Fast Car Friday: 2018 Southwest Lifestyle Media Drive in Chandler, Arizona

Odometer (Legend):  563,683

Every once in a while, I get to feast on an automotive sampler platter by driving a dozen or more new cars in a single day.  Sounds like a pretty awesome way to see where the auto industry is going, right?  This past Friday, I participated in the Southwest Lifestyle Media Drive in Chandler, Arizona at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.

The available offerings came from a wide array of configurations:  A 104-horsepower Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid and a 797-horsepower Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat Redeye are at vastly different ends of the performance spectrum, but both of them played a strong game as contenders in this unique “vehicle of the year” program.

The Southwest Lifestyle event builds on a former event called the Active Lifestyle Vehicle (ALV) of the Year that was 14 years running.  ALV Co-Founder Nina Russin stepped away after her many years of success, and journalist Becky Antioco took the reins to reinvent it as something fresh and new.  The result was a 1-day program hosted at the Bondurant Racing School facility where about 20 journalists put 17 vehicles through their paces and ultimately cast ballots to name top winners in 5 categories.  Here were the final results:

  • Car of the Year – Best Value:  2019 Kia Forte EX
  • Car of the Year – Performance / Luxury:  2019 Dodge Challenger SRT Redeye
  • SUV/CUV of the Year – Best Value:  2019 Subaru Ascent
  • SUV/CUV of the Year – Luxury:  2018 Lexus LX570
  • Truck of the Year:  2019 RAM 1500 Longhorn

SLMD kicked off on Thursday evening with a reception at the Sheraton Grand Resort, giving local journalists the chance to interact with representatives from the auto manufacturers in a casual setting with food & beverages.  Friday’s activities started early, with a lineup of fully spit-shined new cars ready to pound the pavement by the time registration got underway at 8:00 a.m.

Both on- and off-road drive routes were made available – the latter subjecting the trucks & SUVs to a pretty gnarly series of terrain challenges that were custom-built for the event by Bondurant staff.  Scott Brown from Fiat-Chrysler was proud of how the company’s latest Wrangler “JL” made light work of those obstacles.  It was a very competitive playing field all around, and ultimately the Subaru took top honors.  Journalists may have been swayed by the fact that it has 19 cup holders.

For the on-road portion, a 20-minute drive route gave journalists the chance to subject vehicles to both city & highway driving environments, thanks to easy access to the Interstate 10 onramp and traffic-free surface streets in the near vicinity.  This playground was where I first experienced that nearly-800-horsepower Hellcat as well as the new, limited-edition 480-horsepower Ford Mustang Bullitt.

The Mustang’s release coincides with the famous Steve McQueen movie “Bullitt” which was released 50 years ago exactly, and the model plays homage to that heritage and history.  According to Sam Schembari-Negroni from Ford, engineers even modeled the car’s exhaust note after the original.  I found the car an awesome all-around package – especially its slick-shifting 6-speed manual.

Rounding out the lineup were an assortment of other trucks, SUVs, and passenger cars – each selected for the event because of the characteristics that make them great vehicles for folks living in the southwest.  In about 4 hours’ drive time – broken up by a delicious BBQ lunch sponsored by Fiat-Chrysler, I had the opportunity to drive 12 of the 17 vehicles, and I can say with a certainty that I’m excited about the direction things are going in the auto industry and it’s a great time to be a driver and enthusiast.

I thank the Southwest Lifestyle Media event directors as well as the automakers for the opportunity to participate!

New Kia Forte

With Natalie Kumaratne from Honda and James Lee from Six Speed Blog, at the opening reception

Our host facility for Friday’s fun

Event Directory Becky gives us a welcome & instructions

Test-driving a Honda Pilot Elite

The Volkswagen Alltrack, left, was 1 of 3 vehicles in the event with a manual transmission, which I was glad to see.  The Infiniti QX50, at right, was a nice family cruiser.

This was some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had.

My pick was a “burnt ends” combo platter with cole slaw on the side.

Winner in the luxo-SUV category was this big Lexus

Scott Brown, right, explains some of the features of the new “JL” Wrangler Sahara.

15 Responses to “Fast Car Friday: 2018 Southwest Lifestyle Media Drive in Chandler, Arizona”

  1. I was just thinking this gig was coming up soon! We have a few Kia Niros (non plug-in) in our fleet, but they keep getting sent 1-way never to be seen again. The one I drove very briefly was pretty sweet.

    • I’m sad to report I actually didn’t get a chance to hop into the Niro but I wish I had. I did spend some time with the new Forte and I liked it. Appears my fellow journalists did as well, since it took home an award in its category. Korean automakers have really stepped up their games in recent years!

  2. Fun! Was the new Bullitt your favorite vehicle of the event?

    • It definitely was. In fact, it was the only vehicle I decided to drive twice – one with the Ford rep in the right-seat, the second alone. You can guess which drive I had more fun with.

  3. What an awesome day!

    • Thanks Dave, it sure was. There wasn’t quite enough time to get through all the vehicles but I was able to cast ballots on most of them. I was a little surprised at some of the results. Always fun to network with other journalists and see what kind of things they are looking at / for in new cars today.

  4. autoscribe1974 Says:

    If only the Audi Allroad were available with a manual in the USA!! 😉
    Such a fun day, thanks for sharing…

    • I had to second-guess myself after filming the Alltrack. “Did I accidentally just say Allroad?” But I think I got it right. Definitely a fun car, and I made sure to tell representative Nicole Redding, “Thank you for bringing this specific car!” I really enjoyed it.

    • Oops, so I did say Allroad in the written piece. Haha, fixed! Thanks Mark!

  5. Seems like a great event. The BBQ looked delicious!! Aside from the Mustang, what did you think of the other vehicles you drove? Any highlights or lowlights among them?

    • I liked the LX570 for its sheer size and road presence. It was the most comfortable vehicle I drove all day. I was disappointed most by the Chevy Colorado ZR2. It felt cheap – right down to the “traditional” turn-key ignition (everything else in the event, I think) was a push-button start. As a dedicated off-roader it achieves what it’s looking to do, but as an all-around daily driver I didn’t find it to have very good road manners. I also thought the Infiniti QX50 was an OK vehicle until I saw that it costs $58,000. It doesn’t feel like $60k worth to me. For some reason the transmission felt sluggish. The seat coolers were nice though.

  6. Hey Tyson

    It’s really GREAT seeing events like this literally in our own backyards I applaud the organizers for doing so. I wish them continued success and hope we see more of these now that the oven temps are being dialed down.

    BTW the smile on your face while exiting the Bullitt speaks volumes ;).

  7. The sound of the Bullitt as you pulled away, so very cool! A Friday driving a range of new vehicles is a far better way to spend the day than at work. I got to see my first Porsche GT2RS in the flesh yesterday, an awesome looking piece of kit. Hope you week is going well!

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