Why do I still get excited about going to media events?
It would be easy for me to say that it "gets me out of the office." That's just too obvious. However, there are a few opportunities available to me that let me network with fellow colleagues and manufacturer representatives these days.
You have to create your own opportunities. You take up invitations, budget accordingly, and attend. Whatever happens, happens. You can mark your experience as whole – good or bad.
I am proud to say that I am still a member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association. They love putting on product-based programming from informational luncheons to full-blown drive events. I have attended the Fall Rally, which is a prime example of the latter.
The venue is familiar: The Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Illinois. Located south of Interstate 80 not far from the Chicagoland Speedway, Autobahn combines two road courses, an off-road course, and fully blown garages for Chicago area enthusiasts and motorsports professionals. It is a great facility, for which I had plenty of wonderful experiences in the past.
How did this year's MAMA Fall Rally go? Well…
The plan for the week was to stay up in the Northwest Burbs for a few nights, so I can catch up with friends and do a bit of work. That also included heading down to the Harrah's Hotel and Casino in Joliet for the out-of-towner dinner the night prior to Fall Rally.
After traversing Interstates 290 and 355 between my hotel in Schaumburg and the venues at Joliet, I gave the 2018 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE its final run in my care. My arrival was on time and ready to get inside the Autobahn Country Club for the main event.
Breakfast was hosted by Lexus, who presented the new 2019 ES. They made this mid-sized front-drive sedan – one of two original models in the brand’s lineup – an all-new platform and sharper looks inside and out. Perhaps the biggest news was the addition of an F Sport model to the lineup – the first time the ES gets the brand’s sporty treatment. Not only does it look even sharper, but its seats are formed perfectly. Plus, it comes with a Sport S+ mode, which transforms the ES into a "wolf in sheep's clothing." Like all other Lexus models, Sport S+ sharpens up the gearbox mapping, the steering weight, and the ride/handling mix.
On a personal note, I cannot wait to bring this in to work with! It is simply awesome!
The first bit of driving I did was on the off-road course. If you read my synopsis of previous MAMA Fall Rallies, there are two courses to tackle – a technical course made for Jeep Wranglers and such and an open course for pickup trucks. This year, they decided to bring in the trucks through a portion of the technical course to come out onto an “intersection” for the open course.
Considering the type of pickup trucks we had to drive, this adaption to the course was quite a challenge. After some rough track, we had to do a tight right turn into a tight opening back onto the open course. In the 2019 Toyota Tundra Limited Double Cab, it was quite the challenge indeed. It took a second try through the tight section between some thin branches of trees to get out into the clearing.
For my run in the 2019 Ram 1500 Rebel, I bypassed the technical part and went for it – encouraged by my friend at Ram Trucks. I did not "send it" as some people would. I did notice how well behaved the Ram Rebel was on the two-track trail. It also helped that it had the 5.7-liter HEMI V8 (without the E-Torque system) to rock it through the open course.
I did get a passenger look at the 2019 GMC Sierra 1500 AT4 – the Professional Grade brand's answer to the Rebel, Ford F-150 Raptor, Toyota Tundra TRD Pro and Nissan Titan PRO-4X. It is a decent truck, but I am favoring the Ram and Ford for off-road hoonery…I mean, purpose. Maybe if I drove it, I would have a better opinion…which I ran out of time.
Back at the paddock, I spent the morning talking with the manufacturers about strategies and such. OK, catching up with them on things. I did drive a few vehicles on the street course…yeah, I wasn't feeling the track at all. I better get into those…
The Ferrari-built 3.8-liter twin-turbocharged V8 from the Maserati Quattroporte GTS has now found itself underneath the Levante's hood. A few tweaks on the engine made its way in the 2019 Levante GTS, including a different set of turbos to match its all-wheel-drive performance. The result is a wonderful SUV/crossover that offers improved quality, a comfortable space, improved controls, and absolute brio in Sport mode. Yet, it can be a civilized bruiser in Normal mode. In all, my first run in the Maserati Levante showed that the brand's seriousness in challenging the German luxury brands with uncompromising style and performance.
