Archive for the ‘DriveL’ Category

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


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. 

A week with a Volvo V60 Polestar

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

Volvo asked the company that runs their official motorsport efforts to make a sportier V60. This is what they came up with.

AWWVolvoV60Polestar1Day one: The Polestar is here. It is the colour of a Smurf. After the strident paint there’s another shock in store when you start the engine for the first time. It fires with an unexpectedly loud GRRRRRRAH! and then settles to a fast and noisy idle. I suspect it’s to get the cats nice and hot. Not actual cats. They’d have been scared off by the GRRRRRRAH. Volvo has announced its intention to bin bigger engines and work exclusively with three or four cylinders. I wasn’t paying attention and assumed that this car had a hyper-tuned 2-litre four. It’s doesn’t. This is a last hurrah for their Austin Princess-tastic transverse six. On first acquaintance, the engine feels strong and grunty. The ride is very bumpy.

Day two: It’s a frosty morning. A good time to have a Scandinavian car. The heater is fast and strong. The heated seat gets hot enough to griddle elk.  In fact, the seats generally are tremendous. As they usually are in Volvos. Mmm, toasty.

AWWVolvoV60Polestar2Day three: Stuck in traffic this morning it occurs to me that, unlike the seats, the dashboard in the V60 is quite unVolvo-like. By which I mean, it’s a bit fiddly. The design is quite good, what with its symmetrical knobbery and the big single centre vent like Leela’s eye, but it’s actually quite annoying to use. All the buttons in the middle are too small and too close together, and the roto-dial for accessing menus and setting the nav is so slow your buttocks have been cooked by the heated seat before you’ve put in the street name and set off. It’s strange, Volvo used to be brilliant at simple, logical controls.  Now they’ve tried to be stylish and spoilt everything. On the plus side, it still has the unusually long and reassuringly stout column stalks Volvos have had for years.

Day four: A day at home writing. The Polecat sits outside looking bright blue and actually quite mean. It’s got what I think car designers call ‘a good stance’. This in no small part because the wheels are 20-inchers and look huge on this car. They also seem a bit aftermarket. Maybe bystanders would look at this car, see the Volvo badge, assume no such thing could come out their factory and think that you’d taken it upon yourself to spray your sensible estate car bright blue and then fit some chunky TSWs.

Day five: It’s no use pretending otherwise; the ride of this car really is firm. The huge alloys can’t help, and nor can springs which are 80 percent stiffer than those of the next sportiest V60. That sounds like a lot. Conversely, it’s not one of those cars that makes a horrible crashing sound into every rut and divot. It thuds expensively, as if it has really high quality dampers. In the blurb Volvo boasts about how they’ve come from Öhlins. Still, 80 percent more stiffnessosity in the springs. Was that really necessary?

AWWVolvoV60Polestar3Day six: Out this evening and then a late night run home. The Poletax is one of those cars that you steer not with your wrists but with your whole arms. There’s nothing wrong with that, it suits the character of the whole thing, which is big and hefty and pleasantly meaty. It’s not a nimble car but you can sling it around, and it has four-wheel-drive so it digs in nicely even though it’s damp out. The engine makes a good noise under pressure too. On the downside, the six-speed automatic ‘box is a moderately hopeless. In normal driving it can be dithery in D. Take control with the paddle shifters and it’s a mixed bag, sometimes changing gear crisply on command, other times pausing or slurring or generally acting like it can’t be arsed. The state-of-the-art is quite far from this.

Goodbye: The Poledancer is being taken away. It’s a strange car. The ride is too firm. The gearbox is too lazy. It likes a drink and it’s expensive to buy. Yet despite this, it’s likeable in a barrel chested, affable sort of way. I’m not sure who’s going to buy one. They’re not intending to import that many so perhaps it doesn’t matter. But I do wonder how it would feel if it was a bit more like an old 850 T5 with a less aggressive chassis and less strident looks. Or, to put it another way, a bit less Audi-ish and a bit more Volvo-ish. If it wasn’t trying so hard, maybe it could be a delightful street sleeper.

