Archive for the ‘DriveL’ Category

A week with a Toyota Prius

Posted in DriveL by Richard Porter on Friday, April 1st, 2016

The fourth generation of the hybridists’ hybrid is here.

AWWPrius4_1Day one: The Prius is waiting for me when I get home. You couldn’t miss it, sitting outside and scowling at other cars. There’s no easy way to say it; this is an alarming looking car. The front isn’t too bad, what with all its dramatic, triangular detailing and its low, pointy nose but then this section doesn’t seem to match up properly with the tall windscreen and from thereon it all goes a bit mental, what with the swooping roof leading into a blacked out rear pillar like something Citroen might think about, and the doors with two kinds of scallop in them. Then we reach the back end where the roof inexplicably develops fangs and the back lights seem to have melted. It’s as if Toyota got all huffy about people saying their cars looked boring and completely over-reacted in a petulant, slightly crazed way that they’re going to regret in the morning. I want to applaud them for their bravery, but only in the same way I might applaud someone lowering their bollocks into a blender. Really, I’m thinking they must be mad or stupid or both. Anyway, I’ve got to go somewhere and the good thing about the Prius is that if you’re in it, you can’t see the outside. You can also admire the interior, which is much nicer than the outside, and enjoy the smooth, quiet way in which the whole thing moves down the road.

Later I go to see a mate. His teenage son comes in from looking at the Prius and announces that he likes the way it looks. So maybe it’s just me being an old fart.

Day two: Crawling in almost total silence around London’s life sapping North Circular ringroad this morning I noticed that the man in the next lane was enthusiastically taking pictures of the Prius. Either he was spamming his own Instagram account with pictures entitled ‘urrgh luk at this horible car!!!!!’ or he quite liked it. I don’t know. Possibly the latter. He was driving a Mini Countryman so there’s some evidence that his eyes don’t work properly. Anyway, the Prius turns out to be a good car in which to tackle bad traffic. It’s comfortable. The massive windscreen makes it very light inside. It’s extremely refined. There are no gears to worry about and it has that instant torque you get from electric motors which is always nice. Aside from getting papped by a Specsavers dodger in a fat Mini, it’s an unusually relaxing journey.

AWWPrius4_2Day three: At today’s New York motor show Toyota announced a plug-in version of the Prius. It has a more aggressive front end and back lights that don’t seem to be dribbling down the bumper. As a result, it’s much less upsetting to look at. On the inside, you can have it with a massive, Tesla-ish, portrait aspect touchscreen. This is all very nice, but the interior of the normal car is perfectly decent. The plastics are much better than in previous models and there are some nice details, like the little Prius branded tabs that move the vents. Conversely, there are a couple of things that are a bit odd. Firstly, the heated seat switches are hidden at the bottom of the dash, behind the ‘floating’ centre stack so you have to lean forward to operate your own arse warmer and, because there’s a bit of dash in the way, you’re completely denied the hot day delight of setting your passenger’s heater to maximum when they’re not looking. The second bit of strangeness is within the very nice and very glossy TFT screen that makes up the instrument panel where, in a complete clash of technologies, they’ve installed the same rinky-dink LED digital clock fitted to every Toyota since 1978. It’s so dated and so out of place it must be there as part of some knowingly ironic in-joke. Still, the rest of the interior is fine. And I suppose in 20 years time when all the TFT trickery has gone on the blink, at least you’ll still be able to tell the time. No, hang on a sec. I used to have an ancient Lexus LS400 and that cacky clock was the only thing on the entire car that didn’t work properly. Bah!

Day four: The old Prius had a funny, hollow feeling to it, as if they’d made it out of very thin materials to offset the weight of the batteries. The old Prius also used to make a bit of a strange droning noise when you clogged it as the CVT gearbox let the engine whinny up to high revs and then hold itself there. Both things made it feel a bit cheap and nasty. The new car does not feel like this. It comes across as sturdier and more expensive. If you really lean on it, there’s a bit of mooing from the petrol engine, but it’s quieter and less unpleasant. Also, the ride is quite good. Around town, it’s a very relaxing way to get about. It just goes and stops and does what’s needed without demanding much from the driver apart from the occasional bit of steering and braking and the other things that come as part of not having an accident.

Day five: We’re on our way home from seeing some friends across town when my wife announces that she doesn’t like this car. ‘I feel like I’m in an Uber,’ she grumbles. I contemplate completing the experience by popping Magic on the radio and then missing the turning for our street. But she does have a point. In London at least, a Prius is a taxi. I was in Los Angeles recently and the same seems to be true there. Toyota don’t even shy away from this any more because you can order the new Prius with a ‘taxi pack’ which includes fake leather seats, a boot liner and rubber floor mats. You have to make it smell like sick and synthetic daffodils on your own. On the one hand, the cab thing isn’t brilliant for the image amongst private buyers. On the other hand, it’s a pretty towering tribute to the way Toyota has made a very complicated piece of petro-lectrical technology work seamlessly well and with the kind of reliability that allows it to be ragged around city streets seven days a week without going wrong. Think about that for a sec and it’s really impressive. Oh sorry, was that your turning there? It’s quite hard to see on this tiny smart phone screen which I’ve got clipped to the dashboard by the door.

AWWPrius4_3Day six: I was going to take the Prius for a proper, dab-of-oppo drive in the countryside but really, what’s the point? I can’t imagine it would be amazing fun on a swishing B-road. That’s not what it was designed for and not what anyone is going to do with it. In its natural habitat, which is trundling around the city, it does its job. Rather well actually, since a big part of its job is being economical and it seems pathologically incapable of doing much less than 60mpg.

Yesterday we were in the Prius when my wife suddenly said, ‘What’s got into you?’ Oh God, I thought, she’s going to bring up that thing about why I refuse to get matching bath towels. But no, she was puzzled as to why I didn’t go round a dithering driver ahead but happily let them bimble across our way. ‘Normally you’d have been round him in a second,’ she observed quizzically. I hadn’t the guts to say it’s because the Prius has this display that scores your driving, I’d just got 96 out of 100 and I was buggered if I was going to ruin my stats for one mash of the throttle. So that’s why this car seems so economical. It’s turned the dreary business of fuel saving into a competitive sport. Clever.

Day seven: I’m still troubled by the styling of this car. I want to like it because there are some bits that I quite enjoy, like the blacked out rear pillar and that scooped out bit in the rear wings, but as a whole I just can’t get on with it at all. Maybe it’s just too futuristic for my tiny mind. To check this, I emailed a proper car designer expecting that he’d explain how clever and technically complicated it was and that I was wrong. Oh dear me no. He hates it even more than me and delivers an eloquent rant accusing it of looking like two designs stuck together and suggesting that the C-pillar assembly looks like it was ‘cobbled together in someone’s garage’. He also says the beltline is ‘all wrong’ making the sides look too thick, the roof has a ‘peak’ which makes it look taller when it’s meant to be sleeker, the sill design forces your eye down which accentuates the pointy nose and the tall, slabby back end, the side sculpting is soft but then gets really boxy at the back, the A-pillar extension line is ‘weird’ and the wheels are too small. Also, he points out that the lower rear window line ‘wanders all over the surface below it’ and the fact they’ve nonetheless managed to achieve a really nice fit between these two ill-matched shapes just demonstrates how skilled Toyota is at building cars but not at styling them. So there we go.

