Imagine a test-track with more than 150 new cars, each parked with keys in the ignition. Choose whatever takes your fancy, then simply jump in and drive. That’s the reality of SMMT Test Day, the annual road-test event organised by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.
Now, we like a challenge, so we decided to see how many cars we could drive and review in one day. From an Aston Martin V12 Vantage S to a ‘classic’ Kia Pride, nothing was off-limits. The MR team comprised Richard Aucock (RA), John Redfern (JR) and Tim Pitt (TP), plus help from Mark Thomson of Tame Geek (MT).
Read on to see our highs and lows of SMMT 2017.
- In pictures: the world’s greatest hot hatch festival
- World’s best-selling cars of 2017 (so far)
- New Jaguar XE SV Project 8: they’re building it!
Mercedes-AMG E63 S
Let’s start with one of the fastest cars of the day. Ballistic, bombastic, bahnstorming and more than a little bonkers, the E63 S is Stuttgart’s latest salvo in the super-saloon arms race. It packs a 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8, producing 612hp and a monstrous 627lb ft of torque.
On Millbrook’s high-speed bowl, the muscle-Merc accelerates from 100mph with more conviction than a Porsche Boxster at half that speed. It also has a drift mode, which we weren’t allowed to switch on. Probably for the best… (TP)
Lexus GS F
How about another rear-wheel-drive super saloon? The naturally-aspirated 5.0-litre V8 in the Lexus GS F produces 467hp at a rev-tastic 7,100rpm, while torque is 391lb ft. That second figure seems low in a car that weighs over 1,800kg.
Unlike many of its rivals, the GS F needs to be worked hard to get the best from it. Only at the upper reaches of the rev range does it feel properly fast; you need to cling on to gears before pulling that paddle. Unmuffled by turbochargers, the GS F sounds intense. (JR)
Jaguar F-Pace S
What to do when you want a luxury executive saloon, but with a driving position higher than everyone else? The answer used to be ‘buy a BMW X5’. Now, it seems everybody wants a Jaguar F-Pace.
Given the way it handles like a sports saloon and the 3.0-litre V6 diesel slingshots you between corners, the F-Pace makes a very convincing alternative to other similarly-priced saloons and SUVs. (MT)
According to automotive folklore, the Mitsubishi Starion got its name because Japanese engineers couldn’t pronounce the word ‘stallion’. Wide of wheelarch and squat of stance, this 80s throwback – part of Mitsubishi UK’s heritage fleet – looked fabulous in the scorching SMMT Day sun.
Despite those INTERCOOLER TURBO stickers, however, the 30-year-old Starion seems slow by modern standards. On Millbrook’s tortuously twisty city course, it felt cumbersome and uninvolving – not the ‘Japanese Porsche 944’ I’d hoped for. Like shell suits and shoulder pads, perhaps the Starion is best left in the past? (TP)
Audi TT RS Coupe
Locked in continuous battle with the Porsche Cayman, the latest Audi TT RS has gained more oomph from its 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo engine. Peak power is now a faintly ridiculous 394hp, with torque a chunky 354lb ft. Naturally, a Quattro 4WD system is standard, as is a seven-speed S Tronic semi-automatic gearbox.
Reaching 62mph takes just 3.7 seconds in the TT RS, and it feels every bit as quick as that claim. Bar some minor turbo lag, the TT RS fires on relentlessly, feeling almost hamstrung by the confines of Millbrook’s Alpine route. The exhaust note is a fitting reminder as to why five cylinders are inherently better than four. (JR)
Audi R8 Spyder
The Audi R8’s 540hp 5.2-litre V10 is one of the best-sounding engines available: FACT. So why wouldn’t you give your eardrums unfettered access to that red-blooded howl by choosing the Spyder version? These are the important consumer questions we’re here to answer.
So yes, it sounds fabulous – even if that popping, belching exhaust alerts Millbrook’s over-zealous marshals even time I tickle the right pedal. What struck me most, though, is how easy the R8 is to drive. With light steering and a semi-auto ’box, it’s docile at low speed – yet savagely quick when the traffic clears. (TP)
Volvo V90 R-Design
Well, I can safely say that I didn’t expect to drive home from SMMT Test Day wishing I was making the five-hour trip in a Volvo. But the V90 is a genuinely handsome car – and a fantastic place to be.
With a twin-turbo four-cylinder diesel engine, four-wheel drive and an eight-speed gearbox, the V90 feels like a car that will offer you decades of style and comfort. (MT)
Apparently, this is Britain’s cheapest car. A motoring writer bought it on eBay for £3.19, which, he told me, is the same price as a jar of mayonnaise in his local supermarket. “Ironic, really, given the Rover K-Series’ propensity to blow its head gasket.”