The car talked about here is a Volvo V60 Polestar. It has a 3-litre turbocharged straight six engine which makes 345 horsepower. Volvo says it can go from 0-62 in 4.9 seconds and on to a limited top speed of 155mph. It costs £49,775.

A week with an Audi TT

Posted in DriveL by Richard Porter on Friday, January 9th, 2015


It’s the third generation of Audi’s tiny turtle

Day one: The TT arrives at my house while I’m out. I come home to find it sitting outside looking like a TT. There was a fake ad on Sniff Petrol the other week claiming Audi’s design team had taken the old model, moved the badge up to the bonnet and then gone to the pub. Not to sound all black rollneck about this but in design terms that’s actually bollocks. If you look, there’s quite a lot that’s changed about the new car’s appearance but it’s all done in a very subtle way so that you don’t need to ask what this car is. I don’t have anywhere to go this evening so the TT stays parked outside, looking like a TT.

Day two: Right, here we go. Actual driving. The first thing that strikes you, apart from quite literally the roof if you’re tall and forgot that it’s a low car, is the dashboard. It’s very smart. Unlike most modern cars, there’s no central dashboard screen. All the functions that would live there are on the TFT screen that stands in for an instrument panel. There’s an official video of it in action here. In real life it’s very slick, very snappy and rather cool. The rest of the inside is good too, especially the way you adjust the climate control using little bezels at the centre of the air vents. When you open the door the letters TT are embossed onto the dashboard ends. This seems unnecessary. You know what it is because it’s your car. And also because, as we’ve established, it looks like a TT. To drive it feels pretty sprightly too. Good pick up, a slick gearchange, a surprisingly fast reaction to any more than a snadge of steering. All told, not much to complain about.

Day three: Alright, there’s one thing to complain about. The ride is too hard. It can’t help that this car has the S Line suspension which is 10mm lower than standard. More than that, I suspect Audi has done this deliberately. Remember, this is the company that went to all the expense and bother of engineering a new chassis for the A4/A5/A6 with the diff ahead of the clutch so the front wheels could move forward to banish the nose heavy feeling of its old cars and then set-up the new ones to feel just like their predecessors because marketing insisted that customers liked the way Audis felt just as they were. Which makes me wonder if the TT could ride more softly but marketing have decreed that it must feel ‘sporty’. It’s not utterly terrible. But it could be better.

AWWTT2Day four: A day of tooling across London in the TT. A couple of unusual things I’ve noticed about it. Firstly, when you stop, turn off the engine and open the door a TT badge appears in the instrument cluster accompanied by a weird sound, sort of like a heartbeat being played on a 1980s octagonal synth drum. It’s taken me a few days to realize this sound is coming from the car and wasn’t just something outside doing it, eg The Human League. I’ve checked a couple of times now upon opening the door and The Human League are not there. Sadly. So it’s the car. The second thing, spotted while driving in the dark this evening, is the cubby in front of the gearlever. You slide back the cover to discover that it’s softly lit inside and also of such depth that it looks like there should be stairs inside, leading down to the car’s cellar.

Day five: A little bit of exuberant driving today and a slightly embarrassing discovery. This is a sporty-ish Audi and I assumed it must be four-wheel-drive. But today when I clogged it, there was a bit of steering wheel wiggling and no sense that power was being moved to the back to deal with the front tyres’ tenuous grip on the road. When I got out I looked and there are no Quattro badges on either end. Back home I checked the spec sheet. This particular press demonstrator is not a Quattro. It seems to grip quite nicely nonetheless. Another spec note from today’s adventures in accelerating; the TT’s 2-litre, four cylinder engine isn’t especially charismatic in normal driving but has a bit of a rasp as it revs, turning into a fruity noise if you keep the hammer down. This turns out to be done partly with synthesis through the stereo speakers. Between the synth heartbeat and the synth engine note I’m starting to wonder if the design team included Phil Oakey.

