Although we focus on tech cars, some do pretty well on the track, too. We got to try an assortment out at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Out here, Bluetooth didn't matter as much as engine and suspension tech.
Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca paddock
CNET Car Tech was given the opportunity to test a variety of street cars on the track at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. From new models such as the Hyundai Genesis Coupe, to the tried and true BMW M3, we put them through their paces, seeing how engine and suspension technology brought them through the corners and powered up the straightaways.
Audi's flagship R8 was probably the quickest car available for testing around Laguna Seca, making it among the most popular as well. Its direct-injection 4.2-liter V-8, mounted amidships, cranks out 420 horsepower and will rev past 8200rpm, making the R8 an ideal track companion. Here the R8 exhibits minimal body roll while plunging through Laguna Seca's famous Corkscrew.
This R8 was fitted with the metal-gated six-speed manual gearbox, a refreshing change from the proliferation of computer-controlled transmissions on so many contemporary sports cars, effective as they admittedly often are. Audi's quattro four-wheel drive system puts the copious power down without drama, and the R8 slices its way through bends with enjoyable alacrity.
Also on hand was the Hyundai Genesis Coupe in both 2.0T and 3.8 configurations. Both vehicles were equipped with the hot-rod Track package, which adds a limited-slip differential, a Brembo brake package, uprated springs, and thicker stabilizer bars for front and rear.
Handling is good thanks to the Track package goodies, but the traction control system responded to the slightest amount of slip by dramatically cutting the power. Consider flipping the traction control OFF for your track day. The Genesis offers plenty of grip without it.
Unlike its smaller engined sibling, this silver Genesis Coupe uses a 3.8-liter V-6, giving it more linear and better power. Its handling is similar to that of the of the turbo-charged version, including the intrusive traction control electronics.
We were excited to see the new Chevy Camaro out on the track, but less so when we drove it. A V-6 making 304 horsepower should have been adequate, but the six-speed automatic transmission downshifted late, causing power to kick in unpredictably. 19 inch wheels raised this car up too high, adversely affecting cornering. This car is better on the boulevard than in the twisties.
For general road use, the extra expense of the John Cooper Works Mini doesn't add up. The pay-off comes on the track, where the extra 36 horsepower helps the Mini keep speeds up the straightaways (and they are all up at Laguna Seca), while upgraded brakes and suspension make it handle the corners even better than a Cooper S, if that's possible.
We liked the Nissan 370Z on the road, but on the track is where the car really shines. Extremely neutral handling and a flat torque curve made the modern day Z-car one of the easiest vehicles to drive quickly.
Say what you will about the Synchro Rev Matching, but the Z's capability to make any shift a smooth one made it easier to focus more on driving and less on fancy heel-toe footwork.
Lotus may not offer a lot of cabin gadgets in its cars, but the tech that goes into the engine is impressive. Starting with a 1.8-liter four cylinder from Toyota, Lotus adds a supercharger and its own engine programming, giving the little car amazing boost. We watched the tach needle go up to 8,000rpm while tackling the straights in third gear, and found plenty of power up in fourth gear, as well.
The Elise SC is a revelation in the corners, with grip that far outstripped our ability to tax it. Lotus shows how much performance you can get by keeping the weight low and tuning the suspension. The tiny cabin makes the car difficult to get in and out of, but the seats cradled us nicely, and even felt comfortable as the speedometer shot up to the 100mph mark.
When we had the Mazda RX-8 R3 in the CNET garage, we complained about the vehicle's lack of usable torque. Out on the track, where we were able to keep the revs above 6,500rpm fairly consistently, the lack of power was a non-issue and we were able to fully enjoy the RX-8's fantastic balance and grippy handling.
An Acura may seem like a high-tech commuter, but the new TL SH-AWD proves excellent on the track, taking advantage of a very advanced all-wheel-drive system to maintain traction under hard cornering stress. The 3.7-liter V-6 was ready to charge the hills, and even the automatic transmission helped keep the power on.
Mercedes-Benz isn't kidding when it slaps the word Sport on a car, and even though the C300 Sport is one of its lowest-end cars in the U.S., it handles the track well. In earlier road testing, we were impressed by the car's cornering and ready power. It didn't let us down when pushed at speed through the turns at Laguna Seca. The Mazda RX-8 on its tail handles a bit better, though.
At the top of the C-class range, Mercedes-Benz's M3 competitor, sits the C63 AMG. This is the second time we've had this car on the track, and it always delights. A superbly engineered 6.2-liter engine works with a tightly tuned suspension and fast shifting seven-speed automatic transmission to get the power from wheels to ground.
BMW's littlest car, with its smallest engine, wouldn't seem to be much fun on the track, but while putting this car through its paces, the brand's reputation became clear. Silky smooth in the corners and always controllable, the 128i is a car you can throw around on the weekends, and drive comfortably to work on Monday.
To say the M3 is quick around a track would be an understatement. The self-proclaimed Ultimate Driving Machine defends its title at Laguna Seca with ludicrous amounts of grip and steering that's best described as telepathic. Equipped here with the DCT semiautomatic transmission, the M3 fires off fast, smooth shifts at the touch of a button.
The BMW 335d was one of the cleanest and most fuel efficient vehicles at the track, but it was also among the quickest.
The low-revving diesel required more shifting on the long straights, but the trademark 3-series handling made for good turn-in, while the torquey diesel engine generated the grunt needed for speedy corner exits.
The Kia Soul Sport handles Laguna Seca in much the way you'd expect a small economy car: slowly.
The Sport model's uprated suspension gives the Kia handling that is very good for a vehicle in its price range. Smart use of five-speed manual transmission can keep speed up, but hills taxed the Soul's 140-horsepower 2.0-liter engine.
Unfortunately, the Mazdaspeed3 isn't out yet, so we had to settle for this Mazda3 Touring edition on the track. It's 2.5-liter engine and slow shifting automatic transmission was no match for the madness going on around it. Body roll was more than evident in the corners, and we were happy to put it back in the pit.