Go on – you’re thinking it was horrendous, aren’t you? Actually no, it was much more solid, rattle-free and robust than I expected. It didn’t feel like a car on its last legs, rather a perfectly inoffensive hack to get you to the station and back for the price of a coffee once you actually get to said station. A geriatric gem. (RA)
Porsche Panamera Turbo
Praise be, Porsche has finally designed a Panamera that isn’t offensively ugly. And the Turbo has the coolest rear spoiler since the original 930 Turbo whale tail. There’s also the small matter of 550hp, which equates to 62mph in 3.8 seconds and a 190mph VMax. That’s one seriously hot hatch.
At this point, I should probably admit to being a fully-paid-up Porsche fanatic. But even so, the Panamera Turbo was genuinely the most impressive car I drove all day. Switching drive modes from Normal to Sport Plus utterly transforms its character, from comfortable cruiser to savage supercar-slayer. (TP)
Aston Martin DB11
The car in the highest level of demand all day was, unsurprisingly, an Aston Martin. The DB11 is an all-new car from the ground up and feels it. Its twin-turbo V12 delivers 608hp and 516lb ft of torque to the rear wheels via an eight-speed gearbox.
This drivetrain, combined with an excellently-appointed cabin, allows the DB11 to shift from long-range grand tourer to corner-conquering supercar with the press of two buttons. It’s a bona fide British hero. (MT)
Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT 6.4 V8 Hemi
Does anybody really need an SUV with 475hp and 460lb ft? Perhaps not, but the SRT Hemi dishes up a super-sized slice of American pie. A 4WD system helps control all that power, while the automatic gearbox has a launch mode setting. Braking is via a suitably huge Brembo set-up.
Predictably, the Hemi engine dominates proceedings, hoofing the Grand Cherokee along with a V8 bellow. We were confined to the high-speed bowl with this one, so couldn’t test how well it fared beyond straight-line drag races. Circling the bowl also highlighted that the SRT’s interior won’t be giving BMW or Mercedes-Benz sleepless nights. (JR)
Being crowned Jeremy Clarkson’s car of the year clearly didn’t do the Toyota GT86 many favours – it remains a rare sight on UK roads. And the Subaru BRZ version is even rarer. Which is a shame, because the Toyobaru is still, for our money, the best budget driver’s car on sale.
It’s easy to get fixated on how readily – and enthusiastically – the BRZ goes sideways. That’s all good fun, of course, but it’s the sublime steering and chassis balance that really excites. I can ignore the rubbish infotainment system, and the fact that it’s pricier than an MX-5. For now, I just want to keep driving. (TP)
Ford Focus RS
Unless you happened to be living ‘off-grid’ during 2016, you’ll know the Mk3 Focus RS was the single most talked- and written-about car last year. Still, in case you missed it, the key facts are a 2.3-litre Ecoboost turbo engine (shared with the Mustang), six-speed manual gearbox and – for the first time in a Focus RS – power going to all four wheels.
The RS is truly a car that more than matches the hype surrounding it, with feelsome steering, nimble turn-in, a confidence-inspiring 4WD system and an engine that just keeps pushing. The pops and bangs from the exhaust system only add to the sense of riotous fun. Unquestionably deserving of its RS badge. (JR)
Mazda MX-5 1.5
The world’s best-selling sports car returns for its fourth act, with Mazda taking inspiration from the lightweight original. It isn’t quite a Lotus Elise, but the MX-5 – in entry-level 1.5-litre spec – is about as basic as ‘mainstream’ cars get. And all the better for it.
Driving the MX-5 back-to-back with the Subaru BRZ was an interesting – if unplanned – twin-test. The Mazda is markedly slower, but feels lighter on its feet; few cars change direction so keenly. Highlights include a super-slick gearshift and pedals that are perfectly spaced for heel-and-toe ’changes. Nonetheless, it’s still the BRZ for me. (TP)
Mazda MX-5 RF 2.0
Intended to be the practical and grown-up version of the MX-5, RF stands for Retractable Fastback. Gone is the folding soft-top, replaced by a folding metal roof, along with some neat flying buttresses on the rear deck. However, it comes at a cost of 40kg extra weight in this diminutive sports car.
Perhaps it was too much sun, or too much exposure to turbocharged engines, but the 160hp MX-5 RF seemed notably sedate when tackling the steep climbs of the Millbrook hill route. At least working the six-speed manual gearbox was a pleasant affair, while the delicate handling and quick steering made the twisty bits fun. Wind noise was also rather apparent, despite the RF being the ‘refined’ MX-5. (JR)
MINI John Cooper Works Challenge
Limited to just 52 examples, the JCW Challenge is MINI raiding the aftermarket parts bin for the best components. Nitron supplies the adjustable suspension, Team Dynamics the lightweight wheels and Michelin the Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. There’s also an exhaust system, controlled by Bluetooth, that’s so loud it’s not meant for road use.
