Caterham Seven 270 track review: driving in its purest form

Caterham Seven 270“You wear a Caterham like a glove. It’s pure driving – that’s why everyone loves them.” So says Jack, my instructor for the day, as I lower myself into the skinny-fit seat of the Seven. If this is a glove, I must have oddly large hands.

At 9am sharp, the light goes green and I edge cautiously out of the pitlane. Brands Hatch is damp with morning dew and the Caterham’s Avon track tyres are cold. Fortunately, these are just sighting laps to learn the circuit. The real stuff comes later.

This isn’t my first time in a Seven, but it’s still a culture-shock after a ‘normal’ car. You feel hard-wired into the controls, every input amplified by the tiny steering wheel and taut suspension. There are no driving aids and no excuses. Which is what I’m worried about.

Caterham driving experience 

Caterham Seven 270Caterham track experiences at Brands Hatch are organised by MotorSport Vision (MSV) and a half-day costs £549. Alternatively, you could opt for half a day drifting in a Seven for £189. MSV also runs driving experiences at Donington Park, Oulton Park, Snetterton, Cadwell Park and Bedford Autodrome.

I start at 7:30am with signing on, a safety briefing and a strong coffee. This is an ‘open pit lane’ track day and around 70 drivers are here – although only 25 can use the circuit at once. Some want to test home-built hot rods, others are shaking down race cars. I studiously avoid mentioning this is my first ‘proper’ track day.

Thankfully, Jack puts my mind at ease. A professional racer and driver-for-hire, he’ll be in the passenger seat, watching the mirrors, showing me the racing line and keeping me out of trouble. Time to jump in the Caterham…

Story of the Seven

Caterham Seven 270

The story of the Caterham Seven starts with the original 1957 Lotus Seven, a back-to-basics sports car popular in club-level motorsport. When production ceased in 1972, Caterham Cars bought the rights. The company, now based in Crawley, has been building Sevens ever since.

Today, the Seven is effectively a range of cars: 160, 270, 360 and 420. Those numbers refer to each model’s power-to-weight ratio in horsepower per tonne. So, as the car weighs around 500kg, you approximately halve each figure to know its power output.

I’m driving a 270S, which uses a 137hp 1.6-litre Ford engine and five-speed manual gearbox. Zero to 62mph is quoted at 5.0 seconds, with a top speed of 122mph.

The ‘S’ refers to a £2,995 option pack aimed primarily at road use. It includes a heater, leather seats and a full windscreen, hood and side-screens. There’s also a track-focused ‘R’ pack (£3,995) with uprated brakes, stiffer suspension, four-point harnesses, a lightweight flywheel, composite race seats and a limited-slip differential. 

Re-learning to drive

Caterham Seven 270

MSV has two cars here, one standard size and one with the wider SV chassis. Being vertically challenged, I do most of my sessions in the former. I’m practically rubbing shoulders with Jack, but we still need helmet intercoms to communicate clearly above the engine and road roar. 

The pedals are packed tight, too, making it easy to press the throttle and brake at once. Still, I manage to exit the pit lane smoothly and ease right into the steep downhill at Paddock Hill Bend – “one of the best corners of any UK circuit,” says Jack. The sighting laps are a steady procession with no overtaking allowed, but getting accustomed to the Caterham’s controls takes time. 

The steering is so sensitive that at first I’m turning too much, hugging the inside of bends instead of slicing apices. Slowly, though, I begin to relax and concentrate on Jack’s commands. “Being smooth is key,” he says, “and only do one thing at a time: accelerate, brake or steer.”

A balancing act

Caterham Seven 270

My first proper session feels like a steep learning curve. It’s intimidating with so many quicker cars on-track – including a McLaren 720S, several BMW M3s and a Porsche 911 3.0 RSR replica – and I frequently pull over on the Brabham Straight to let others pass. Not that the Seven feels slow. With so little weight to shift, it revs stridently and punches hard out of bends.  

At Jack’s suggestion, I start by staying in fourth gear, concentrating solely on braking and steering inputs. The Caterham’s coil-sprung chassis is so lucid, it’s all too obvious when you get something wrong. Fail to brake in a straight line or hit the gas too soon and you instantly feel it lose focus, like a spinning top teetering off-centre. Finding its limits is, to a large extent, a game of trial and error, pushing gradually harder until grip turns to slip.

