Each year, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) holds its Test Day at the secluded Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire. UK-based motoring writers are invited to what is, in essence, a free for all to get to grips with the latest metal at the superb testing facility. AROnline was invited along to see what’s new, have some fun on an open test track with some clear blue sky weather and, most importantly, chat to the manufacturers.
One thing we did notice was the absence of our old friend, MG Motor UK. This was a great shame and yet another trick missed out on by Longbridge, as many writers have still yet to get their hands on the MG6. It would also have been an ideal opportunity to showcase the MG3. During lunch, many were grumbling over another missed chance for MG to reclaim some desperately-needed credibility. There was no sign of Lotus or Proton either, though the former is currently going through something of a crisis and that may have played its part.
Mike Baunton, the Interim Chief Executive of the SMMT, gave an entertaining yet warts and all speech regarding the health of the industry and its continual improvement of vehicle sales in the UK. Sure, it’s nowhere near the level before the crunch of 2008 and neither are we to expect a return to those figures, but we are bucking the European trend in England and that fact alone is worth celebrating. The sun was shining, the sky was blue – it was now time to get out there, enjoy the atmosphere and, above all, test some tin.
Obviously, we tried to experience the British or, more to the point, UK-involved manufacturers as best we could, so here is a little rundown of the best we experienced…
Bentley Continental GTC W12
As you approach the car you are amazed at the stance and the styling, from every angle it looks a superstar in an ever so slightly restrained package. For sure it’s a millionaires’ plaything but it’s still a car that does the same job as anything else. One of the first things you notice is the quality of everything you touch, smell or can see – nothing, and I do mean nothing, is out of place or out of character with the car’s nature or image. Handmade means just that and the epic ker-chunk noise as you close the door reminds you once again of why you have spent your money on a Bentley.
The noise of the starter motor is one hell of an event and, as the colossal W12 engine fires into life, the initial bark and woofle is enough to turn heads alone. On the Alpine track, the Continental instantly demands respect as slower traffic drifts aside to allow you past and that feeling is one you will never tire of. The Continental drives like a dream and yet oddly I found it intimidating and not my kind of thing. I could find nothing wrong with the Continental yet equally nothing to make it onto my list if I was in the market for this class of spectacular machine.
Capsule Summary: The quality and huge heritage justifies the equally large cost, but art, as they say, is an acquired taste.
Honda Civic 1.6 i-DTEC ES
The UK-built Civic has gone through a fair few nips and tucks since it was launched. It’s a car I’ve enjoyed driving as a company steed a short while ago. Gone is the heavy yet alarmingly powerful 2.2 iCDTi plant, replaced by a lighter and more frugal 1.6-litre, which answers the critics’ complaints regarding fuel consumption and CO2 output. It’s quiet, free-revving and transforms the noticeably nose-heavy feel of the old car. Scratchy feeling interior plastics are gone too, replaced with high quality trim. Build quality is really tip top and rear visibility is improved too.
The indifferent-looking gearlever and handbrake have also given way to more traditional looking affairs and the once slightly clunky gearchange action is now as slick and defined to use as loading an Enfield rifle. On the road, it’s smooth, quiet, well-mannered, has strong progessive brakes and handles as effortlessly as a cue ball. No squeaks or rattles, allied to an instrument cluster Lieutenant Sulu would feel at home with, the new Civic is a great car with only a distinct reduction in engine torque over the old 2.2 being notable. Everything else felt fantastic – well done Honda UK!
Capsule Summary: An often forgotten contender which gives a memorable drive – and British-built too!
Jaguar F-Type V6 S
This was one car that seemed to take an eternity to grab hold of, and for good reason too. Pretty much everything about it makes you stare and admire seemingly for ever before you come to your senses. This particular model was loaded up with almost £10,000 of optional extras which included the simply amazing ‘Active Sports Exhaust’ which opens a set of bypass valves in the system during hard driving to create an engine note so soul stirring, it almost makes you dribble. The supercharged 3.0-litre V6 howls like a crying wolf and pulls like Gresley steam loco under load yet becomes as smooth and creamy as melted Galaxy when you relax.
The eight speed quick-shift box changes with nanosecond swiftness and coupled with their fast off throttle system that anticipates up or down changes makes for an awesome experience. The all-alloy construction makes for impressive fuel economy (JLR claim a combined 31.4mpg) yet still feels tough and rigid in construction. Impeccable road holding and credible ride comfort make this lovely example of performance and technology a no compromise open top – it even has a fairly decent boot. All I could really fault the F-Type on was the door handles and a slightly drab looking view under the bonnet.
