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Car and Driver's Lightning Lap 2013 - A Closer Look

They've finally posted it! The 2013 Lightning Lap feature is finally available online (full article: Lightning Lap 2013: Hot Cars, Hot Track, Hot Laps). I know it has been available in the February issue but I don't buy the magazine so I haven't been able to read it until today. It is kind of bittersweet for me though. You see, I love the Lightning Lap feature. They test all the performance vehicles that either came out or were upgraded the year before. This makes it a very exciting event/test but it also means that there is only 1 Lightning Lap feature in a year, so I am both excited for the new one and disappointed that I have to wait for a year for the next one. Anyhow, for road racers and track day veterans, it is a great test (or set of tests).

There are many reasons why the Lightning Lap feature is great IMO. Except for the SUV class, which includes vehicles like the Jeep SRT and BMW X5 M regardless of prices, cars are divided in classes depending on price ranges. This is very helpful, especially if you're shopping for a good track car with a budget because you can zero in on the specific price range and look at lap times and reviews. The reviews are also short and sweet. Car reviews don't get right to the point any more than this. They highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each car and summarize their subjective driving impressions - that's it. If you want to modify and don't know where to start, knowing weaknesses can help pointing you in the right direction and having so many reviews in one place makes it that much easier. And last but certainly not least, knowing lap times earns bragging rights.. if your favourite car (or the car you've just bought last summer) posts a quick lap. That's not always the case though. The Lightning Lap can bring just as much shame and disappointment as it can pride for cars that fail to meet their expectations.

There are many fast times and many "slow" times, but only very few are truly impressive or disappointing. It's important to note that picking a car as an impressive or disappointing one doesn't mean it is the quickest or slowest in class. It just means that, in my opinion, the car posted either better or worse lap times than their specifications might suggest.

The Highs (by class):

LLOINK (cop cars): Dodge Charger Pursuit - The Dodge Charger Pursuit was very impressive, turning in a lap time of 3:17.8. This time beats the last generation, more powerful Charger SRT8 despite all the extra weight of the police gear and nearly matches the 3:17.5 time of the much more sporty Infiniti G37 Coupe Sport despite (the Infiniti) having a better power-to-weight ratio. Better not try to outrun this one!

LL2 ($30,000-$59,000): Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE - The high here is clearly the Camaro SS 1LE. With a price tag under $40,000 and without a power bump over a run-of-the-mill Camaro SS, it is amazing how far some suspension changes can go. Forget the Boss 302 LS, which this Camaro was meant to go against (and beats by just over a second). This Camaro manages to just beat the near race-ready 2007 Porsche 911 GT3 and barely loses to GM's first iteration of the mighty C6 Z06 - the 2006 Corvette Z06. Think this is not fast enough for a heavy Camaro? Car & Driver said they made a couple of downshifting mistakes and they think that with a fresh set of tires and a completely clean lap, the Camaro could post a sub 3 minute lap which puts it in a very elite group. 

The Lows (by class):

LL1 (up to $29,999): Ford Focus ST - For me, the disappointment here is the Focus ST, with a lap time of 3:21.4. I had high hopes for this car, especially after reading about how well it handles. I am not really sure what is letting this car down but the car missed the second day of lapping, which usually is the day they record their fastest laps and that's very possible since you can record better lap times the more familiar you get with the car. 

They are suggesting that the engine may also have hurt the lap times, providing less torque midrange than its 252 lb-ft rating may suggest. I doubt that that's the main reason though. While the torque range may be weaker than expected, it is still plenty. They think the lack of a mechanical limited slip differential may have hurt lap times as they found the brake-based limited-slip-differential-effect didn't hold up to track abuse and still sent the inside front wheel spinning and wasting power. The brake-based limited slip function has been criticized by many and its shortcomings are no surprise. I think the lack of a true limited slip differential and missing second day lapping are what really hurt the lap times. I wouldn't be surprised if, with more seat time on the track and a true limited slip differential, the Focus ST may be well under the 3:20 mark.