AWWPrius4_4Day eight: A brisk, early morning run to Sussex bringing a chance to sling the Prius into a couple of roundabouts just to see what happens. The steering has a funny quick bit in the rack just off centre which I presume was put there to make it seem more dynamic. It does turn in with some vigour but the more you get all helmsmannish the more you also realise the wheel doesn’t really feel connected to the tyres, although there are other ways to discover that the front tyres will quickly lose their grip if you keep driving like a tit. None of this really matters. It’s better to sit back and relax, swooshing along in a calm and smooth way rather than trying to drive it like there’s a wasp in your trousers.

Goodbye: If you’re into cars you’re not meant to like the Prius. You see it all the time on car forums and in comments sections, all those rants about how it’s an eco car, a hand wringing hypocrites chariot or a clueless lead-hoof Uber-ists work tool. Which, when it comes to this new Prius, seems a bit unfair. As a piece of cleverness and indeed as a gadget, it’s an admirable piece of work. It has one job, which is to be a very economical and spacious urban workhorse. And in that score, it does a job and does it well. It’s not very exciting, but then nor is the average diesel hatchback and at least the Prius is quiet and won’t pump blobs of cancer into our children’s faces when the third owner pulls off the DPF. As a way of getting around the city, the Prius is calming and completely untaxing. It’s like driving, but less so. And sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that. You can see why minicabbers love ‘em. They’ll like this new one even more because in every respect it seems a lot better than the old model. As a device that’s fit for purpose, it’s pretty much bob on. It’s a good piece of engineering in a horrible piece of design.

The car talked about here is a Toyota Prius Business Edition Plus. It has a 1.8-litre petrol engine making 97 horsepower and an electric motor making 71 horsepower, although the quoted maximum ‘system output’ is 121bhp. It can go from 0 to 62 in 10.6 seconds and on to 112mph. This version costs £25,995.

 

A week with an MG6

Posted in DriveL by Richard Porter on Friday, November 20th, 2015

Remember MG’s medium sized model? Well, they’ve given it some new lights and bumpers and things. 

AWWMG6_3Day one: The MG has been dropped off at my house while I was out. My wife retrieves the key from the dog proof thing beneath the letter box. ‘What a shitty key,’ she says flatly. She’s right. The MG6 has always had the most horrible, flimsy dongle to start it and they’ve done nothing in the facelift to fix the nasty, lightweight plastic that makes it feel like one of those cheap dummy mobiles they keep tethered to the wall in phone shops. ‘So where’s this MG?’ she continues, peering out of the window. Well, I reply, you see that grey hatchback right outside? That’s it. ‘Oh,’ she sighs. My wife heard ‘MG’ and thought ‘sports car’. But they don’t make sports cars anymore. They make grey hatchbacks.

Day two: Calling the MG a grey hatchback makes it sound dismal but actually this morning, flecked with raindrops under a slightly sunny sky, the 6 looks alright. It’s a moderately handsome car and the grey paint actually seems quite deep and glossy. In the ‘90s the Rovers coming out of the Longbridge paintshop were uncommonly shiny and you might assume this car uses the same Brummie know how. But it doesn’t, because the 6 arrives from China already trimmed and coloured in. The British end just bolts in the underparts. Superficially, it feels well put together. The interior smells a bit odd, like a robot’s fart, and some of the plastics are from an Audi engineer’s nightmares but it’s okay. And it’s okay to drive too. The ride is firm but comfortable, the gearchange is alright, only the weirdly inconsistent and springy feeling to the steering lets it down. This isn’t helped by the wheel itself, which has an unattractively swollen centre section like half a cheap boob job.

AWWMG6_2Day three: Tooling around the city today it’s hard to ignore several things that aren’t quite right about the interior, digital guff smell aside. The cover over the digital climate control display appears to be misty. The screen between the instruments is very pixelly. And the image from the reversing camera is comically low res. Also, the camera itself is angled too low, so that anything behind you appears completely by surprise just a nanosecond before you hit it. All of these things conspire to make the MG feel like a car from two generations ago or the well-meaning efforts of a Korean company you’ve never heard of and which can’t afford to buy any rival products to see what they’re like.

Day four: Every so often the MG decides to skip to another radio station or bounce to the next track in whatever album you’re listening to. I wondered if I was accidentally knocking one of the remote stereo controls either side of the Jordan’s knocker steering wheel boss because they’re quite crappy and don’t have enough built-in resistance. But today the system did it while I was sat at some traffic lights and I know it wasn’t me because I had both hands off the wheel at the time. Later, I come back to the car and start the engine to find that the stereo is dead. Naturally I turn the whole car off and then on again and that seems to fix it. None of this inspires confidence in the electrics.

Day five: I once drove a pre-facelift MG6 diesel and it was absurdly easy to stall. This one is better, but not perfect. I know this because this morning I stalled it. To get it to re-start you have to depress the clutch, which is normal for these electronical start systems, and you must have the gearbox in neutral, which is not. In fact, it’s sodding annoying and contributes to a sense that the entire development process for this car was stopped about five months too early, before they had a chance to go through the ‘to-do’ list one more time.

AWWMG6_1Day six: I’m going to a wedding up north. The MG6 is a fine motorway cruiser. Mind you, what car isn’t? Any car that makes a cock of driving briskly in a straight line is probably dangerous. Later, during the reception, a mate asks me if I’m driving anything interesting at the moment. I tell him I’ve got an MG. ‘Oh nice,’ he says. ‘Is it a convertible?’ No, I say, it’s a grey hatchback that occasionally thinks I’m bored of a song and should move onto the next one. He’s expecting a sports car but, as we know, MG don’t make sports cars any more. They make grey hatchbacks. And I’m not sure their heart is really in it. With this facelift they’ve simplified the 6 range so across the three trim levels there’s just one alloy wheel design, which looks a bit small, and only four paint options, just one of which is metallic. Even this choice is removed if you buy the base model, which only comes in white. Not long ago MG’s own product manager was quoted as saying, “When you sit in the MG6, it won’t be as good as a Skoda Octavia. But it’s £7000 cheaper than the equivalent Skoda Octavia.” On the one hand, admirable honesty. On the other hand, it’s almost like they don’t want to sell any cars.

Day seven: It’s a beautiful morning in Cheshire and I’ve got a bit of time so I go for a proper drive on some roads I know well. This turns out to be a good exercise because the MG suddenly reveals hidden and rather excellent depths. The engine is never going to be anything more than a bog standard diesel with a pretty narrow power band but everything else that contributes to a hearty and helmsmanly strop across the countryside is of a much, much higher standard. The gearchange is slick, the steering still has that odd power assistance but it’s very accurate which makes the car easy to drive neatly, and the chassis is a masterclass in tight but well sorted damping. It’s one of those cars that flows along a road in the way Peugeots used to when they were good and, by golly, it’s actually quite fun. The dashboard detailing and the engine management programming might have been done by people who appear not to have driven a brand new car in 12 years but the suspension of the MG6 has plainly been tuned by a team which understands that making a car feel dynamic is about subtlety and the skilful blending of ride, roll rates and reactions into one marvellous whole, rather than just giving it idiotically rock hard springs and then claiming it’s ‘sporty’. On a good road, the MG6 unexpectedly comes alive.

