Tuesday, June 1, 2010

SMMT Test Day 2010 highlights

I can’t quite convey the sound involved, but there came a point last Thursday when any attempt at subjective analysis faded into deranged muttering. It came as the result of a sustained blast of full throttle in something which had more power than my first five cars put together. Fortunately the part of my brain devoted to things like driving continued to function, but whichever lobe or cortex it is that controls speech had temporarily turned to mush. "Jhessssus...  it's... oh my... erm..."

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. I had intended to play it cool and remain entirely matter of fact about the SMMT Test Day at Millbrook – a get together for the UK’s motoring journalists that sees every significant car manufacturer in the country bring a fleet of test vehicles along. And, while this may just be another day for more seasoned journos, it was my first time. I was like Pete Doherty in an opium factory – my eyes swelled to the size of dinner plates and any attempt at nonchalance evaporated immediately.

I’d made a list of three boxes I’d like to tick. The first was to drive a bonefide supercar – engine in the middle, lots of cylinders and preferably Italian in origin; next was to have another go at off-roading; and finally, having never understood what all the fuss was about, I wanted to try a Porsche 911. To start with, however, I decided to go with something a little less intimidating to find my way round. I picked an Alfa Romeo Mito 1.3 JTDM-2 and headed out.

The Mito was certainly un-intimidating. Sadly it was also rather underwhelming, with unexceptional dynamics and a slightly detached feeling to its diesel powertrain. The Millbrook Hill Route, however, was anything but. A 2-lane ribbon of private tarmac threading its way through the Bedfordshire hills, the route is littered with steep gradients and blind crests. It also contains a fantastic variety of corners, which combine with the topography to make bits of it feel rather like a certain toll road in the Eiffel Mountains.

In total I drove 20 cars over the course of the day. The format and the sheer number means that time in each is understandably brief, but here goes…

Bentley Continental Supersports – The Supersports seemed the logical model to go for at the Bentley stand. After all, while it comes as no surprise that the standard model wafts beautifully, the success of converting it into a hardcore two seater seemed far less assured. Even in pared down Supersports trim, the Conti weighs well over two tons and measures a non-inconsiderable 15.7 feet long, so could it really work?

From the moment you drop into the beautifully appointed cabin it’s clear that Bentley means business. The carbon fibre-backed seats are deceptively comfortable, but the padding is sparse and the support is firm. Behind you a strut brace – again in gleaming carbon fibre – fills the area where the rear seats used to be, and there’s yet more of the stuff on the dashboard. Elsewhere, the quilted leather looks and feels sublime, while the switchgear is wonderfully tactile and well positioned.

Trundling out to the Hill Route the first thing that strikes you is how well the Bentley disguises its bulk. The car shrinks around you, and pottering around with the gearbox on auto and the aircon silently cooling your brow is a distinctly relaxed affair. As we reach the start of the track, however, it takes all of two seconds for the experience I wrote about at the beginning to unfold.

I’ve driven plenty of quick cars before – my own Caterham has roughly the same power-to-weight ratio as the Supersports – but the way it deploys its 621bhp charge is something else. Nothing I’ve experienced delivers the same savagery or the same crushing feeling of power. It truly is immense. Yet for all its brutal ability, the Supersports remains a well mannered and surprisingly involving drive. There are times when you can sense its mass at work, but they’re few and far between. The body control is truly superb and the big Bentley changes direction far quicker than it has any right to. Likewise, the steering, although not the last word in feel, is sharp and precise; the big carbon-ceramic brakes have no shortage of power; and the four-wheel drive system makes light work of the car’s devastating firepower. Admittedly, as with most of the cars, I left the electronics in their default position during our brief liaison, but any intervention was subtle and unobtrusive.

Of all the cars there it was undoubtedly one of the most addictive. I couldn’t resist the urge to sneak in a couple of extra laps and the childish thrill of opening the throttle and being catapulted down the straights never abated. Likewise, the soundtrack – multi-faceted and vocal when pushed – continued to delight. I really didn’t want to give it back.

Audi R8 Spyder – Okay, so it’s not strictly Italian, but the R8’s Lamborghini underpinnings and mid-mounted 5.2-litre V10 certainly qualify for supercar status. Its 194mph top speed may be 10mph short of the Bentley’s, but its power-to-weight ratio – now over the magic 300bhp/ton mark – should make it even quicker in the real world. It looks fast too. Even sat in the queue outside the Audi hospitality unit it cuts a rakish silhouette. True, there is a distinct family resemblance to the humble TT, but in the flesh it comes across as so much more.

The theme continues on the inside. It doesn’t have quite the drama you might expect from its Italian cousins, nor the opulence of the Bentley, but what it does have is a tremendous feeling of quality and an incredible attention to detail. My camera is stowed in the luggage compartment in the nose – not huge, but easily larger than that behind the seats of a Lotus Elise – and we’re off. It turns out to be a tremendously easy car to drive. The clutch is light and progressive, the throttle is docile and the mid-engined seating position doesn‘t pose any problems with visibility or positioning. You could drive the R8 Spyder in city centre traffic all day long if you so desired. That would be missing the point of course though.

I head over to the high-speed bowl – the only circuit we’re allowed to sample this particular car on – and accelerate up through the gated six-speed manual ‘box. With the throttle wide open the Spyder’s V10 lets out a proper supercar howl. It sounds utterly gorgeous and, again, proves somewhat addictive. The revs pile on in a relentlessly smooth stream of sustained acceleration. It’s a very different experience to the Bentley, but no less compelling.