AWWTT3Day six: To Kent on Top Gear business and a chance to give the TT a bit of a run on some country roads. I think TTs get a bit of a hard time for being just a Golf in a fancy outfit. The new model is still a Golf underneath but lots of things have been changed specifically for it including the wheelbase, the rear floorpan and the front suspension. The end result, as it turns out, is a car that drives quite well. It turns in aggressively, and it feels agile and lively as a result without being exhausting or annoying. The engine is strong, the gearchange slick, the handling quite amusing. Even the firmness of the ride doesn’t intrude. It’s better than you might expect.

Goodbye: The TT goes away, still getting on with the business of being a TT. Which is fine, because the TT’s main job is to appeal to people who want an Audi TT. And there seem to be plenty of those. They’re in for a particular treat when they sit in this new model because the interior is quite superb. It’s clever and different and it actually works. Of course, if you’re a committed helmswright you’d still seek out a Porsche Cayman. But if you were forced to take a TT you wouldn’t hate it. It’s a lot better than it probably needs to be.

The car talked about here is an Audi TT Coupe 2.0 TFSI S line. It has a 2-litre turbocharged petrol engine making 227 horsepower. Audi says it can go from 0-62 in six seconds and on to 155mph. Without options it costs £31,635.

A week with a VW e-Golf

Posted in DriveL by Richard Porter on Friday, December 19th, 2014

It’s a Golf that runs on electricity

VWEGolf1Day one: The electro Golf arrives at my office on a trailer. It looks like a Golf. Although it does feature some of what excellent car sketchist Peter Stevens recently identified as the clichés of electric car design, in this case blue trim and ‘modernist’ wheels. Also, it’s white. The battery turns out to be only half full of electricity so I plug it into a socket in the car park and spend the rest of the afternoon worrying that for some deranged reason I’ve wired it up wrong and instead of charging the car to get me home, the building is sucking all the electricity out of it. Fortunately, this does not happen. To drive, the e-Golf feels quite like a Golf. There’s a faint sense of some extra weight low down which you feel through the ride and the blunted handling, but it takes off nicely with that instant maxi-torque thing you get from electric power. Mostly it just gets on with being a car. This is in contrast to, say, the Nissan Leaf or the BMW i3, both of which are designed to feel a bit unusual. This is the opposite. It’s a very normal car that just happens to run on electricity.

Day two: It’s frosty this morning and all the cars on my street are frozen over. This is a dilemma for the electric car driver. I don’t have any de-icer at home but I don’t want to waste precious electricalness using the blower to clear the windows. The dilemma is solved on this occasion by a low winter sun which burns off the frost before I need to go anywhere. Phew. This means I can set off using the heater for 10 minutes then switch it off, instantly adding 20 miles or so to the range-o-meter.

Day three: There’s a phone app that works with the e-Golf. You can use it to turn on the heater in advance, the idea being that you warm up the car while it’s plugged in so you don’t deplete the battery on pesky things like not being cold. Turns out you can tell it to run the heater even when the car isn’t hooked up to the mains. I get up this morning and notice it’s frosty outside so I set the heater running as I go out to walk the dog. By the time I get back, the Golf is de-iced. Plus, the inside is warm, if not toasty hot, and I can set off without using the heater. This is what you do with an electric car. You spend more time concentrating on what functions you’re using than you would in a normal car and then fretting that they’re guzzling all your power. Someone told me recently that they met a Leaf owner whose car was full of damp cloths. They were used to clear the windows rather than fire up the de-mister. Clearly that’s the sort of choices enthusiastic electroheads make. And because the Nissan is a bit quirky looking and car of the futurish, I suspect it attracts people who are really interested in new tech and prepared to adapt to it in this way. The e-Golf is just a Golf. As such, people might buy it assuming they can use it just like a normal Golf. Which you can. But if you want it to go for as far as it says in the brochure, you’d better carry some damp cloths.