Goodbye: The MG is going away. It’s not a great car. In far too many ways, it’s not even a good car. This might explain why they seem to have sold about seven, all to hardcore MG enthusiasts who have a broken B in the garage and spend most of their time on the internet moaning about bits of their 6 that have gone wrong. On the plus side, it’s relatively cheap and on an open country road it has a hidden well of considerable talent that makes it more fun than any diesel hatchback of its size, enough to make you forget about the crappy key and the stereo that waits until halfway through a really good song on the radio and then decides you should be listening to Talk Sport. If you care about nothing but open B-road ability and yet you must have a brand new diesel hatchback you might like it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother. It’s a genuinely good chassis looking for a better car to go on top.

The car talked about here is an MG6 1.9 DTi-TECH TL. It has a 1.9-litre turbocharged diesel engine producing 148 horsepower. MG says it can go from 0-60 in 8.4 seconds and, for insurance purposes, has a limited top speed of 120mph. It costs £17,995.

A weekend with a Land Rover Defender Autobiography

Posted in DriveL by Richard Porter on Friday, October 16th, 2015

AWWDefender01Day one: I’ve got a book coming out. I might have mentioned this. More details here. To promote its release, the publisher wanted to film me talking about it while driving. I told them I would blag something interesting. But what? Too flash and people might think, I’m not buying that twat’s book when he’s clearly got too much money as it is. Too rubbish and it might seem as if I didn’t know my shit. I explained this dilemma to the nice people at the book company. We’ll let you sort out the car, they said sweetly in a way that suggested I was wildly over-thinking something unimportant like a full-fat loony. But it was important to me, and there seemed to be only one solution. I needed a Defender. Everyone likes a Defender. Not too flash, not too shabby, just chunky and likeable. In fact, I’m about to buy a Heritage run-out model, but it doesn’t turn up until December and the shoot was scheduled for a few days’ time so I contacted Land Rover and asked nicely if I could borrow something. You’re in luck, they said, we’ve got a Defender spare. And it’s one of the end-of-days Autobiography editions. I’ll get this out the way now; the Land Rover Defender Autobiography costs £61,845. It’s an idiotic amount of money for a piece of 1940s farm equipment, even one with two-tone paint and an interior so comprehensively leathered that even the roof lining is the old wrapper from a cow. Mind you, they’re only selling 100 in the UK, it’s (almost) last of the line, they probably won’t struggle to shift ‘em. But yes, 61 grand. It’s a lot.

The book people are already at my house when the Defender arrives. We go outside to have a look at it and, having previously humoured me with my pathetic fretting over car choice, suddenly they’re interested. The word ‘cool’ is used several times. I agree. In this spec, the Defender looks extremely handsome, what with its black wheels and fancy paint and whathaveyou. My next door neighbour comes out of his house and openly fawns over it. A camera is unleashed, I talk some drivel while driving it and some more drivel while standing next to it, and our filming is done. I meet my friend Mike for lunch. He too declares the Defender to be cool. Although he also notices the various sturdy clonks and thumps that emanate from the mechanical parts. No amount of fancy trimming can disguise the fact that, technically, it’s as complicated as a pair of scissors. But a pair of scissors with a richly scented leather handle.

AWWDefender02Later I go to the supermarket. Don’t strictly need to, but we’re out of milk and I want to drive the Defender again. If I had a Ferrari at my disposal I’d feel the same, but I’d have to get out of the city and find some decent roads upon which it could unleash its skills. Obviously I’m not using the Land Rover’s real talents either, because they are to drive up very steep, very rough and very muddy things and there is none of that in Waitrose car park, but the delight of driving it in town is that it still feels unusual and amusing. Also, it’s only about the length of a Fiesta so it’s a piece of piss to park, lousy steering lock aside.

My wife comes home from work and declares the Defender to be cool. I think what we can conclude from today is that this is, on totting up the totals, the coolest car in the world.

Day two: Last night I had a cheery message from the Land Rover PR chap asking if I appreciated the extra power of this Autobiography edition. Thanks to an ECU tweak, it gets 148 horsepower rather than the standard 120. Frankly, I’d forgotten about this spec detail and hadn’t noticed any difference at all. But today, while bumping around London, I paid more attention. I can’t really spot more power as such, but it’s a little more flexible and co-operative. You can leave it in third for turning into junctions, rather than slamming the chunky change down into the low second gear. So that’s nice. If you’ve got a regular Defender, there are aftermarket companies who will put their hands into the engine’s brain to achieve similar things.

Later, I lash a car seat into the back and take my 19 month old son out in the Defender. In most cars, he’s down low and the glass line is around his forehead. In the Land Rover, he’s up high with a whole window in front of his face. This makes him giggle with delight as we chug about the place. He’s happy, I’m happy, the car feels happy. In some ways it reminds me of my dog. She too has many, many flaws and on paper you’d be an idiot to welcome such an awkward, noisy, daft creature into your life. Yet, I adore her. And the same goes for the Land Rover. Although, on the plus side, I’ve never seen a Defender wait until it’s been cleaned and then immediately roll in some fox shit.

Day three: There’s a Grand Prix on. But there’s also an Avro Vulcan scheduled to fly over an airfield just outside London and that seems like a more interesting option so the boy and I pile into the Land Rover and set off on a trip to Essex. The Defender does not have what you’d call a smooth ride. It joggles and jiggles and generally shifts around in a restless way. It’s quite noisy on the motorway too. Yet, amazingly, the little chap in the back falls asleep for most of the journey. I wake him in time to see a glorious old V-bomber soar overhead then we have a snack sitting in the open back door, watching little planes taking off on the runway nearby. All told, a grand day out. An ordinary car would have been simply a way of getting there and back. Doing it in the silly, slow, friendly, jaunty car made it feel like an adventure.

AWWDefender03Day four: The Defender has to go back to Land Rover. I wish it didn’t. I know, I know. My heartfelt affection towards it defies all logic. I don’t need one. Few people do. But it has a personality and a spirit that is beyond all reason. I like it because it’s unlike any other brand new car. I like it because, though it’s hard work to drive, it makes you think and concentrate and put more effort into the basics of working the controls where most cars smooth away such skills in an anaesthetic sludge. I like it because it makes my little boy smile and seems to bring out the warmest reactions in strangers. As an awful Brit car bore, I even like the parts cupboard interior with its Marina stalks, Metro buttons, Montego window switches, and door lock buttons from the Rover SD1. And that in turn reminds me that it’s the bookend of 67 years of local history, which is something else in its favour. It’s not quick, it’s not quiet, it’s not smooth or slick or sophisticated. But it has something sorely lacking in most cars you can buy today. It has a heart, and it has a soul.

The car talked about here is a Land Rover Defender Autobiography. It has a 2.2-litre turbocharged diesel engine making 148 horsepower. They haven’t re-tested the more powerful engine, but the standard car will go from 0-62 in 14.7 seconds and on to 90mph. It costs £61,845. Feel free to mention this several times in the comments section below.

A week with a Kia Soul EV

Posted in DriveL by Richard Porter on Friday, May 8th, 2015

You know the Kia Soul? Yea, well it’s that, but electric.