By late morning I’m shifting gears confidently and (mostly) in the right places. I even attempt some heel-and-toe blips on downshifts, although the proximity of the Seven’s pedals makes this tricky. Around the long 180-degree right-hander at Clearways, I goad the car into a slide, steering with the throttle as much as the wheel. It’s brilliant fun; I’m constantly learning more and driving faster.

How the pros do it

Caterham Seven 270

For the final session of the day, Jack has something different in mind: “Now I’m going to shut up and let you drive,” he grins. “Time to put everything you’ve learned into practice.” I’m tired, both physically and mentally, from a day of wrestling the Seven around Brands Hatch, but I soon find my flow. It’s far from a virtuoso performance, but his thumbs-up as we pull into the pit lane matters more than I care to admit.

Before I go, there’s one more surprise in store. Jack and I swap places and he shows me the huge gulf in talent between an enthusiastic amateur and a true racing driver. I bite my lip and clench my stomach as we blat between bends, clipping kerbs and even overtaking a stripped out M3 (with probably twice the power). I’m glad we didn’t attempt this straight after lunch.

I’m also quietly glad to climb into my oh-so-sensible Volkswagen T-Cross for the drive home. The reality of the rush-hour M25 bites hard, but I’ve experienced a different sort of driving today – and I’m already itching for another go.

Many thanks to Simon Reid at Fokus Media for all photos.

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2019 Skoda Kodiaq vRS review: hot seven-seat SUV driven

Skoda Kodiaq VRS

The Skoda Kodiaq was the Czech marque’s first foray into the crowded arena of the family SUV.

Three years on, it’s still selling well – and Skoda has expanded its SUV offering with the smaller Karoq, plus the Kamiq coming soon.

Skoda SUVs have so far been deserving of their success. They’re the cheapest of the Volkswagen Group cars with which they share underpinnings, yet similarly equipped and built to the same standard.

Skoda Kodiaq VRS

Both the Kodiaq and the Karoq are sharp-suited and handsome. Unlike many rivals, they don’t try to disguise their SUV silhouette, embracing its chunkiness with boxy proportions and bulbous wheelarches. 

Related: The Seat Tarraco is a Spanish Skoda Kodiaq

So, good looks, seven seats, lots of space, smart pricing, good equipment levels and an efficient engine line-up – what’s not to like?

Skoda Kodiaq VRS

Review over? Not quite. Meet the new top-of-the-line Nurburgring-conquering Kodiaq vRS. Specifically, £44,730-worth of Kodiaq VRS – we’ll get back to that later.

The vRS is Skoda’s version of Volkswagen’s GTI or Seat’s Cupra. It delivers different flavours of performance, though, with strong diesels available alongside potent petrols.

Seven-seat Nurburgring fighter

Skoda Kodiaq VRS

The Kodiaq is the latest to get the diesel vRS treatment, packing a twin-turbocharged 240hp 2.0-litre TDI with a seven-speed dual-clutch DSG transmission and four-wheel drive. It’ll get to 62mph in 7.0 seconds, plus a top speed of 136mph.

Skoda is keen to point out that this is the most powerful diesel engine in its history. It’s one of the main weapons with which the Kodiaq vRS won the title of fastest seven-seater around the Nurburgring Nordschleife circuit, with a time of nine minutes and 29 seconds. When not at the ‘Ring, it’ll achieve between 34 and 35mpg.

The vRS specification adds some aggression to the Kodiaq’s already agreeable looks. Blacked-out brightwork and 20-inch ‘Xtreme’ alloy wheels are suitably moody mods.

Sportier front and rear bumpers complete the look, with big metallic exhaust exits recessed into the back. Sharp LED lighting all-round comes as standard. Ignoring the juxtaposition of sporty styling with an SUV platform, it’s a looker.

Inside the Kodiaq vRS

Skoda Kodiaq VRS

Immediately evident inside are the Alcantara sports seats with quilted stitching, carbon-look material and strong bolstering. For all their attitude, they’re still nice and comfortable.

Flashes of red and Alcantara continue elsewhere, too. Look through the sportier steering wheel and you see the digital dials – exclusively standard on the vRS.

A nicely responsive 9.2-inch touchscreen handles sat-nav, digital media, radio and more. Climate controls sit below, along with various other physical controls in an intuitive layout. Depending on how you feel about touchscreen systems, the number of buttons will either feel refreshing or regressive. We’re in the former camp.