VWEGolf2Day four: We’re going to see some friends out of town. They’re only about 20 miles away but the trip involves using a bit of motorway and, from experience, motorway driving always drains the electronical tank on cars like these. We trundle up the M1 at 50. It feels odd. You’re tense from being harried by lorries. And tense from watching the rangimeter dropping. ‘I don’t like this car,’ says my wife. ‘It makes me feel weird.’ Maybe it’s the lack of noise. Except, there is noise. It’s just different. Touch the brakes and you can hear the pads pressing against the discs. Turn into a corner and the white noise from the tyres changes in tone. It is a bit unusual. We make it the 20 miles home again. But spent the trip feeling tense. Maybe if you owned the car you’d get used to it and know full well what distances you could cover. At the moment, I find it strangely stressful.

Day five: Last night I ran the charging cable across the pavement and plugged the e-Golf in at home for a few hours. It wasn’t enough to brim it full of electricitys. Problem is, we’re used to phones and iPads that need a couple of hours of charging before they can reasonably serve their purpose for a decent amount of time. You have to remember that it requires a shitload more electricity to move a car around and therefore a shit load more charging from a normal socket.

Day six: I’m trying not to be obsessed with the range readout in the Golf but it’s hard not to. Putting it into eco mode seems to help. There’s also an eco plus mode that basically takes all the torque and hides it away so you can’t use it. This is no fun. The mild strangulation of eco is okay for town driving. Also in the interests of range boosting, I’ve got into the habit of using the heated seats for warmth and not the heater. I don’t think it’s a very good heater anyway. Nor does the ventilation system seem to move air around like it would in a normal car. I know this because in the interests of consumer journalism, and also because I’d been eating a lot of raisins, I did a substantial fart on the way home this evening and it seemed to linger in the car for an abnormally long amount of time.

VWEGolf3Day seven: I’ve spent most of this week, and most of this test, thinking about charging and then preserving electricity rather than the car itself. Which is odd, because you wouldn’t review a petrol car by mostly talking about filling it up. But this is what electric cars do to you. You become disproportionately concerned with the acquisition and use of the fuel. If you have a charger on your drive and you do lots of short journeys this wouldn’t be such a concern, but you’d be giving up the flexibility of a car that burned flammable liquid and therefore allowed you to drive to Aberdeen at a moment’s notice. One day a proper fast charger network and battery hot swapping will solve this issue. But today, it still exists. The other problem here is that, in the interests of maintaining as much charge for as long as possible, you have to compromise on some basic functions of a car such as not using the heater and not demisting the screen, and you learn to start looking ahead as much as you can to minimise use of the throttle and maximise milking the regen braking. Basically, you start voluntarily driving like it’s the 1950s when everyone was cold and couldn’t see where they were going. This is to be expected from what is, in essence, very early generation technology. As an example of the electric car of 2014 the e-Golf is very good. But a petrol or diesel powered Golf is a better and cheaper choice for most people. To choose the electro version you’d have to lead a life that very specifically played to the its strengths. One where you didn’t go far on motorways, didn’t mind being cold, and didn’t need to fart in it.

The car talked about here is a Volkswagen e-Golf. It has a 114 horsepower, 199 lb ft electric motor and a single speed gearbox. VW says it can go from 0-62 in 10.4 seconds and on to a top speed of 87mph. It costs £26,145 including the £5000 grant the government gives on electric cars at the moment.

A week with a Nissan Pulsar

Posted in DriveL by Richard Porter on Friday, December 12th, 2014

AWWNissanPulsar1Day one: A few years ago Nissan decided it didn’t want to make a Golf sized car. It wanted to make something taller and less conventional and which appeared to have too many vowels in its name. Hence the Qashqai. It was a huge success, everyone started doing similar things, so now in what feels like a fit of pique Nissan has decided it also wants to do a Golf sized car again. This is it. It looks like a slammed, badly drawn version of the new Qashqai. Underneath, it’s built on a grab bag of parts from the Micra, Leaf and Qashqai. That’s all I can tell you for today. It’s Thanksgiving and my American wife is taking me to lunch at an American restaurant where some beer might be drunk and  my own body weight in turkey eaten. No driving then. Sorry.

