Mazda MX-5 versus Toyota GT86: 2015 twin test

Mazda MX-5 vs Toyota GT86: 2015 twin test

Mazda MX-5 versus Toyota GT86: 2015 twin test

Mazda MX-5 vs Toyota GT86

The Toyota GT86 has been around for a few years now, and has proved to be a controversial car. Many love its simple, modest-grip, rear-wheel-drive setup, while others fail to see past its lack of power and dated interior.

Buyers have certainly struggled to justify it against cheaper, faster hot hatches such as the Ford Fiesta ST, which goes some way towards explaining why sales have been so disappointing.

One car that has been overlooked as a rival to the GT86 is the Mazda MX-5. Despite being the world’s best-selling sports car, in recent times it has put on weight and (perhaps unfairly) developed an image as a fashion accessory rather than a true sports car.

That’s set to change with the launch of the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5, due on sale in the UK at the end of this month. The new model is 100kg lighter than its predecessor and shorter than any MX-5 ever – even the 1990 original.

We recently went to the Scottish Highlands to find out if it is now a serious driver’s car – but we also decided to put it head-to-head against the slightly more expensive Toyota GT86. Which will come out on top?

Toyota GT86: On the road

Toyota GT86: on the road

If we could award a star rating on driver experience alone, both of these would be five-star cars.

The Toyota GT86 feels like a much more exotic car than a twenty-something-grand coupe. You sit low, and the Milltek Sport stainless steel exhaust system fitted to our test car makes a pleasing burble on start-up.

The steering is heavy – bordering on too heavy when manoeuvring in tight situations. But that adds to the feeling that you’re driving something more akin to a supercar than a competitor for a hot Fiesta.

Once out on the road and past national speed limit signs, the GT86’s foibles (of which there are many, we’ll come to those shortly) are soon forgotten. Even with the wider 235mm Pirelli P Zero tyres fitted to the 18-inch alloys of our test car, there’s not an endless amount of grip.

That’s part of the GT86’s charm, though. It’s a refreshingly analogue car in a time of turbochargers and copious grip. The chassis is so communicative that you always know what’s going on. Not that you need to be a pro to drive one – after a bit of time with it, your confidence will increase. It’ll teach you a lot more about driving than an over-assisted hot hatch will.

At first, the GT86 feels slower than you might expect, particularly if you’re used to driving turbocharged cars. It lacks torque and putting your foot down at low to middle revs results in a lot of noise, but won’t pin you back in your seat. With peak torque at around 6,500rpm – just short of the redline – you really have to rev this engine to extract its best performance.

You soon get into this mindset, however. The six-speed gearbox is a fairly sweet unit, if a tad notchy, and a light flickers telling you when to change up. You soon get into a rhythm, exploiting its peaky power delivery and changing up just as you touch the redline.

If you drive the GT86 in this manner it’s unlikely to feel slow. It’s more than capable of overtaking slower traffic and you can soon be travelling very quickly. The low-down driving position and communicative steering add to the sensation of speed. Sure, a hot hatch might beat it in a drag race, but the GT86 is such a thrilling car to drive on normal British roads that you soon forget about the hard facts and figures.

Mazda MX-5: On the road

Mazda MX-5: on the road

We’ll concentrate on the 2.0-litre Mazda MX-5 here as, although some argue the 1.5-litre is the sweeter unit, the bigger engine is the one closest to the GT86 in terms of both price and power.

Ah, power. If the GT86 feels lacking, you’d have thought the MX-5 would be in desperate need of a hot version – the 2.0-litre packs just 160hp.

But 160hp combined with a low 1,075kg kerb weight means it’s actually brisker than the GT86 – hitting 62mph in 7.3 seconds compared to the Toyota’s 7.7 seconds.

It accelerates in a similar way to the Toyota, with torque peaking high-up in the rev range at 4,600rpm. It’s an engine that loves to rev, but it does seem sprightlier than the Toyota – that 0.4 second gap to 62mph makes a surprising difference.

But straight-line acceleration isn’t what either of these cars is about. The MX-5’s compact dimensions make it feel nimbler than the GT86, while both are wonderfully communicative and feel like could be fairly tail-happy should you turn off the traction control systems.

The GT86 we had on test was fitted with 40mm lowering springs, so provided a firmer ride than a standard version. The MX-5, however, provided a surprisingly compliant ride, only getting unsettled by the harshest of bumps.

That’s always been the delight of the MX-5. Not only is it extremely entertaining if you push it hard, it’s also very happy being driven at low speeds. In that way, it’s probably an easier car to live with every day than the more focussed GT86.

Toyota GT86: On the inside

Toyota GT86: on the inside

As good as the GT86 is to drive, it’s as let down by its interior. It feels like a Toyota from at least 10 years ago – with lots of dark, hard plastics making the cabin feel quite claustrophobic.

It’s more practical than the MX-5 – it’s got rear seats, for a start, although they really are only a token gesture for young children. There’s plenty of stowage space, too – something the MX-5 is seriously lacking in.

Toyota says its interior has been designed with a lightweight ethos in mind – pointing out its frameless rear-view mirror as an example of where weight has been saved. But you find yourself asking if this is just an excuse for penny-pinching.

Standard equipment is lacking. There’s no DAB radio (although it is ‘DAB-ready’, says Toyota). It’s amazing how much you take things like hill-hold assist and stop-start for granted – and having to take your hands off the steering wheel to change the volume of the radio feels very old-fashioned.

Our test car was fitted with the optional Touch and Go satellite navigation system. It’s a clumsy, old-fashioned unit that even looks a bit aftermarket. For the £750 Toyota asks, we’d recommend swerving it in favour of a TomTom on the windscreen. Old-fashioned, for sure, but so is the car.

The GT86’s interior does have a few saving graces, however. The bucket seats not only look great and provide plenty of support, they’re also surprisingly comfortable. We also particularly like the steering wheel… a minor thing, perhaps, but one that does make a big difference to the overall driving experience. At 365mm, it’s particularly small, making it easy to extract the best out of the sporty Toyota. The chrome sports pedals are also nicely placed for enthusiastic drivers.

Mazda MX-5: On the inside

Mazda MX-5: on the inside

Considering Mazda has also gone hard on the lightweight ethos, the MX-5’s interior is much more pleasant than the GT86’s. It will also look familiar to anyone who’s spent time in the latest Mazda 2 or CX-3.

It feels very modern, with bits of chrome giving it an upmarket feel and red stitching adding to its sportiness. The sat nav is easy to use, while the prominent rev counter emphasises the MX-5’s rev-hungry nature.

It’s only when you look really closely that you notice minor weight-saving measures, such as the lack of padding on the sun visors. Overall, though, it’s not detrimental to the driver or passenger’s comfort – which is impressive considering how much weight they’ve managed to cut on the new model.

One thing it does lack is storage space. There are no door bins, the cup holders are flimsy removable items, and there is no glovebox. A minor gripe on the face of it, but it does irritate when you struggle to find somewhere even to put your mobile phone.

If you can cope with the compact nature of the MX-5’s interior and don’t mind the lack of storage, it runs rings around the GT86 here.

Toyota GT86: Running costs

Toyota GT86: running costs

The old-fashioned nature of the GT86’s engine, combined with the fact you will thrash it anywhere, means it’s not particularly efficient. Officially, it returns 36.2mpg on the combined cycle, but do expect this to drop significantly.

CO2 emissions of 180g/km mean you’ll pay £225 a year in road tax (£350 in the first year), while if you’re looking at one as a company car you’ll be paying a BIK tax rate of 31%.

Traditionally, though, Toyotas are extremely reliable. This means you shouldn’t suffer many of the unexpected costs you might associate with sports cars.

Mazda MX-5: Running costs

Mazda MX-5: running costs

The 2.0-litre high-compression Skyactiv engine in the MX-5 returns 40.9mpg on the combined cycle, while emitting 161g/km CO2. That puts it into the ‘G’ tax band, resulting in £180 tax for the first year, and the same for following years.

Like Toyota, Mazda has a reputation for reliability, so we wouldn’t be worried about owning one when it’s out of warranty (after three years compared to the Toyota’s five).

Neither should be costly to run, providing you’re not expecting diesel-like economy. Without resorting to the ‘smiles per gallon’ cliche, both cars offer an awful lot of fun for relatively affordable running costs.

Mazda MX-5 versus Toyota GT86: Verdict

Mazda MX-5 versus Toyota GT86: verdict

If you’re serious about driving, neither the Toyota GT86 or new Mazda MX-5 will disappoint, despite their relatively modest power.

The MX-5 is a much more sorted package. It seems easier to live with, and its interior, although not as practical as the Toyota’s, feels of much better quality.

It’s also nimbler and offers more fun at low speed. The little roadster is just as happy on city streets as being pushed to its limits on track.

The Toyota GT86 feels, and looks, more special. It’s a more focussed car to drive, and its poor sales mean it still turns heads three years after its launch.