In the GTS, the twin-turbo V8 puts out 550 horsepower. If you want more brio, the Levante Trofeo offers the same engine with a power bump to 590 horsepower. Tempting, isn't it?
Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz had the new CLS 450 4MATIC available for us to drive. The third generation four-door coupe had been redesigned right through to the engine. This marks the return of the inline six-cylinder engine to the three-pointed star brand – a 3.0-liter version. This comes with a twist: A light-hybrid system called EQ Boost. The electric add-on helps in adding torque to well-balanced and responsive classic engine.
The chassis and engine were absolutely wonderful. However, when you hear someone describe the CLS coupe as "an E-Class wrapped in a Hugo Boss suit," then you realize how tight the car is inside. I was able to make some competent space behind the wheel, but I fear that no one else would sit behind me. If there is a consolation, the CLS is roomier than the CLA – which is being replaced by the A-Class sedan for 2019.
So, in no particular order, let me rattle off the other vehicles that were driven.
The 2019 Ford Transit Connect XLT wagon has been revised with a new corporate front end and other enhancements inside and out. The 2.0-liter engine is pretty spunky and wants to send the three-row van into orbit. The new 8-speed automatic helped tremendously. However, the instrument binnacle is too low for my tall torso and the new SYNC 3 screen looks semi-useful, not to mention canted away from me. This looks like a great alternative to the larger minivan, but almost.
What I appreciate in the 2019 Honda Insight is the design mix between the Civic and Accord. Its familiar looks help to orient customers to this third resurrection of the affordable hybrid model. It could use some more power, but it is fine if you want to achieve over 50 MPG. The ride is smooth, and the Touring model’s interior is comfortable up front. I believe Honda has created the best Insight yet.
While on the topic of the Accord, Nissan brought out their 2019 Altima for us to drive. It looks good, even with the floating roof design on the C pillar. The cabin is minimalist, which is a good thing. I wished there was better headroom in the back seat. This Platinum came with all-wheel drive with the base 2.5-liter engine. Yet, it felt pretty loose – but, then again, it could be an engineering unit. The new Altima has potential, but a drive with the VC-Turbo engine could be a telling story.
The only SUV/crossover I drove at the MAMA Fall Rally was the 2019 Subaru Ascent Touring. I wanted to see for myself why this is becoming a hit for a brand known for capable all-wheel-drive vehicles. It is quite large inside, though it feels small – like an extended Forester. The engine is new – a 2.4-liter turbocharged boxer four-cylinder – and it responds pretty well. There are some finishing the Ascent needs to truly win me over, but high marks for Subaru for jumping back into the three-row SUV market.
Saving the best for last…the 2018 Lexus LS 500 with all-wheel drive. I have no words for this flagship sedan, except that it is what I expect from one. If you have driven an older version of this Lexus original, there are some adjustments to be made. You get used to the new instrument binnacle and the fact it is a twin-turbocharged V6 underneath the hood of it. Yet, it has a feeling that I tried to capture in the current Mercedes-Benz S-Class – that air of superiority reserved for a luxury flagship sedan.
To me, this new LS is exactly what we should expect from a Lexus flagship – even more. I certainly hope to get one – if not, that one – in for a review.
At the end of the drive program, they came up with an idea for photographers to capture certain vehicles on the track. I did come up with some good images from this final hour of MAMA Fall Rally. It was a decent idea, but not a lot of people took the organization up on it. It was a good try, though.
In the end, I drove home in a vehicle you will get to read more about in less than a week's time. I'll also talk about a few notes from the trip outside of the MAMA Fall Rally in another article.
What I also did not mention was how Rally and the week around it turned out to be a positive experience overall. A few discussions lead to some progress on my end. I may want to discuss those separately. But, overall, I left MAMA Fall Rally with more confidence and ease in this business.
With every precious opportunity to advance this work available, I can always count on the MAMA Fall Rally to yield professional progress while catching up on vehicles and experience along the way. That is how you keep being excited about media opportunities such as this.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicles driven at the 2018 Midwest Automotive Media Association Fall Rally were provided by the manufacturers and brands, as mentioned. Accommodations and some logistics were provided by the Midwest Automotive Media Association and its sponsors
All photos by Randy Stern