Day two: Right then. A trip across London in my Pulsar. It feels to all intents and purposes like a car. It goes, it stops, it changes direction when requested. The diesel engine is reasonably smooth. It’s not exciting but nor is it terrible. It’s just a car. You went into a shop, you asked for some car, this is what you got.

Day three: A bit of trundling around. Nothing to report. A man in a supermarket car park appears to give the Pulsar a double take. He might just have had a twitch. It’s not an unattractive car but nor does it grab your attention. This press demonstrator hammers home the effect by being washing machine white. It would a good car in which to pass discreetly through almost any environment. If it was getting a bit tasty, you could even paint UN on the door.

Day four: We’re off on a family trip to see some friends in the countryside. For various reasons, we take my Mercedes estate. Not that the Nissan wouldn’t be up to hauling a pushchair and various other bits of baby-related gubbins. The boot is a good size. There’s also quite a lot of room for people. In fact, Nissan claim the Pulsar has more rear legroom than a BMW 7-series. Excellent news for chauffeur-driven but tight-fisted international industrialists who don’t want to be noticed.

AWWNissanPulsar2Day five: Compared to, say, a Golf or a Focus the Pulsar can feel like a car from a previous generation. The interior is a bit plain, some of the plastics are low rent, and it all feels quite simple. Actually there’s quite a bit of tech including radar cruise, lane departure warning, blind spot warning and a 360 degree parking camera. But it wears this tech lightly, rather than ramming it down your throat. Basic stuff like changing radio stations and adjusting the climate control is simple. Which is good.

Day six: Another trot across London. The Pulsar is very easy to drive smoothly. It sounds daft, but plenty of car companies get this wrong, even ones who should know better. I don’t really have anything else to tell you. Oh no wait, I looked up what the Pulsar name means and Wikipedia told me it’s a portmanteau of ‘pulsating star’. Since this was on the internet I assumed this was bollocks but I’ve checked it with a man at Nissan and it turns out to be true. In a way I wish they’d just called it the Nissan Pulsating Star but perhaps this would be over selling the car. ‘What are you driving at the moment?’ ‘I’ve got a Pulsating Star’. ‘Wow! That sounds amazing! Wait a second, that just looks like a white, medium-sized hatchback, you silly tit’.

Day seven: When the Pulsar came out the reviews seemed quite lukewarm. I think all the journalists had been driving it like Troy Queef, or at least copying their thoughts from a helmsmith they spoke to in the bar at the launch. It’s true, if you drive it like a wheelwright it’s far from a hot hatch. The steering is too low geared, it rolls a bit, it’s clearly not set up for tillermanship. But on the plus side, the ride is decent, the gearchange is delightfully smooth, it copes with normal driving in the manner of a normal car.

AWWNissanPulsar3Goodbye:  The Pulsar is going away. I do not want to buy one. You’re reading this website, you’re probably quite into cars, you will not want to buy one either. But that’s not the point. This isn’t a machine for people who like cars. It’s for people who don’t like cars. People who don’t want to stand out but do want a smooth, quiet, spacious car which is simple to drive, easy to see out of and causes them no trouble. The Pulsar nails all of those things in a wilfully unexciting way. If you just need to get around and wouldn’t know lift-off oversteer if it came with a free microwave the Pulsar understands your position and gets on with the everyday business of being a car. As such, it’s brilliant.

The car talked about here is a Nissan Pulsar Tekna dCi 110. It has a 1.5-litre turbocharged diesel engine making 109 horsepower. They say it can get from 0-62 in 11.5 seconds and on to 118mph. In this spec it costs £21,945.


