First Drives : SMMT Autumn Round-up

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders South Test Day was one of the last of the UK-based automotive press and media functions of the year. Mike Humble took the opportunity to sample some of the latest British-built models to have reached the showrooms in recent months.

Words and photography: Mike Humble

Jaguar XE 2.0D R-Sport


The XE has certainly attracted attention with one of the industry’s longest product launches in recent years. Not all of the attention has been positive with many pundits bemoaning about Jaguar ‘selling out’ – but what is a new car if not being sold? The XE has been designed to cut a slice into the lucrative middle management business sector and private buyer category – buyers who may never have experienced a Jaguar in the past. However, its rubbing shoulders with some very talented and established rivals like Audi’s A4 S Line variants or the recently revised BMW 3-Series M Sport.

We sampled the R-Sport which features the all-new, Wolverhampton-built 2.0-litre Ingenium power unit – that, of itself, represents a £350 million investment in UK manufacturing by Jaguar Land Rover. One thing that will get the attention of the fleet manager is the potential of almost 70mpg – quite amazing for a 158bhp power unit. There’s a definite family resemblance to big brother XF but the XE shares a similar issue, too – rear passenger space is somewhat restricted because the transmission takes up a fair amount of width. Anyone sitting in the rear might find their knees a little to foetal for their liking.

I thought the sunroof robbed the interior of some headroom both front and rear too, but forget that, a Jaguar is for driving and it certainly impresses here. Rapid steering turn in, keen performance, strong brakes and good overall refinement along with really crisp handling remain true to the Jaguar philosophy of creating true drivers’ cars. Equipment levels are seemingly spot on, too – on a par with rivals and the sports front seats keep you rigidly in situ akin to a theme park ride… but with absolute comfort. Build quality seems to be good, too – nothing seemed loose or inadequate and the ergonomics appear just right.

So, an entry-level Jaguar that doesn’t feel or look it. It’s a pretty machine that drives really well – the driveline is just so brilliantly refined, you can barely feel the cogs changing – even when driving at ten tenths. Looking at the broader picture and taking into account class-leading economy, emissions, style and image and you are left with a rather superb four-door British saloon. It’s not perfect but just right – if you get my meaning.

Land Rover Discovery Sport 2.0D HSE


Armed with the same base engine as the Jaguar XE, the Disco Sport now has the refinement the outgoing 2.2-litre slightly lacked. The model driven was a manual six-speeder which had a nice short shift action and a perfectly-weighted clutch. Gone is the clattery racket when pushed hard, replaced with a power band that’s nice and wide – it even lugs at low revs a little better as well. The build quality is improved – not that it was poor before I must add, it just feels even better than the last model I drove.

The ride comfort on all but the roughest of roads is really great at speed and the already impressive cruising refinement is, well, even more impressive – only when you really press on does any thrash enter the cabin. I doubt owners or potential buyers will feel jealous of Discovery or Range Rover owners, it may be the first rung on the ladder into Green Oval ownership but by no means does it feel or look cut price. From all angles the Discovery Sport is every inch a premium product and the lofty SUV driving position gives a commanding view ahead. The heated leather seats are snug and supportive, it’s ergonomically sorted and makes good use of the available space.

The boxes are ticked in other important areas, too. Keen handling, reasonably communicative steering, a decent toy box in HSE trim and a very impressive sounding audio system make the sums add up and, at the same time, hammer home just exactly why the brand has been the world leader in all things all-wheel drive for nearly 70 years. The only thing I could tut over was the low speed ride comfort – it seemed to be more restless and fidgety than the 2.2D I sampled – though that might just be me. Either way, the new 2.0D is a cracking drive and thanks to its intelligent terrain programme, surprisingly capable away from the tarmac and handsome looking into the bargain.

Jaguar F-Type 3.0 V6 Manual


A Jaguar? With a clutch pedal? What will they think of next? The mouth-watering F-Type in both coupé and drop top continue to turn heads and cause a sensation wherever they appear but the last time I personally experienced three-pedal fast-cat transport was in a very tired and rusty XJ-S. Times have indeed moved on and it seems Jaguar cannot put a paw wrong when it comes to producing sleek, technology-led motor cars at their two UK manufacturing sites.

The 3.0-litre supercharged V6 offers all the power you could ever need (377bhp) and the ZF-supplied six-speed manual slots up and down the ratios with a precise but notably rubbery feel. Thanks to the driver now having total control of the cogs, you can make this stunning rag top howl and wail even better than in auto form – the soundtrack is simply to die for. Crisp steering and a ride that’s just the right side of agreeable allied to an incredibly taught body shell cannot fail to impress the driver. Only one thing makes me ponder for a moment and that’s some of the materials used on the dashboard. The rising and falling automatic centre vents are super cool to watch in action but feel a bit cheap to the touch.

The F-Type handles exceptionally well and gets the power down to the road without drama. Thanks to traditional hydraulic PAS, there’s plenty of feel at the chunky steering wheel – you can really flick the tail around and have some fun on opposite lock. The total alloy construction of the panels and chassis proves that beauty is more than skin deep as well. Pull open the bonnet and check out the plug riveted construction if you get the chance – this is not just a pretty fast cat, it’s a work of  manufacturing art that looks awesome, drives beautifully, is well equipped and very, very British.

Honda Civic Type R


The Civic may have a pedestrian image as far as mainstream sales go (and rather unfairly), but the Type R certainly gets the juices flowing even in just name alone. Honda has had a busy year in the UK with the new revised Civic and CR-V – both Swindon produced, but a totally new Jazz and HR-V have also just been launched. Oh, and did I mention they are even launching a drop-dead gorgeous new NSX, too?

