Saturday, September 20, 2014

Top automobile writers get really racy in the Catskills

A special of Pan-Seared Fresh Trout and Organic Black Quinoa at Aroma Thyme Bistro in Ellenville, N.Y., a 10-year-old restaurant that supports local merchants and promises "eco-lectic cuisine." The meal was a highlight of my visit to New York State's Catskill Mountains, once known for big resort hotels and their comedians.


When some of the nation's top automotive writers gathered this week in the heart of the old Borscht Belt, they weren't there to tell dirty jokes.

Instead, they acted racy by driving new models from American and foreign automakers on-road, off-road and on a challenging road course in New York State's Catskill Mountains.

The annual International Motor Press Association (IMPA) event brought together journalists, bloggers, carmakers, public relations people and the independent firms that primp and deliver fleets of "press cars" to the writers who evaluate them year-round.

Food isn't worth the detour

But the food at Honor's Haven Resort & Spa in Ellenville, N.Y., the headquarters hotel, wasn't anything to write home about.

No seafood was served, not smoked salmon at breakfast or shrimp and fish at dinner. 

The Test Days banquet on Wednesday night offered beef and turkey, and as someone who doesn't eat meat or poultry, I found only cooked vegetables and potatoes available for my dinner.

Lunch on Tuesday at the Monticello Motor Club, a private 4.1-mile race circuit, wasn't much better, again with no concession for non-meat eaters.

Hot dogs, hamburgers and boneless chicken were put out with sandwich makings, so I grabbed romaine lettuce leaves, sliced tomatoes, salad dressing and potato salad for my lunch.

Wednesday's lunch was better, and I enjoyed two paper plates full of parmesan-crusted tilapia and salad. 

I had my best meal on Tuesday night at Aroma Thyme Bistro, a restaurant in Ellenville with a sign offering "Steak, Seafood, Vegan."

I ordered a salad of fresh spinach and tomato ($7), pan-seared local trout with fresh peas ($19) and a 6-ounce glass of pinot noir ($9).

My waitress said the chef doesn't cook with butter, and two slices of sourdough rye brought to my table came with a white-bean dip.

Parmesan-Crusted Tilapia at the Monticello Motor Club in Monticello, N.Y.

This terrific salad was served at only one of the two lunches at the Monticello Motor Club.

Aroma Thyme Bistro, above and below.

The restaurant is at 165 Canal St., Ellenville, N.Y.; 1-845-647-3000

Complimentary vehicles

For decades, the Big Three and Japanese, German and other foreign automakers have focused their promotion and marketing efforts on journalists and others who write about and evaluate cars.

IMPA members work for magazines, such as Road & Track, Automobile and Consumer Reports; The New York Times and other newspapers, and in recent years, a growing number of blogs and Web sites no one has ever heard of.

General Motors even has a Grass Roots program that lends new models to so-called influencers whose blog or business may have nothing to do with automobiles.

The carmakers usually hire independent national and regional companies to keep their fleets of press and marketing vehicles humming.

Those management companies, in turn, employ low-wage workers to wash and deliver so-called test vehicles to the homes and offices of the writers, who are allowed to keep and drive them for a weekend or a week at no charge.

Mercedes-Benz and other manufacturers also provide cars and drivers to editors, boutique owners and others during New York's semi-annual Fashion Week. 

Cars also are delivered to VIPs and for use in fashion shoots or left at airports for working or vacationing writers to use at no charge.

On both sides

Only Consumer Reports buys the cars, SUVs and trucks that are evaluated in the magazine -- also one of the few publications to expose the practices of car dealers who make buying a new vehicle such an ordeal.

I have been on both sides: 

Starting in the late 1980s, I covered Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volvo and other foreign auto importers for a daily newspaper in northern New Jersey, and wrote a monthly road-test column that evaluated new cars.

I also wrote consumer-oriented pieces, such as an expose of a Hyundai dealer who charged one unwitting loan customer an interest rate of 29%.

I attended IMPA Test Days at Lime Rock Park and Pocono Raceway, but haven't been to one in more than 15 years.

After I retired, I also worked part time as a driver for a press-fleet management company.

Trouble in paradise

This year, drivers at the New York office of Events Solution International of Troy, Mich., voted to join the Teamsters Union.

ESI is the biggest press-fleet company, and managers at its other offices around the country are wondering if they are next.

ESI's New York office, near the turnpike in East Brunswick, N.J., delivers cars to writers in Pennsylvania, New York City and State, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire.

ESI drivers start at $10 an hour and typically earn about $12 an hour, but working conditions are difficult, and they are always battling traffic to meet delivery deadlines.