Like past models of the MX-5, we expect the fourth generation will soon become a victim of its own popularity, appearing across the UK quicker than you can fold its manual soft-top roof down.

For most buyers, the Mazda MX-5 makes a lot more sense than the Toyota GT86. It’s cheaper, faster and has a much nicer interior. Handling is on par with the Toyota, and the Mazda also has that added boon of being able to go topless.

Are we saying don’t buy the GT86? Not at all. If you can make the GT86 work for you, it’s a purchase we’d fully respect. It feels more special than the MX-5 and is likely to stay rare for longer. Don’t let it’s relative lack of power bother you, but that interior is a sacrifice you’ll have to justify. Many will find that difficult.

Specification: 2015 Mazda MX-5 2.0

Engines: 2.0-litre petrol

Prices from: £20,095

Power: 160hp

Torque: 148lb ft

0-62mph: 7.3 seconds

Top speed: 133mph

Fuel economy: 40.9mpg

CO2 emissions: 161g/km

Specification: 2015 Toyota GT86

Engines: 2.0-litre petrol

Prices from: £25,000

Power: 200hp

Torque: 151lb ft

0-62mph: 7.7 seconds

Top speed: 140mph

Fuel economy: 36.2mpg

CO2 emissions: 180g/km

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron (2015) long-term review month 6: Victory!

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron (2015) long-term review

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron (2015) long-term review: Final report

Audi A3 e-tron long-term review

Well, the Audi A3 e-tron has returned to Milton Keynes and I am left to reflect on what has been one of the most genuinely interesting six months I have spent with a car.

I suspected it might be as such from the very beginning. Audi’s first mainstream hybrid was going to be a game changer for the company and, being that it’s Audi, it had to be bang on the nail first time out of the box.

And Audi did it – the A3 e-tron is very impressive compact family car. In regular form the A3 was already an award winner. It topped out last year’s World Car Awards, on which I am one of the UK judges, so I knew it had a good starting point.

Audi does the detail stuff extremely well. Things don’t simply look nice, they are usually rather special too – the way the fresh air vents rotate in a finely engineered way, or the precise click as you move a control switch.

On a practical level the A3 is a comfortable four-seater, although the rear seat is set a bit too low for long distance support. Luggage space in the e-tron is compromised by batteries beneath the floor and the charging cables you need to carry about, so you need to factor that in too.

The Price

This is a £35k car before you start adding in options, here starting with the metallic paint and running through bigger wheels, sunroof and leather sports seats. These took it to a touch over £40,000 list, on which there is a £5,000 government grant. For the time being.

Day-to-day

This really is an easy machine to live with, though obsessing about electrical range is a weird thing to be doing in car that has a combined petrol and electrical output of over 200hp. You need to get over that, and simply make the most of driving a plug-in petrol hybrid.

I religiously plugged in as soon as I got home at night – into a 13-amp mains socket. I can’t see the point of having a bespoke faster charger at home for a car with a relatively small battery. You’ll usually just leave it plugged in overnight, which is plenty of time to top it right up.

Away from home I used public charging points, with mixed results. The power points were generally available but parking space around them was a major problem, largely because the general public doesn’t understand. The charging posts rarely have a notice to prohibit parking by petrol or diesel cars, and as a result, the whole, vastly expensive, infrastructure becomes pointless.

When you’ve run out of your battery charge – between 11 and 22 miles – the A3 e-tron reverts to being a regular hybrid, a bit like a Toyota Prius. That’s fine, for it works well and you can still achieve 45-50 mpg on a longer journey.

Driven on purely electric charge, the A3 e-tron is both quick and very quiet. It’s very easy to forget that you are driving an electric car, in fact; the only real difference is an extra 300kg weight that blunts the Audi’s agility a bit. But as a car for commuting, the A3 comes into its own if your journey is less than 15 miles and you can recharge at both ends.

The economics

Owning an electric car, or a plug-in hybrid like this Audi, lures you into a possible delusion that you can get something for nothing. Certainly the public recharging points are “free”, at least after you have paid a £10 annual charge for an access card. But at home you’re going to be paying for that electricity on your monthly bills, like it or not.

How much? That depends upon current energy costs and your deal with your supplier. The Audi A3 e-tron costs, as a guestimate, about £1.30 for a full charge, or less if I’d had a night rate electricity meter at home. That would be pretty good if you got the full 31 miles that Audi claims is capable on electricity alone, but you won’t. The best we saw in summer was the low twenties, while in the cold of winter, with the heater on and the battery less efficient, it dropped to 11 miles.

And I can’t help wondering what the long-term outlook will be for cars like this. There are some serious questions that have yet to be answered. Why should others subside “free” electricity at public charging points? What happens when there are more battery powered cars on the roads and you can never find a free charge point? Finally, what happens when the high cost of these cars stops being partially underwritten by the motor industry?

The environment

Full electric cars and plug-in hybrids like the Audi A3-e-tron are the best possible solution to city driving, with minimal emissions just when you need them. In the e-tron there’s a useful function where you can drive in full hybrid mode on the out-of town part of the journey, leaving full battery power for when you get in town should you feel so inclined.

The e-tron is one of the few cars that qualifies for zero-rating in the London congestion zone, an acknowledgment of its green credentials, and for some that will be enough to give the Audi a “Yes” vote. But there is much more to the A3 e-tron than this. Personally I could live with it long term. But I am not sure that those less committed to the idea would always get around to plugging it every night to make the most of the whole package.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron (2015) long-term review month 6: Victory!

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron (2015) long-term review month 6: Victory!

I have complained before about the difficulty of finding a parking bay adjacent to a public recharging point that hasn’t been already occupied by an “ICE” (internal combustion engine) car. It’s hugely frustrating.

So back in February I started my own personal campaign with St Albans District Council. Here’s what I said:

An enormous sum of money has been spent installing these electric car charging points. St Albans Council is probably pleased that it has made its nod to the environment by facilitating this action. But there is absolutely no point in providing this facility if it cannot be used.

I suggest that you clarify this by marking these bays as obviously dedicated as those for disabled drivers­ i.e. hatching in the spaces and a sign or two. Easily done.

I had a quick reply.

You are quite right in that any vehicle can use those particular parking spaces and it therefore begs the other question you raise of  “what’s the point?” I totally agree that this is something that needs to be addressed. Indeed my colleague has programmed in a change to the Traffic Regulation Order that will allow us to enforce the bays and allow electric vehicles to use them. Until this happens we do not have any legal basis to enforce unfortunately.

Hmm. That had some promise, sort of. The trouble was that the Traffic Regulation Order, when it was published, covered only St Albans, not Harpenden. Despite assurances that it would be dealt with, nothing happened for several months.

Then hallelujah! Yellow stripes appeared last week. Not on both parking places, which makes most sense though would be too much to hope for, but it all helps. Electric car owners in St Albans and Harpenden. You owe Motoring Research a pint of gratitude!

Notebook

  • The A3 e-tron comes with automatic transmission as standard, but it’s a double clutch “DSG” box. In e-tron form there’s a bit of a hitch. The A3 will roll forward down a hill, even is Drive or Reverse is selected. That means you needed to engage the electric parking brake in tight manoeuvres. The fact that the brake releases automatically in these situations helps a lot.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron (2015) long-term review month 5: Long distance glory?

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

I’d been looking forward to May because I had a trip to Lake District planned with a group of friends. It was to be my first opportunity to a long distance continuously, and to see how the A3 e-tron managed in both terms of performance and economy.

So it was a 7.00am start on bright Sunday morning, with a range of 24 battery miles showing on the trip. I recently had it explained to me by an engineer from Audi that the claimed 31-mile electric range is about as realistic as the 176mpg statutory average fuel economy figure for the A3. The whole car industry needs to pull its socks up here and offer some figures that people can relate to. Rant over.

The plan was to take the M1 and M6 north, and recharge when we stopped for fuel, as long as the motorway services weren’t already full of Nissan Leafs. But the A1 is a much more pleasant drive to the lovely A66 that cuts across from Scotch Corner into Keswick. The trouble with that plan was there were no recharging points within 200 miles from home, and that didn’t fit in with our full English breakfast plans.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

While there are selectable options for the battery usage, I have been assured that leaving it in the default mode is the most economical. That means running on battery power until that is depleted, then automatically switching to the petrol engine. The A3 e-tron the drives in the same way as a Prius, the battery taking on a bit of power when you brake, then using it as required to ease out the economy.

At the Skiddaw Hotel in Keswick a couple of friends had a room in a cottage so we fed the power unit through the window and got in three nights of charging. If you want to do this you have to carry the 13 amp mains charger as well as the cables for the roadside Pod Points, so there’s extra clutter in a boot that’s already smaller than the regular A3 Sportback.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

We got around the luggage issues by traveling with just three of us in the car, folding the wider portion of the rear seat down which gave plenty of cargo volume. In reality, it’s doubtful if you could even do this trip with four grown men and piles of walking gear in many mid-sized hatchbacks.

