Friday, July 4, 2008

The good, the bad and a MINI adventure

Despite my journalistic aspirations, I currently have a ‘day job’ in the motor industry and as part of this I get to attend an annual test day with various cars to play with. It makes for an enjoyable afternoon – that one day each year – and it also produces some interesting observations.

This year was no exception, and what’s more I found myself having to renounce some of my automotive prejudices.

BMW 120D M-Sport
The first thing I notice about the 120D, queuing to exit the car park, is the stop-start technology kicking in. It’s faintly unnerving the first time you come to a halt and the engine dies, but it springs reassuringly back into life as you go to pull away, cutting down on both fuel consumption and emissions as it does so. The next observation is the chunky, well-weighted feel to the steering. Unfortunately, once you get out onto the open road, it doesn’t offer quite as much feedback as you’d like – it feels reasonable, but strangely artificial.

It’s not just the steering either. The M-Sport suspension feels somewhat under-damped on the bumpy, cambered B-roads of our test route and then there’s the engine… Make no mistake; it produces plenty of power, giving the 120D impressive mid-range punch, but the delivery feels disappointingly ‘old school diesel’. The torque comes in one big lump with little before or after and rather lacklustre response. It’s not bad for a repmobile, but I’d expected my first trip out in a premium diesel to be something more. I can’t help thinking that the Ford Focus concedes very little to it overall (and betters it in some areas) for significantly less money.

BMW 320D Auto
As a sanity-check I try the 120’s bigger brother, the 320D, and despite being a larger (and presumably heavier) car it actually feels rather better. The floaty feeling is gone and ironically it doesn’t seem like such a big car. The steering remains somewhat aloof, considering it’s not dealing with the driven wheels, but suddenly BMW feels like it would better its competitors dynamically, which as ‘the ultimate driving machine’, is exactly what it should do.

The engine performs much the same as it did in the 120D, yet its torquey delivery works somewhat better with the auto-box; delivering crisp gear changes and a smooth pullaway. It’s not without fault though – there’s a rather clumsy kick-down and the manual mode is typically slow. Despite this, I was (as a fan of lighter, more compact cars) surprised to note it feels like a better overall package than its smaller sibling.

Ford Fiesta ST

Next up is the feisty Fiesta ST. From the word go, everything from the not-so-subtle bonnet stripes to the overtly sporty exhaust note feels like a statement of intent – it's certainly not a car for the meek.

The free-revving, responsive powerplant pulls eagerly and, while you'd hardly call it refined, it’s certainly entertaining. The same goes for the handling, which offers a sharp turn-in, decent throttle-adjustability and reasonable levels of steering feedback. It feels like an old school hot hatch, albeit with corresponding levels of traction and lateral grip available. I’m undecided as to whether this is a good thing – you see, while the Fiesta is good fun, it lacks the pace of today’s super-hatches. Its manic character sometimes feels like a sheep in wolf’s clothing in the era of 200bhp Clios.

Mazda MX-5 2.0i Roadster Coupe
It’s hard to believe, but the world’s best selling small sports car has been around in various guises for two decades now. The simple formula of engine at the front, driven wheels at the back and relatively little in between has certainly proved successful in the past – I used to own a mk1, but this is my first chance to drive the current mk3 version.

My initial impressions aren’t great to be honest. Come the first roundabout I find myself questioning whether they’ve left the dampers out – it certainly feels a lot softer than the old cars. The sharp turn-in remains, but somehow it no longer seems to follow up that early promise. The steering feels a little woolly and distinctly light on feedback. To compound matters, the ESP system is irritatingly intrusive. Fortunately disabling it not only cures the problem, but proves that (in the dry at least) there's plenty of extra grip when you venture beyond the confines of its nannying.

There’s nothing to fear when you do so either - it remains a fundamentally well-balanced car and the new chassis feels significantly more rigid than before, with none of the earlier models’ scuttle shake. The 2-litre engine seems to have lost the some of the earlier unit's character, but it makes up for this with noticeably more torque, particularly at low revs. It doesn’t just go better either – the brakes offer a significant improvement in stopping power – admittedly they also lose some of their precision, but the trade-off seems more than worth it overall.

