevrolet sent it out in a blaze of glory. GM’s LS family of engines have proven remarkable for their power, efficiency, packaging and durability. In the SS, the 415-hp LS3 makes incredible and honest engine sounds. The SS not only accelerates like the best sports sedans from Europe, it also turns, grips the road and brakes like them, too.

2017 Chevrolet SS

With Brembo brakes (painted bright red like a Porsche’s so you don’t miss them, apparently) and GM’s Magnetic Ride Control, the SS is a far cry from the big SS from the early sixties that sported a 409 and a four-speed. I found the car to have very precise steering, yet absolutely no feel, which is an unusual combination, but understandable in a big sedan. The gearbox also seemed a bit notchy, but we suspect that the several thousand miles of journalist use on the car were not easy nor soft miles. It is a shame that GM never marketed the SS beyond participation in NASCAR, that they waited a model year to offer a manual transmission after the initial buzz died down and that they saved the best version for last. It will be missed by those of us who have had a chance to drive one.

Honorable Mention: Chevrolet Cruze Diesel six-speed

2017 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel

2017 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel. Photo courtesy Chevrolet.

KE: What does it say about a car that’s so transparent we didn’t even stop to photograph it? We drove the new Chevrolet Cruze Diesel out of curiosity, and came away oddly impressed with the compact sedan. Its 1.6-liter turbodiesel engine delivers an impressive 240 pound-feet of torque, and equipped with a six-speed manual, we found that only second and fourth gears were actually needed (“Bring back the Powerglide,” we shouted).

Inside, it’s roomy enough and screwed together about as well as any mainstream products from Japan or Korea. Better yet, it’s priced right – even with the diesel beneath the hood, the sticker price starts below $24,000, and it returns an estimated 52 MPG on the highway. If Saturn had built cars like this all along…

TS: As an adult, I have owned mostly cars assembled in America, but the majority of them bear foreign nameplates, like BMW, Volkswagen, Toyota and Honda. The Chevrolet Cruze Diesel might never previously have been on my shopping list, but if I were in the market for a compact sedan for my family, this model might top the list. With its manual transmission, it was fun to drive as 240 pound-feet of torque is nothing to sneeze at. It also returns a miserly 52 mpg on the highway (Chevy also offers gasoline-powered Cruze models that get up to 40 mpg if oil burning isn’t your thing.)

Coupled with the Cruze’s competent chassis, the six-speed and the diesel made this model fun. It seemed well screwed together and promised a far different and more worldly GM than the one that has brought us mediocre small cars in past years like the Chevy Cobalt. What a shockingly decent automobile and a very pleasant surprise from GM.