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10 Years at AW, 10 Favorite Cars

Mon, 01 Feb 2010

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of my having a desk at One AutoWeek Tower. Looking back on the past decade, I thought about all of the greats cars I've had the chance to drive.

The problem was keeping the list to just 10. The sheer number of vehicles I've been able to drive--somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000--made listing just 10 too hard. So I stretched the list a bit.

And in going through my list, I realized some of the cars I loved, while being great cars, are on the list as much for the driving experience and where I drove them as for the actual car itself. But thinking about it, that's the way it should be. A great road, or a great racetrack, or a terrific passenger-riding shotgun can bring out the best attributes of a car, making it feel and drive better than if you were just heading off to the grocery store.

So, in no particular order, here are my favorites and the reasons they made the list.

Ferrari F430 Scuderia: Ferrari arranged a test of the F430 Scuderia at a private airport near the company headquarters and then an invitation for a couple of days of driving the car around Italy. That was preceded by a tour of factory and a visit to Fiorano and Enzo's house/office. The F430 Scuderia is probably the quickest street car I've driven, and driving it for a couple of days in Italy--and getting an inside look at Ferrari--is an experience not soon forgotten.

Porsche Carerra GT: First having seen the car at the Paris motor show in fall 2000, I only hoped at some point that I'd get to actually drive one. Several years later, I did, at Waterford Hills, a road course outside of Detroit. The Carerra GT was not really suited for the small road course, as you couldn't fully exercise the car's potent V10 engine, but famed Porsche racer Hurley Haywood was riding shotgun, and despite a few hiccups on my part, I made some good laps. Hurley kept his hands off the steering wheel and was still talking to me when we were done.

BMW Z8: A 5.0-liter DOHC V8 underhood pumping out 394 hp and 368 lb-ft of torque running through a six-speed manual gearbox driving the rear wheels. The horsepower number seems a bit anemic in today's world where 500-hp supercars are the norm, but back in 2001, this thing was a rocket. Here is an excerpt from my notes after driving the car in October 2001:

“There is an awful lot in this car to put a smile on your face. Just pushing the button to start the car did it for me, not to mention grabbing a hold of the steering wheel and stabbing the throttle for the first time. You can flat-out pin yourself in the seat up through third gear. Might be able to do it in the other gears, too, but I ran out of room (and nerve) as the speedo was way past north heading back down the other side. On my own little test track (on the drive home), there are a couple of twisty curves that you can have a little fun with. With the Z8, you can have a lot of fun. A 90-degree right starts it out in second gear, full throttle, grab third as the road twists to the little left into a short straightaway (speedometer nears triple digits). Take it right to the redline and then hard on the brakes for a 90-degree right-hander, grab second and hard on the throttle again . . . the back end wants to come around but the traction control kicked in and straightened everything up. Back up to near redline again then hard on the brakes for a 90-degree left-hander. Back on the throttle again, and again the rear end wants to go wide. By this point, the grin is so big I can barely see.” Enough said.

Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 KR: The biggest, baddest production Mustang at the time. A supercharged V8 cranking out 540 hp on what is, in my opinion, the best-looking generation of Mustangs since the car's inception. The drive took place at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah, a terrific track at which to exercise this pony car.

Ford Mustang Cobra Jet: By far the shortest test drive of any car on the list. I was able to make one run down the drag strip in, at the time, Ford's latest race car. Just like a real drag racer, I made a burnout to warm up the rear slicks, staged the car and waited for the Christmas Tree to count down to green, where I dropped the clutch and headed for the north end of Milan Dragway, southwest of Detroit. About 12 seconds later, I was across the finish stripe and the test drive was over. I had a hard time getting my helmet off over the grin on my face. I didn't turn in the fast time of the day, but that didn't really matter.

Rolls-Royce Phantom: As F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, rich people are different than us, and so are their cars. I had not driven anything before or since that drew as much attention as the Phantom. Even in car-centric Detroit, the Phantom turned heads. People on the streets stopped what they were doing to watch the car go by. You could read their lips: “That's a Rolls-Royce.” The car just wafts along the highway; the large, thin steering wheel feels odd, but yet very comfortable, in your hands. The ride is like a dream. Amazing experience.

Nissan Skyline GT-R: Japanese manufacturers rarely let American journalists drive their products on the road in Japan. Steering wheels are on the wrong side, and traffic is often oppressive and road signs can be confusing. But that didn't stop Nissan from offering up drives in NISMO-developed Skyline GT-Rs, a car never sold in the United States. This was shortly after the new GT-R had been announced, and Nissan wanted to give American journalists a chance to see what all the hoopla was about. They turned us loose in these high-horsepower, right-hand-drive rockets. This was basically a race car, with a balanced and blue-printed engine with a race clutch and gearbox, lowered suspension and performance tires. The drive route was in a resort area with Mount Fuji in the distance. After a few minutes, I understood what all the hoopla was about.

Chevrolet Corvette ZR1: The best performance bargain on the planet, the ZR1 might be the easiest 600-plus-hp car you will ever drive. Think Corvette on steroids. A comfortable interior and gonzo horsepower in a car you could use for your everyday commuter or at your local racetrack. An amazing car.

Ford GT: Ford's attempt at a supercar was pretty damn good. Looking a lot like its cousin, the Le Mans-conquering Ford GT40, this 205-mph street car, done up in blue and orange Gulf livery, was very special to finally get to drive. I admit, I conked my head more than a couple of times on the car's crazy doors--the top of the door is a cutout of the roof, making getting in and out easier, as long as you don't crack you skull on the door. But other than that, it was all good driving this tire-smoking beast. A 3,400-pound car with a 550-hp mid-engine V8 in a throwback design with one of the best factory paint jobs you'll ever see. Kudos to Ford for making this car.

Dodge Viper ACR: Few cars have put the fear of God in me quicker than the Dodge Viper. The massive V10 underhood and its stump-pulling torque are at the heart of the beast. In my first time driving a Viper, doing 50 mph and getting ready to pass a car on a two-lane road, I dropped it down from fourth to third, hit throttle, and immediately the rear wheels lighted up and the car snapped sideways. This car is a throwback--no traction control, no ABS, nothing to save you except your nerve and/or your skill. I was glad to hear the new Chrysler's plans include a new Viper down the road.

OK, keeping the list to just 10 was very tough. Here are my honorable mentions:

-- Rolls Royce Drophead Coupe: Most expensive car, at $430,000-plus.

-- Aston Martin DB9: What's not to love about James Bond's car?

-- Lamborghini Murci

By Roger Hart