A week with a Mercedes CLA250 4MATIC

Posted in DriveL by Richard Porter on Friday, December 5th, 2014

AWWMercCLA1Day one: I drove a CLA a while ago and then sort of forgot to write about it. There was nothing much wrong with it, but it felt a bit Merc Lite, as if they’d tried to replicate the stout, reassuring appeal of an E- or S-class and come up a bit short. Anyway, the one I drove before was low spec, front-wheel-drive and diesel. This one is the more recently introduced four-wheel-drive version with a more powerful petrol engine. It’s badged 250 but it’s not a 2.5-litre. Damn you Mercedes, you perfidious liars. It’s a 2-litre with a turbo on it. On the evidence of a quick drive home, the CLA feels better than I remember. There are some bits of like-a-Benz-but-less-so such as the black plastic switches that are shiny metal in more expensive models but overall it’s not bad.

Day two: Staring at the CLA from the front room window, there’s another way in which it’s not quite like the full fat Mercedes’. They’re rear-wheel-drive with lengthways engines and have the proportions to suit. The CLA’s engine is crossways which makes the front overhang longer and the gap between the wheelarch and the front door smaller. They’ve plugged on regardless trying to make it look like a shrunken CLS and mostly succeeded but from some angles there’s something a bit off about it. ‘I like that car,’ says my wife, apropos of nothing. ‘It’s sporty.’ So what do I know, eh?

Day three: A day of Top Gear business including a trip out and about with two colleagues, exposing a problem with the CLA’s swooshing roofline. If you’re tall, there’s not much headroom in the back. Not much at all. And it’s made worse because the ride is on the verge of firm and causes repeated and uncomfortable head-to-headlining twattage.

AWWMercCLA2Day four: A family outing. A baby seat fits perfectly well. So there we go. If you’re six foot tall, you won’t fit in the back of a CLA. If you’re about two feet long and have your own rear facing seat, you will.

Day five: It’s the day of the last Grand Prix. A good season for Mercedes. They’ll be pleased about that, especially since they seem to be determined to be seen as more dynamic. The CLA is another part of that effort. It might explain why it comes with a slightly unusual grille that looks like something off a concept car. It’s not bad, but it seems to be trying a bit hard. I liked Mercs when they were minimalist and restrained and designed by a man whose name translated as Brown Bag.

Day six: A day in the office and then a trip up the sodden gloomy motorway to Staffordshire on Top Gear business. The CLA is good at this. The engine makes a bit of noise under hard acceleration but it’s quiet at a cruise. The whole car is. The body is very aerodynamic, which must help. The last leg of the journey is a sprint down some damp A-roads towards the promise of a pint. The CLA has a double clutch gearbox with paddles. It’s not the snappiest change, even in sport, but even so the whole car can be bitch spanked along in a useful manner.

AWWMercCLA3Day seven: Across Staffs to a filming location. I’m leading a convoy of television presenters. Jeremy Clarkson has got a modernised Jensen Interceptor. Richard Hammond has got a Porsche 911 GT3. James May has got other ideas about getting to the location and disappeared in a different direction entirely. The road opens up, there’s nothing ahead, I floor it. It’s wet. The CLA scampers away. It’s really rather good in these conditions. Better than, say, an old Jensen with a broken windscreen wiper or a track-biased Porsche.  We arrive at the location. A gap has opened up. ‘You were driving in a sporty manner,’ says Clarkson accusingly. I wouldn’t call the CLA sporty as such. It’s trying to be, and it’s quite amusing to drive, but it stops short of being sharp and aggressive and zingy. That’s not a criticism. By being grown up about things, Merc has made it a better all-rounder. You can rag it round if you want to, and it’s decent at that, but it doesn’t insist that you have to.

Goodbye: They’re taking the CLA away. I liked it. The ride is a shade too bumpy, the engine isn’t especially charming and there’s not enough headroom in the back. But in all other respects it feels well-made and well designed. It’s the sort of car you’d enjoy owning. And, especially on damp autumn roads, you might enjoy driving too.