The circular track does little to challenge the car’s dynamics; even well into three figures it tracks the lanes effortlessly. What’s perhaps more surprising is that at 130mph you can still hold a conversation with the roof down. That perhaps sums up the R8 Spyder. There are some who will claim that this makes it somewhat sanitised – that a supercar simply shouldn’t carry this breadth of ability. Well, they’re wrong. Once on the move the R8 is undoubtedly the real deal, with the wind in your hair, the sun on your neck and that sublime soundtrack tickling your cochlea. And, for a few minutes, a little piece of Bedfordshire could just pass for the Riviera. The fact it could do suburban London on a cold damp morning too only adds to the appeal.

Getting muddy in the Range Rover Sport – With the supercar box ticked, I set about sampling the other end of the spectrum. Millbrook has two off road courses and I headed for the Black Route in the air-conditioned comfort of a Range Rover Sport HSE TDV6, accompanied by an instructor.

This particular example features new cabin materials that lend it an even more palatial air than usual. Sitting at the chunky control panel, it feels like the bridge of a ship. The LCD touchscreen in the centre provides a suitably hi-tech feel. It not only handles the usual sat nav and entertainment duties, but also acts as an interface for the terrain settings and provides a split-screen display for various cameras secreted over the car. The idea is to give you far more detailed information when manoeuvring off-road, or for that matter in Tesco’s car park.

Once underway, most of the driving is left to the hill descent and traction control systems. The simple presence of independent computer-controlled braking on all four wheels means that any idiot can do things that would trouble even the most experienced off-road driver without the system. You simply take your feet off the pedals and let it do the work. Occasionally on the muddy slopes you can feel the tiniest amount of slip at one corner, but serenity is quickly restored by the electronic brain. At the end of it, in neutral but still rolling, I’m simply told to disengage low range and the Mud and Ruts mode on the touch screen and click back to normal. “There,” explains my instructor. “Now you’re ready for the school run.”

Meet the Porsches – They do things a little differently at Porsche it seems. Unlike most of the companies, which were running a first-come-first served system and letting people out alone, they relied on allocated time slots and sent a Porsche Driving Consultant out as a chaperone for each one. Both are understandable when you consider the demand for the cars and their reputation for swapping ends in the hands of the inexperienced, but it also meant the slots were all booked up by the time I arrived at the stand in the mid-afternoon. There was a slim chance however: ‘Check back at the end and we might be able to sneak you in’ I was told.

In the end I returned just a few minutes too late. The drives had stopped and the Porsche appeared to be one box I wouldn’t tick, so I wandered despondently off towards a nice shiny Chrysler 300C SRT8 parked opposite. As I stood there, Nick Perry from Porsche GB came striding over with some good news. Although everyone else had ceased driving, there was nothing in the rules that said they couldn't let me out for one last go. What’s more, they were sending me out in the most extreme model there, the 997 GT3. Excellent.

With a hefty roll cage in place of the rear seats, a relatively spartan interior and the pre-requisite carbon fibre bucket seats, it feels far more focused than the other exotica on offer at the test. The flat six’s fantastically gruff idle only enhances this impression, as does the weighty clutch pedal and steering. It’s somewhat surprising, therefore that the 435bhp race-derived powerplant is actually wonderfully tractable. We crawl through the parking area at barely above walking pace in second gear, never noticing any hesitation. First stop, the high-speed bowl.

Accelerating out onto the bowl, the engine really comes alive. It features variable valve timing and two-stage lift on both camshafts, giving the power delivery a slightly turbocharged feel. It sounds wonderfully racy too, with a hard-edged bark that runs the Audi’s more cultured soundtrack close for overall honours. After a couple of blasts up into three figures, it’s time to head for the Hill Route.

Any fears of nannying turn out to be unfounded as my new passenger encourages me to lean on the GT3’s prodigious abilities. The front-end grip is simply staggering, and a slight lift into a tightening right hander brings the legendary pendulum effect of the 911 into play. It’s a help rather than a hindrance – swinging the front end crisply into corner, instead of threatening to go any further – but it is definitely there.

At full chat down the straights it’s the only car to come close to rivalling the ferocity of the Bentley. In reality, it’s probably even quicker still, with the highest power-to-weight ratio of the whole bunch. The steering, meanwhile, is unquestionably the most communicative. It combines brilliant weighting with a detailed stream of feedback sent to your fingertips via a chunky alcantara wheel. Predictably, the body control is also superb and the brakes are more than capable of responding to anything I throw at them. It is, in short, close to perfect.

The long drive home

In the end, it was perhaps the Bentley that left the greatest impression on me. The sheer violence of its power delivery, combined with the way it shrinks around you, was a pretty persuasive combination. Plus, the sensation of getting airborne over the Hill Route’s famous ‘ski jump’ (where 007 somewhat implausibly rolled his Aston in Casino Royale) will stay with me forever; not least because it happened in something worth a substantial portion of the value of my house.

It’s less easy to draw a conclusion on the other two. Venturing onto the high-speed bowl in the Audi was a truly memorable experience, but not one that capable of showing off its full dynamic repertoire. Similarly, with the GT3, I’d have needed a lot more time and a more forgiving track (or far more skill) to come anywhere close to exposing its limits.

The one thing that did strike me with all three cars, though, was just how usable these mainstream supercars are. The low volume manufacturers I’m more used can sometimes pull off a coup dynamically, but you simply can’t beat hordes of engineers and comparatively vast development budgets for overall ability. Despite their performances on the track, not one of these cars would have been anything other than a joy to drive home afterwards. Except, of course, I wasn’t driving one of them home. I was driving a 1600cc Ford Focus. And on that journey, struggling to comprehend the general awesomeness of the day that had just passed, I lapsed into something of a daze. Once again the basic part of my brain continued to steer the car and avoid obstacles, but the rest of me was somewhere else. It was like a mild state of shock. Every so often I’d come to my senses, chuckle manically and then lapse back into it. That’s got to be a better feeling than playing it cool

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