Sunday, June 3, 2012

Big racing fun comes in small-car packages

Big racing fun comes in small-car packages


Reporter Dan Carney takes this Mazda2 for a ride. He says that the car's performance on the racetrack was "genuinely exciting."

By Dan Carney, contributor
Remember Herbie, the Love Bug? It (he?) was an old Volkswagen Beetle, which everyone knew back its day was as slow as a rebate check. But he could miraculously outrace Jaguars, Porsches and Ferraris.

To get a feel for economy car fender-banging, I was dispatched to participate first-hand in the new Total Showcase series and report back. It might sound preposterous to contemplate racing a Ford Fiesta, Fiat 500, Honda Fit, Kia Rio, Mazda2 or Mini Cooper around a big racetrack like Homestead Speedway near Miami, but that’s just what we did. Do you know what? It was just like real racing!

The question is: Will consumers be impressed? “We cannot draw a direct line from motorsports to sales,” conceded Mike Ofiara, supervisor for motorsports communication for Kia Motor America. “But we like to think that the old phrase, ‘Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday’ still persists.”

Whether that is or ever has been true has long been a topic of debate, and the answer seems to be, “It depends.” The answer is particularly pertinent with regard to the emerging class of subcompact cars in the U.S. and the youthful buyers they are targeting. That’s because people tend to associate affordability and fuel economy with little hatchbacks, while racing is normally the domain of the powerful and prestigious.

And what about the buyers? Do gadget-addled 20-somethings pay attention to racing, beyond their latest round of Mario Kart? If they do, will it influence their purchase decisions?

The idea is that by joining together to tout their minicars as fun, and even as potential racers, carmakers can shift consumers’ perceptions of the subcompact category as a whole, explained Mickey Matus, marketing communications manager for Ford Racing.

“It is important that the cars do take on a driving dynamic message,” he said. “It does everybody good if the [subcompact segment] does that.” And that message is better carried en masse, Matus continued. “If you’ve got four-five cars promoting the attributes, it is better than one guy out there trying to wave the flag.”

Can carmakers make a category cool just through marketing? After all, that’s what SUV haters have charged happened with those vehicles. Probably not as much as critics charge, or carmakers would like, but marketing must sell some cars or they wouldn’t do it.

It's a tall order, because we are talking about little hatchbacks here, mostly the five-door variety, though the Mini and Fiat are only available as three-door models. These are the cars that get no respect. But they can be a lot of fun to drive, with responsive handling and surprisingly zippy engines.

But zippy enough to not feel like absurd jokes on a real race-track? Yes, they really are zippy enough to race for real. Each car has a package of racing-grade springs and shocks absorbers, plus a few other features depending on the car, and they have real, racing-grade roll cages and other safety equipment. Along with the Continental racing slicks, these parts transform these flimsy flivvers into flyweight contenders as surely as six months of training and a pair of Everlast boxing gloves can transform the school runt into a winning fighter.

The key in both cases is to only fight within your weight class, so the hatchbacks only race amongst themselves. I only raced the Mazda2, but I can say that the car’s performance in the race was genuinely exciting. That impression was intensified by the heavy rain that fell during the season-opening event at Homestead, during which time the Mazda2 was impressively sure-footed on its Continental rain tires.

Though I didn’t drive the other cars in racing trim, I can confirm that efforts to equalize the cars’ performance for truly equal racing seem to have worked, as no car appeared to hold an advantage either in cornering or in acceleration.

That means for a total bill of about twice the typical $13,000 purchase price of a new example of one of these cars, you, I, or anybody else could have our own fully prepped race-car and compete with it in legitimate professional events hosted by NASCAR’s road-racing division, called Grand-Am, or by the Sports Car Club of America’s World Challenge pro series.

I slogged through the rain in the middle of the pack to finish fourth of the eight cars in the inauguaral Grand-Am race, but couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for hours afterward despite the relentless tropical south Florida spring deluge.

Maybe enough fun that some potential minicar buyers will want to come out and wave the flag for their own car. “Not everybody can afford a Mustang GT,” noted Matus. “It is nice to have something the young person can buy and take pride in for a win at the track.”

Mazda motorsports director John Doonan spearheaded the development of the racing series and recruited the other companies to compete. “My division’s mission is, ‘Lets identify the next generation of customer,’” he explained. “Not only the Mazda customers at the dealership, but also the next generation racing customer.”

But does Generation Playstation really care about racing? They have been playing a lot of racing simulations on their game consoles, Doonan pointed out. “There are kids who could get off the couch, who’ve been playing a video game and for pretty reasonable be able to buy this kit and go racing for about $25,000.”

Sure, that’s more expensive than Herbie the Love Bug cost back in the 1968, but today we have a lot more mandatory safety equipment. Here’s some unfortunate irony for you: Volkswagen, a brand that was once synonymous with small cars in the U.S. can’t participate in this series because it doesn’t sell any cars here that are small enough.

But maybe if the expected 40-car fields materialize later this season and that helps take some of the stigma off subcompact hatchbacks among mainstream American car buyers, then maybe VW will import one of its smaller models and join in the fun.

Meanwhile, Millennials, drop your game controllers and come out with your wallets open! Carmakers have something to show you.

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