SoulEV1Day one: The Soul EV arrives at my office full, but not completely chock full, of electricity. It’s a pure electric car with no range extender back up and I’ve got a big journey tomorrow so I plug it in. The charging socket is in the middle on the front, rather than where the fuel hole would be on the side. In fact, the normal filler flap has completely disappeared which means they’ve altered the rear wing pressing for this one model, which in turn means they’ve spent some money on it. Putting the electro-umbilical point in the middle makes sense, especially if you’re neurotic about cable stretch.

Later I’m driving home without the stereo on, enjoying the smooth silence of electricalicityness when my brother rings me and his call connects through the Bluetooth. It’s only then I notice the light-up rings around the door speakers pulsing every time he speaks. I’ve seen this on a diesel powered Soul. They do it in time to whatever you’re listening to on the stereo. In a normal Soul, it’s a bit idiotic. In this electric one, it’s idiotic and a waste of precious electricity. Fortunately, you can turn it off.

Day two: The Soul EV has a claimed range of 132 miles. But even after a full charge last night the most it would show was 92. It’s a bit parky. Maybe that’s why. The problem is, today I’ve got to drive to somewhere that’s about 60 miles away. This might sound fine, but experience tells me that the range-o-meter on an electric car can be cheerily optimistic right up until the point you attempt to keep up with normal traffic or go onto a motorway. Then it plummets to the point where you it becomes clear you’re not going to make it and you will run out somewhere in the countryside and be unable to get help and have to live out your days in a forest. So this could go horribly wrong. Except, it doesn’t. The Soul turns out to have the most accurate range predictor I’ve ever seen. As long as you don’t ineptly mash the throttle like Maldonado on a pit entry, it seems to tell the truth. A mile goes by, it clicks off another mile. Sometimes it doesn’t even do that. I make it to where I’m going without range stress and buttockular clenching then plug it in, knowing I’ll get home again just fine. Which is an pleasant surprise.

SoulEV2Day three: Having established that the Soul isn’t a liar, it’s much easier to relax and enjoy its smooth, torque-rich electricness, knowing that whatever the range readout says is actually about right. I don’t know how they’ve done where others can’t. What I can tell you is that there’s one clever, electro-specific feature on this car, which is a button that sets the heater to driver-only mode, so it’s not wastefully guffing its efforts into the rest of the car for no reason when you’re on your own. Nice touch.

Day four: A day of padding around town. In most respects the EV is like the normal Soul. It’s roomy, the view out is good, it’s a fully functioning car. Except actually I think the ride is very slightly better. It’s firm, but not uncomfortable. And the dashboard, which for some reason is now beige, feels of better quality. I might be imagining that. Either way, it’s well made without being the full VW. Only the gear selector lets it down, being massive and with a horrid surround, like you’d see on some weird 1990s JDM import you find yourself when you call a minicab in a town you’ve never been to before. I like the Soul’s seats, which appear to be made of the same material as that sloppy sweatshirt you wear on a Sunday when there’s a grand prix on and you’ve no plans to go out.

SoulEV3Day five: My electrician comes round. ‘What’s that?’ he asks, pointing at the Soul. Ahh, I say jauntily. It’s an electric car. ‘Oh,’ he replies, flatly. I thought he’d be more interested, what with being an electrician and everything. I think the Soul looks alright, although for no readily explicable reason the EV version is only available in two colours. There’s blue with a white roof, which is the colour scheme of electric car cliché these days and shouts ‘Look how sodding eco I am’, or a grey, which has the opposite effect, and makes the Soul look like a very normal car. You’d think there’d be at least another couple of colours in the middle. Apparently not. I’d have the grey.

Day six: A trip to the supermarket. It’s a Waitrose so naturally it has an organic Essentials electric car charging point in the car park. Which is handy for a quick juice up. Except that some utter frig kettle in a normal car has parked in the electrical parking space. What a nob. And what a very modern problem. As electric parking spaces get more commonplace, at least it’ll give selfish twats somewhere else to park if all the parent and child spaces are taken.

Goodbye: The Soul EV is going away again. It feels like a very thoroughly developed electric car, usual long distance and charging limitations notwithstanding. It’s not as strenuously normal as the VW e-Golf and not as self-consciously wacky as the Nissan Leaf. It also seems much better at predicting its own range than either. If you’ve got 25 grand to blow on a school run-ish sort of car that lives in town it could be quite handy. I liked it.

The car talked about here is the Kia Soul EV. Its electric motor makes 109 horsepower and 210 lb ft, giving a 0-62 time of 10.8 seconds and a top speed of 90mph. Including the government’s £5000 plug-in car grant, it costs £24,995.

A couple of hours with a Jaguar XE

Posted in DriveL by Richard Porter on Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

After starring in 57,000 Autocar scoop stories, the baby Jag is here at last.

AWWXE1The XE is sitting in a car park. At a casual glance, it looks like an old XF. At a more formal, paying attention sort of glance it looks lower and wider than an old XF. From the side, the wheelbase appears longer and the cabin further back. The proportions have changed and the details are different but the overall effect is familiar, a bit like the new Golf compared to the old one. Or meeting an old friend who’s lost weight and bought better glasses. Jag seems to have avoided anything radical for two reasons: Firstly, it wants to build up sense of design continuity. And secondly because the world of small saloons like this is quite conservative. By which I mean, it likes familiarity, rather than because it hates the NHS and thinks Ed Miliband is a twat.

The inside of the XE isn’t radical either. Recently Jags have featured all manner of shenanigans with moving air vents and touch sensitive glovebox buttons but there’s none of that here. It’s rather ordinary. There’s a large rubber mat in front of the knob-o-matic gear selector to keep your phone in place but that’s about it for delightful features. No wait, the button on the touch screen that goes to the phone menu has a red telephone box on its background. It’s quite sweet and apparently American and Chinese buyers soil themselves with delight at this ‘British’ touch. The rest of the screens and menus work well enough but the graphics are drab and Android-y rather than crisp and Apple-ish.

This XE is the S version, which has the supercharged V6 petrol engine from the F-type. Because of that, I was expecting it to start with an almighty BRAAAAAAH! and then grumble and snarl to itself, as if digesting a handful of treacle and rocks. But it doesn’t. It’s very quiet at idle. It’s very quiet when you set off too. Someone from Jag told me they made an XE prototype with an F-type level of fruitiness but it just seemed wrong in a saloon. Also, to get the full F-type shouting experience they’d have needed a bigger exhaust system which would have eaten into rear seat space. (Later in my time with the XE I stopped in a lay-by and got into the back. There’s enough space back there for a grown man. A lorry driver parked in the same lay-by seemed confused as to why such a grown man would briefly get into the back of his own car. Like most things that happen in lay-bys, he probably assumed it was something to do with dogging.)

AWWXE2Off we go then, for a bit of a drive. The XE is one of those cars you can settle into very quickly. It’s comfy. It’s smooth. It’s quiet. But it feels sharp at the edges yet not intrusively hyperactive. It’s what used to be called a sports saloon, before everyone started trying to be sporty. The ride is firm, though not uncomfortable. Better than an Audi, worse than a Rover 75. The damping feels expensive and well judged.

