With cap suitably doffed to Wallace & Gromit, the Media Test Day hosted by The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders Ltd (SMMT), held at the Millbrook Proving Grounds in Bedfordshire was a grand day out. Hot, but very grand indeed.
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Being a little green behind the ears to this motoring blog malarkey, this was my first visit to the Vauxhall-owned Millbrook facility. With a 300-strong contingent of fellow motoring scribes in attendance, the annual event offers a unique opportunity to meet ‘captive’ brand PRs and drive a wide range of vehicles from most UK manufacturers and importers, extolling their respective virtues – where possessed. Equally important was the chance to network with fellow motoring hacks from across the print and electronic media spectrum, re-igniting our passion and enthusiasm for things automotive.
From my perspective, an appropriate analogy would be of a child in an automotive ‘all-you-can-eat-for-free-YES-FREE’ sweet shop. Frankly, by the end of the day I was all tuckered out
and couldn’t ‘eat’ another thing! My Personal Favourite – Bentley Continental GTC W12
I’m a sedate, laid back kinda chap with the more wild side of my motoring days a distant memory. So it has to be the Bentley. It is a truly magnificent and engaging land yacht – and wild when you want it to be. Twice the number of permitted circuits of the Millbrook Alpine Route had me almost convinced, but the third time round was the conversion. With one niggly issue mentioned below, it is an astonishing drive that many rarely experience. Thank you Bentley.
My Star of the Show – Ford Focus 1.0 EcoBoost
Monitoring my Twitter feed over the past few days, many of my fellow scribes will agree with my Star choice of the 1-litre, three-cylinder Focus. To haul a 1.25-ton Focus with a three-cylinder, 999cc engine generating the same 123bhp as its former 1.6-litre four-pot is a monumental step of automotive engineering. See update below.
Right, all the cars I drove…buckle up, it’s quite a ride!
Alfa Romeo Giulietta 2.0 JTDm-2, 170hp TCT Lusso * * * | * *
It’s been almost a year since the famous Giulietta name returned to the Alfa Romeo fold. This new Giulietta comes only as a five-door hatchback and behaved – and gave a good account of – itself on the Hill Route. Typically Italian interior design with very good drive and handling abilities. The only negative found was the vague steering. Barring that, neat job Alfa!
Bentley Continental GTC W12 * * * * | *
For a sizeable and weighty land barge, the 6.0-litre W12 engine delivers truly incredible performance, and with a smooth ride and a lavishly-appointed cabin, the GTC is a luxurious way to cross continents. However, nicely poised though it was, I experienced a spot of scuttleshake front and rear when off-limit cornering and braking at the same time. Arguably great fun, but the V8 makes better sense.
Chevrolet Camaro * * | * * * Muscle cars have never coped well with having their tops clipped. Losing the roof rarely does a vehicle any favours in the rigidity department. These pitfalls have been avoided in the current Camaro. Just looking at it grunts ‘summer’. As road barges go, this is a buxom car. That said, it looks great and goes like the clappers. Shame about the terrible ride.
Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport * * * * | *
The Grand Sport is one of the most storied monikers in Corvette’s illustrious racing heritage. It is once again part of the Corvette lineup in coupe and convertible models. I must be honest and state that I am no longer overly fond of American muscle cars. But a few laps around the Hill Route in the ‘Vette GS reminded me of when – and why – I used to love them to bits. Sheer brilliance, overwhelming exhilaration, enough testosterone to…oh, never mind. If Chevrolet can accept the full extent of my remorse for wandering off the loyalty path in recent years, may I have another go…please?
Chevrolet Volt * * * | * *
The much-talked and written-about Chevrolet Volt is GMs first foray into the realm of electric vehicles. A what a first foray it is! 2012 Car of the Year – the Volt is actually an ‘extended range’ EV. That means it’s powered by electricity, but to allay concerns on the lack of charging points, it also has a 1.4-litre petrol engine on board. But this doesn’t drive the wheels directly – it fuels the electric motor, working solely as a generator. Hence extended range. Another benefit is that it doesn’t rev beyond a few thousand rpm, you enjoy huge fuel economy and hyper-eco carbon credentials – 235mpg and 27g/km CO2. I was impressed.