I travelled in the back of the A3 for a while, finding the seat cushion too low for me, meaning not much thigh support. There’s a fair bit of tyre noise there too. I blame those optional 18-inch alloy wheels and tyres. Best stick with the standard 17-inch fitments. They save fuel too.

My co-driver is used to driving an Audi A4 1.8-litre TFSI engine with 180bhp, but seemed satisfied with the level of performance of the 150hp 1.4TFSI in the e-tron, even if he never got to the stage of using the engine and electric motor at the same time. In reality, it’s something that very rarely happens when I am driving either.

So the 64,000 dollar question is how was the economy on the 650 mile trip? According the to trip computer, we averaged 50mpg on petrol, and there we also four fill electric charges.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

To me that seems a good result for a petrol hybrid. It’s two or three mpg less than Honest John reports drivers getting on the latest Prius, but the Audi encourages a brisker approach to driving. Of course there’s always someone who’ll say their diesel Mondeo is even more economical. Do they have a point?

Notebook

  • The switch from electric drive to petrol, when the battery is finally depleted, is accompanied by the slightest of hiccups as the system moves preference. It’s not a bother, but it is noticeable.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron (2015) long-term review month 4: Getting better all the time

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron long-term review

The weather is getting warmer and gradually the batteries in the Audi A3 e-tron are prepared to take on more charge. I saw the full 31 miles on the dashboard display one morning, though that seemed it was a bit of an early call, because usually it’s still cold enough at night to restrict the suggested range to around 22 miles. And that’s even with a charge during the day at the public charging point in my local car park.

The e-tron is a fascinating car to drive, and I wonder if owners will go through a similar familiarisation process to mine. For the first couple of months I obsessed about maximising fuel economy, which naturally means trying to get as far as possible on electric charge alone. Realistically that has meant journeys of 15 miles or less can be done without any use of petrol, so if I just drive to and from work I’m emission free.

But the other side of the coin is that when you combine 150hp of the 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine with the electric motor, there’s a touch over 200hp available. That means the A3 e-tron is a proper sports hatchback, at least while there’s some power left in the battery.

And it is genuinely quick, reaching 62mph in a claimed 7.6 seconds if you really nail it. Coming with Audi’s S tronic automatic transmission as part of the package, getting strong performance is as easy as pushing your right foot hard to the floor.

There’s a caveat, however. The e-tron weighs a mighty 300kg more than the equivalent petrol A3. That’s like driving the car with four passengers in addition to the driver. You notice it most in the E-tron’s agility in the corners, where it’s simply not as agile and responsive as a non-hybrid Audi A3.

I am off to the Lake District next month for a few days fell walking and I reckon the A3 e-tron will be a good option. First, I will be able to test out the chargers at motorway service stations. Second, I really will have to use a significant amount of petrol to get there, so I’ll get a good idea of long distance economy.

And finally, there is the luggage space issue. It’s compromised by the big case for the power leads, plus the usual underfloor space found in the A3 hatch is taken up by batteries and electronics in the e-tron. I am going to have to work my way around this somehow.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron boot

Notebook

  • The quality of Audi’s solid red paint really rewards a good clean: when pristine, it looks superb
  • The fact this eco car’s almost as powerful as a Volkswagen Golf GTI continues to impress. Owners will need lots of willpower to chase the economy it was designed to return…

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron (2015) long-term review month 3: 300 miles, £23

People stop and talk to you when you drive an electric car. Mostly they want to ask about this A3 e-tron, what its like to drive and how far it will go on a charge of electricity. Absolutely no one has balked at the mention of its cost, £30k after the £5k government grant. If you are buying an Audi, and a high tech one at that, it is never going to be cheap.

Last report I promised to cover in more detail just how it’s working out as a plug-in hybrid. Here are the hard facts. Audi says its A3 e-tron will cover 31 miles on a full charge of electricity. The reality is that the computer predicts a maximum of 23 miles after it has been fully charged.

That should, given a following wind, get me to work and back. Yet I only manage around 13 miles before the electronics switch from battery to petrol power. Audi has some good answers to both of these points.

First, in the cold weather of winter, the capacity of the battery falls off.  Thus the 23 rather than 31 miles on the dashboard instrumentation. Second, the heating, heated rear window and heated seats take their toll as I drive. I am guessing the daytime driving lights and power steering do too.

What does all this mean? I the A3 e-tron each night at home and reckon it costs me £1.36 of Scottish Power’s best. I could half that if I had one of those meters that offered night time tariffs, but I don’t. So, 10 pence a mile, roughly.

But I also am lucky enough to have a public charging point just a few hundred meters from my office in Harpenden, so as soon as I get to work I recharge for the trip home. After I paid my £10 annual charge for access to the public point, it’s all free from then on.

You’ll have worked out by now that short trips can be done solely on electricity, which is a GOOD THING.  On this tank of fuel I have covered 300 miles and only used a quarter of thank of petrol. As the tank in the A3 e-tron is just 40 litres, I calculate the cost to be:

Petrol: £11

Home electricity £12

Public electricity: £00

Which equates to £23 for 300 miles. Great value and clean green motoring too.

The downside is that longer trips don’t give such a handsome return. The default operation is for the A3 to drive in EV mode until the electricity runs out, then switch over to “Hybrid Hold”, which is basically petrol power with an occasional bit of battery recharging thrown in.

But there’s a third mode, “Hybrid Auto” which you have to select manually, that I rather like. On my 80 mile round trip to Heathrow, it retains enough electrical power to help on the trip home, and I can still get economy of over 60mpg on the petrol side of things.

The final option is to set the A3 e-tron to “Hybrid Charge”. That mode makes a very determined effort to recharge the battery by utilising the petrol engine. It’s not a sensible idea, using heavily taxed petrol as a generator fuel for the battery. Wait until you can plug-in.

So that’s it. Far from straightforward, especially if you start thinking about the technology too deeply. Buyers, I suspect, will largely let the A3 e-tron do it’s own thing and be perfectly happy. Roll on the warmer weather and better electrical mileage.

Notebook

  • The switch from electric drive to petrol, when the battery is finally depleted, is accompanied by the slightest of hiccups as the system moves preference. It’s not a bother, but it is noticeable.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron long-term review month 2: parking mad

I’m lucky. I already have a Pod Point electric car charging station at my home, so I knew I’d be on a home run when it came to topping up the Audi A3 e-tron’s battery.

Except no, the damn thing won’t plug in because wall fixture is a Type 1 connection and the e-tron is a Type 2. It’s a simple matter of the connections being ever-so-slightly different.

So all it needs is an adaptor, I think wistfully. No. The rules forbid something so blindingly obvious. Why, after all, pay all those European bureaucrats to do nothing when they could be dreaming up another stupid law? The long and short of it is it’s going to cost £1,000 to reinstall the Pod Point with a new universal system.

Perhaps I should do it as this is not the first time I have been scuppered. Neither the Tesla nor the Twizy were compatible either, but I decided first to try the alternative 13-amp mains connection that is also supplied in the boot of the A3 e-tron.

It works just fine. During the day I leave it connected to the mains with the cables tucked beneath the Lotus, where my Elan is in winter hibernation in the garage. When I get home it is a matter of only a minute to open up and plug in the Audi. By the morning it is fully charged and raring to go.

I am not sure how long it is for a full charge to be taken on. The manual says 4-5 hours. But it takes 4 hours on the public charging point in Harpenden, and that runs at 32 amps, so it must take longer at home, surely? I need to check.

Parking up the wrong tree

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron long-term review

If you follow the debate about electric cars and plug-in hybrids, you’ll know that recharging at public points is a real issue. On the positive side, for £10 I have bought a card that gives me access to a wide range of recharging points, for up to a year. Parking is sometimes free too – you get 4 hours in the Gatwick short-term car park, for example.

But councils are largely pathetic at making sure that the space adjacent to a public charging point is kept free. It could be dead easy. Simply paint over the space in the same way that disabled spaces are highlighted and you’d have your answer. Yet despite the enormous sums that have gone into the infrastructure, little is done to make it work.

At least in the St Albans area. I tweeted the council, who responded quickly with a telephone number for me to call. It was the district parking office, who told me it was illegal to use the electric parking spaces with a non-electric car, and they would send a warden around to ticket the cars. Did they? Did they heck.

Still, for the past week I have had decent access to the public charging and I must say it is very useful. It means I can do the whole trip to and from work in the A3 e-tron on electric power alone.

I have just refilled the petrol tank, the first proper tank-to-tank measurement. Overall the A3 e-tron recorded 71.6mpg . To me that seems pretty damned impressive, even though, for the time being, I am ignoring the cost of the dozen charges of electricity that I really should throw into the equation.

65% of that was “emission free”, says the trip computer. That was achieved by a combination of electrical motion and the significant amount of free-wheeling with the engine switched off that’s all part of the e-tron package.