Capsule Summary: Reasonably affordable and staggeringly capable with an engine note to die for – this is the E-type for the 21st century.
Jaguar XF Sportbrake 2.2 Diesel
JLR also had the 3.0-litre diesel Sport on offer, but I chose to drive the ‘cooking’ model with the 2.2-litre plant instead. Here is a car to really fight the Bavarian set; it’s armed with high technology, nice build quality and looks to die for – all wrapped up in a practical package that really does define Jaguar’s forward thinking nature. Just the right mix of technology and style to appeal more than any other D/E-segment Jaguar before – it hammers home the reason why this car has been such a success.
Okay, it reminds you it’s a diesel if you wring its neck, but it is – after all – a Jaguar, so drivers won’t generally push it in that way. It makes progress with the genteel balance of a Ballerina with your slippers on, but plant the loud pedal and, boy, can you have some fun. I hammered this vehicle around the Alpine test route with suicidal hairpin bends and was amazed at the ride, handling and impressive levels of refinement. The autobox kicks down with a swift smooth action and the brakes scrub off the speed with all the effort of playing an arcade game. Forget about middle-range Jaguars of old like the S- or X-Type – this one is an awesome car in every respect.
Capsule Summary: Looks good, drives good and pulls your heartstrings in a way the Germans simply can’t!
Jaguar XJ 3.0D
I’ll be honest, when the X351 was launched, I mourned the passing of the traditional XJ. I just couldn’t take to the new shape and image at all. However, age brings maturity, so they say, but the current model XJ has matured into a more youthful machine. Entering the imposing driving seat brings you into a surreal world of charm and technology that all just works so well. The dash features computer-generated dials that greet you with a huge leaping cat as the electrics go through a futuristic check mode – what Arthur Daley would make of this, heaven only knows.
The 272bhp V6 diesel fires up and settles into a turbine smooth thrum on idle. As you move away, the lack of mechanical noise, and the effort required to operate it, leaves you impressed. Out on the track the performance is utterly magnificent, with a staggering 442lb ft – and all that torque and power brings 60mph from a standstill in just 6 seconds. The quality is brilliant and the overall drive is virtually flawless. Roadholding, refinement and driver appeal are just sublime as is the in car hi-fi – quite simply one of the finest cars I have ever driven. The Jaguar XJ 3.0 is 24 carat – stand on me!
Capsule Summary: Jaguar is now about revolution over evolution. It’s grace pace and space personified!
Range Rover Evoque five-door auto
Yet another car that has been a rip-roaring success since launch, the Evoque came across to me as a Chelsea chariot or a rich yummy Mummy plaything – how wrong could I be? Yes, it looks a bit bling from the outsid, and is intended to look every inch the part on Oxford Street rather than outside a Farmer’s cottage. However, is it more style over substance or Milan over minerals out on the road? Well, the Evoque was another surprise for me on the day, with its well thought through interior, clear and concise dashboard layout, amazing stereo and unruffled comfort.
Performance and handling are fairly good and the overall feel of the car is one of damn good build quality. JLR has really built a car that looks every inch a superstar, but without any Diva-like tantrums or an attitude problem. It’s as simple to drive as any other car and feels rock solid underfoot – built to go the distance if you like. The driver’s seat is supportive and the interior, while looking as desirable as a pair of Jimmy Choos, remains usable, hiding some impressively family-friendly ideas. Not my kind of machine at all, but the Evoque certainly seems to be evocative and in demand – I now know why. It’s a pretty fine car!
Capsule Summary: Not for everyone’s palate but another instant hit for JLR. Not just a fashion item, it drives well too.
Range Rover Vogue SE 4.4 SD V8
Is this the best car in production? The Rangie seems to have been around for an eternity, but one thing is certain, it’s popularity has never waned. The car is imposing and slightly intimidating in full frontal view which for me is part of the appeal. The classic Range Rover of old looks like a toy compared to the current model, but it looks every inch a car for every corner of the world – and one that would get you there too. With the ultra-refined 4.4-litre V8 diesel, the Rangie offers a staggeringly huge 516lb ft and almost 340bhp so, whatever you can’t drive over or round, you simply drive through!