Chrysler Delta 1.4 MultiAir SR * * * | * *
The Delta has almost sneaked in under the UK motoring radar. I won’t delve on that historic Lancia/Italian Fiat tosh…the present Chrysler Delta is what it is…a significantly underrated car deserving more attention than the few words garnered on it since its launch. Realistically, the only let-downs are the disappointing front interior quality and perhaps the impractical high sill on the hatch. Those aside, it’s very comfortable with copious amounts of room. Altogether a nice place to spend some time. I found the ride, handling and performance to be highly capable each time (three, just to be sure) I drove the Hill Route in it – and rarely with a light foot, either. I’d like to spend a week with this puppy and pen a full review. It deserves at least that.
Citroen C1 * * * | * *
And now for a bit of fun. Citroen’s 1.0-litre C1 has just undergone a mid-life facelift enjoying styling and engineering improvements throughout, with the cheapest model starting from a VW up!-rivalling £7,995. I drove the 5-door VTR+ (£10,045) all over the place. While it needed a bit of revving to keep up on the Hill Route, it by and large held its own and handled and performed admirably, considering its size and dinky little wheels. It’s little wonder at all that tens of thousands of these in Citroen, Peugeot (107) and Toyota (Aygo) guise have joined our roads since 2005.
Fiat Panda * * * * | *
Even more fun! The cool design and funky interior of the new Fiat Panda is a gem for its core target market. There’s a lot riding on the new Panda, not least a battle of the tiddlers against the VW Up, its WAG variants and the much-improved Kia Picanto. That glossy black piano finish on the dash could be irritating on a sunny day and some dislike the contrasting dashboard shades. I don’t mind, it adds to the demographic ‘fit’. Over the Millbrook course it gave a very good account of itself and stayed true no matter how hard I tried to get it offline – as hard as my nerves would let me. If you’re in the market for a cool, mod, funky (sorry!), economical city car, then include Fiat’s new Panda in the mix.
Ford Focus 1.0 EcoBoost Titanium-X * * * * * *
Downsizing is the new buzzword in car engineering – at least here and in Europe. Ford have introduced a three-pot turbo-assisted petrol engine capable of 125bhp output offering mid-50s (real) mpg and 114/gkm. The cylinder block is so small it can sit on an A4 sheet of paper. Other engineering firsts abound on this marvellous little go-getter – too many for this brief opinion. Be aware that this dinky power unit hauls a Ford Focus around with no discernible difference to that of its 1.6-litre, four-pot predecessor. On the Hill Route it felt expectedly excellent and managed three speedy passes with aplomb. Every time I get into a Focus, I am very, very impressed by its handling and road poise. Plus, the interior just gets better and better. There were many reasons why the Focus was a class-leader…now there’s another very significant one – efficiency and all the benefits that brings to today’s purse-clutching motoring. A five-star marvel.
UPDATE – Basildon, Essex, 13 June, 2012 Ford’s new 1.0-litre EcoBoost engine – which was launched to widespread acclaim this year in the Ford Focus, in Europe – is named 2012 “International Engine of the Year.” The small, high tech, three-cylinder engine also received two other awards – “Best New Engine” and “Best Engine Under 1.0-litre” – in the awards presented by Engine Technology International magazine, based on votes cast by 76 journalists from 35 countries around the world.
Honda Civic 1.81-VTec ES auto * * * | * *
The new Honda Civic boasts a huge boot and clever rear seats. The diesel and 1.8-litre petrol engines provide strong performance and stationery, the seats are comfortable. However, the vague steering and unsettled ride are disappointing, while the refinement, headroom and visibility are poor and the ergonomics are – to be kind – challenging. It does have many good points and all models are very well equipped, but the package is let down in too many critical areas.
Kia Optima 1.7 CRDi 3 * * * * | *
What a gem of a car this is. There’s lots of standard kit and the ‘3’ variant stacks them up even more. Once the engine is warmed up, the refinement is good but the road noise is excessive and sub-standard for the class. On the Hill Route the handling was tidy but variable if abused. The whole package is aided by a roomy interior and very good cabin quality creating an altogether decent ambience with all-over leather playing a lead role. The boot is huge and practically-shaped. The CRDi oil-burner can be a little clattery on start-up and Kia really do need to consider a petrol option as the diesel is intended to capture a slice of the lucrative fleet market. Undoubtedly, Kia has come a long way in recent years. Its car range is steadily transforming into a higher-calibre offering, without negating its value-for-money attractiveness. The Optima demonstrates that Kia is quite capable of producing a good-looking, well-engineered large car as it is its well-regarded smaller models. The Optima does not beat its rivals on driving calibre, but it is not far behind, and it certainly tops them for value, as well as giving a much more generous warranty.
