Laguna Seca racetrack is 2.2 miles of sweeping left-hand turns, hairpins, a stomach-churning corkscrew, and some blistering straightaways. We were invited to use the track to test a selection of dozens of road cars in a more spirited fashion than that of our everyday road tests, and we lost no time in availing ourselves of the opportunity.
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Among the cars up for grabs at this year's Media Days event were a couple of German V-10 flying mobiles: the Audi S6 and the BMW M5. The S6 features a detuned version of the engine found in the Lamborghini Gallardo. While it doesn't quite boast the performance credentials of the Lambo, the Audi's 5.2-liter plant still manages a respectable 435 horsepower--enough to scare the bejeezus out of anyone brave enough to take it on the track.
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Laguna Seca is a very technical track, and for those in need of expert guidance, professional driving instructors from California's Hooked on Driving school were on hand to advise from the passenger's seat on the best driving line and techniques.
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Two of our most enjoyable drives of the day were in the new BMW 3-series cars. We test-drove the manual versions of both the turbocharged 335i and the naturally aspirated 328i.
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The 328i was markedly slower than the 335i, but both displayed excellent driving dynamics with balanced handling, precise steering, and sharp, responsive braking.
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The crown for the best-handling car has to go to the supercharged Jaguar XKR. Like its more sedate XK sibling, the 420-horsepower XKR combines good looks with balletic balance and magnetic road holding. Steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters contribute to the Jag's track-friendliness.
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Perhaps the most notorious feature of the track at Laguna Seca is the corkscrew. Drivers approach this devilishly difficult turn at the end of a long uphill straightaway. Heavy braking is required as the driver holds a line tight on the right-hand side of the track, brushes the apex of the left-hand turn, and then with blind faith throws the car into a sharp right-hand turn, which disappears over the horizon.
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Audi's TT roadster was one of a number of soft-tops available for test drives. With Quattro all-wheel drive, the two-seater acquitted itself admirably around the turns, although we did experience some noticeable brake fade--perhaps due to the number of laps it had already done before we got into it.
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The awesome Shelby GT500 was one of three tricked-out muscle cars from Ford at the event.
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The souped-up Saturn Sky feels very brusque on straightaways thanks to its turbocharged, 260-horsepower power plant. In cornering, the car displayed some definite understeer, which can be countered with a good dose of throttle to bring the back end into line.
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The TT was one of the few manual-transmission cars in which we found ourselves needing the use of fourth gear down the long straights: most of the other cars managed to pass 100mph in third.
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Away from the track, journalists were invited to test their driving skills on the Mini Autocross track, which consisted of an obstacle-ridden course of sharp turns and chicanes. Three Mini Cooper S cars were available for time trials on the course.
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With traction control off and the Mini Coopers set to Sport mode, there was plenty of power sliding and wheel-spinning action.
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