You’ll want to know about the A3 e-tron’s range on electricity alone. It varies a great deal. More when I have a fuller picture.

Notebook

  • When you set off the default mode is always fully electric drive. Yet as soon as the petrol engine is deployed, usually by demanding a moment of extra acceleration, electric drive becomes a no-go area. Even if there’s lots of charge left, the only way to get at it is to switch back via the dashboard menu.

 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron long term review: introduction

Audi A3 e-tron long-term review

For the past three years my long-term test cars have been exclusively diesel crossovers. Well almost. There was a Fiesta ST for a few months in the middle. I find cars like the Hyundai ix35, Range Rover Evoque, Honda CR-V and Land Rover Freelander suit my lifestyle well. I even bought a Kia Sportage.

Being diesel, they are economical too. Well you’d think so, though everyone should know by now not to believe those laughable statutory economy figures the manufacturers love to quote. To put it simply, they all cheat. So the crossover that should be able to average 45mpg actually does around 30mpg. Less if its cold and the trips are local.

From diesel to petrol hybrid

Audi A3 e-tron long-term review

Which brings us to the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron. Audi’s first plug-in hybrid, it is a complete contrast to the cars I have been living with recently. It has a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine with 150hp, plus a 100hp electric motor. Working together they can produce 204hp, not 250hp as you might have thought, but still plenty to give 0-62mph acceleration of 7.6 seconds. Hot hatch territory.

Then there’s the fuel economy. 176.6mpg! Can you believe it? This result sounds rather unlikely, to put it kindly, but the figure is calculated by taking into account recharging of the in-built batteries will take place at home or at public charging points and thus save you lots of petrol.

The CO2 is correspondingly low – 37g/km – which means the A3 e-tron qualifies for the company car tax rate and can be driven in London without paying the congestion charge.

A regular hybrid – think Toyota Prius and Auris, any Lexus, Honda Insight and many more – recharges the battery when you brake and coast, then uses the electric power to give the car a bit of boost.  Usually the range on battery power alone is just a mile or two.

A plug-in hybrid, such as this Audi A3 and the alternative Prius plug-in, has a bigger battery, perhaps a quarter of the size of that in a fully electric car. You can therefore run a reasonable mileage on electric power alone, switching to the petrol engine when the charge expires. The best of both worlds with none of the “range anxiety” of the fully electric car.

These plug-in-hybrids are expensive. The base price of the A3 Sportback e-tron is £35k, and this car has another £5k in options – £1,115 for the leather sports seats, £995 for bigger alloys (than worsen the CO2 by 2g/km) and £950 for the panoramic sunroof, plus other things.

There is a £5,000 government grant at the moment for plug-in hybrids and electric cars that brings the price for entry to a more comforting £30k. Almost exactly the same as for Richard’s new long-term hybrid, the Lexus IS 300h. Now that’s going to be an interesting comparison.

So far I have had the A3 e-tron for a couple of weeks. It offers all the usual qualities that make the cost of an Audi seem worth the extra over, say a Toyota Auris or Vauxhall Astra.  It feels like a classy piece of kit. But the real test is how it washes its face as a hybrid. Only time will tell.

Notebook

  • The sports seats have so many adjustments that it takes dedication to find the best possible seating position.
  • Fuel tank capacity is just 40 litres, smaller to give more space for the battery.
  • Can’t see the 31 mile range on electric power displayed  on the computer. In this cold weather it seems to charge to just 22 miles.
  • There’s a choice of four driving modes for the hybrid system. Handbook not much help. Need to get to bottom of which is best.
  • I am missing the reversing camera that I had on my previous cars. Having simple beeps – and only at the back –­ is mean.

Specification: 2015 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

Price (January 2015): £34,950, less £5,000 government grant

Price with options: £40,025 (metallic paint £590)

Engine: 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo-electric hybrid

Power: 150hp (system total: 204hp)

Torque: 258lb ft

0-62mph: 7.6 secs

Top speed: 137mph

MPG: 176.6

CO2: 39g/km

7 new laws drivers need to know

7 new laws for 2015 that drivers need to know

7 new laws drivers need to know

A survey has found that 62% of Brits admit to speeding – making it the most common law to break.

But the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) has warned that a number of new laws being introduced this year could mean that thousands of motorists may break the law accidentally.

The punishments for these laws vary from fines and points on your licence to months behind bars. You may wish to brush up on these new laws being introduced in the UK…

Drug driving

You may shrug this off – if you don’t take drugs, you don’t have anything to worry about, right? But this includes prescription drugs. The law states that “it’s illegal in England and Wales to drive with legal drugs in your body if it impairs your driving”. Prescription drugs included in the law include diazepam, methadone and morphine.

A Freedom of Information request carried out by the IAM earlier this month found that a whopping 902 arrests have already been made by police under new drug-driving laws. Thousands of people could be facing driving bans, hefty fines and even imprisonment by unintentionally driving under the influence of drugs.

As part of the new laws, police in England and Wales are now carrying a ‘drugalyser’ to screen for cannabis and cocaine at the roadside. Even if drivers pass this test, they may still be required to attend a police station to be tested for ecstasy, LSD, ketamine, heroin and other drugs.

If you’re caught driving under the influence of drugs, you could face a hefty fine, a driving ban and even time in prison.

HGV speed limit

HGV speed limit

Did you know that HGVs can now drive at 50mph on single carriageway roads across England and Wales, and 60mph on dual carriageways?

Introduced in April 2015, the increased speed limits (up 10mph from 40mph on single carriageways and 50mph on dual carriageways) were part of a modernisation of outdated legislation.

At the time, it was said that actual average speeds were unlikely to change, meaning there was unlikely to be an adverse effect on road safety.

Safer lorries scheme

In a bid to make London safer for cyclists, a new law being introduced later this year on 1 September will ensure all lorries and construction vehicles over 3.5 tonnes are fitted with essential safety equipment.

This includes extra mirrors to give drivers a better view of cyclists and pedestrians around their vehicles, as well as side guards to protect cyclists from being dragged under the wheels.

If the Metropolitan Police, City of London Police or Driver Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) catch you driving a non-compliant lorry through London after 1 September, you could be hit with a £50 penalty notice or a fine of up to £1,000 at Magistrates Court.

Smoking in cars with children banned

Smoking in cars with children banned

Smoking in work vehicles has been illegal since 2007, but from October it’ll be against the law to light up in a car carrying anyone under the age of 18.

Apparently three million children are exposed to secondhand smoke in cars, so a campaign will be introduced later in the year to make people aware of the change in the law.

Penalties for breaking the new regulations are yet to be confirmed, but it’s likely £50 tickets will be handed out to anyone caught flouting the ban.

Make a Plea

Previously, if you were charged with a summary motoring offence that couldn’t be dealt with through a fixed penalty notice (or you wanted to dispute it), you had to attend court to argue your case. Not only was this inconvenient, it meant magistrates spent a lot of time dealing with minor motoring offences.

But following a successful trial in Greater Manchester, the Government is rolling out a new ‘Make a Plea’ service. This means motorists can make their case online through a secure website 24 hours a day, using a variety of devices, without having to attend court.

Motoring offences are the first to be dealt with using the ‘Make a Plea’ service – but the Government is now considering rolling it out across all minor offences.

The end of the tax disc

The end of the tax disc

This has been widely publicised, but there are still many who are oblivious to the new laws surrounding car tax. When you pay for car tax, you’ll no longer receive a paper tax disc. Instead, you’ll be able to check on a car’s tax status online via the DVLA’s website.

Police, as they have done for a long time, will be able to find out if a car’s taxed using their national computer.

The biggest change is when you’re buying or selling a car. You’ll no longer be able to transfer tax to a new owner. Instead, when you buy a car, you’ll have to buy tax straight away – either at the Post Office, online, or via the DVLA’s 24-hour automated phone system.

Many haven’t cottoned on to the new system, and a lot of used cars are still being advertised as taxed. That is not the case, and you could find yourself in trouble if you assume a secondhand car comes with tax.

Fortunately, under the new regulations you can also pay for tax monthly via direct debit. This will spread the cost over 12 months, meaning you won’t have to budget for six months’ tax when buying a secondhand car.

Paper counterpart driving licence being phased out

From June 2015, paper counterpart driving licences are no longer issued in the UK. The photocard driving licence used since 1998 is still valid, as are paper driving licences issued before the photocard was introduced . But all records of points and penalties will be kept online, rather than on paper.

This means you’ll have to share your licence online with your employer if you need to drive a work vehicle, or request a unique code to share it with hire car companies.

The official advice from the DVLA is to tear up and throw away your paper counterpart licence – but motoring organisations have said you should keep hold of it. Despite not being valid, it might be easier to show it when hiring a car abroad than trying to explain the new regulations to a disinterested hire car company worker.