With all of the above, plus cruise control, climate control, adaptive lighting and more, the vRS is a very well-equipped car. Options fitted that we’d tick include the rear camera with full LED rear lights for £385, plus the Canton sound system for £405. The electric folding tow bar (£865) could appeal to others.

Driving the hot Skoda Kodiaq

Skoda Kodiaq VRS

Driving the Kodiaq vRS is a curious experience. The twin-turbo deployment of that 240hp and 369lb ft is seamless, but you definitely notice it. 

This is the first use of ‘Dynamic Sound Boost’ in a Skoda vRS – also known as ‘Mercedes-AMG G63 sound effects’. The bass and woofle it puts out just trundling around is amusing, but also quite odd. At speed, it could fool the lesser-informed into thinking there’s a V8 under the bonnet.

It feels every bit as fast as the figures suggest, but it’s not a scary or dramatic flavour of acceleration. A good job, then, that in spite of the tall driving position, the sporty seats keep you anchored where you need to be.

They have their work cut out for them when it comes to corners, though. The stiffer vRS in Sport mode covers ground at serious pace, doing well to mitigate typical SUV roll characteristics.

The steering is quite numb, which becomes a problem in the wet when the car’s significant weight pushes the low-profile tyres beyond their limits. There is next to no warning or sensation through the rim that you’re playing fast and loose with the available adhesion.

Skoda Kodiaq vRS verdict: four starsSkoda Kodiaq VRS

The Kodiaq VRS is an excellent car, but mostly because the Kodiaq is an excellent car.

Most of what it offers in vRS specification is available in a 190hp Sportline for much less. Sporty looks, amiable performance, generous equipment levels and a quality interior appointment are not exclusive to the vRS.

By no means is £38,250 – the amount that a Kodiaq 190 DSG Sportline costs – a small amount of money. Nevertheless, it is more than £6,000 less than a vRS, which costs from £42,895. The 190 Sportline offers more Kodiaq for your buck.

Skoda Kodiaq VRS

If you’re dedicated to the vRS life, we’d suggest the excellent Octavia vRS estate is more the practical performance car for far less cash. It’s more economical, better looking, faster and more fun to drive.

A full-fat Octavia Estate vRS Challenge will cost you £31,300, in fact. That’s a healthy £11,000 less than kick-off in a Kodiaq vRS. We also reckon the Kodiaq looks better in the chunky ‘Scout’ spec, but that’s your call.

Skoda Kodiaq VRS

Five 2019 Skoda Kodiaq vRS rivals

  • Skoda Kodiaq 190 Sportline
  • Skoda Octavia vRS Estate
  • Cupra Ateca
  • Audi SQ5
  • BMW X3 M

How much did our test car cost?

Skoda Kodiaq vRS 2.0 TDI 240PS 4×4 DSG: £44,730

Kia Proceed 1.4 T-GDI GT-Line S

Kia Proceed 1.4 T-GDI GT-Line S long-term review

Kia Proceed 1.4 T-GDI GT-Line SKia makes some exciting-looking cars these days. Britain loves the Sportage SUV, a regular top-10 best-seller, and automotive enthusiasts love the Stinger GT coupe, a performance Audi alternative that is more head-turning than any A5 Sportback.

It’s not letting up in 2019 either: out goes the forgettable Pro_cee’d three-door hatch, and in comes the new Kia Proceed five-door. The name is officially far less ugly and the car itself has been transformed, too – into a shooting brake that vies with a Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo for double-take impact.

Kia Proceed 1.4 T-GDI GT-Line S

I attended the Proceed first drive launch back in January 2019 and spent 10 minutes in Barcelona Airport simply walking around and tweeting it. That’s how wowed I was by the styling, which is Kia’s way of breathing life into a sector of car the market has moved on from.

Years ago, while five-door cars still took the lion’s share of sales, people did still buy three-door versions if they wanted a sportier look. Some car firms, such as Kia, made the three-door a more bespoke-lower-slung design, for added differentiation.

But these days, almost nobody wants a three-door. Ever-fewer can swallow the limitations in practicality and most hatch buyers who want something different go and buy an SUV.

Kia Proceed 1.4 T-GDI GT-Line S

Kia’s answer is to make its Ceed alternative irresistibly good-looking, packed with premium car allure – and, importantly, no less practical and even more spacious than a regular hatch.

