Six Modern Performance Cars Tested Back to Back on Big Willow

Cars, Reviews I By Bradley Iger I October 30, 2014
Every year the Motor Press Guild holds their Track Days event, gathering both journalists and auto makers in one spot with the goal of giving both parties the opportunity to connect and allow members of the press a chance to evaluate the latest from the brands that participate. This year had a particularly good turnout, giving us a chance to check out vehicles we haven’t had any seat time in as of yet, as well as one’s we’ve reviewed previously but haven’t had on track yet, like the all-new 2015 Ford Mustang GT.
From an apples-to-apples perspective, some of these comparisons are flat-out incongruous – the field here ranges from a 707 horsepower muscle coupe to a four-door family sedan with performance aspirations. But the common thread, and what makes the back-to-back evaluation worthwhile, is the Big Willow course at Willow Springs International Raceway. With a fair amount of elevation change, sweepers, demanding tight corners, and a massive front straight, Big Willow is a great opportunity to see how each of these vehicles behaves when driven beyond what’s feasible on public streets.
As an added bonus we’ve also included a ride along with 2011 US GT Academy Champion and Nissan team driver Bryan Heitkotter in the 2015 Nissan GT-R Nismo. Bryan’s driving prowess proves that no matter fast you think you are, racing drivers are another breed entirely. Enjoy.
The Hellcat powered Challenger might be the model getting all the attention these days, but it’s the Scat Pack that many Challenger buyers will sign on the dotted line for – and for good reason. The Scat Pack represents a very attractive performance value proposition with the 6.4-liter, 485 horsepower V8 from the standard SRT, 4-piston Brembo brakes at all four corners, beefed up performance suspension, wheels and tires, and the trick active exhaust system found on the SRT model. But how much, you ask? The Scat Pack starts at $39,890. Let’s take a few laps:


Our first experience in this sporty four-door came when we strapped on a helmet and headed out of the pits at this event, so our impressions in terms of the SS as a daily driver are a bit limited. We can say that the 6.2-liter V8, which puts out 415 horsepower and 415 pound-feet of torque, sounds great. The six-speed automatic transmission it’s mated to is really starting to show its age however, especially amongst a field of vehicles in which some are fitted with ZF’s exemplary 8-speed gearbox. Regardless, SS proved to be a fun and capable companion for a few laps around Big Willow and we’re looking forward to the 2015 model, which should bring with an optional six-speed manual gearbox and GM’s especially good magnetic ride control suspension. The current model starts at $43,475.


Refreshed for 2015, the 370Z Nismo proved to be an engaging road course performer that requires an attentive driver to get everything out of the car. The 370Z Nismo is equipped with a naturally aspirated 3.7-liter V6 that generates 350 horsepower and 276 pound-feet of torque, along with 14-inch front/13.80inch rear Nismo Sport Brakes with 4-piston calipers up front and 2-piston units in back. The Nismo model also features a standard limited-slip differential, 19-inch forged wheels, and Nismo-tuned suspension which includes higher spring rates, bigger sway bars, increased front and rear damping, and a strut tower brace. Prices for the 370Z Nismo start at $41,990 equipped with the six-speed manual transmission.


We’ve had some track time in the Challenger SRT Hellcat in Portland, but if you think we’d skip a chance to flog the 707 horsepower monster on Big Willow, you’d be, well, wrong. As we reported back in July, the top-spec Challenger is surprisingly manageable on the track. It’s still definitely a muscle car rather than a sports car, and its curb weight continues to head in the wrong direction with the addition of a supercharger up front and additional content inside, but that engine and the truly brilliant ZF 8-speed automatic immediately dominate the conversation once things get moving. Handling is surprisingly neutral, and with the Hellcat’s uprated springs, anti-roll bars, and three-way adaptive damping, the Hellcat is positively flat through the corners. Of course, the main straight is where the adrenaline really starts to pump – few cars accelerate like the 8-speed equipped Challenger SRT Hellcat does from 50-100 mph. See for yourself.


With a 580 horsepower supercharged 6.2-liter V8, a six speed manual gearbox, magnetic ride control suspension, and a set of beefy Brembo brakes, the ZL1 is an absolute blast to whip around Big Willow. It might lose a step to the Hellcat in the straight due to being down more than 125 horsepower, but it makes big gains in the corners. With a great shifter, good steering feel despite its electronic assistance, and a set of very grippy Goodyear Eagle F1 SuperCar G:2 tires making contact with the pavement, the ZL1 is a joy on track. Starting at $54,995, the ZL1 remains a great performance value for the money, though the interior is in need of some modernization. 


We had a great time with the all-new 2015 Ford Mustang in Malibu last month, but public roads scattered with traffic only offered brief moments to get a hint of what the new pony car is capable of. We noted that the new independent rear suspension makes the car feel much more composed over imperfect roads, giving the car a more “mature” feel overall, but it does come at the cost of a slightly heavier feeling vehicle overall. On a prepped track the independent suspension is less of a factor, but none the less the GT equipped with the Performance Package exceeded our expectations. The Performance Package includes six-piston Brembo brakes, a 3.73 Torsen differential, and optimized chassis and stability control tuning. Along with the rev-happy 5.0-liter V8 which now makes 435 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque, the Mustang was quite a bit of fun all over the course, though at an as-tested price of $44,290 it has some truly worthy adversaries from both Chevrolet and Dodge.


Nissan wisely chose to allow journalists to go on a ride along in the GT-R Nismo with team driver Bryan Heitkotter rather than try (and fail) at attempting to find the limit of this extremely capable track weapon. The GT-R Nismo can dish out a 7:08.7 lap around the Nurburgring and held the production car record last year for a time. Its motor cranks out 591 horsepower and 481 pound-feet of torque in Nismo configuration, making this GT-R capable of getting to 60 mph from a standstill in a jaw-dropping 2.5 seconds. Without a doubt, our ride with Bryan was by far the fastest we’ve ever gone around the 2.5 mile course – our apologies for the bumpy ride, the g-forces were awe inspiring. 


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