Sold your car? You no longer have to send the V5 off

Sold your car? You no longer have to send off the V5

Sold your car? You no longer have to send the V5 off

You can now inform the DVLA that you’ve sold a car to a trader or private buyer online, rather than filling in the relevant sections of the V5 logbook and notifying the organisation by post.

It come as part of the DVLA’s purge on unnecessary paper – following axing the tax disc and paper counterpart driving licence.

When selling your car privately, you’ll still have to fill in the V5C/2 section (new keeper supplement) and give that to the buyer.

But instead of filling in other sections of the V5, the DVLA advises you to destroy it and notify them online.

How does it work?

As the seller, you’ll get an instant email confirmation and a letter confirming you’re no longer the registered keeper. You’ll also get an automatic refund on any tax left on the vehicle – as tax is no longer transferable.

The buyer will also get an email confirmation (if you provide their email address) and a new paper V5 within five working days.

If you sell your car to a dealer or within the motor trade, you can also use the service to notify the DVLA.

Are paper V5s being axed?

Unlike paper counterpart driving licences and tax discs, the DVLA isn’t axing paper V5s entirely. You’ll still get one when you buy a car, and it is still possible to send it off in the post to notify the DVLA of any changes.

You can also transfer personalised registration numbers through the DVLA’s website.

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Volvo S60 Cross Country 2015 first drive review

Land Rover Discovery Sport TD4 2015

Land Rover Discovery Sport TD4 180 review: 2015 first drive

Land Rover Discovery Sport TD4 2015Just six months after going on sale, Land Rover has canned the launch 2.2-litre SD4 engine in its seven-seat Discovery Sport, and replaced it with an all-new 2.0-litre TD4 engine. The new motor has a bit less power, a bit more torque, a lot more economy and a lot fewer CO2 emissions. It’s a worthy change.

It wasn’t there from the start because it’s an engine so new, it wasn’t actually ready when the Discovery Sport was launched. The Queen hadn’t even launched the factory it was to be built in. And the Jaguar XE was always going to get it first. Now the baby Jag’s launch is out the way, it’s the Discovery Sport’s turn. Welcome to the roll-out of the car it always should have been.

Land Rover’s visually not changed a thing. Badges apart, there’s nothing to give away the fact it’s sporting one of the most advanced four-cylinder diesel engines on the market – JLR’s new Ingenium motor packs in a great deal of clever tech aimed at making it clean, quiet, smooth-spinning and responsive.

It’s offered in two guises, 150hp and 180hp. Land Rover’s kept the tech details as simple as possible: all for now are four-wheel drive, the 150hp only comes as a six-speed manual and although the 180hp’s offered as a manual and nine-speed auto, both have the same CO2 emissions. That’s 129g/km (and 57.7mpg) for the 150hp, 139g/km for the 180hp.

The 150hp is restricted to SE, SE Tech and HSE trims, meaning it may be something of a rarity. That’s because lots of Discovery Sport buyers have been going for the upmarket HSE Lux, and then adding on even more options such as 20-inch alloys, exterior black pack, privacy glass and contrast black roof. With them in mind, Land Rover’s thus launched a new HSE Black version, which we tested on the launch event.

The HSE Lux gets more kit too – everyone was choosing 20-inch wheels, climate control for the third row of seats and individual USB sockets for all seven passengers… so Land Rover’s made the kit standard, for no increase in price. The new TD4 Ingenium range itself is actually pretty good value compared to the pricey launch cars, starting from £30,695 and surprisingly either matching or undercutting the equivalent version of the old SD4 motor.

Given how capable and appealing we already know the good-looking Discovery Sport is, it’s a no-brainer even without driving it. But as we were there at Land Rover’s Ledbury test centre, we thought we’d do the decent thing and find out by just how much the new Ingenium engine has improved the Discovery Sport.

2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport TD4 180: on the road

Land Rover Discovery Sport TD4 2015

The starter motor sound is cultured, it doesn’t shudder to life, it ticks over quietly and, once the chill of a cold start has passed, with virtually no clatter or tinkle. Yes, this new Ingenium engine is a big step on from the old Ford-derived motor before you’ve even twisted the rotary auto shifter (all HSE Black are automatics) into first gear.

The difference is a bit like changing from your clip-clop smart shoes into trainers. Much nicer, far more cushioned, a deal more responsive and without all the background rattle when you’re on the move.

A touch more torque (317lb ft instead of 310lb ft) doesn’t sound much on paper, but it’s now spread from 1,750-2,500rpm. With the Ingenium’s snappier and more fluid response, combined with the nine-speed auto’s right-gear sensibilities (in ‘S’, anyway: it is sometimes a bit lazy in ‘D’), the TD4 Discovery Sport now feels more intuitively punchy and reactive, rather than the old model’s press-wait-surge-(clatter)-go mannerisms.

It spins up and down through the revs beautifully smoothly for what’s also an extremely capable and competent off-road lugger (nine speeds means first gear can be ultra-short, good for driving up mountains). It largely doesn’t sounds like a diesel and doesn’t feel like a four-cylinder: not quite six-cylinder sweet (like most diesels, it will clatter near the 4,000rpm power peak) but, crucially, a sight more premium than the engine it’s replacing. Finally, Land Rover has an engine that’s a match for BMW and Audi, rather than one struggling to hide its mainstream roots.

The rest of the Discovery Sport is still strong. No, it’s not quite a sports car, but it handles more keenly than you’d ever believe a ridiculously capable off-road machine could. Maybe it’s psychological, but the 24kg-lighter engine up front seems to enhance front-end turn-in and the stable, grippy, roll- and wallow-free Discovery Sport can be chucked about with more accuracy, speed and carefree abandon than you’d think.

The big wheels of the HSE Black give a slight underlying irritability to the ride, so it never truly settles, but look beyond this high frequency stuff and the body control, compliance and absorbency of the top-line Disco Sport again feels suitably premium. It’s a cohesive, appealing car to drive, one sportier than you expect, certainly one that works well over long distances.

And, with the new engine, finally a driving experience without a glaring weakness to contrast with the many things it does well.

2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport TD4 180: on the inside

Land Rover Discovery Sport TD4 2015

The interior is identical. Same low-fuss but good quality look, same practical layout, same rather buttoney centre console and Evoque-spec cowled dials. It’s very light and airy, gives a superb high-up ‘command’ driving position and feels a surprisingly large and confidence-inspiring car for one with relatively mainstream-focused appeal.

A super set of front seats are the off-roader’s equivalent of a Jaguar F-Type’s buckets, sitting occupants ‘within’ the Discovery Sport despite the view down on the road they have. Some of the details they see do jar – the blocky screen between the dials, the decade-old laptop-look to the touchscreen sat nav – but the stuff that matters to families remains impressively present and correct.

Land Rover Discovery Sport TD4 2015

It’s spacious, particularly the easy-access, light and airy middle row whose individually adjustable rear seats give passengers the sort of recline-tweaking flexibility those in the back of Mercedes-Benz S-Class enjoy. The third row isn’t bad either: anyone back there is likely to universally love it as they can charge their smartphone while tweaking their climate control, more than compensating for any relative lack of comfort.

Refinement is the area that’s really improved over the SD4. The new engine is a lot less intrusive, particularly when battling seven-up weight, and the lack of vibration subconsciously gives a bit of a luxury sensation. Even the improved low-down torque and linearity means they’re unlikely to notice power bursts and gearchanges as much: passengers may not be able to say why, but they’ll certainly find the Discovery Sport Ingenium a touch nicer to be in than the old one.

2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport TD4 180: running costs

Land Rover Discovery Sport TD4 2015

Big wins for the 2.0-litre TD4 engine here, says Land Rover. CO2 emissions are down by two VED bands, there’s now a sub-130g/km model that fleets and business users will love (Benefit In Kind and Whole Life Costs are down significantly), and overall fuel economy improvements should make notable improvements to fuel bills.

Fleets will also like the fact service intervals have stretched by a quarter, from 16,000 miles to 21,000 miles. Less downtime, less expense overall. What were already very strong RVs are only likely to get better too, which will make PCP finance schemes cheaper – and add in better value list prices, for something that’s definitely worth another sit-down with the dealer and his computer to check on affordability.

Dealers themselves are likely to be busier: the new engine’s 150hp variant means Land Rover’s been able to bring in a headline entry price from £30,695, or £32,195 most to whom that appeals will sensibly find themselves buying anyway. Add in the extra value for the popular HSE variants and a previously slightly expensive-looking premium SUV now looks appreciably better value alongside its competition. Saying that, our £43k-base, £47k-with-options test HSE Black was perhaps pushing things here…

If all that gets people into showrooms, the new engine’s overall effects will likely fully convince them the Discovery Sport is now worth a shot.

2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport TD4 180: verdict

Land Rover Discovery Sport TD4 2015

The Land Rover Discovery Sport in compromised 2.2 SD4 guise has been a success: Land Rover’s sold 8,500 in the UK and has no stocks left of the old car – and hasn’t had to discount them to get rid of them in preparation for this one. But, even though the used car experts have said there’s unlikely to be any short-term penalty for owners of the old car, there’s no doubting the smart money that waited for the new TD4 Ingenium’s arrival will be paid back.