On the inside, it’s a world of tasteful leather, wood and piano black which also smacks of decent build quality. Slightly over the top it might be in looks but it’s all usable stuff and there is simply nothing you could view as a gimmick. Performance is disturbingly good for a hulk of a machine, as is the roadholding – no longer do you feel like you will scratch the door mirrors on the tarmac during high speed cornering. Evasive steering wheel action brings a swift and secure change of direction – sure it’s no Lotus on the hairpins but neither is it hair raising. Safe and imposing with awesome ability in every area, the Range Rover is worth every penny.
Capsule Summary: Still the best – and that’s all that needs to be said!
Does any name summarise the absolute pinnacle of motor cars more than Rolls-Royce? The recently introduced Ghost was more than just a new model and signalled a new direction for the marque. The whole idea was one to get the owner out of the back seat and into the front – it’s a driver’s car Jim but not as we know it. Akin to its larger brother, the Phantom, the Ghost features those marvelous suicide rear doors which make the act of getting into the rear seat an entry rather than a clamber and, once acclimatised on the inside, the wow factor continues with flawless quality and unsurpassed attention to detail.
Achingly stylish facia air vents and trim made from chrome plated billet steel or acres of burr wood with a lacquer seemingly twenty fathoms deep – oh, it’s simply wonderful mixed with bang up to date and usable technology. It drives so well too and is a car you can actually point and squirt rather than feel like you are the helm of an Ocean liner. Performance is brisk and, when pushed to its limits, it rewards you with a smile and perfect manners. The late Bond movie producer Cubby Brocolli used to state that every penny spent in production should be visible in the final product – it’s an equally fitting statement for the Rolls-Royce Ghost.
Capsule Summary: A wonderful machine which I admire and respect – a tribute to the English craftsmen who create them!
Vauxhall Cascada 2.0 Elite (165PS Diesel)
Yes, I know it’s a Vauxhall cabriolet but this could have been so much more. Had things not turned out the way they sadly did, the Cascada gives us a good idea what the all-new Saab 9-3 Convertible might have been like. Looking beyond the Griffin in the grille, the Cascada is, in my view, a handsome looking car and in range-topping Elite trim features all the toys you could hope for. Very supportive leather seats and a neat stitched leather dash top add a touch of distinction with only button overkill in the centre console blotting a very neat and stylish copybook.
It was a slight let down on the track, the engine is worryingly flat below 2000rpm and then it all comes at once then goes flat again as you near 4000 – and it’s a noisy plant too when it’s working hard. At speed it becomes nicely refined and the body feels rigid and a world apart from the scuttle shake normally found with some open tops. On the up side it’s pretty and seemingly well screwed together but I would decline the expensive price as the brand is not befitting an expensive Vauxhall – would this work if badged as an Opel? I think so anyway.
Capsule Summary: Well made and solid with good looks but sales potential will be hampered by badge kudos or, more to the point, the lack of it. With its lumpy power delivery and questionable refinement when pushed, it’s hard to commend it but it could be quite brilliant with a little tweak or two under the bonnet.
Alfa Romeo Giulietta 2.0 JTD M-2 Sportiva (170PS)
A powerful, punchy engine with six-speed manual gearbox and great body lines – what can go wrong? Well, out of everything driven on the day, this was the only car to disappoint me – and what a real shame. Sure it’s quick and lively, but the pay-off is immense tyre noise even at low speed, feeble ventilation from the rather silly small centre face vents and, considering it was wearing Brembo brake calipers, bloody awful anchors. It’s noisy in the cabin and, although the leather-clad seats are supportive and great to the touch, I found the pedal positioning to be poor with no real space to the left of the clutch.
Driving round the high speed bowl induced a high frequency vibration that blurred the view from the interior mirror and, after much fidgeting with the seat and steering wheel position, I simply could not get at one with the car. It does feel reasonably nailed together but below class standards generally though it’s nice to see that the styling cues are just as good on the inside. The Alfa promises to be frugal too with a combined figure of almost 49mpg – not bad for 170bhp. Levels of equipment are certainly commendable – but this version is far from cheap.
Capsule Summary: Such a great let down for such a smart-looking car. Uma, you can keep this one.
Dacia Sandero Ambiance TCe 90
Another one of those ‘all eyes on’ cars, the Sandero is already notching up some credible sales – and rightly so. It’s just a great little car and, even though it’s blessed with all of three-cylinders and a 900cc engine, it whips along with all the happy playful gusto of a puppy on a lead. It’s reasonably well finished, has cute alloy wheels and will make anyone a cracking shopping car WHICH you wouldn’t mind pelting up the M1 in either. The Sandero does, of course, have its limitations – the seat trim is a bit low rent to the touch and the lack of a steering wheel adjuster takes some getting used to, but that’s nitpicking.