Describing something as ‘go-kart-like’ is a horrible cliché, but it’s almost impossible to avoid with the JCW Challenge. The steering is so direct and immediate on turn-in, the comparison feels almost inevitable. The exhaust is very loud, while the limited-slip differential is brutal in deploying 228hp through the front wheels. (JR)
Don’t laugh. The Pride was the first supermini Kia sold in the UK and it wasn’t half bad. In truth, the Pride was simply a rebadged Mazda 121 (Ford Festiva in some markets), but it did have the unique option of whitewall tyres – sadly not fitted here.
Hammering around the hill route in the Kia, Aston DB11 looming large in my mirrors, will be my abiding memory of Test Day 2017. There’s just something about driving the doorhandles off a small, underpowered car. Was it comfortable? Was it practical? Should you buy one? No idea, I was just trying – desperately hard – to avoid being overtaken. (TP)
The new Audi S4 couldn’t be any more ‘Q car’ if it tried. With almost every option available fitted here, it comes to more than £55,000. Which makes it a somewhat decadent purchase.
If you do make that choice, though, you will be rewarded with an executive saloon that holds its own against most sports cars, but then allow you cruise home in comfort and style. (MT)
Ford Mustang 2.3 Ecoboost convertible
The Mustang’s 2.3-litre four-cylinder Ecoboost engine is the sensible way to own a muscle car. With 313hp and 319lb ft of torque, it promises the performance of a V6, but with downsized turbo engine economy. This should, in theory, be the perfect Mustang for the UK.
It might be the Mustang you should buy, but it’s hard to see this as the one you’d truly want. Despite feeling bombastic in the Focus RS, the Ecoboost engine seems strangely devoid of character here. Although hardly slow, the lack of theatre is disappointing. If you’re going to buy a drop-top Mustang, the 5.0-litre V8 really needs to be beneath that long bonnet. (JR)
Volkswagen Golf GTI
The most obvious update for the Mk7.5 Golf GTI is Active Info Display: VW’s take on Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, which replaces the dials with a configurable 12.3-inch screen. Also nicked from Audi are the pointless-but-cool ‘dynamic’ rear indicators, while restyled bumpers and new alloys complete the changes.
I’ve owned numerous Golf GTIs over the years, and a five-door Mk5 GTI is the current Pitt family wagon. So it’s fair to say I’m a fan of these cars. Like its predecessors, the new GTI doesn’t instantly wow you. But it feels like a car that would win your affections over thousands of miles – just like my trusty Mk5. (TP)
Electricity is the future of motoring and, after all VW has been though with diesel, they are pushing forward with electrification. If the e-Golf is any indication, the future will great.
The e-Golf feels oddly but enjoyably light to drive. It rewards you with instant torque, meaning at no point does it feel slow or underpowered. How long before we see an electric Golf GTI? (MT)
Aston Martin V12 Vantage S
I rounded off my day at Millbrook with the Aston Martin V12 Vantage S – this one fitted with a dog-leg seven-speed manual gearbox. The on-paper stats are impressive: 573hp, 3.9 seconds to 62mph and 205mph flat-out. The interior looks hopelessly dated, but that’s soon forgotten when you fire-up the thunderous V12.
For the uninitiated, a dog-leg gearbox means first is down and across, where reverse might normally be. This makes the Vantage awkward to get going, but no matter: there’s more than enough torque to start in second gear. Indeed, I manage a – pretty swift – lap of the hill route without shifting out of fourth gear. You can’t do that in a Kia Pride. (TP)
Mercedes-Benz E 220d Coupe
I hopped up to Merc trying to get hold of a V6 petrol. I drove off in a four-cylinder diesel. Short straw? If it were the old 2.1-litre diesel, maybe. But this all-new 2.0-litre turbodiesel is one of the best oil-burners Benz has made. And the E Coop itself is lovely.
It was scorching hot, so I needed to cool off. Thus, after a forgettable couple of laps of the hill course, I hit the high-speed bowl, set the cruise at 100mph and chillaxed. It was bliss. An archetypal Mercedes-Benz in all the best ways. (RA)
Volvo S90 D4 R-Design
The saloon brother to the V90 estate, the S90 is a truly giant four-door. D4 spec means a 2.0-litre diesel with 188hp and 295lb ft of torque, powering the front wheels through an eight-speed automatic gearbox. But this car isn’t about speed. Rather, it’s an alternative to the obvious German choices.
Calm, soothing, and tranquil. Somehow the S90 manages to make everything in the world seem fine once you’re behind the wheel. It may not have been the fastest or most powerful car I tested, but it was a strong favourite for the one I’d take home. (JR)
Porsche 911 Carrera GTS
The 911 was quite a tease, given that it was the shortest drive of the day – clocking in at total of 30 yards due to the Alpine course being closed early. In that brief distance however, I can confirm that the GTS sounds great at low speeds, has a very well-appointed cabin and a responsive throttle. After the slowest doughnut ever, there’s not much more to say except that the 911 feels every bit the super sports car at all times. Ahem. (MT)