No wonder Land Rover’s ebullience at this variant’s arrival seems tinged with a slight sense of relief. Finally, it’s as it should have been from the start. All the good things – pleasing design, clever interior, decent quality, great practicality, off-road brilliance and on-road competence – are now backed up by an engine that turns it into a genuine premium car experience.

Pity it wasn’t there from the start. The chance for a big bang is gone. Don’t overlook this model year change though: the new 2.0-litre TD4 Discovery Sport is the car it should have been from the start, and should now be near top of your list if you’re looking for a family-friendly premium SUV with a bit of character.

2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport TD4 180: specifications

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel

Price: £41,250 (2.0 TD4 180 HSE Black)

Power: 180hp

Torque: 317lb ft

0-62mph: TBA

Top speed: TBA

Fuel economy: 53.3mpg

CO2 emissions: 139g/km

Caterham 21

Caterham 21: has the sports car flop now come of age?

Caterham 21You are just buzzing. You’re left leg is hot, your right arm is damp and a hot exhaust has singed your calf as you wriggle free of a low-roofed cockpit whose door is almost slapping you in the face.

You’ve just driven 150 miles in a Caterham Seven in the rain – and loved every second. But you body is relieved to be releasing itself from the close grip of the Seven’s cabin, your ears are humming from the din and part of you wishes that the experience had been just a little more comfortable.

Wouldn’t it be great, you find yourself thinking, if you could have all the thrills of a Seven in a car with a sensibly scaled cockpit that didn’t roar like a North Sea gale?

And that very wouldn’t-it-be-great idea was exactly the one that Caterham had in the early 1990s.

Caterham’s modern classic Seven

Caterham 21

The plan was to rebody the Seven. Or more accurately, perhaps, to provide it with a body beyond the vintage wings, simple clam of a bonnet, that famous nose-cone and a big tray for a pair of seats and a spare wheel mounting.

Instead, the Seven’s tubular chassis would get enveloping bodywork that looked more sportscar-sensuous and pushed through the air with a load less blustery commotion.

Why 21? Not because Caterham reckoned it was three times the car that the Seven was, but because it had been making the Seven for 21 years, this car a celebration of the fact.

It must have been quite a challenge to extract a flowing shape from the Seven’s proportions, the closeness of the occupants’ rear ends to the back axle threatening to force the old-school proportions of a ‘50s British sportscar on this new Caterham.

And that’s what it got, although your eye was drawn away from this by the shapely tail and its Ford Mondeo lamp clusters, the long bonnet and a pair of air extractors whose exit ramps occupied much of the 21’s lower body.

Caterham 21

The result was a car that looked a bit Brit sportscar traditional and unusually narrow, despite adding three inches to the front track to provide slightly wider footwells. But it was neat and not unattractive.

The 21 looked more appealing inside, where a stylish twin binnacle facia replaced the Seven’s simple flat panel. The centre of the dash cascade into a narrow centre console and carried a strikingly stacked trio of dials, while the outer edges of the dashboard were bodycolour, as was much of the surface of the inner doors, making this cabin look a whole lot more contemporary. It was also very well finished.

The absence of window winders seemed contemporary too, the 21 having electric window lifts, you’d be thinking. Except that it didn’t, their opening a task for the driver, who would need to demount the glass and stow it in the boot.

Still it was an arrangement that made the 21 lighter, its 665kg generating an exciting 205bhp per tonne when the car was fitted with the 136bhp 1.8 version of Rover’s all-alloy K Series. It was 110kg more than a Seven, but still 60kg less than a Lotus Elise.

Fear the Lotus Elise

Ford Fiesta, Focus and Transit

Ah, the Elise. There was brief honeymoon for the 21 when the Lotus wasn’t present. The Caterham was unveiled in autumn 1994 with an alloy body, and appeared a year after that at the 1995 Earls Court show with its glassfibre production shell.

But not many months later the Elise went on sale and with the mid-engined layout that Caterham had originally considered, before concluding that this was too much of a leap for the tiny firm to take on.

MGF

The Lotus was also joined by the MGF, a milder-mannered sportster but an able one nevertheless, the appearance of these two alongside the Mazda MX-5 providing the 21 with formidable opposition. Those after a more extreme experience also had the Renault Sport Spider to choose from.

Still, the Caterham delivered formidable performance, its low weight allowing the 1.8 Supersport to burst to 60mph in 5.8 and onto a 131mph maximum that was far higher than most Seven’s could manage.

The more powerful 1.8 – there was a 1.6 version too – also got you Caterham’s excellent six-speed gearbox. All of which added up to a riot of a drive, if not quite as much rebellion as you’d enjoy aboard a Seven. The 21’s steering lost a little of the Seven’s blade-sharp edge, and it was heavier too.

‘Simmering vegetable’

Caterham 21

That would have mattered less if the 21 had delivered the extra civility implied by its bodywork. True, the ride was a little smoother, but you were still packed charter-flight tight into the Caterham’s cockpit, its mechanicals made as much noise as an all-night party and if you left the roof on and the windows up, you’d boil up like a simmering vegetable.

You needed the agility of a squirrel to get beneath the hood and bridge a bicycle lane’s width of sill before tumbling into your seat. In other words, several of the supposed advantages of a redesigned body failed to materialise.

Caterham 21

And the 21 was inevitably more expensive, taking it straight into enemy territory. While the ultra-modern Elise 1.8 cost £19,950, the 1.6 litre Caterham 21 was £21,995, and an ambitious £25,495 as a 1.8 Supersport.

An MGF 1.8i, meanwhile, was £17,440 and a base 1.6 Caterham Seven £17,850. It doesn’t take a marketing analyst to deduce that the 21 was going to sit somewhere between a hard and desperate sell, as proven by an eventual sales tally of 48 between the point of its announcement in 1994 and the end of production in 2000.

The 21 was a good effort for such a small company, but not quite good enough and unlucky to face a light barrage of fresh sportscar competition, ironically from Lotus, the source of its bread-and-butter Seven.

These days the 21 is almost entirely forgotten, but it makes a more convincing classic buy than it ever did as a new car. Provided you can actually find one for sale, that is.

Volvo S60 Cross Country

Volvo S60 Cross Country review: 2015 first drive

Volvo S60 Cross Country

2015 Volvo S60 Cross Country: Overview

If there’s one thing guaranteed with the new Volvo S60 Cross Country, it’s exclusivity. Volvo reckons it’ll shift a mere 100 units over the coming year, so potential owners will be joining a select group of motorists. It’s an oddball, that’s for sure. But that’s no reason to dismiss it as little more than a Swedish folly.

Truth is, the S60 Cross Country isn’t really for us. Volvo has built it for the South American and Indian markets, where saloons reign supreme and the streets aren’t exactly paved with silky-smooth tarmac. So a premium saloon with a lofty ride height is likely to do rather well.

Volvo S60 Cross Country

Over here, saloon cars are so last century, which is why Volvo is limiting the S60 Cross Country to just one trim level. The Cross Country Lux is priced at £33,695 and for that you’re treated to the 190hp 2.0-litre four-cylinder Drive-E engine.

For £36,725 you can add four-wheel drive to the mix, but this comes with the less efficient five-cylinder 2.3-litre engine and the old six-speed Geartronic transmission.

We tested the front-wheel-drive D4 with a six-speed manual gearbox.

2015 Volvo S60 Cross Country: On the road

Volvo S60 Cross Country

The first thing that strikes you about the Volvo S60 Cross Country is its increased ride height. By jacking it up 65mm compared to the regular S60, Volvo has created something that doesn’t look too dissimilar to the AMC Eagle of the late 1970s, albeit remastered for a different era.

It’s a rather traditional affair, with the increased ride height achieved through use of longer springs. On the road, this translates to a ride that’s quite alarming at first, but over time becomes rather pleasant. It genuinely feels like you’re driving on stilts, as if the car has been jacked up to change the wheels.

The result is that there’s little feel of connection with the road, but this is balanced by a soft, almost cosseting ride. Crucially, the increased ride height hasn’t translated into any significant body-roll through the corners. The more you drive the S60 Cross Country, the more you appreciate it.

Volvo S60 Cross Country

But the real highlight is the D4 Drive-E engine, which is both smooth in its delivery and tremendously refined. Jump out of a Volvo with a new four-cylinder engine and into one fitted with an old unit and the difference is like night and day. On its own, this is a good enough reason not to opt for the four-wheel-drive variant.

The soundtrack and increased torque of the five-cylinder unit may appeal, but unless you genuinely need to go off-road, we’d stick with the front-wheel-drive S60.

2015 Volvo S60 Cross Country: On the inside

Volvo S60 Cross Country

Our test car was fitted with the optional Beechwood/Off Black leather-faced sports seats, which helped to lift the cabin and give it a strong premium feel. In typical Volvo fashion, they also offer superb levels of comfort and support.