It’s cheap as chips and just as enjoyable too, all wrapped up in a no frills old school approach to motoring. The noise from the Renault triple has a lovely offbeat thrum which almost harks back to the old Audi 1005E as you swing round the dial. The Sandero goes like a bat out of hell, but the grip quickly diminishes as you corner with spirit. Mind you, in the real world, the Sandero is not going to be subjected to abuse of that kind – but it feels like it can take it. Cheap and likeable with fairly decent spec in Ambiance trim, the Dacia brand is going to be a massive hit… and fair play!
Capsule Summary: I wanted to laugh at it, but it sure made me smile… for all the right reasons too. It’s a really likeable and honest little car.
Peugeot 208 GTi
I’m not really a hot hatch person, my weapon of choice is a lumbering large saloon with grunt – but a friend egged me on to give it a try. I am so glad I did as I loved the 208 so much I drove it twice. It sees a return to form for Peugeot as the car is arrow straight yet as flexible as the bow which fires it thanks to a punchy 1.6 turbo engine that hoofs out an impressive 200bhp. Docile and smooth when simmering but turn up the heat and you are rewarded with more smiles per mile than Blackpool sea front. Remember that feeling of being a late teenager when every drive was fun and care-free? Welcome to the 208 GTi time machine.
The power delivery is awesome as is the handling and turn in yet without any feeling of raggedness whatsoever. Low speed ride comfort is on the right side of acceptable too – it’s such an easy and laughingly joyous car to drive in any situation. There’s a clear and easy to read instrument cluster, nice rooted build quality and a steering wheel as nice to hold as your first love’s hand. Comfortable to drive and assembled tightly too but, and rather cleverly, as raw as Sushi when you want it to be yet safe as roast beef and Yorkshire pud when you need some time out from the fun. A car for all people in one gorgeous little package…
Capsule Summary: The Peugeot GTi is back – tell your friends!
Skoda Octavia Elegance (2.0 TDi CR 150)
I think it’s amazing that Skoda has moved so far forward in terms of desirability and brand image – a far cry from the days of the rear-engined Estelle and funky Rapid Coupe. The Octavia has been nothing short of a runaway hit since launch with a clever blend of proven components and impressive build quality. Police forces and Taxi drivers rely on the Octavia 24/7 and those who drive them swear by them. The latest model has shifted away from the value brand image and more towards a fully-rounded and capable car with so much more to offer than just price as a unique selling point but, saying that, this new car is not cheap.
The Elegance TDi in current guise is a smart-looking and impressive package which makes you think to a degree what’s the point of buying a Volkswagen. Everything is just right from the drive to the quality and the generous level of specification that includes Alcantara/leather upholstery and impressive dual zone climate control. And as for the quality, it’s excellent and nothing looks cut price or low rent – something the older Octavia could be known for. The drive is fantastic, the handling is slick, the refinement is serene and, after a mile behind the wheel, you could be forgiven for thinking this could be an Audi – honestly!
Capsule Summary: The best all round car on the day. It’s quick, quiet and quite simply brilliant in all areas. Forget the Skoda jokes – those days are over, this is a car designed to last and reward if you are prepared to see beyond the badge.
Mercedes-Benz Actros 25-51 Gigaspace
This one was pure self-indulgence I must admit. Having driven the Actros professionally before, I was keen to see what makes this truck so special. The European judges were impressed having given it last year’s International Truck of the Year award and now I can see why. The first Actros was a technological marvel that frightened many UK operators away but the next was sadly tarnished by cost-cutting exercises and proved to be problematic. The current truck is brand new from the tyres upwards and represents a massive investment by Daimler-Benz which shows.
The truck is a true gentle giant that looks imposing, aspirational and business-like in every way, it’s a premium haulage asset that is designed to lock horns with the Scania Topliner and Volvo FH Globetrotter. Fully-freighted to 41,000kg GVW, the new Euro6 510bhp 12-litre six gives effortless power and torque, the EPS3 (electronic powershift) transmission swaps cogs with minimal sensation and the automatic four-stage retarder along with six-channel ABS works to perfection. Inside and out it’s quality through and through with more space than you could ever need – truly amazing!
Capsule Summary: Beautiful, intelligent and businesslike. Trad MB operators may mourn the passing of the sweet-sounding V6 engines of old but the all-new Actros deserves every praise imaginable – it’s trucking perfect!