And now, after being wowed by it for two days in Spain, I’m now spending six months living with a Kia Proceed, to see if it’s more than just a pretty face.

Kia Proceed 1.4 T-GDI GT-Line S: on test

Kia Proceed 1.4 T-GDI GT-Line S

Diesel-haters, listen up: I’m testing the 1.4-litre turbo petrol Proceed, complete with seven-speed DCT automatic gearbox.

I’m a high-mileage driver, so am the sort of person to whom diesel still stacks up. However, I’m still going for petrol to see whether it can deliver the sort of economy diesel drivers demand – and thus, whether it’s a viable alternative.

Kia Proceed 1.4 T-GDI GT-Line S

Can it really turn in high-40 mpg figures, or even regularly dip into the 50s? While also delivering smoother, quieter running, the benefit of cheaper prices at the filling station, and the up-front cash saving that helps lower monthly PCP prices? My wallet certainly hopes so.

As it’s such a good-looking car, it seemed rude not to make the most of it with fancy GT-Line S trim. This sits above core GT-Line spec and adds the key feature of 18-inch wheels, instead of the base 17-inch rims. They perfectly fill the arches and look superb, especially when enhanced by optional Infra Red metallic paint.

Other GT-Line S goodies include black leather and faux Alcantara seat trim, an 8-speaker JBL premium sound system, smart cruise control (truly invaluable through extended 50 mph motorway roadwork zones) and blind-spot warning.

It wants for nothing, particularly as it has standard Apple CarPlay, so syncs seamlessly with my iPhone.

Coming straight from a Sportage, I’m already enjoying the lower seating position, lack of diesel clatter and rattle and sharper body control. Now to start piling on the miles and find out how the rest of it fares… Proceed with the test!

Tech specs: Kia Proceed 1.4 T-GDI GT-Line S

  • Engine size: 1,353cc
  • Engine cylinders: 4
  • Power: 138hp @ 6,000rpm
  • Torque: 178lb ft @ 1,500-3,200rpm
  • 0-62 mph: 9.1 seconds
  • Top speed: 127mph
  • Fuel consumption (combined, WLTP): 42.8mpg
  • CO2: 133g/km
  • Length/width/height: 4,605/1,800/1,422mm
  • Weight: 1,405kg

Vauxhall Corsa Griffin Edition 1.4 75 review

Vauxhall Corsa Griffin EditionThe Vauxhall Corsa is still the firm’s best-selling car, despite now being pretty aged. Although the current version was heavily facelifted in 2014, the basic design dates back to 2006. In 2018, the Corsa name is 25 years old – and the version on sale now has been around for half that time.

That’s why Vauxhall is so excited for 2019, when an all-new Corsa arrives. There will even be an all-electric eCorsa, and the range should finally give the Ford Fiesta a run for its money in the British top 10 best-sellers list. But Vauxhall still has the current model to sell: cue a high-value special edition.

And what remarkably good value the Vauxhall Corsa Griffin Edition is. It costs £11,695, or a staggering £2,270 less than the cheapest Ford Fiesta, yet comes packed with an incredible standard specification.

Vauxhall Corsa Griffin Edition

This is no exaggeration. The Corsa Griffin Edition incudes, as standard, touchscreen sat nav (with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto), 16-inch gloss black alloys, front fog lights, heated front seats and steering wheel, air con, black roof and door mirrors, dark rear glass, LED daytime running lights, auto lights and wipers, cruise control, even a fancy automatic anti-dazzle rear-view mirror. It’s without doubt a contender for best-value new car of the year.

Vauxhall Corsa Griffin Edition

The bright red test car looked particularly smart and, parked next to a Corsa GSi, there was little to split them in terms of kerbside appeal.

Vauxhall Corsa Griffin Edition and Corsa GSi

Four versions are available, three- and five-door with a 1.4-litre petrol engine putting out 75hp or 90hp: true to form, we drove the cheapest one, the 75hp three-door. There’s no diesel option because Vauxhall doesn’t sell a diesel Corsa anymore.

Of course, it’s all very familiar fare. But the Corsa still has its merits, not least an impressive feeling of integrity. Paint finish is superb, the doors feel hefty and solid, and interior quality is excellent by supermini standards. The plastics and controls have a Germanic feel of robustness and attention to detail is good: piano black trim is rich and glossy, and the chrome detailing around the switches is Audi-like. The red dash trim is pretty, too.