So, the MX-5 may have lost some of its edge, but it remains virtually unique as a low cost, front-engined, rear wheel drive sports car. It’s frustrating that the new chassis and gutsy engine clearly have untapped potential, but it’s still an entertaining drive and the sort of ‘fun car’ we could do with seeing more of.

Toyota Aygo
There's something a little bit funky about the Toyota Aygo's interior. Admittedly, the cheap plastic faintly reminds me of that inside a portaloo, but the fresh design, complete with a curious bug-eyed tachometer is conspicuously contemporary. Let's not forget this is the product that sponsors Channel 4's youth programming and one that was famously given to assorted motoring journos to play football with. So, the Aygo is young and athletic then?

Fire up the 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine and, sure enough, it has a pleasingly sporty rasp. It revs freely too, but sadly, actually getting the car moving is another matter. It features quite possibly the most rubbery gear change I've ever encountered and just finding first is a challenge. Once on the move, its soft suspension and over-assisted steering conclusive dissolve any notions of it being a junior hot hatch. To be fair, that's not really what it's intended to be, but worse is to come. For a city car, the Aygo's long gearing makes it feel sluggish at low speed, and on the open road the engine's peaky nature feels strangely at odds with the stodgy chassis.

It's not fundamentally a bad car – at least not for the market it's intended – but it fails to be anything more. For anyone who really wants no-thrills city-bound transport that much I'd strongly recommend a weekly travelcard. For those seeking something a little more exciting (and indeed versatile) the next car may well hold the answer…

MINI Cooper D
The last car I decide to climb into is a MINI and, to be honest, I'm not sure what to expect. I've always had a soft spot for the original Mini and an equally strong distain for the current retro trend in car design, not to mention a healthy degree of scepticism about diesel performance cars. This is my first time at the wheel of the 21st century MINI and part of me hopes it won't be that good – secretly, I already doubt that will be the case.

Sitting in, I cringe slightly at the gigantic central speedometer – it's a stylistic link to the original car that seems to be growing with each passing year to emphasise its Mini-ness. Fortunately the rest of the interior is different - there's a quality feel to it which genuinely sets the car apart from the usual crowd of bland hatches. The engine buzzes eagerly into life and I make my way out onto the road. First impressions are of a pleasingly revvy powerplant by diesel standards. It's almost petrol-like in its responsiveness, yet still delivers a broad spectrum of torque. The noise isn't intrusive either – recognisably diesel, but reasonably refined.

However, it's when you get to a corner that the MINI really starts to shine. It has a very sharp turn in, which immediately banishes any ideas of a nose-heavy oil-burning hatchback. The steering is beautifully weighted, perhaps not as communicative as it could be, but still wonderfully precise. The firm suspension limits body-roll while effortlessly soaking up mid-corner bumps and pot-holes. Combine this with excellent traction and a degree of throttle adjustability and the Cooper D becomes a car that genuinely goads you on, yet one that still feels completely planted and firmly on your side.

When you want to play, it really is up there with the best of the warm hatches – not as showy as something like the Fiesta ST, but very nearly as competent. When you just want to get from A to B, it simply blows them away… Its superb tractability, civilised cabin and general refinement would make it a pleasure to drive on long journeys. Whatsmore it does all this while sipping fuel at the rate of around 65mpg and putting out only 118g/km of CO2. It's this all-round ability which really blew me away – it ticks very nearly all the boxes. The only area where it falls short is luggage space, but this is a criticism which could be applied to most small hatches and, let's face it, a student-chic roof rack would only add to the retro Mini appeal.

So, am I a convert? Well, yes and no… I still think they should have called it something like the BMW 0-Series, because, despite its Fisher Price styling, the links to the original Mini remain pretty tenuous. It is, however, a superb small car and an incredible all-rounder. It's also the first time I've driven a sporty diesel that genuinely felt like a driver's car, not just a compromise for economy. If I had to own just one car on a tight budget this would be a serious contender, if only they could badge it as something original!

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