There are winding roads ahead and the chance for some bitch spankery. Knock the car into sport mode and it gets a bit fightier. But not much. The accelerator is more sensitive, the ride becomes firmer, it’s 19 percent more helmsmannish. You can complete the set-up by putting the gearbox in S and then titting about controlling the 8-speed autobox on the paddles. And then you’re off, zooming around corners, revelling in the chassis control and the grip and at how much traction it finds, even if you really hoof it. It’s a very, very easy car to drive in a brisk manner and quite satisfying as a result. At some point in the rev range the engine takes on an aggressive, hollow sound that reminds me of an old XK straight six. Maybe they’ve done this deliberately. Or maybe I’m talking bollocks. Anyway, it’s nice. At other levels of revs the V6 actually sounds a bit flat. You cease to care too much about this as you slice through the countryside, enjoying the splendid balance of the chassis, clicking crisply up and down the gearbox, marvelling at the excellent ratio and weight of the electric steering and how it doesn’t feel electrically assisted at all. There’s an agility to it too, which could be ascribed to the aluminium body except that some of it – the doors and the boot floor – are still steel and actually, the whole car weighs 1665 kilos which is 70 more than BMW claims for 335i, strangely. Even so, it’s genuinely lovely to drive.

AWWXE3After some wheelwrightmanship I stop for a moment and have a bit of a stare at the XE. There are a few nice details on the outside. The wide, hidden third brake light above the back window and the headlights that look like camera lenses, for example. Or the subtle ducktail built into the bootlid. But overall, it seems knowingly discreet rather than showy and flamboyant. Then I feel compelled to check the rear seat space, a lorry driver probably thinks I’m coming on to him, and it’s time to get back on the road.

A bit more driving. A bit more enjoying the unflustered way you can hack around bendy roads at a right old lick. It feels like a good car in which to tackle a massive journey. You’d have fun on the back road bits and remain untroubled at a cruise. It’s relaxed and relaxing. Only a couple of things annoy me. The head-up display works off fricking lasers and looks terrific but its dashtop gubbins reflects in the screen in an annoying way. And the touch screen is hard to use accurately, especially if you’ve got the suspension in jiggle+ mode.

Overall though, I liked the XE a lot. I’d like it even more if the interior was jazzier but I suppose Jag has been wilfully cautious to avoid frightening people used to the equally plain dash in an A4. On the plus side, the XE S drives with a vim and a lightness of touch an Audi can only dream of. Not that this is strictly relevant, since I can’t imagine many people buying a 3-litre V6 petrol. They’ll get the diesel. But if the XE D is as good as the supercharged version, it’ll be very good indeed.

The car talked about here is the Jaguar XE S. It has a 3-litre supercharged V6 engine making 336 horsepower. Jaguar says it can go from 0-60 in 4.9 seconds and on to a top speed of 155mph. It costs £44,865.

 

A week with a Vauxhall Corsa

Posted in DriveL by Richard Porter on Friday, February 27th, 2015

The car of idiots enters its fourth generation

AWWCorsa1Day one: Here comes the Corsa, wrapped in a deep green colour that looks utterly vile on the configurator and absolutely delightful in real life. You might have seen the ads for this car. They’re everywhere, busily boasting about various features and claiming this car is new. Which is a bit of a fib. The front end engineering is new, the suspension has been re-done and the whole lot has been re-skinned and re-trimmed but the hull is from the old model. There’s a big giveaway on the back doors of this five door model. The window line kicks up at the back where it was flat on the old car, but they’ve kept the same glass to save money so from the inside the kicked up metalwork has glass behind it. It’s not a bad looking car. The interior is inoffensively smart and feels quite well put together. On first acquaintance you could same about the driving experience. But here’s the thing: In my experience, Vauxhall are really good at cars that feel passable at first and turn out to have hidden depths of dismalness that quickly make you want to hack at your own wrists with the hand jack. So let’s not be hasty.

Day two: It’s a cold morning. This Corsa is an SE model which means it gets heated seats as standard. They’re the sort that are either on or off rather than offering levels of arse toastery. This turns out to be a bit of problem because, rather unusually, the one setting is simply far too hot. Honestly, you put it on and it’s cut through the thickness of a normal pair of jeans in less than a minute with the kind of bum scorchery you’d get from leaning on a radiator. So you jab the button to turn it off, wait until you get a bit chilly, switch it back on again and repeat the whole strange cycle again.

AWWCorsa2Day three: A run out into the countryside. The Corsa isn’t bad at scuttling around in a lively way if you attempt some bitch spankery. A Fiesta would be more fun but a Polo wouldn’t. I can’t tell you anything outstanding about the Corsa, but nor can I pinpoint anything bad about it. It’s happier in town, of course, where its ride is really decent and the engine is quiet. It is, in fact, a surprisingly refined car.

Day four: It’s a frosty morning. But no matter because all new Corsas come with a heated windscreen as standard. The reason for this is that people who owned the old car complained that the demisting was shit. And since the guts of this car are carried over including the heater, this is the quick fix. Unlike the heated seats, the heated screen is not too hot. This trim level also gets a heated steering wheel as standard, also not too hot. Whatever else you think, you can’t accuse Vauxhall of skimping on heating elements.

Day five: If you’re really bored, go to the Vauxhall website and attempt to get your head around the Corsa range. There are eight separate trim levels, which aren’t listed in ascending order, and then a giddy hierarchy of engines you’d need an applied maths degree to unpick. This test car, for example, has a four cylinder 1.4 turbo petrol making 99 horsepower. But you can also have a 1-litre three cylinder turbo petrol which has 15 more horsepower but less torque and almost identical economy figures. Worse still, lower down the range there’s a 1.4i and a 1.0T that both have 89bhp for no readily apparent reason. How does anyone get their head around this? Especially since, judging by the general standards of driving seen in old shape Corsas, the average buyer can barely understand what a steering wheel does, never mind fathom the differences between a Corsa Excite A/C 1.4T 100PS Turbo EcoFlex and a Corsa SRi VX-Line 1.0i 115PS EcoFlex.

AWWCorsa3Day six: There are a lot of gadgets on this test car. Lane assist, park assist, blind spot warning and all those sort of things manufacturers think cars should have and customers probably don’t bother with. As long as they’ve got their heated screens and can cook an egg on the heated passenger seat, they’re happy. Today, driving along minding my own business, a light appears on the dash. It’s green, so I presume it’s nothing bad, and it’s in the shape of a car viewed head on. I have no idea what it means. I assume it’s related to one of the techy systems but which one? I have no idea. And I’m in too much of a hurry to stop and RTFM. So it remains a mystery.

Goodbye: Bye bye Corsa. I’ll be honest, based on experience of previous Corsas I was expecting this thing to feel dispiritingly shit by the end of a week. But it doesn’t. It’s quiet, it’s refined, it has a nice interior with plenty of equipment and a slick, intelligently organised touch screen. A Fiesta is more sporty and a Polo more grown up but the Corsa gets unexpectedly close to both. It’s not especially exciting but nor, crucially, is it found wanting in performing the basic functions of being a car. And also, as it turns out, a griddle. For three generations, the Corsa has been a crap car driven by blithering idiots. Now the blithering idiots are getting a car that’s quite good.