The Type R sees Honda produce the expected V-TEC power as usual but, for the first time, the engine now features a turbocharger for your sporting delectation. Down in the engine room there’s a 2.0i-VTEC four cylinder thunderstorm punching 306bhp of torque. Owners of their own private racetrack will be pleased by the sub-six second sprint to a mile per minute and a top whack approaching 170mph. Despite the aggressive styling cues and some very snug bucket seats, I was amazed at how well the Civic Type R rides considering the car’s sporting nature and the steering response is simply outstanding.

Needless to say, if you thump the far right pedal, it goes like hell and grips like a frightened kitten running up the curtains. Designed to go toe to toe with the Ford Focus RS and Volkswagen Golf R, you can bet the Civic will be utterly reliable, hold its used values and still have all the usual Civic virtues such as clever usage of available space and a pedigree of racing heritage with tangible technology. The only downside I noted was the interior could have a bit more snazz and it’s not cheap – it’s a fiver short of £30,000 without options.

However, in part thanks to the standards of the handling, ride, brakes, performance and a truly brilliant gear change, I’ve already forgiven its rather short list of shortcomings – I loved it and found it not to be the widowmaker I initially thought.

Toyota Auris Design 1.2T Touring Sports


Despite the mouth-watering cars featured above, I was really keen to grab a steer in the new Derbyshire-built Auris. The last Touring Sports I sampled was the Hybrid model with CVT gearbox which was about as refined as a Scouse docker after a good skin-full – unless, that is, you were prepared to pootle along with minimal throttle input. This revised conventional petrol model features a vastly improved central facia and an all-new 1.2-litre turbo petrol engine – though the former still looks bit dour and slab like – only a complete new dash in its entirety would fully sort it to be really honest.

There’s too much hard plastic inside and the Astra, Focus and Golf all feature textures that are more sympathetic and softer to the touch. That said, the quality seems very good in general – especially the exterior fit and finish. The best way to describe the interior is to say that it feels like a Japanese car – efficient but devoid of spirit or soul. The boot is vast – not quite on a par with the class-leading (also UK-built) Honda Civic Tourer but still very good. Oddly though, that seems to have been done by slightly compromising the rear leg room – it seems a little tight in the back.

But on the road the peppy turbo 1.2-litre sings a happy tune and is very refined. As for the ride comfort – it really does soak up the ruts and imperfections in a controlled manner. I liked the light precise gear change quality and, providing you keep just a few revs on the dial, the engine makes a reasonable attempt at getting a gallon out of a pint pot in terms of torque and flexibility. Overall, the Auris is a very pleasant if albeit slightly dull car to drive – but it really isn’t sporting as its name may suggest. That said, you know it will be reliable, you know the dealer will be courteous and attentive and you just know it will hold its value a few miles up the road of ownership.

In a nutshell, it’s a revised Auris for those who like the Auris or a Toyota in general. There must be a good few of those individuals out there as the Burnaston assembly plant built 70,000 of them in 2014 alone – a very well-engineered and comfortable car to roll along in.

Mike Humble


  1. All good british built motors – however the current civic is just to ugly at the back and at a glance not much has changed from the old model. Also my mum’s neighbour has had his new one back in the garage several times for lots of niggly faults, something he didn’t have on the previous model.
    The Auris I think is the most improved model. Previous generations were not only bland but ugly, this one is a lot better looking and as per a friends quote “a lot better to drive”.

  2. Considering how successful Toyota are globally, it’s amazing how few Aurises you see, far fewer than of similar Corollas back in the 80s and 90s.

    I suppose if you are going to buy a Hybrid Toyota, then you probably want people to KNOW you’ve got a hybrid, so you buy a Prius instead!

  3. A nice range of British built cars here. The Auris (like most others) seems to grow & grow with each new version. Can’t say I’m keen on black alloys on the XE, Civic, or any other car for that matter. They take away any refined look a car may have. Silver looks best with any body colour for my taste.

  4. RE F-type Manual
    “Thanks to traditional hydraulic PAS, there’s plenty of feel at the chunky steering wheel – you can really flick the tail around and have some fun on opposite lock.”

    It’s a credit to the car even more so that it was mistaken for the ‘real deal’, but it’s not HPAS at all, the 16MY F-type got EPAS at the same time as manual and four wheel drive, and actually got to market before the XE making it the first EPAS jag!

    Another enjoyable piece, thanks Mike

  5. The problem with the F-type is the price, it is simply too much when compared to the alternatives, particularly from Porsche. For that sort of money it needs to be a much superior car, and the reviews I have read suggest that it isn’t.

    The XE seems a better positioned car. Once again I am going by reviews, I can’t afford cars at this price point. However it seems they haven’t tried to match the German’s technologically, which is sensible. BMW in particular always seem to be a step ahead. Their engines giving better performance, better MPG and emissions.

    Instead the XE is keenly priced, and they are selling it as the better drivers car. Maybe not quite as refined, or with the bests figures in the market, but different enough to attract buyers from the Germans.

    • “…Their engines giving better performance, better MPG and emissions…”

      Is that what we call a tumbleweed moment ? 🙂

      • It’s all achieved by that special software that no German manufacturer fits – it just arrives on German cars by magic !! “Just like that”, as Tommy Cooper would have said

    • The F-Pace is going to be the real sales success, it’s a booming category, and the Jag beats all its German rivals on style, when you compare it with X4s, X6s, Macans etc

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