Before the vote to join the union, one driver was sent to New Hampshire to pick up a car, and was told to drive it back overnight so ESI wouldn't have to pay for a motel room.

Drivers also are responsible if they damage a car, even though the VIPs and writers who may return a vehicle with thousands of dollars in damage are not.

One ESI driver caused slight damage to the rear bumper of an inexpensive Toyota, and was forced to pay far more for the repair than the body shop charged.

Heavy metal outside Honor's Haven Resort & Spa, above and below, the $134-a-night headquarters hotel for the International Motor Press Association's annual Test Days. The car is a 2014 Bentley Flying Spur, which has an MSRP starting at $200,500.

The Alfa Romeo 4C, above and below, was in high demand for on-road and on-track driving. At more than $65,000 fully equipped, the mid-engine two-seater is a poor man's or woman's Ferrari. It is assembled in Modena, Italy.

The 1.75-liter turbocharged engine produces 237 horsepower.

I hopped into the white Jaguar F-Type Convertible sports car on Wednesday, and drove to Loch Sheldrake, about 7 miles from Monticello, N.Y.

Loch Sheldrake is one of many faded Catskills communities, above and below.

On Wednesday, rich men brought their toys to the challenging 4.1-mile road course of the Monticello Motor Club, where annual memberships start at $35,000.

A one-seat racing car.

IMPA members found cars lined up in a parking lot for driving on public roads on Wednesday and on the race circuit on Thursday, with automobile public relations workers on hand to answer questions and provide pricing and other information. Members also were given leather cleaner, T-shirts, hats, pens, tote bags and other items to take home. 

The rear badge of the Fiat 500 Abarth, a souped-up version of the small car.

BMW couldn't resist building a plug-in hybrid that drives and sounds like a sports car. The new i8's engine and electric motor deliver a total of 357 horsepower, but a high sill and scissor doors make it a nightmare to get into and out of. A woman who wears skirts would have to sacrifice her dignity and reputation to own this poorly designed car.

The BMW i8 starts at $137,500, but has an electric range of only 80 miles, about a third of Tesla's cheapest all-electric Model S, which has an MSRP of $69,900. With BMW, you get style over function. 

One gray-haired writer from The New York Times brought his grown son as a guest, and wouldn't allow another IMPA member to ride with them in the BMW i8, one of the few hybrid cars available at the two-day event.

At Wednesday night's dinner, IMPA Test Days coordinator Paul J. Licata scolded members for speeding and reckless driving on public roads in an around Monticello, N.Y. He said residents phoned in complaints to police, and one unnamed member drove "90 miles per hour on a dirt road."

Before IMPA members took cars onto the track at the Monticello Motor Club on Thursday, Licata reminded them, "We're here to test cars. We are not here to race cars."

One of the cars I got to drive on the track was a 640-horsepower 2014 Dodge SRT Viper.

Another car I drove is the Chevy Camaro ZL1, which has a supercharged V-8 and 580 horsepower. The Viper and ZL1 both have manual transmissions.

The king of American muscle cars is the 707-horsepower Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat, above and below. I was a passenger when another IMPA member put the car through its paces on the track.

The 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat has an MSRP of $59,995, but ownership of a gas station is recommended.

A view from the Dodge Challenger's passenger seat.

The plain dashboard of the fearsome Nissan GT-R: The all-wheel-drive two-seater has a twin-turbo V-6 with 545 horsepower. Again, I held on for dear life as another IMPA member with racing experience hit more than 100 mph on the track.

The CTS is the first Cadillac I've driven with a manual transmission, and I was impressed with its speed, balance and handling on the track.

A Mercedes-Benz E 63 AMG station wagon is more suited for the autobahn than suburban America, above and below.

The twin-turbo V-8 pumps out 550 horsepower, but uses so much gasoline the cost would wipe out your savings on groceries at Costco Wholesale.  

Mitsubishi continues its reputation for bland designs with the 291-horsepower 2014 Lancer Evolution MR sedan, which is equipped with a terrific automatic transmission. In sports mode, the performance transmission shifts up and down as you accelerate and brake.

The sign is self-explanatory, but two words are misspelled.


  1. By the way, IMPA membership is $60 annually and restricted to writers, public relations people and so forth. Tickets to Test Days are $100, and only IMPA members can drive.

  2. As I said in the previous comment, I paid $60 for an IMPA membership, $100 for a ticket to Test Days and just under $300 to stay in the hotel for two nights.

    But I am not working for a newspaper or other publication, which have an obligation to tell readers whether they are receiving anything for free.

  3. Ellenville is not in the Catskills.

    1. The Nevele is in Ellenville. It's closed now but it's always been regarded as a Catskills hotel.

      Don't you have anything better to do?


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