The car talked about here is a Vauxhall Corsa SE 1.4T 100PS five door. It has a 1.4-litre four cylinder turbocharged petrol engine that makes 99 horsepower. Top speed is 115mph, 0 to 62 takes 11 seconds. In this spec it costs £13,840.

A week with a Subaru WRX STi

Posted in DriveL by Richard Porter on Friday, February 20th, 2015

The farty rally lout is back. 

AWWSubWRX_1Day one: The Scooberoo is here. It is not an Impreza. I mean, it is. But they don’t call it that. This is the Subaru WRX STi. On first impressions, it feels very Impreza-ish.

– Things it has that Imprezas have always had: That budda-budda-budda boxer engine noise; a stout and sturdy feel to all the major controls.

– Things it does not have that Imprezas should: Frameless side windows; an inexplicable switch on the dashboard that makes the digital clock slightly brighter.

In other news, the ride is so firm that within the first 10 yards of driving cresting a pointy car park speed bump has caused me to make an involuntary OOOF noise. This could be an worry. Almost as much of a worry as the lack of a switch that can make the clock a little bit brighter.

Day two: In the great traditional of sporty Spoobaroos, my test Impreza is bright blue. The whole thing is rather strident. It’s sort of handsome, but also sort of moronic, what with its bonnet scoop and big arches and a boot spoiler so tall you can’t even see its top bar in the rear view mirror. There’s more traditional Scabaroo stuff inside. By which I mean the interior is a bit cack. The central dash is plastered in vile mock carbon fibre trim, the displays are all a bit rinky dink, the steering wheel seems to have too many things on it, the plastics would make an Audi engineer howl with derisive laughter and there’s a comically shite STi badge in front of the gearlever that lights up at night. A few years ago a nice Japanese man from Subaru told me that they couldn’t afford to benchmark lots of cars from rival companies. It seems they still can’t. Seriously chaps, all you need to buy is, oh I don’t know, a Skoda Octavia. You’ll be staggered. Mind you, a Skoda Octavia doesn’t have a fantastically hefty and appealingly mechanical feel to the way it drives. So mechanical, in fact, that if you’re using a lot of lock at parking speeds there seems to be some transmission wind-up that threatens to snuff the engine. I don’t mind that. It feels honest, like there’s just cogs and oil down there, not computers massaging out all the imperfections. Actually, the diffs are electronically controlled. But they don’t feel like it. They feel like Victorian engineering. In a good way. Not because they were built by orphans under the watch of a stern man in a stovepipe hat. At least, I assume not.

AWWSubWRX_2Day three: Right. A proper drive in the Rexsti. It’s very boosty this engine. By which I mean, there’s not a lot, then suddenly there’s quite a lot indeed. If you like old school turbos, you’ll be amused by this. The handling is interesting. You turn in, it seems initially gentle in its reactions but as you keep turning the wheel it suddenly darts into the corner and that in turn makes the back end feel like it’s going to come unstuck. It’s a bit alarming at first but you get used to it. Then you come into a corner too quickly and discover a rich seam of understeer. Your mission, then, is to drive within these two extremes. Which is perfectly possible, and extremely amusing. There’s actually quite a lot of grip as long as you don’t tit it up on the way into a bend. Make no mistake, it’s a quick car. Even the bollock bursting ride doesn’t really get in the way, unless you hit a nasty bump in the middle of a corner. All in all, good fun. With an amusing noise thrown in.

Day four: In the UK, all new Subarus come with a five year warranty. Except this one. It gets three years. Do they think it’s going to get thrashed and then break, or are they assuming that five years is a waste since you’ll have got carried away and stuffed it up a silver birch before then?

AWWSubWRX_3Day five: Everything about this car, from the cack-arsed dash to the weight and feel of the gear shift, makes it feel like it was made by and for people who care about driving. Nothing gives that away as much as the pedals which are completely bob-on for the helmsmannish act of heel and toeing. Between the layout and the lovely, sharp throttle it’s a piece of piss to give it a satisfying wham of revs on a down change. In fact, the car needs it. Clearly this is deliberate on Subaru’s part. You like driving? Hey, WE like driving too! We don’t like designing dashboards though. Will this do?

Day six: By any reasonable definition, the Subaru’s ride is idiotically stiff. But I’ve been driving around London today and I haven’t really noticed it. I think it’s because it doesn’t crash into bumps. It just twats them into submission. The suspension feels tough. Rally car tough. The whole car does.

Goodbye: The not-Impreza is going. I liked it a lot. But I’ve always liked fast Imprezas. And the REX Sexually Transmitted Infection feels much like its predecessors. Which, strangely, is its biggest failing. It’s brilliant fun, but it feels like Subaru hasn’t moved on from the 1990s. If you want a fast, practical, four-wheel drive car you could use everyday and still get a kick from on a winding back road, you’d be better off copying everyone else on the internet and buying a Volkswagen Golf R. I’d recommend the VW to everyone, except people who really like Subarus. I wouldn’t recommend the WRX to anyone, except people who really like Subarus. If you want a lairy, laggy, hefty, speedy and hilariously old school slice of rally yobbery, you’ll love it.

The car talked about here is the Subaru WRX STi. It’s has a 2.5-litre turbocharged four cylinder boxer engine making 296 horsepower. 0-62 takes 5.2 seconds, top speed is 159mph. It costs £28,995.

A week with a Volkswagen Passat

Posted in DriveL by Richard Porter on Friday, February 6th, 2015

You know the new middle-sized saloon from VW? Well, that. But the estate version.

AWWPassat_1Day one: Here comes the Passat, looking all Passaty and that. It’s a handsome car. It feels Passaty to drive too. That is to say, very normal, quite comfortable, a bit understated. For some reason you occasionally see people in Passats being needlessly aggressive on motorways. I don’t know why. On first acquaintance, this new one seems very relaxed. Maybe if you’re a bellend on a motorway this is annoying for you and you over-compensate.

Day two: The outside of the Passat is quite simple and tasteful. The inside is the same. There’s a very smart horizontal thing going on between the vents on the passenger side, for example. In the middle there’s one of the few analogue car clocks I’ve seen that manages not to look twee. In fact, it’s a bit like a Braun wristwatch. Sitting in traffic this morning I’ve worked out one of the reasons the Passat interior feels nicer and more expensive than those of other cars this size. It’s the clever application of thin shiny strips. They’re everywhere. Round the buttons, framing the stereo, scampering neatly across the bottom of the instrument pack. Sometimes you barely notice them, but they’re there, looking expensive and smart and giving the whole shebang a bit of class.

AWWPassat_2Day three: Top Gear studio day. An early start in the cold. When you switch on the driver’s heated seat, the steering wheel heats up too. It’s the kind of sybaritic indulgence that would have got you shot in Soviet Russia. It’s also rather nice. During my journey there’s a chance for some helmswrightery. From this I can tell you the following; the Passat can and will be driven with enthusiasm but it feels a bit unnecessary. Also, if the rear wheels hit a bump in the middle of a fast bend the whole back end is very slightly knocked off line. This is a surprise. The rest of the time the car feels very well planted and the ride is good. I wondered if they’d saved a few Euros by fitting cheapo beam axle that’s gone under less powerful Golfs but I’ve checked and no, the Passat gets an independent multi-link. So there we go. This car has a double clutch gearbox which works very well in auto mode. Trying to force the issue with the paddles behind the wheel is almost completely pointless. The changes aren’t especially snappy and there’s that usual narrow dieselly power band to spoil your fun.