Mazda CX-5 2.2 150PS2WD SportNav * * * * | *
I have a soft spot for the new Mazda CX-5 and have been looking forward to its launch for some time. I attended a recent VIP CX-5 Preview Day and was suitably impressed by what Mazda had achieved. It offers loads of interior space and equipment for a very reasonable price. It also gives you class-leading figures for emissions and fuel economy, and the 2.2-litre,m 150bhp entry-level diesel engine is a gem, with usable torque across its power spectrum. Excellent ride and handling balance is delivered by a thoroughly engaging driving experience – the Hill Route was a hoot as it stuck to the road like poo to an army blanket! Sensational in nearly all areas and likely the most practical SUV of its class. If you’re looking for a compact SUV that’s a little different from the norm, the Mazda CX-5 should be on your shortlist.
Mitsubishi ASX * * * | * *
The recently-updated Mitsubishi ASX is the most family-friendly Mitsubishi you can buy, with a spacious, solid cabin, a well-controlled ride, a strong and efficient diesel engine, and a tempting list price. Unfortunately, you’ll need to service the diesel model every 9000 miles. It is good to drive, decently spacious and fine value – it’s a worthwhile alternative to crossovers from more mainstream rivals. It behaved with grace and flow in the short time I spent with it but I found the driver’s interior quite disappointing. That said, it should earn its place on any SUV short-list.
Nissan Juke 1.5 dCi Shiro * * * | * *
The Nissan Juke is a unusually-styled super mini crossover that drives well, is quite well-equipped, reasonably priced (£19,195 as driven), and does all the practical things you need a smallish car to do – shopping, school runs, et al. The ride was unexpectedly firm on the Hill Route and I had to reign it in on several occasions. Only small people (a.k.a. kids and mothers-in-law) will enjoy sufficient headroom in the second row. In addition, emissions and economy appear little more than adequate. All-in-all though, it is a refreshingly different small car that successfully blends super mini with SUV.
Peugeot 508 Saloon HYbrid4 * * * * | *
I’ve been waiting quite a while to give the new 508 pug a go. Handsome, unfussy, sleek. It’s a very good drive and impressively capable and refined and one of the best cars in its class. The cabin is classy, practical and very well laid out. This HYbrid4 variant will meet our roads in July. The diesel-electric hybrid uses a 163bhp 2.0 HDi diesel engine to drive the front wheels and a 37bhp electric motor powering the rear. At £31,450, the 508 HYbrid4 certainly isn’t cheap, but with fuel consumption figures of 78.5mpg and CO2 emissions of 95g/km, both owner/drivers and fleet managers will reap the rewards with rock-bottom running costs.
Subaru XV 2.0 CVT * * * | * *
The Subaru XV handled the Hill Route quite well and the diesel engine was strong and flexible. Ride quality and refinement were adequate and the interior has an ‘inexpensive’ feel. It’s biggest challenge will be the price compared with other, more premium SUVs.
Suzuki Kizashi * * * | * *
Suzuki is better known for its hatchbacks and 4x4s, including the cultist and iconic Jimny. That AWD technology has now found its way into their first four-door family saloon, a new entry into the melee that is Mondeo Man territory. The single-model UK Kizashi is generously equipped, AWD but available only as an inefficient and un-green 2.4-litre petrol CVT automatic. The lack of other available variants is its Achilles heel and the introduction of an efficient, torque-delivering diesel would help. The ride over the Hill Route was agile but firm and the refinement was adequate. I just can’t help feeling the Kizashi has had its wings severely clipped before it learns to fly in the UK market. Shame, really, it deserves better.
Well, I did say it was a grand day out! Grateful thanks and kudos must go to Janet Wilkinson and her very able crew at SMMT. See you all next year!