John “Bugsy” Lawlor and the New England Motor Press Association gave one of New England’s worst winters ever an emphatic boot this past weekend. Having assembled an impressive fleet of new cars and trucks, not to mention a mouth-watering buffet, Lawlor and his Automotion crew hosted a large and varied group of auto journalists for NEMPA’s 2015 Winter Vehicle Awards testing.
Roads were relatively clear but very wet, and withering grey remnants of this year’s record-setting snowfall lingered just beyond the pavement. But having the opportunity to put a large and varied assortment of cars through its paces refreshed everyone’s perspective and attitude. We all learned a ton and had a blast, and we now eagerly look forward to ditching snow tires, opening car windows and roofs wide, and hitting the back roads in something speedy and nimble.
The list of cars available for testing included everything from hot compact all-wheel-drive hatches to full-size trucks, with a number of muscle and sports cars tossed in for good measure. My co-workers and I did our best to sample as wide a range as possible, though we’ll confess that some of our choices were driven by parking-lot logistics. NEMPA’s Winter Vehicle Awards winners won’t get announced until springtime, but here are some thoughts on the cars we drove.
Knowing that competition for some of the available cars would be heated, we arrived a little early and managed to grab a red 2015 BMW X4 xDrive35i with the M Sport package for our debut drive (which unfortunately took place before our photographer was ready). That vehicle looked and felt fantastic, from its burly steering wheel and driver-focused cockpit to its plentiful power and adjustable suspension and driving dynamics. It handled paved roads and a short but rugged and wet trail through the woods equally well while delivering a very enjoyable ride. The tiny rear window was our only complaint, and a rear-view camera ensured we could avoid trouble to the rear despite its size.
Next up was the 2015 Subaru Outback. It’s no secret we’re big fans of the Outback, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t a few things about the last generation that could be improved. The Outback is all new for 2015, and thankfully, Subaru addressed our biggest concerns, significantly improving the quality of interior materials and vastly upgrading the infotainment system. While we got to spend only a short time in the Outback, it was immediately apparent just how comfortable the car would be on long trips. Thanks to well-designed seats, a roomy cargo area and an impressive all-wheel-drive system, the Outback is one of our top road-trip picks, especially if that trip might involve a little snow.
The 2015 Chevrolet Silverado’s huge grille beckoned us next. The full-size Silverado is a behemoth—we jumped in with four grown adults and still had way more space than we knew what to do with. We drove the top-of-the-range High Country, which treated us to beautiful brown leather heated seats, DVD entertainment, and Bose sound as it made quick, comfortable work of that wooded trail. While the Silverado performs admirably as a luxury truck, it will still get the job done as a work truck, boasting large, easy-to-use controls, plenty of storage space, a deep pickup bed, and loads of outlets and USB ports to charge electronics.
Nicole Wakelin, who writes Test Drive Reviews for CarGurus, joined us in the Silverado and stuck with us for a spin in the 2015 Dodge Charger SXT Premium AWD featuring the Rallye package. Nicole’s a Charger fan and enjoyed the car thoroughly despite its having the smallest engine available in a Charger this year. The Rallye package boosts the V6’s output from 292 to 300 hp, and while that doesn’t compare to the Hellcat’s number, we all found it plenty to make the car drive and sound like a sports car. Nicole loved its muscle-car feel, and we agreed that the honeycomb-patterned dashboard and two-tone black-and-red leather seating looks terrific.
It should come as no surprise that the least practical car we drove provided the most exciting ride. The debuting Mercedes-Benz GLA 45 AMG looks, feels, and sounds like a rowdy frat-boy younger brother to the stately, refined, and elegant S-Class. Nicole left the parking lot without realizing the car was in Eco mode, an oversight we were eager to correct before taking the wheel. Switching to Sport mode took a minute or two, but was absolutely worth the trouble. The AMG’s signed 2.0-liter turbo inline 4-cylinder begged for abuse, and its 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and performance exhaust delivered a surprising but very satisfying burble for the last few seconds before nearly every shift. The car has a gorgeous interior, 4Matic all-wheel drive, and a wealth of feature and safety content, but at a hair over $60K, it will earn a spot on the list of relatively few hot-hatch shoppers.
Dan Roth, another Test Drive Review writer, hopped into a Baja Yellow 2015 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara 4X4 with us next. Dan’s a longtime fan of the Wrangler’s versatility and distinctiveness, and the vehicle we drove was littered with Jeep Easter eggs. The Wrangler had no trouble with the deep ruts in that wooded path, of course, and while its ride certainly didn’t resemble a sedan’s, we all noted that it was quieter, tighter, and more sedate than we expected based on our experience with older Wranglers. The rain left us unwilling to open its three-piece Freedom top, but we all guessed that would add lots of fun and functionality in better weather.
AWD 2015 Chargers share an engine and 8-speed automatic transmission with the 2015 Chrysler 300C AWD. But the 300C looks, feels, and even sounds quite different, particularly inside, where it manages to present itself convincingly as a luxury sedan. With a lower, more rumbling sound, the 300C can definitely get up and go, but its new rotary shifter, huge dual-pane sunroof, and more reserved dashboard don’t look or feel like muscle-car ingredients.
Our last ride of the day was in a 2015.5 Volvo V60 T5 AWD Cross Country. Material quality inside the car was exceptional, and its nicely bolstered leather seats were possibly the most comfortable ones we sat in all day. The Volvo delivered a solid, composed ride and an extensive package of safety features that seemed perfectly in sync with Volvo’s reputation. But the V60 doesn’t have a typical wagon’s cargo capacity by any means, and we wondered whether it would be up to the job of hauling four people and a bunch of outdoor gear.
Mother Nature managed to get a last laugh, delivering enough white stuff to make 2015 the Boston area’s snowiest winter ever the day after Winter Vehicle testing, but that’s okay. New England drivers confidently look forward to warmer weather, and automakers will make sure we’ve got a wide range of options to enjoy all sorts of driving this spring and summer. In fact, we look forward to exploring some of those options at NEMPA’s 2015 Ragtop Ramble. But first we’ve got to wait for all this snow to finish melting.
What car would you pick for a long trip in challenging winter conditions?
-hollerin and zwaller
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