Monday, June 7, 2010

Millbrook: Tester's notes

So, four down, 16 to go. But these observations are intended to be a little different to the blog I wrote last time. Although often memorable in their own way, these are the cars I flitted between even quicker than those mentioned previously. Few, if any, notes were made and these remarks are firmly based on first impressions rather than any attempt at a serious review.

Alfa Romeo Mito 1.3 JTDM-2 – The Mito is arguably the best looking supermini on the outside (with more than a passing resemblance to the gorgeous Alfa Romeo 8C), but dynamically I was a little disappointed. Lacklustre throttle response and slightly detached handling keep it short of the best competition.

MINI Cooper D Clubman – After the Mito I headed over to the MINI stand for a reality check. I’d raved about the diesel MINI when I first drove it a few years ago, could it still feel that good? The answer is yes. The powertrain delivers a superb balance of economy, performance and driver appeal. In some respects it almost feels like a petrol unit, so smooth and revvy is the 1.6-litre DV6 engine in BMW trim. It handles well, it has a great quality feel to the cabin and the Clubman body goes some way to addressing the MINI’s traditional weak point of practicality.

Audi A8 4.2 FSI Quattro Tiptronic – The A8’s interior is pure Teutonic efficiency; big on build quality and mod cons, but perhaps just a little bit sombre. Out on the Hill Route the 4.2-litre petrol V8 gives it an impressive turn of speed, but the handling is definitely more Rolls Royce than Ronin.

Citroen DS3 DSport 1.6i 16v THP 250 – In the flesh the DS3’s exterior is subtler than expected, but the cabin still brims with art-deco flare. It’s a shame the same can’t be said about the engine, which comes across as a little flat in some respects, particularly its disappointing soundtrack. Overly light power steering doesn’t help its case once on the move either.

Volkswagen Golf R (manual and DSG) – A genuinely rapid car; the sensation of performance is heightened by a rather old school surge of torque as the turbo’d 4-pot gets into its stride. Sounds quite fruity too. The DSG gearbox shifts very rapidly and delivers a suitably indulgent blip on the downshifts, but there seems to be a slight delay between requesting the shift and actually getting it, which leaves me ultimately preferring the manual.

Volkswagen Scirocco R – Not surprisingly the Scirocco feels distinctly similar to the Golf. The cabin is a step up, and the handling is, if anything, even more composed, with fantastic body control and superb rigidity. The lack of four-wheel drive doesn’t seem to hamper things too much either – it’s hard to believe there’s over 260bhp going through those front wheels.

Audi TT RS – Sticking with the VAG theme comes the most potent TT yet. It feels – and sounds – every one of its 335bhp, while precise, well-weighted steering and a very taut ride make for good fun on the Hill Route. It’s not just dynamic thrills, either. The interior is a fantastic place to be and perhaps the most inspired of Audi’s current range. Overall the TT RS was an unexpected highlight and something of a baby supercar.

Mazda MX5 – The revamped mk3.5 MX5 is tantalisingly close to greatness. The controls are spot on, the steering is beautifully direct and the structure feels impressively rigid for a convertible. It even sounds quite nice. But on the Hill Route’s smooth, undulating tarmac it still comes across as distinctly under-damped. To be fair, it would probably strike a better compromise on a typically rough British B-road, but you can’t help thinking that a more focused suspension setup would complete the package.

Honda CR-Z – Another unexpected highlight. The test car looked superb in Championship White, while the interior – clearly influenced by the current Civic – was bold, distinctive and comfortable. Even in Sport Mode the car isn’t hugely quick outright, but the powertrain is fantastically eager with great response and seamless intervention from the 14bhp electric motor. Superb body control and meaty steering encourage you to explore what turns out to be quite a feisty handling balance. A spot of trail-braking will bring the rear end into play quite smartly, but the chassis’ innate balance makes it easy to restore. A very positive sign for the future.

Nissan 370Z (Coupe and Roadster) – I was surprised by how agricultural the 370Z’s powertrain was. The gearchange is heavy and the engine, in the coupe at least, sounds rather mechanical. The Synchro Rev Control works superbly, however, and if you want to change the gears yourself the conventional manual is definitely the one to go for; the auto ‘box does have a paddle-operated manual mode, but it’s undoubtedly happier left in drive.

Much like the MX5, both models of the 370Z feel inexplicably wallowy out on the course and only really come alive once their ESP is switched off. Although the coupe feels reasonably rigid, you can definitely sense the effects of removing the roof on the Roadster. That said though, al freso motoring does seem to suit the relaxed nature of the Zed and also reveals more character in its soundtrack.

Twingo Renaultsport 133 Cup – Like its bigger brother the Clio, the Twingo has a rather old school character. The Feisty 1598cc engine emits a suitably rorty induction note and the steering offers that rarest of things these days – genuine feel. On the downside the brakes could do with a touch more power and the plasticy interior looks like it was lifted from a portaloo.

Clio Renaultsport 200 Cup –The Clio has a similarly organic feel to the steering and a rather more throttle-adjustable stance than the Twingo. The ride can get flustered at times, however, and, again, the brakes seemed to be a weak link. To be fair, the latter may be due to the car’s popularity with eager journos on a warm day.

Peugeot RCZ – Perhaps predictably, the RCZ is another car that needs to be seen in the flesh to be fully appreciated. It looks extremely classy inside and out, with a svelte silhouette that you’d swear belonged to something mid-engined. Despite this, the visibility is exceptional and there’s a very sizeable loading area behind the seats, making it a perfectly sensible everyday proposition.

On the move the RCZ turns in keenly and grips tenaciously. It’s beautifully composed with effortless body control, and it allows you just enough opportunity to trim your line with the throttle.

First trip was in the HDi 163 diesel, which performed respectably and cruised quietly on the whole, despite some noticeable diesel chatter under heavy acceleration. The next was in the THP 156 petrol, which proved revvy and responsive, but still lacked the ultimate punch or the character that the chassis deserves. This may be something the forthcoming THP 200 model can address, but in the meantime the rest of the package presents a very strong case.

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