Jeep Grand Cherokee TrackHawk PHOTO BY TIM PLOUFF

On the Road Review: Winter Rally 2018

This year’s gathering of New England’s auto scribes for a day of driving merriment—and plate-loads of comfort food—was celebrated under sunny skies with mild temperatures. No off-roading escapades on snow-covered runways (Ezra Dyer) and no buried Mercedes SUVs in a snowbound cemetery (wasn’t me!) would be the centerpiece of extroverted exploits with someone else’s priceless new car.

No, this year was more about power and performance — with AWD as a stabilizing influence. Here are some highlights of the day plus a bonus.

First up was the new Honda Accord Sport with the torquey 2.0-liter turbo-four. Sleeker than any previous Accord, with a silhouette strikingly similar to Audi’s A7 five-door, the Accord looks like it should be a hatchback. But alas, it uses a conventional (and constrained) trunk lid to limit your cargo versatility. The interior is roomy, the turbo motor is earnest, but after spending over 1,000-miles in a BMW 640i, the Accord felt more low-brow than one might want in a $35,000 sedan. Perhaps a longer exposure will sharpen the focus on Honda’s award-winning four-door as it strains to retain marketshare against the newest Camry and everything crossover-like.

Honda Accord

Second came the new Infiniti Q60 Red-Sport coupe with AWD and a sweet twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6 engine. Shapely as Infiniti coupes are wont to be, this muscular Q60 is the first real sportster from the brand since the original G35 sedan. The cabin is intimate, nicely appointed, but could use some simplification in various controls. Running 400 hp through a seven-speed automatic, the Q60 is quick. A 300-hp version is available, as is a rear-drive 208-hp model powered by a 2.0-liter turbo-four. The irony here is the original Infiniti G-series was based on the former Nissan 350Z. Will this Q60 be the basis for the promised 50th anniversary Nissan Z — with this delightful twin-turbo V-6 tingling spines?

In the background all day had been the ripping blasts of two of FCA’s latest “Beyond Thunderdome” sporting SUVs — the Dodge Durango SRT and the Jeep Grand Cherokee TrackHawk. The Dodge takes a normal looking three-row Durango and spices up the exterior, slaps on larger wheels, tires and brakes, and throws a 6.4-liter 475-hp Hemi under the domed hood, pushing spent gases out dual-note exhaust pipes that rattle windows. This is the height of “not a soccer-mom’s crossover.”

The Jeep TrackHawk, on the other hand, one-ups the SRT Dodge by borrowing an engine from Dodge — the supercharged 707-hp Hellcat Hemi V-8. Wrestling the red key from some stained-pants peers for a drive by myself, the Jeep is a sick, mind-bending drug that attacks your brain. Thrum the Hellcat Hemi to life and tap the throttle enough to hear the supercharger’s faint whine, and driving sanity vanishes as the eight-speed automatic peels off red-line shifts. The blasting exhaust note had to come from two towns away, honestly officer, this is my wife’s company car. The yellow brake calipers, quad-exhaust pipes, bulging hood and huge 20-inch tires might not support your white lies.

Enough begging might get either, or both, here before “winter” ends. Please pray with me.

There were some new Jeep Wranglers available, too, but everyone wanted to pull the new soft-top roofs back and chew up some mud and grass on someone’s lawn, so time slipped away before either of them became available. And Kia’s new Stinger — the five-door hot-rod sedan from this Korean upstart had everyone oohing and aahing. Missed that one too.

The now Chinese-owned Volvo XC60 and XC40 slipped away before my sweaty palms could twist their wheels, while the latest Subaru Crosstrek promised to come and visit soon.

Before Winter Rally, the week started with a surprise in the parking lot of the hotel in Waterbury, Vt. Three winter-ravaged black SUVs were neatly parked in a row, their badges and logos strategically covered in masking tape. Yet two “drivers” piloting dual laptops plugged into the OBD inputs early on a wintry morning, indicated that these were more than just an automaker’s testing mules. These three full-size crossovers were GAC GS8s. GAC is China’s largest automaker — and has the J.D. Power accolades to back up its quality ratings. GAC is coming to America, and these crossovers are among the first samples to get road-tested before a dealer network is established. Sneaky smart — bring Americans what they like most — family-sized crossovers. I’ll bet that the pricing will be aggressive, like Korean aggressive when they started here.

Buick now sells more cars in China than America; it builds more there too. Ford will supposedly bring its next Focus from China. China is already the largest EV market in the world — could a budget electric car come from GAC too?

The landscape is changing quickly. Hot Jeeps and Durangos are but a small stab at niche marketing; the notable cars and trucks from the future may very well have a greater Asian component.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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