Horse Thief Mile Raceway is halfway up a mountain in California's high desert, perched just above and to the north of Willow Springs International Race- way. A modern outgrowth of Willow's half-century-old main track, it's really nothing spectacular. Save for an overwhelming lack of runoff, most of Horse Thief's corners are relatively benign. A few of its turns decrease in radius, but only one of them qualifies as truly intimidating.
Naturally, that's exactly where Dodge's handbuilt, one-of-a-kind Demon concept decided to start shedding parts.
It began when I tapped the brakes. My foot hit the pedal in a preliminary, Are you still there, Brakes? manner, that tentative feeler that you send out in an unfamiliar car long before you actually need to slow things down. At that moment, the driver's-side headrest popped out of its shell, falling onto my neck. Immediately after, with a loud and obnoxious clunk, the left front brake caliper fell off. Traveling at an indicated 80 mph, heading into a narrow downhill right-hander bordered by a field full of large rocks, and seated in a priceless car that jerked violently to the right every time I hit the middle pedal, I had to resist the urge to wet my pants.
Thankfully, the caliper just hung there, off its bracket (and thereby useless for slowing the car) but otherwise harmless. I slewed and jerked the Demon down from speed as much as I could, slid tail-out through the right-hander, and came to a gentle stop. The Dodge and I limped back to the pits, and Chrysler's technicians--to a man, calmer than I--began searching the track for missing hardware.
Remove most concept cars from the auto-show stage and install them in the real world, and this sort of nightmarish occurrence is par for the course. Most concepts are held together with little more than hope and a few gallons of fiberglass resin; they're fragile, wispy creations, designed to do little more than look good. The wandering caliper? It was a stark reminder that, in spite of the Demon's realistic styling and performance--near-anathema in the world of concept cars--Dodge's chunky little roadster is nothing more than a well-executed pipe dream. To be totally honest, after lapping Horse Thief at respec-table speeds with little drama, it's a fact that I had begun to forget.
There's no sin in that; indeed, when you see the Demon in the harsh light of day, it's easy to be fooled. (Several passersby, convinced that it was in production, asked us how much the roadster sold for and who made it.) The Dodge's understated cockpit doesn't boast any of the traditional show-car ingredients--there's no technological whiz-bangery that doesn't yet exist, no joystick controls or fancy upholstery--and its exterior styling sports no trendy design touches or visual gimmickry. Drive it down the road, and it does most everything a real car ought to do: it turns, stops, and accelerates almost as well as you'd expect, given its looks. It's not perfect, but as a package, the Demon seems believable and grounded. It seems real.
Because the Demon is so heartbreakingly realistic, we decided to introduce it to its most obvious forerunner and potential competitor: the Mazda MX-5. The MX-5 also is the current small roadster benchmark, is Demon stylist Jae Chung's ad-mitted inspiration, and is the most faithful update of the concept pioneered by a hand-ful of British marques more than fifty years ago. The MX-5 is light, cheap, relatively quick, and more fun to drive than its modest 166-hp output would lead you to believe. Just as im-portant, however, is the fact that the Mazda is a giant waiting to be felled. We decided to take Goliath to David, show-car warts and all, and see if we could cook up some food for thought.