Day four: Work to do at home. No Passat driving today. It sits outside looking crisp and unassuming, One of the reasons I like the way it looks is because of what black rollneckers would call its stance. Like the latest Golf, it’s built on VW’s MQB box of bits and, like the new Golf, the wheelbase has got longer which makes the car look good. The car itself is actually 2mm shorter than the old Passat. Do you know what MQB stands for? Modularer Querbaukasten. It means modular transverse matrix. That’s right, in German they have a word for ‘transverse matrix’.

AWWPassat_3Day five: The Passat has various bits of electro-assistance, the more annoying of which can be turned off. The thing that reads speed limit signs isn’t generally annoying, although a couple of days ago it did spot something that plainly wasn’t a speed limit sign and then tried to tell me the limit through London was 90mph. This morning things get worse. It’s frosty and, even once the screen is cleared, the chill plays havoc with the forward facing camera behind the rear view mirror that makes it work. The car keeps making a ping noise and telling me the speed reader isn’t working. Fortunately you can turn it off.

Day six: Another drive across the city in the Passat. I’m sorry, I’ve can’t really think of anything else to say about it. Erm… it’s got a big boot. And quite a lot of rear legroom.

Goodbye: The Passat is leaving. I feel a bit sorry for it. As a car, it performs its duty well. It’s not exciting but it is agreeable and decent. It looks nice too. But private buyers aren’t wowed by cars like this any more. VW freely admits that 80 percent of Passats will go to fleet customers. But fleet drivers don’t want this. They want an Audi. So they’ll get a Passat because their fleet manager refuses to give them an A4. And they will resent it. That’s why I feel sorry for the Passat. It’s the perfectly good car that no one really wants.

The car talked about here is a Volkswagen Passat estate GT 2.0 TDI 190PS DSG. It has a 2-litre turbocharged diesel engine making 187 horsepower. VW says it can go from 0-62 in 7.9 seconds and on to 144mph. Without options it costs £30,910.

A week with an Alfa Romeo 4C

Posted in DriveL by Richard Porter on Friday, January 30th, 2015

AWWAlfa4C_1Day one: The 4C arrives at my office. Normally press demonstrators are dropped off by a cheery retiree in a fleece who works for a delivery company. But the Alfa is being delivered by the UK PR man. This could be a worry. When such things happen it’s usually because the company wants to hammer home some message about the car, rather than being grown up about it and letting you make up your own mind. But no. The UK PR is here to, in his own words, ‘show you what all six buttons do and ask you not to crash it’. And with that he is gone, leaving me sitting bolt upright in the 4C. This, as it turns out, is the driving position. Even if you ease the seat away from the bulkhead behind, it won’t recline any more. It’s not the most relaxing. But then, on first acquaintance, not much about the 4C is. It’s noisy, the steering almost constantly twitches and bucks, you can’t hear the radio. After clogging it down a sliproad, I discover it’s also surprisingly fast. You put your foot down, there’s a sucking whoosh from the engine and a metric shitload of boost arrives to punch you in the back. This is nice. The 4C is built around a carbon fibre tub, like a McLaren, and has a claimed unladen weight of 895 kilos, which must help it feel so spry. Unless you’re in America. The US-spec 4C has a different, stronger tub and more airbags which add 155 kilos to the total. Which sounds like a right cock-up. Would sir like one with all the safety bits we forgot about when we designed it, or the special ‘not as safe’ Euro spec?

Day two: A cold morning commute. The 4C isn’t the ideal car for this. The driving position still seems too upright. Words cannot express how cockarsed the stereo is. In fact, it’s the most unfathomable piece of nasty cack I’ve ever experienced. The sound quality is terrible, it’s impossible to retune to another frequency, it claims to have Bluetooth streaming but it would be easier to invent a brand new audio standard than attempt to get it to connect to your phone. On the plus side for the urban crawl, the ride is firm but nicely damped. For some reason the 4C has double wishbone suspension at the front but struts at the rear. It’s like they’ve fitted the chassis the wrong way round. The double clutch ‘box sometimes seems slow to change on the paddles at low speed but when you’re stuck in slow moving traffic the auto mode is surprisingly good.

AWWAlfa4C_2Day three: An early start, a drive to Surrey, a chance to get the 4C out of the city. Finally, some wet but open roads and a chance to stand on it. The news is not good. The 4C feels all over the shop. The steering weighting is weird, going light and then heavy seemingly at random. Worse yet, the whole car darts and scampers across every wonky camber. At one point it almost spits me across the road into the path of an Avensis. Chuck in the boosty, aggressive power delivery that threatens to unhinge the back wheels and the whole thing is stressful and stupid and really very nasty. By the time I get where I’m going my mood is foul and my anus puckered. That wasn’t much fun at all.

It’s our first Top Gear studio recording of the new series. Some filming happens and then it’s time to go home. Something odd happens. The roads have dried out a bit. I’m tired but wired after a long day on my feet. The Alfa actually feels better. Instead of trying to wrestle it, just go along with its hyperactive attitude and it swoops along fast B-roads without feeling like its trying to hurt you. Hmm.

Day four: Come back from walking the dog to find my neighbour Louis standing by the 4C trying to convince his two small children that it’s his new car. They’re doing that small child unconvinced face that basically says ‘sod off daddy’. I can see why he’d try. Parked on a normal street, the Alfa has proper star quality. I know it’s got those strange headlights that make it look like it’s got an eye infection, but the overall shape is low and cool and exciting. When I tell Louis it costs 45 grand he’s surprised. ‘Oh yea,’ he says. ‘I thought it would be twice that’. Later I ask my wife what she thinks it costs. My wife is uncannily good at guessing car prices. But she also reckons it’s £90,000. So there we go, the 4C looks at least twice as expensive as it is. I’ve got work to do at home so I don’t get to drive the Alfa at all today. But I do enjoy looking at it sitting outside.

AWWAlfa4C_3Day five: It’s a beautiful crisp, clear, sunny morning. I should be working but sod that. It’s time to skip school and take the 4C for a proper drive, out of town, onto the motorway, then scamper about the fringes of the Chilterns for a bit. And on the last part of this mild skyve suddenly the 4C isn’t the horrendous ball of nerves and swerving I first thought. Once you get used to it, you learn to trust it, and then you can get more and more out of it. You remember to hammer the revs, keep it on boost, get the engine into the zone where it screams rather than drones and the turbo makes the most incredible skittering, chattering, sucking sounds, like a Max Power Calibra being bummed by McRae’s Impreza. You’ve also got relax your arms, let the steering wheel waggle about in its mad way but know that for the most part it’s going to go where you point it while the rest of the chassis skims across cacky surfaces. Most excitingly, through one damp and fairly tight left hand corner I squeeze the throttle and feel the distinct sensation of the back wheels spinning up and the car going into a bit of a slide. Except it happens at a pace where there’s time to think, oh look, we seem to be in a power slide. And there’s still more time to decide what to do about this. The only correct course of action seems to be to slip into self-parody: Keep the power on, give it a dab of you-know-what, and away. There’s Alfa’s usual DNA mode selector in this car, and in D for dynamic the stability control allows such shenanigans. Once you realise this, you want to do it more. It’s gentle, it’s friendly, it’s frigging hilarious. With familiarity, the whole car is. It’s rare amongst modern cars in that it doesn’t present its abilities to you on a plate. You need to learn things about it and react accordingly. I bet they won’t sell a single one of these cars based on a half hour test drive with the dealer. Under such circumstances it feels horrid. But with time, it’s got depth and skill. And it does little damp road power slides.