That said, the interior is beginning to show its age, largely thanks to the arrival of the all-new XC90, but quality remains high and we still like the ‘floating’ centre console. The active TFT central display comes as standard, as does climate control, Bluetooth, digital radio and Sensus navigation. But the central screen is small and looks dated.

Volvo S60 Cross Country

However, you’re unlikely to feel short-changed in the S60 Cross Country, as befitting of its role as flagship of the S60 range.

In common with its sibling, the V60 Cross Country, the S60 doesn’t offer class-leading levels of space. It’s fine in the front, but thanks to the S60’s sloping roofline, rear headroom is limited. Legroom is also tight, while the 380-litre boot is smaller than many cars in the sector. On the plus side, the increased ride height does make entering and exiting the vehicle much easier.

2015 Volvo S60 Cross Country: Running costs

Volvo S60 Cross Country

At £33,695 for the front-wheel-drive D4 and £36,725 for the four-wheel-driver, the Cross Country is, as near as makes no difference, the most expensive S60 in the range. You can, however, counter this with the fact that the Lux model is very well equipped and you won’t need to spend too much time perusing the options list.

The 2.0-litre D4 engine is a masterclass in balancing performance with economy and such is the nature of the Cross Country, you stand a good chance of getting somewhere close to the claimed 67.3mpg. Opt for the eight-speed automatic transmission and this official figure drops to 61.4mpg.

The 111g/km of CO2 emissions equate to zero road tax in the first year, rising to £20 for each year thereafter. As for depreciation, that remains to be seen. Limited appeal when new could result in a pretty steep depreciation curve. That said, the S60 Cross Country could become something of a cult classic…

2015 Volvo S60 Cross Country: Verdict

Volvo S60 Cross Country

You get the distinct impression that even the good people at Volvo’s UK press office are left scratching their heads over this one. The V60 Cross Country is a relatively easy sell, the S60 version less so.

It’s a tough car to recommend. On the one hand we should be recommending the full-fat off-road version, as this makes better use of the increased ride height and body armour. But to do so would be to go without the new four-cylinder engine, not to mention having to live with the increased running costs.

Whatever, we’ve got a strange fondness for the S60 Cross Country. It looks great – in a quirky kind of way – and it wears its unique 18-inch ‘Neso’ alloy wheels very well. No, seriously, it does look good. Honest.

The V60 makes more sense and we could mount a strong case for choosing many crossovers over the S60 Cross Country. But when judged in isolation, this is a surprisingly likeable and smooth operator. The Sade of saloon cars, if you will.

2015 Volvo S60 Cross Country: Specification

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel

Price: from £33,695

Power: 190hp

Torque: 295lb ft

0-62mph: 7.7 seconds

Top speed: 130mph

Fuel economy: 67.3mpg

CO2 emissions: 111g/km

Mazda MX-5 review: 2015 first drive

Mazda MX-5 review: 2015 first drive

Mazda MX-5 review: 2015 first drive

2015 Mazda MX-5: Overview

It’s very easy to look back at an old car with misty eyes and make bold claims about it being a legend that changed the motoring landscape. But few would disagree that the original Mazda MX-5, launched in Europe in 1990, was not only hugely significant but also one of the all-time great driver’s cars.

Its snickety gearchange, 50/50 weight distribution and light weight meant it was enormous fun to drive. It truly was a modern-day British sports car – inspired by the likes of the Lotus Elan and Triumph Spitfire, but also affordable and reliable.

For the last 25 years the MX-5 has sold in huge numbers. In 2000, Guinness World Records named it the world’s best-selling two-seat sports car and in 2015 production is nudging one million.

Over that time it’s managed to stay fairly close to its original principles of affordability and light weight. But as buyers demand more technology and regulations require more safety kit, it’s inevitably got bigger and heavier than the original car from 25 years ago.

However, the new model has bucked that trend. Incredibly, it’s 100kg lighter than its predecessor, and a centimetre shorter. It’s even shorter than the first-generation model. That’s impressive.

But that’s enough about the heritage stuff that Mazda is, quite rightly, taking full of advantage of for the launch of the new MX-5. What’s it like?

2015 Mazda MX-5: On the road

2015 Mazda MX-5: on the road

The range-topping four-cylinder 2.0-litre petrol engine produces 160hp – hardly a headline-grabbing figure, but combined with the MX-5’s low kerbweight, it feels properly quick, with adequate low-down torque and enough go to see you comfortably in excess of the speed limit.

It punches well above what its 7.3 second 0-62mph time suggests, and genuinely feels like a cut-price Porsche Boxster that’s powerful enough to tempt people from their hot hatches.

Many argue that the entry-level 1.5-litre is actually the sweeter engine for the MX-5. Mazda admits that the car has been engineered with the 1.5 in mind, and on twisty rural roads of the Scottish highlands where the UK launch was held, there’s no denying that this engine feels more in-keeping with the MX-5 ethos.

It’s noticeably lacking in torque compared to the 2.0, but the six-speed gearbox is so slick that many buyers won’t begrudge dropping down a gear to extract the best from the smaller engine.

That said, aside from the entry-level model (which is only available with the 1.5-litre engine), the step up to a 2.0-litre is only £850. That makes the 1.5-litre a little hard to justify in our book.

It’s things like the gearchange that Mazda engineers have worked so hard to perfect – and make for such an enjoyable driving experience. It all feels so right. The pedals are in the right place, with the clutch the perfect weight to provide a sports-car feel without giving you cramp.

The brake pedal provides loads of feel, giving you confidence to apply pressure if you feel the need, while the accelerator is responsive and perfectly placed for honing your heel-and-toeing. While many MX-5s will be bought for cruising city streets, it’s so nicely set up should you wish to drive it harder.

2015 Mazda MX-5: on the road

The steering, too, is responsive in a typical MX-5 manner. We spent some time in a basic first-generation model on the launch without power steering (such an analogue driving experience!) but even after that, the fourth-generation’s electric set-up didn’t disappoint. The hardcore will turn their noses up, but Mazda has got the steering so right.

Ride quality is something the MX-5 has always surprised with. Indeed, as standard it’s always sat higher than you might expect and provided a compliant ride. That’s also true too with the latest model – it remains composed over bumps, even with the larger 17-inch wheels and Bilstein suspension of the higher-end models.

One issue we noticed with both 1.5- and 2.0-litre versions is a tendency to transfer irritating noises into the cabin. The 2.0-litre we drove suffered a grating metallic sound from the gearbox – a fault, we suspect, but the 1.5-litre also produced an irritating burble at low revs. A degree of sound deadening will have been removed to reduce weight and there’s only so much Mazda can do to make the four-cylinder engine sound good.

These unwanted noises aren’t a deal-breaker, but a reminder that you’re driving a sports car rather than a luxury cruiser like the more expensive Mercedes-Benz SLK.

2015 Mazda MX-5: On the inside

2015 Mazda MX-5: on the inside

A challenge Mazda has faced is cutting weight while keeping the interior at the standard a sports car buyer would find acceptable.

The manufacturer tells us that every item has been accounted for – if weight could be saved, it has been. Surprisingly, this doesn’t result in a low-rent cabin. It’s snug, for sure, but there’s plenty of leather and red stitching to make the latest MX-5’s interior a pleasant environment.

It’s only when you start looking at minor details that you can see where weight has been cut. The sun visors, for example, are little more than flimsy bits of plastic. You won’t find unnecessary padding here – can you live without excesses in return for an exceptional sports car driving experience? We could, but don’t go expecting an interior that lives up to the standards of costlier, premium rivals.

One thing the Mazda MX-5 does lack is interior stowage space. It is such a small package that squeezing in things like door pockets and even a glovebox has proved too much of a challenge for Mazda.

It’s got around this, to a degree, by fitting flimsy cup holders that can be moved between the side of the centre console and between the seats. But if you wish to remove them when they’re not in use, there’s nowhere obvious to store them.

As a further weight-saving measure, the MX-5 shuns a fancy electric folding roof in favour of a fabric manual one. Don’t worry, though – it’s brilliantly easy to put up or down within seconds. You can even do it from the driver’s seat – it’s that light.

2015 Mazda MX-5: Running costs

2015 Mazda MX-5: running costs

The Mazda MX-5 is the final car in the manufacturer’s line-up to receive its Skyactiv technology – with high-compression, naturally-aspirated engines offering impressive fuel economy figures without resorting to a turbo.

The result is genuinely commendable for a car as enjoyable to drive as this. The 1.5-litre returns 47.1mpg on the combined cycle. And while you’re unlikely to achieve this if you’re making full use of the MX-5s entire rev range (and you’d be silly not to), we suspect the real life figures may not be far off.

Insurance companies are likely to favour the MX-5’s relatively sedate performance figures compared to rivals, so it won’t cost a fortune in that regard, either.

