Archive | 8:21 PM

The Gotham Dream Car Tour

17 May

I will begin this post by saying that my wife Linda is pretty awesome and I’m lucky to have her.  The wife/girlfriend of a car guy is NOT usually interested in cars, but she is a trooper.  First of all, when I’m driving, she’s always Johhny-on-the-spot with the iphone camera when I notice a rare or interesting car on the road.   Plus, over the years, she’s come to a number of meets, BBQ’s and car shows and while I know it isn’t her favorite thing to do, she actively participates in my enjoyment.  She asks me questions, takes photos and probably talks to other attendees more than I do.  Basically, she is not the tag-along chick sitting in the car listening to music or doing her makeup while simultaneously texting me asking when we’re leaving.  She enjoys that I enjoy these things and she does it wholeheartedly.

That said, we heard about the Gotham Dream Car Tour for a few years now and it’s something I’ve really wanted to do.  Located in Englewood New Jersey, the tour can accomodate six drivers who rotate through six exotic cars over about three and a half hours of seat time.  At $895.00 per driver (with a passenger) it’s pricey,  but for a once in a lifetime kinda thing it’s not out of reach.

Until recently, the tour would have been tough if not impossible for me to enjoy.  I won’t go into too much detail, but over the years I’d had Ulcerative Colitis that got progressively worse.  After experimenting with many failed drug treatments, surgery (well, three of them) became the only option and I’m glad to say that I’ve been healthy and feeling great for the last year and a half.  When my birthday rolled around last November, my Linda surprised me with a gift certificate for the Dream Car Tour because I was finally healthy enough to enjoy myself without worry.  I don’t think the tour runs in the winter, but the certificate was good for a year so we decided to wait until spring to schedule.

Our tour was the morning session and we arrived at 8am as requested.  The staff at Gotham were friendly and asked us to wait in the garage until all of the guests had arrived.  They had breakfast out if anyone was interested (coffee, bagels, pastry etc…) and an episode of Top Gear was running for a bit of background distraction.  The food and TV didn’t interest me as much as the garage itself as guests were welcome to check out the fleet while waiting.  I didn’t snap any pictures in the garage because I figured there would be plenty of photo opportunities later on.  Plus, Gotham employs a staff photographer for each tour at no additional charge which is a nice touch considering the already hefty price tag (unlike costly entertainment like Universal Studios theme parks that nickel and dime you for every extra like photos).

After about 30 minutes, one of the staff members greeted the group and went over a brief summary of the tour as well as safety instructions.  They had a few stories and photos as kind of a wall of shame if you will…an example of how NOT to behave on the tour which can result in damage of the cars and the loss of that $5,000 security deposit on your credit card.  It basically boils down to driving with reasonable care…no launching, drifting, burnouts or excessive speed.  They assured the group that drivers can enjoy the performance these cars offer but in a way that is SAFE for other drivers on the road as well as the cars and guests on the tour.  Once the safety portion was over and done with, the last thing you wanted to be was “that guy” who drove like an idiot and ruined the tour for everyone.  Finally, we met the rest of the staff including the pace car drivers and our photographer.  The pace drivers controlled the tour on the road.  One guy leads the pack at a safe pace while another trails the group to keep people together.  The pace cars were new Ford Fusions, nothing exotic that would be hard to keep up with.  Each car was equipped with two way radios to provide directions and warn the group of any hazardous road conditions.  Tour members could also communicate with them in case there were any issues with the car or general questions.

Once on the way, drivers got about 20 to 30 minutes of driving in each car before stopping at scheduled points for drivers to swap cars and take pictures of their own OR get photographed by the staff photographer.  Most of the driving is on some nice country backroads in the mountains.  The scenic roads are very smooth with a nice blend of winding turns and straightaways to take in the sights.  Gotham chooses the car rotation in advance so I will say that the only downside is that the your first leg of the tour is pretty sedate as you’re mainly on the highway before hitting a rest stop to swap cars for the first time.  On the last leg of the tour, you double back to this same rest stop for the final driver change and for the staff to check the fuel level on the cars in case anyone needs a fillup.  I enjoyed every car and every piece of the tour but some sections were better than others.  In a perfect world, each driver would be able to select the car they want on the section they desire but it has to be fair for everyone in the group.  Therefore, it only makes sense that they choose for you.

Car #1 for me was the Gallardo coupe.  I’d never driven a Lamborghini before and it really was an experience.  Despite driving on uninspired roads for the first leg of the tour, this was actually my favorite of the day.  Everything that the driver touched felt so right.  The steering was fast and sensitive but nicely weighted.  The paddle shifters also had a heavy but pleasant weight to them and they reacted quickly.  The brakes required some leg effort and a little travel to work but the pedal was firm.  The powerband was wide and the car made great noises all the time.  The suspension was firm for sure, but it was never too much for me, nor was it uncomfortable.  Unlike a car with overly stiff coilovers, the Gallardo felt solid and well dampened.  The Gallardo had a nice blend of civility and supercar which is why I think I liked it the most.  It felt raw and it made you work a bit, but it’s still something that was very livable for every day.

Car #2 was the Maserati Gran Cabrio.  I think everyone gets to try something in this category on the tour (they have a Bentley as well in the fleet).  Where the Gallardo growled and snorted, the Maserati was almost silent by comparison.  It was comfortable to sit in and the ride was pleasant despite some cowl shudder over large bumps.  When you put your foot in it, the car is fast but it felt better to cruise along in comfort.  There were paddle shifters here too and I used them briefly, but the automatic mode is better suited for a car like this so I let it do the work for the most part.  I’m glad I got the chance to drive a Maserati but this model left no large impression.  Aside from being powerful, it neither exceeds or fails in anything.