Day six: Desperately looking for another excuse to go for a  drive in the 4C. Sadly, there isn’t one. Instead I have to watch people admiring it outside and, presumably, thinking it costs 90 grand.  I don’t know if they’d believe that if they sat in it. It’s a bit of a mixed bag in there. On the one hand, there are some flashy and expensive touches like the TFT instruments and the leather door pulls. On the other hand, the dash isn’t great. The heater dials feel cheap, the inlayed silver bit doesn’t seem to fit properly, it’s hard to ignore that the passenger airbag cover has a slightly different texture to its surroundings in way that would make Volkswagen howl with derisive laughter. There’s more expensive attention to detail in a Fiat 500’s interior than in this. Funnily enough, this ceases to matter once you get your eye in with driving it.

Goodbye: The Alfa must go away again. This makes me sad. A few days ago I thought it was hovering around the fringes of total shit. Then I got to know it. Now I don’t want to let it go. It’s not perfect, of course. It’s noisy, it’s tiring, it feels like it could smack you in the mouth if you disrespected it. But it also has great ability and great depth, both of which you have to work hard and work with to really enjoy. It looks terrific, it has real personality, and when you learn how to drive it, it makes you smile. It’s like a tiny ‘70s supercar that you can buy new. It took a few days, but by God I loved it.

The car talked about here is an Alfa Romeo 4C. It has a four cylinder, 1.7-litre turbocharged engine which produces 236 horsepower. It can go from 0-62 in 4.5 seconds and on to 160mph. Without options it costs £45,000.

A week with a Mercedes S63 AMG coupe

Posted in DriveL by Richard Porter on Friday, January 23rd, 2015

AWWS63coupe1

It’s a two-door version of the biggest Benz

Day one: The S-class coupe arrives, looking massive and rather handsome. It’s dark and cold by the time I drive it home. Time to crank the heater. Mercedes is the only luxury car maker that doesn’t insist its climate control systems work in fiddly and pointless half degree increments. For this they should be applauded. Since it’s right parky outside, I also put on the heated seat. Sitting in unexpected traffic just outside my office I discover something remarkable. My back and arse are getting gently griddled, but so is my left arm resting on the centre bin. Better yet, the armrest on the door is also warm. Suddenly it’s a pleasure to be at a standstill. In fact, when the queue moves it’s a bit of a pain having to move one arm off the toasty leather in order to hold the steering wheel. West London is near-gridlocked, but this gives plenty of time to delve into the S-class’s sub menus, of which there are many. The best discovery is the massage function for the seat. Other cars have this, but it’s usually little more than rolling the lumbar support up and down your back. Not here. The seats have lots of little air pockets in them which inflate and deflate to poke and prod you in the torso with varying degrees of ferocity. It’s all rather pleasant. The traffic on the way may have been shit, but I arrive home feeling quite calm. And with hot arms.

Day two: Trundling across the city this morning, less distracted by the strange sensation of having a hot massage whilst in control of a moving car, it’s hard to ignore that there are few odd things about the interior. From where I sit the steering wheel blocks the top of the dials. Some of the buttons around the central control doodah are hidden from view. The headlight switch is at a funny angle so you can’t see which position you’ve got it in. Merc doesn’t usually drop the ball on basic ergonomics like this. Mind you, there are so many buttons the law of averages says some of them would end up in the wrong place. The rest of the interior is perfectly good, save for the lid on the storage hole at the bottom of the centre stack which has ‘Designo’ written on it in horrible font and a sensationally vile handle that appears to be made of crystal. Thankfully both disappear when you open the cubby hole’s lid, possibly to vomit into it.

AWWS63coupe2Day three: My wife hasn’t seen the Merc yet. This morning she looks out of the window at it. ‘Oh, I LIKE that,’ she coos. She’s right, it’s a nice looking thing. I’d even say it was elegant, but for the snarly, aggressive front end. Parked behind my neighbour’s VW Up it looks like it’s about to eat it or mount it.

Day four: This, you may have noticed, is an AMG Merc and such things are usually quite noisy and mad. The S-class is a bit more grown up than that. Nonetheless, it starts with a stout but muffled V8 rumble. This is a nice way to begin the day. If you really clog it, the rumble comes back. You might also notice you’ll be travelling quite quickly. For a big car, you can fling the S-class around to a surprising degree. The steering has one of those variable ratio racks that gets much quicker after not much of a turn. It makes the car feel surprisingly lively. On the downside, the ride in a car like this should be sensational, and it isn’t. Which is a disappointment.

Day five: You know what this S63 is? It’s a big swinging dick of a machine. It says, yea I can afford a big car, but no, I don’t need the space inside. Cos that’s how I roll. Look, I’m smoking a cigar and it’s not even dark outside. Yea. Or something like that. In other news, on the way home tonight I put the massage seats into a very vigourous lower back jabbing setting and then had to turn them off because I could feel organs being moved around and I thought I was going to wet myself.

AWWS63coupe3Day six: You would expect the S63 AMG coupe to be an expensive car. It is. It’s 125 grand. But not this press demonstrator. This press demonstrator has some options on it. Let me talk you through the highlights. There’s the upgraded Burmester stereo. That’s £5300. There’s the piano black lacquer interior trim. That’s £1060. There’s the AMG driver’s package that lifts the speed limiter from 155 to 186mph. That’s £2760, which seems a bit steep for a software tweak, even if you get driver training at the AMG academy thrown in. Finally, there are the upgraded LED lights with ‘the addition of 47 Swarovski crystals [to] provide striking visual highlights and emphasise the unique nature of the vehicle’. They’re £2860. I know, I know. Oh, and if you want the heated armrests, they’re 440 quid. Total cost of this test car: £155,115. Yowser.

Goodbye: I’m handing the S63 to a colleague so that he too can experience hot arms and the strange yet agreeable feeling of swooshing about the place while your seat fondles your kidneys. It’s a very civilised and pleasant way to get around. I liked it. And yet, for the same money you could get a Bentley Continental. Yes, it’s not as swishy and it seems to have the infotainment system from a mk4 Golf, but it has an innate sense of occasion built-in rather than brought about by adding technology. I suspect the S-class, with its gadgets and its optional headlight crystals, will play well in new money markets like China and Russia. In Britain, for this substantial amount of cash, I think I’d err towards a Conti GT Speed. Or, to put it in a motoring journalists’ metaphor kind of way, I’d rather have a modest room at The Dorchester than the biggest suite in a Holiday Inn.

The car talked about here is a Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG coupe. It has a 5.5-litre twin turbocharged V8 engine making 577 horsepower and 664 lb ft. It can go from 0-62 in 4.2 seconds and on to a top speed of 155mph (or 186mph if you pay extra). Without options, it costs £125,595. With options it costs more than that.