Vauxhall Corsa Griffin Edition

The Griffin Edition gets a cracking set of semi-bolstered seats and a soft leather steering wheel. The light and airy feel inside the Corsa is welcome – side windows are large and the windscreen is deep – and it all feels rather pleasant in there.

That 75hp 1.4-litre engine is no rocketship. 0-62mph takes a yawning 15.5 seconds. But it doesn’t feel quite as slow as that. Unlike smaller-capacity engines, it has some semblance of response at lower revs 95lb ft of pulling power helps there), and power builds nicely as the revs rise. It’s quite lively over 4,000rpm, although it does become boomy at really high revs.

Vauxhall Corsa Griffin Edition

The gearbox is surprisingly pleasant, with a light and precise shift, steering is easy and accurate, and the ride quality is absorbent and quiet. The Corsa feels like a bigger car, in a good way, with plenty of stability and confidence. It’s refined, perfectly pleasant and, while not as fun as a Fiesta, still measures up for less demanding drivers.

Verdict: Vauxhall Corsa Griffin Edition

Vauxhall Corsa Griffin Edition

What will sell the Corsa Griffin Edition is its value for money. On that, it’s hard to fault – the standard specification is genuinely eyebrow-raising. But although it’s old, Vauxhall’s supermini still performs better than you may expect out on the road, too. If you’re looking for a supermini bargain, this car thus is well worth considering.

And no, we didn’t expect to be saying that, either.

Specs: Vauxhall Corsa Griffin Edition

  • Engine: 1.4-litre four-cylinder
  • Power: 75hp
  • Torque: 95lb ft
  • 0-62mph: 15.5 seconds
  • Top speed: 101mph
  • Fuel economy: 49.6mpg
  • CO2: 131g/km
  • Insurance group: 4E
  • Price (1.4 75 3dr): £11,695

2019 Toyota GR Supra review: long-awaited ‘Porsche-killer’ driven

Here it is, then: the most hotly-anticipated car of 2019. Well, apart from that 4×4 from Solihull.

It’s been 17 years since Toyota last sold a Supra, but Gran Tursimo and The Fast & The Furious have kept the flame burning. Now, finally, the fifth-generation GR Supra is here. Let’s pray it doesn’t disappoint.

The ‘GR’ stands for Gazoo Racing – Toyota’s motorsport division. It’s been doing rather well of late, winning Le Mans, Dakar and the WRC manufacturers’ title. This is its first all-new road car.

It’s also a pet project for Toyota boss, Akio Toyoda. In addition to “countless hours” lapping the Nurburgring, he had final sign-off on how the Supra drives. How many car company CEOs can say that?

With a front-mounted 340hp straight-six, two seats and rear-wheel drive, the GR Supra is Toyota’s flagship sports car. Priced from £52,695, it’s pitched directly at the Porsche 718 Cayman and Alpine A110. Read on for our verdict.

We’ve come a long, long way together

Have you ever felt excited and slightly ‘used’ at the same time? Actually, don’t answer that. Toyota has teased us to the brink of turn-off with the new Supra – and we in the media have been shamelessly complicit.

The hype began with the dramatic FT-1 concept of 2014, followed by Toyota re-registering ‘Supra’ as a trademark a month later. A steady drip-feed of details led to the GR Racing Supra Concept in early 2018, then a ‘dynamic debut’ at Goodwood Festival of Speed – albeit with a camouflaged car. After that, journalists drove a prototype, still disguised and with technical details unconfirmed. Only now, some five years on, can we see and drive the Supra as Akio intended.

One could be forgiven, then, for feeling a little jaded. But I’ve raced a 1,000hp Castrol-liveried Supra around Grand Turismo’s Trial Mountain. I’ve watched Vin Diesel smoke a Ferrari F355 in a drag race. I’ve driven the brilliant GT86 and Yaris GRMN. And I’ve interviewed Tetsuya Tada, chief engineer for the GR Supra. So yes, I’m still excited.

Going for golden

Clearly, so is Tada-San: his eyes light up when he talks about his baby. It’s the one car he plans to keep for his eventual retirement: “I’ll customise it to exactly how I like and just enjoy driving it.”