LL3 ($60,000 - $119,999): BMW M5 - The BMW M5 was definitely a low in my opinion. This new twin-turbocharged M-badged BMW is no slouch but the latest iteration of the M5 loses to the Audi RS5 and the now-over-4-years old LSA powered CTS-V. Lap times aren't everything though, so what about driving feel? "The M5's brake pedal lacks tactility, so we struggled to find the ideal braking points," they said, "the brakes never failed, but their inconsistent performance shook our confidence." The brakes were strong one lap and weak another. It understeers and provides little communication from the front wheels to the steering wheel and it feels pointlessly hefty (which usually means the steering weight feels artificial). 

The latest and greatest from BMW's M-division understeers? Althought unacceptable for an M car, I could maybe understand if they tuned some understeer to tone it down and make it appeal to a larger market. But why the inconsistent braking feel? And the elephant in the room, why the lack of communication and steering feel in a BMW M car? Oh, and it's about 200 lb heavier than the Cadillac CTS-V sedan. The BMW M5, which used to be the benchmark for a family sports sedan, is an overweight, understeering BMW that lacks braking and steering finesse. Something is seriously wrong here. 

LL5 ($240,000 and above): Lexus LFA - The only entry in this year's super expensive class - the Lexus LFA. With a best lap time of 2:55.1, it is far from slow but after looking at other lap times, it becomes apparent why it is disappointing. For example, the Camaro ZL1 is only 2.4 seconds slower, despite being nearly 600 lb heavier and not much more powerful - the Lexus actually has a better weight to power ratio of 6.45 lb/hp vs the Camaro's 7.10. The Lexus is purpose built from the ground up with a bespoke chassis and engine and, according to Lexus, took 10 years to develop from concept to production ready. It seems like it should pull a much a greater lead, especially considering its almost ridiculous price tag of nearly $400,000. This would definitely be disappointing to (the few) Lexus owners who are car enthusiasts.

Honourable Mentions:

LL2 ($30,000 - $59,999): Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 - it's a Camaro that's as fast as a (last generation) 911 Turbo S while maintaining perfect street manners and comfort, thanks to excellent chassis tuning and magnetic shocks. Enough said. Did I mention that it's quicker than the Mercedes Benz SLS AMG?

LL3 ($60,000 - $119,999): Mercedes Benz C63 AMG Black Series - besides the awesome "Black Series" name, AMG has shown that they can build more than unapologetic, oversteering, loud and powerful Merc's. They wanted to build an excellent and balanced track car and they certainly did. 

LL3 ($60,000 - $119,999): Ferrari 458 Italia - while it is never a surprise when a Ferrari posts a great lap time, the Ferrari simply earns the spot because of what the Ferrari engineer announced when they received the car for testing. He said it "Is-a okay if you crash-a de car.. as-a long as you get a good lap-a time." Only a person speaking for Ferrari would say that.

2008 LL1 (up to $29,999): Chevrolet Cobalt SS - the turbocharged Cobalt SS, which has been out of production for over 2 years and is over 5 years old, is still the people's champion. It still holds the second fastest lap time ever in the (least expensive) class and beats several cars from the next class up. It is second only to the 2011 Mustang V6 and 2006 Nissan 350Z Track, both of which are only 0.5 seconds quicker, several thousand dollars more expensive and RWD. Plus, after accounting for inflation, the 350Z Track would actually move up into the next class.

2012 LL2 ($30,000 - $59,999): Ford Mustang Boss 302 Laguna Seca - Although it loses to the Camaro SS 1LE and ZL1, it still holds one of the quickest lap times in the class - 3:02.8. It is only beat by those two Camaros and a couple of Corvettes in its class and beats several cars from higher price brackets. The sound and driving experience are world class and I suspect it should have no problem shaving a couple of seconds off its time with simple modifications. In their review, they said the car has too much rear end grip, which is unsurprising considering the Torsen differential, wide rear wheels and staggered tire setup. This probably hurt front end bite and turn in. The tires could have probably hurt the lap times too as the stock tires don't take too well to heat cycling so they probably lost grip after the first day, which could affect the best lap time since they usually record their quickest times on the second day. With a set of tires that are sticky as the stockers but take better to heat cycling and a square tire setup, I wouldn't be surprised if this Mustang can pull a 3:00.x time or even break into the very elite sub-3-second group. 

Overall though, I think it was a great Lightning Lap. There are some cars that I would have liked to see but weren't tested. There's always next year though so hopefully we will see them. Are there cars that you would have liked to see but they weren't tested? Which cars do you think were the most impressive or disappointing?

Source: Car and Driver.


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