American road racing wasn’t invented on the roads in and around Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin between 1950 and 1952. But then, the three consecutive events held on public roads immediately adjacent to (or running through) the Village of Elkhart Lake did more than enough to establish interest in road racing as both an amateur/professional endeavor and – not incidentally – a valuable magnet for tourism dollars. And so it was that a closed course, dubbed Road America, comprising 14 turns over four miles, was opened in 1955. And in its almost 65 years the track has hosted some of the world’s best drivers and, on a few occasions over the last decade, yours truly.
The occasion was the 2019 MAMA (Midwest Automotive Media Association) Spring Rally, bringing together too many media (if you dislike long lines waiting for desirable cars) and too few cars. (But there were 77 vehicles, so a guy shouldn’t complain.) And while not all 77 cars, trucks and SUVs were registered for track use (no one needs to see the Lexus UX 200 F Sport on a track…or Nissan’s 2020 Versa), there were enough track-specific specimens to get some takeaways, if not – unfortunately – some driveaways.
As can happen in the middle of May, the first day of the two-day event (and the only track day) began wet; you’d be hard-pressed to describe the precipitation as rain, but the heavy drizzle dampened the track while lowering expectations. Some manufacturers simply pulled the keys to their track entries (Ford’s Shelby GT350 was the most notable – and regrettable – example), while others urged caution. In ALL CAPS: CAUTION!).
With a track I hadn’t visited since 2011, the GT350 wouldn’t have been my early pick anyway. And since Hyundai brought its Veloster N to the fracas, who could argue with a competent platform and 275 horsepower? The ‘N’, built atop Hyundai’s entertaining Veloster Turbo, adds more power and Euro-inspired refinement, while keeping most of the window sticker at or below $30K. Competing on most levels with Honda’s Civic Type R, Toyota’s 86 and VW’s GTI, the Veloster’s three doors supply some day-to-day utility missing in the Toyota, along with a GT vibe missing from the Civic or VW. And not so incidentally, the Veloster N is incredibly fun, with connected steering, credible braking and an exhaust note that has you thinking $50K, not thirty-$omething. While skewed for a demographic half my age (it is, you know, tagged ‘Veloster’), I’m able to easily wrap my psychographic around it.
While amongst the Hyundai lineup, a lap in Hyundai’s Elantra N Line wasn’t as visceral, but given the more basic mission of a 4-door hatch, it too was credible. Hyundai and its sistership, Kia, are game on. If, as a competitive OEM, you’re still building sedans and hatches, it’d be time to check your rearview mirror or backup camera; Korea is moving forward while you may be sliding rearward.
Other takeaways from our dampened day at the track, which began to dry over the lunch hour, included BMW’s M2 Competition; it proved, as expected, to be is one of the very best ways to spend your $60K. The Mazda3 hatch brought the style and refinement we expected, but its powertrain falls short at the track; it’s some 90 horsepower short if you just drove the Veloster N. But then, you’re not buying a Mazda3 hatch for Road America – you’re committing to 60 monthlies in hopes of navigating the commute, and in that the new Mazda3 will do fine.
Right there with the M2 in the Desirability Index was the Mercedes-AMG 63 S. Given its hyphen, it’s gonna’ cost you roughly $10K more than the M2, but you do get two more doors and a lot more luxury. It may not be quite as track-specific as the BMW, but see our above notes on the Mazda3, while asking yourself if you live near a track.
If you do live near a track, try to find the scratch for the Shelby GT350. My initial take on this iteration of the Mustang donor? It’s too big. But within one second in the Shelby and its physical footprint is but a footnote; this car is everything Carroll Shelby would have wanted in performance. And given the money that can be made when you take a $30K Mustang and turn it into a $70K Shelby, Carroll would have been impressed by the bottom line. Think ‘tall cotton’.
The last impression was one of wanting more. Dodge’s Challenger Scat Pack Widebody offers two tons of potential, but that’s significantly masked if you do your lap in street mode. And in deference to the disconnect between confidence and competence at these trackday things, the pro driver attached to the Challenger had dialed the mode – and resulting fun – way back. In ‘track’ this would have been a delight, while in ‘street’ it was more like a Dodge.
On an I-can-afford-this level, Volkswagen’s new Jetta GLI impresses, with a trunk that capably conceals your weekend ration of brats and beers. And while we didn’t have time to get behind the wheel of either Maserati’s Levante SUV or Acura’s almost-primal NSX, everyone else did. And both generated rave reviews.
The next morning included time at Road America’s go-kart track, repurposed for autocross. There, I was pretty well smitten by Nissan’s 370Z in its 50th Anniversary, Bob Sharp-inspired livery. I don’t look like Paul Newman, and certainly can’t drive like Mr. Newman, but for a brief moment I kinda’ felt like P. Newman. And that has to be worth some multiple of the Z’s $Forty Grand.
Transportation to Elkhart Lake from the Milwaukee Airport was provided by Hyundai’s Kona crossover. And given its own competent chassis and turbocharged 1.6 liter four, it may not be made for Road America, but would be utterly awesome on any of – you’ve already guessed it – America’s roads.
For another year, it’s our MAMA.