The car talked about here is a Mercedes-Benz CLA250 4MATIC. It has a 2-litre turbocharged petrol engine making 208 horsepower. It can go from 0-62 in 6.6 seconds and on to 149mph. Without options it costs £33,440.

A week with a Skoda Octavia Scout

Posted in DriveL by Richard Porter on Friday, November 28th, 2014

The Octavia estate gets Allroaded. Or, if you prefer, Streetwised.

AWWOctaviaScout1Day one: Apparently the Octavia Scout was announced in the UK back in July but I don’t think anyone noticed. Anyway, here it is. It’s the Octavia estate with arch extensions and fake skid plates. As such, it looks better in the autumn anyway. To fit in with the general atmos of outdoorsiness, the suspension has been jacked up by 33mm. You look at the bigger gap between the wheel and the arch and you think, I bet that car has an excellent ride. Not so. I think it’s actually worse than normal Octavia. Ho hum.

Day two: Scout is a strange name. It would be quite good if that was the model name. The Skoda Scout. You could imagine that working instead of Yeti. But as a trim level the name seems odd. And it doesn’t help that this car has SCOUT written on the tailgate, the grille, the steering wheel, the nav start-up screen and the seats. I suppose if you were from Dundee you could scratch off the U and claim to be extremely patriotic.

AWWOctaviaScout2Day three: It’s slashing it down. I assumed that the Scout was largely a cosmetic exercise and not actually four-wheel-drive. But it is. I checked this in two ways. One, by reading the spec sheet. And two, just to be sure, by flooring it from a standstill in the wet. It’s definitely four-wheel-drive.  I wouldn’t call it a dynamic car, but it’s comfortable, it feels well made and it has a sort of pleasant, Labradorish quality to it. Not that Labradors are particularly well made, come to think of it. They’re always getting fat and busting their hips. So in fact, the Skoda Octavia Scout is better made than a Labrador. They should use that line in the adverts.

Day four: I’m going to Homebase. The Scout feels at home going to Homebase. This car, with its diesel engine and its sensible rubbing strips and its general estateness, makes me feel like a dad. I mean, I am a dad. But the Scout makes me feel like I should put on some slippers and pad around checking the radiators.

Day five: It’s Sunday. I’m going to Homebase again. What is happening here? Haven’t been to a DIY shop in ages. Suddenly, twice in two days. It’s the Scout. The Scout is making me want to go to Homebase.

Day six: How wide do you imagine the Octavia Scout to be? That’s right, it’s just slightly wider than the gap between the metal accessory on a parked Shogun and the total bellend trying to force his way down a narrow street in his stupid Audi A4. Or, to put it another way, I have scuffed the Octavia on a Mitsubishi bullbar. Cocking buggery bollocks. There are marks on the paint which rub off easily enough but underneath the door panel itself is very faintly dented. Arsing knobflaps.

AWWOctaviaScout3Day seven: Still wracked with guilt about dinging the Scout. As such, I feel I have forfeited my right to report anything bad about it. So let me just say it is an excellent car, packed with lots of excellent things and every aspect of it is excellent, apart from the excellent ride, which isn’t as excellent as I was hoping, and the excellent price, which is 28 grand and seems a bit too high when you can have a normal 148 horsepower 4×4 Octavia estate, which is excellent, for five grand less.

Goodbye: A cheery man comes to take the Scout away. Personally I reckon the normal Octavia estate does most of what you need for less. And it doesn’t have Scout written all over it. But if you live up a damp track or you work for the National Trust or something that would demand very slightly more ground clearance, perhaps it makes sense. Or maybe you just want an Octavia that feels like it’s wearing a gilet. In which case, here’s your car.

The car talked about here is, deep breath, a Skoda Octavia Scout 2.0 TDI 184PS 4×4 DSG. It has a 2-litre turbocharged diesel engine making 180 horsepower. Skoda says it can do 136mph and 0-62 in 7.8 seconds. As standard it costs £27,990.