Car # 3 was the Porsche 997 Carerra 4S Cabriolet.  At first, I wasn’t that enthusiastic to drive what many may categorize as a housewife’s Porsche.  Afterall, the legendary 911 is NOT a drop top nor does it have all wheel drive or a tiptronic transmission.  Also, The interior didn’t impress me to be honest.  The knobs and switches inside felt cheap compared to the Gallardo and the Gran Cabrio.  However, I was pleasantly surprised as I really enjoyed driving this car.  Steering was super sharp and it handled beautifully in the corners with tons of grip.    If not for the open air, I’d have forgotten it was a convertible as the chassis still felt very agile with no cowl shudder or flex.  The motor sounded great and had more than adequate power, but the tiptronic was a bit slow to respond so I chose auto mode.  It’s obvious that the Carerra 4S Cabriolet is for, achem, more mature drivers but it’s much more exciting and entertaining than I thought it would be.

Car #4 for me was the Lamborghini Murcielago LP-640 and it was intimidating.  First of all, it’s crazy wide and it had an aftermarket exhaust so it was STUPID loud.  They warned us about how limited the visibility was in this car, but to be honest it wasn’t that bad.  The hump on the engine cover cut most of the rear view, but there was enough visibility to understand what’s going on around you.  I drove the LP-640 exclusively on country backroads which is great because in the city I think it would be a handful.  It takes careful throttle input in first gear for the E-Gear tranny to take off smoothly.  Once underway though, using the paddle shifters was effortless.  Like the Gallardo, the paddle shifters were weighted very nicely…it was enough to feel mechanical but not so much as to stuggle to pull them when needed.  And I will confess, I didn’t always shift when it was required because I could listen to this car downshift all day long.  Seriously, it’s pure automotive boner-time when downshifting.  That said, I was very aware when I downshifted as the staff told us NOT to downshift to first gear which was completely unnecessary.  But yeah, downshifting a from say fourth to second gear for a tight low speed corner was just a brilliant experience.  Once the road straightened, getting some rpm in second gear was equally entertaining!  Steering was the heaviest in this car so I took it really easy in the turns.  In terms of powerband, the LP-640 wanted to be revved but the roads we were on would mean unsafe speeds, even in second gear.  Still, I was plenty excited and plenty scared by this car because it’s just menacing and I knew it would bite me if I dared it.  For the record, this was Lindas favorite of the day!

Car #5 was the F430 and I was SO excited to drive it in real life!  I’ve used this car a million times in Forza 4, but the reality of driving it first hand was very different.  The F430 also had an aftermarket exhaust so it was pretty noisy, but intoxicating. On the highway there was some drone at times but it all depended on throttle input.  I’d say the Ferrari had the best interior of the day in terms of style and the quality of the materials.  I think the paddle shifters are made of magnesium and while they were a bit discolored, they worked beautifully.  The weight of the paddle shift action in the Ferrari was lighter than all of the Lambos.  I actually preferred the heavier weighting, but that doesn’t detract from the experience.  The F430 personality fits in between the Gallardo and the Carrera 4S.  All of them are easy enough to drive every day and while the Porsche feels like an athlete, the Gallardo is super-powered.  The F430 is a blend of them both as it’s more civilized than the Gallardo, but much more aggressive than the Porsche.  The F430 carbon ceramic brakes were my favorite of the day.  They were firm and progressive but not grabby or requiring excess effort like the Lamborghini’s.  As for acceleration, the F430 had a huge powerband and felt fast everywhere in the rev range.  While it has the same motor as the Maserati, it feels unrestricted in the Ferrari while I suspect it’s detuned for the Maserati.

Car #6, my final for the day was a Gallardo LP-560 Spyder.  Despite being a bit lighter and a bit more powerful than the coupe, it’s easier to drive and feels more grown up.  The LP-560 is a rocket and I believe it has an E-Gear tranny like the LP-640 but they behave differently…the 560 is notably more foregiving.  Since this was my last car, I drove it mainly on the highway on the way back to Gotham’s garage so, again, not the best roads but by no means boring (yay for on-ramps and exits).  Since the car felt so refined, it was well suited to the public highway anyway.  Despite the surface quality on the Garden State Parkway, the car didn’t complain on the bumps or tramline aggressively.  As expected, the 560 Spyder made beautiful sounds, but it wasn’t at all excessive like the LP-640 with the exhaust.  I think the Gallardo coupe made you work more than the Spyder but then again I think the focus of a convertible is more towards a spiritied attitude than pure performance so it makes sense.

Finally, as if I haven’t written enough, I’ll throw down some final notes.  The staff at Gotham were friendly and had a good attitude, but they weren’t overbearing or too chatty (like a waiter in Friday’s or Applebees).  I didn’t have many questions, but it seemed like they were quick to help the other guests with anything they needed.  In terms of logistics, they have things down to a science.  Directions were repeated many times and the pace cars chattered back and forth at times to keep themselves aware of the positions in the group in case we got separated at lights or in traffic.  Also, at every stopping point, when drivers swapped over to their next car there was a “check” to make sure the two-way radio in each car was working correctly.  The photographer was friendly and took lots of pictures for the group at every stop (and some while on the road).  Once back at Gotham HQ, the office staff had gift bags waiting for each driver with a certificate, a T-shirt, a super speeders DVD and a web address where we could access pics for the day.  Sure enough, that night they posted a couple hundred pictures of our tour.

All in all, it was a great day.  I would totally do it again, but considering the cost I’d wait a few years to make sure I get a totally different fleet of cars.  Oh, and thanks again to my amazing wife for such a thoughtful gift!!!