2015 Mazda MX-5: Verdict

2015 Mazda MX-5: verdict

It’s good, the new MX-5. Really, really good. So much time has clearly been spent making this a keen driver’s car – and we urge you, ignore the figures. If you’re contemplating this or a warm hatch, just drive the Mazda.

Whether you opt for the 1.5- or 2.0-litre is a harder decision. It’s very easy to say the MX-5 is well suited to the smaller engine. It does go with the whole lightweight, back-to-basics ethos Mazda pushes so hard with its sports car.

But in everyday situations, the 2.0-litre’s extra torque makes life a lot easier. And that extra 29hp makes the difference between decent acceleration and having enough power to put a grin on your face in a straight line. You won’t be disappointed with the 1.5 – it certainly punches above its weight thanks to the Mazda’s low weight, but the 2.0-litre feels like a proper sports car.

For those who aren’t as fussed about the MX-5s driving dynamics, they may be a little disappointed. It’s a surprisingly focussed car, and it some respects compromises have been made.

Some would like a little more sound deadening from the engine, while some would happily forgo a few kilos of weight saving in favour of upmarket touches in the interior. But that’s not what the MX-5 is all about.

Specification: 2015 Mazda MX-5

Engines: 1.5 and 2.0-litre petrol

Prices from: £18,495

Power: 131 – 160hp

Torque: 111 – 148lb ft

0-62mph: 7.3 – 8.3 seconds

Top speed: 133mph

Fuel economy: 40.9 – 47.1mpg

CO2 emissions: 139 – 161g/km

Volkswagen e-Golf home charging

Stop wasting money on fuel says government – buy an EV

Volkswagen e-Golf home chargingThe average British driver spends 12p a mile on fuel for their diesel or petrol car – but could cut this to 2p a mile if they switched to an ultra-low emissions vehicle.

The figures have been revealed by the government and a consortium of car manufacturers set up to promote ultra-green cars called Go Ultra Low.

Spread the savings across Britain’s 31.6 million cars and it means UK motorists are missing out on £24.5 billion in savings by spending more on fuel and tax.

And that’s an annual multi-billion saving that Brits are turning down…

How do you save money with an electric car?

Hetal Shah, head of the Go Ultra Low campaign, said: “After buying a house, a car is the second most expensive purchase that most of us will ever make.

“With fuel costs from just 2p-per-mile, no road tax, no congestion charge and free parking in many locations, electric cars certainly present a compelling proposition.

“Put simply: the more you drive, the more you save.”

Money saving expert no longer wincing

Crack money-saver and newspaper columnist Ashleigh Swan has joined the panel of the Go Ultra Low campaign and reckons EV motoring has been an eye-opener.

“Fuel bills are the most noticeable regular outlay, and every time we pull up at a petrol station, my husband and I wince at the price of a full tank.”

Contrast this with the “extremely low running costs” of an EV and this hefty outlay for the average motorist – who covers 7,500 miles a year, or around 140 miles a week – can be mitigated.

Car manufactures have almost cracked the range anxiety part too, adds Go Ultra Low: the quoted range of up to 124 miles for many electric cars is getting ever-closer to the UK-average weekly mileage…

MORE on MR

Could gangs of thieves target your electric car for its battery?

1 in 4 electric cars sold in Europe is a Nissan LEAF

Lexus Hoverboard: it’s real! 

Volvo V60 Cross Country

Volvo V60 Cross Country review: 2015 first drive

Volvo V60 Cross Country

With all of the (justified) hoo-hah surrounding the all-new XC90, it’s easy to forget that Volvo still makes other cars. In time, Volvo’s entire range will be based on the same SPA platform, but until then, the company’s efforts will be focused on squeezing as many sales as possible out of an increasingly old line-up of vehicles.

The V60 is proving to be a rather flexible machine. From the world’s first diesel plug-in hybrid to the bonkers Polestar version, the load-lugger covers most bases. And now there’s a new V60 Cross Country, playing on Volvo’s heritage in the jacked-up estate sector.

Volvo V60 Cross Country

Not that the V60 Cross Country is designed to be quite as capable when the going gets tough. The 65mm increased ride height over the standard V60 is smaller than the 74mm offered by the XC70 over the regular V70. It therefore lacks the full-fat off-road look of the XC70, presenting a more soft-road style.

Not that this is a problem. The V60 Cross Country cuts a mean figure, devoid of any needless trinkets and fuss. Besides, the majority of customers won’t venture further off the road than Waitrose car park. That said, we wanted to try the range-topping D4 AWD. So that’s exactly what we did.

Volvo V60 Cross Country: On the road

Volvo V60 Cross Country

Opting for the V60 Cross Country with all-wheel drive immediately brings with it one or two compromises. For a start, it’s not available with the ultra-efficient and excellent range of Drive-E engines, so you’ll have to make do with the old five-cylinder 2.4-litre D4.

Confusingly, the old D4 is badged the same as the new D4, but while they both offer 190hp, the 149g/km CO2 output of the five-cylinder is no match for the 111g/km of the four-cylinder. It’s feeling its age, too, lacking the smoothness and refinement of the Drive-E lump.

That said, you do get to enjoy the aural stimulation of a five-cylinder engine. And it does tend to suit the rugged nature of the Cross Country in all-wheel-drive guise. But having experienced the new D4 in the new S60 Cross Country, we’d urge you to opt for this, unless off-road ability is a genuine requirement.

Volvo V60 Cross Country

The D4 AWD is also lumbered with the old six-speed Geartronic transmission, rather than the new eight-speed unit. It’s never quite in tune with what you want it to do, often feeling laboured and slow to change. Don’t hurry it and it’s fine, but when overtaking or exiting a corner, it can be a frustrating experience.

Aside from that, the V60 Cross Country is a relaxed and comfortable cruiser. The increased ride height hasn’t resulted in any additional body roll and the ride remains smooth and compliant. But it does feel noticeably slower than the front-wheel-drive variants – as demonstrated by the 8.9 seconds it takes to reach 62mph, compared with 7.8 seconds for the new D4.

Volvo V60 Cross Country: On the inside

Volvo V60 Cross Country

A year ago, we would have had no complaints about the V60 Cross Country’s interior, but the XC90 has changed everything. Step out of Volvo’s brave new world and it’s like stepping back in time. The XC90 has moved things on that much.

Not that the V60’s interior has become obsolete overnight. The now-old interior retains the ‘floating’ console, which remains a standout feature, but the seven-inch display is showing its age. And the multitude of buttons is in stark contrast to the minimalist approach offered by the XC90.

On the plus side, the seats offer supreme long-distance comfort, while the fit and finish throughout the cabin is first-rate. In common with standard V60 models, rear space isn’t a strong point and tall passengers will find the amount of headroom and legroom restricted in the back seats. Boot space is also tight, with only 430 litres on offer.

Volvo V60 Cross Country

Two trim levels are available, with the SE offering cruise control, LED daytime running lights, auto wipers, climate control, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, silver roof rails and 17-inch alloy wheels. Lux adds leather seats, power driver’s seat, active TFT display, 18-inch alloy wheels, active bending headlights and a headlight cleaning system.

In common with other Volvos, there’s an extensive range of options, helping to push the price tag in a Scandinavian direction. Indeed, the D4 AWD’s base price of £38,025 was soon above £44,000 with a few trimmings added to our test car.

Volvo V60 Cross Country: Running costs

Volvo V60 Cross Country

Needless to say, the D4 AWD isn’t going to be the cheapest V60 Cross Country in the range. An entry-level D3 SE will set you back £30,195, with all-wheel drive adding a further £5,000. In SE spec without any options, the BIK per month (based on a 40% taxpayer) starts from £316.

As you’d expect, the D4 AWD will cost more to run, too. Its 49.6mpg compares with the 67.3mpg of the new D4 engine. Volvo isn’t expecting the V60 Cross Country to be a big seller, forecasting 850 sales over the coming year.

Volvo V60 Cross Country: Verdict

Volvo V60 Cross Country

It would be easy to be dismissive of the V60 Cross Country, marking it down as little more than marketing-led exercise. But it serves as a useful reminder that Volvo has a strong heritage in the off-road estate sector, leading back to the original V70 XC.

Thanks to some subtle, but well chosen cosmetic upgrades, the Cross Country manages to steal a march over the less well-endowed V60s. And while the engine is old-tech, it’s a proven motor and you’ll never tire of listening to that five-cylinder soundtrack.

If you need the benefit of four-wheel drive, which comes complete with hill-descent control as standard, by all means take a look at the D4 AWD. But if all you want is the styling and the increased ride height, go for the cheaper front-wheel-drive cars and take advantage of the new Drive-E technology.

Volvo V60 Cross Country D4 AWD: Specification

Engine: 2.4-litre 5-cylinder diesel

Price: from £35,275

Power: 190hp

Torque: 309lb ft

0-62mph: 8.9 seconds

Top speed: 127mph

Fuel economy: 49.6mpg

CO2 emissions: 149g/km