Driving, we’re told, is what the new Supra is all about. “It’s a pure sports car, a Porsche-killer” explains Tada. “Practicality and comfort were almost not considered”. Instead, the laws of physics dictated its design.

Key to achieving “ultimate driving pleasure” is the so-called golden ratio between track width and wheelbase. Apparently, anything between 1.50 and 1.60 serves up the best balance of agility and stability. With a rear track of 1,589mm and wheelbase of 2,470mm, the Supra is a bang-on-the-money 1.55. For reference, the Ferrari 488 GTB and Porsche 911 manage 1.59 and 1.60 respectively.

Moments of inertia, moments of clarity

Further benefits of Tada’s single-minded approach include perfect 50:50 weight distribution, a lower centre of gravity than the boxer-engined GT86 and a stiffer chassis than the carbon fibre Lexus LFA.

Toyota hasn’t scrimped on hardware, either. An active differential constantly adjusts torque between the wheels, helping tighten the car’s line when cornering. There are Brembo brake calipers and lightweight five-link rear suspension, backed-up by adaptive dampers. The tyres are sticky Michelin Pilot Super Sports (wider at the rear), wrapped around 19-inch forged alloys.

Cleverly, the brakes have a drying function that applies the pads at set intervals when you switch the wipers on. Braking pressure is also boosted automatically when the discs are hot. More on that shortly.

The other Ultimate Driving Machine

Nonetheless, the GR Supra wasn’t designed without compromise. It’s been a joint-venture with BMW from the outset, sharing its engine, gearbox and most of its interior with the Z4. Both cars are built at the same Magna Steyr factory in Austria.

That engine is a 3.0-litre six with variable valve timing and a single twin-scroll turbocharger. Serving up 369lb ft of torque from 1,600rpm, it drives the rear wheels via an eight-speed paddleshift transmission. Use launch control and you can blast to 62mph in 4.3 seconds, topping out at an electronically-limited 155mph.

“Numbers are one thing,” says Tada, “but it’s feeling that matters”. So while the Z4 is a capable Côte d’Azur cruiser, the Supra, using similar raw ingredients, aims to be far more focused. After a morning on some of Europe’s best driving roads, followed by track-time at Jarama – an ex-Formula One circuit near Madrid – we’ll know for sure.

Don’t look back in Manga

Basking in the fluorescent glow of a subterranean car park, the new Supra awaits. Squat and willfully aggressive, its voluptuous curves are punctuated by slash-cut strakes. It bristles with kinetic energy even sitting still.

Chief stylist Nobuo Nakamura calls his design ‘Condensed Extreme’. There’s certainly a lot happening in a small space. The hawkish headlights are a nod to the previous ‘A80’ Supra (1993-2002), while the double-bubble roof is inspired by the iconic 2000GT (1967-1970). There’s a whiff of Porsche in the Cayman-esque window graphic and ducktail spoiler, too.

A word about those air intakes. Forum fanboys have been quick to label them fake, which indeed they are. However, the Supra GT4 concept, parked in the pit lane at Jarama, will later reveal their true purpose: to homologate the extra cooling ducts needed for racing. Here’s hoping the GT4’s mammoth rear wing becomes a dealer-fit option.

Familiar to millions

The interior is decidedly more Teutonic, and will feel instantly familiar to anyone who’s driven a BMW this century. Yet as anyone who’s also driven a GT86 will affirm, that’s probably A Good Thing. The trad-Toyota LCD clock is notable by its absence.

You sit low, in ‘racing-inspired’ seats, cocooned by the domed roof and tall transmission tunnel. The dashboard is nigh-on identical to a Z4, from the gear selector to the iDrive media system. Only an 8.8-inch digital instrument display is unique to the Supra, its 3D-look rev counter positioned front-and-centre. Apple Carplay connectivity is standard, but there’s no Android Auto for now.

As for practicality, don’t get your hopes up. A luggage capacity of 290 litres is, theoretically, on par with some superminis, but bulky rear tyres and that complex rear suspension make the boot an awkward shape.

Give it the edamame beans

Whose idea was it to leave at 9am? Rush-hour Madrid is a maelstrom of suicidal Seats and self-righteous cyclists. Traffic lights, it seems, are advisory. Fortunately, the Supra proves itself immediately amenable. Light steering and a smooth auto ’box make for easy progress, while a short wheelbase makes U-turns a cinch (blame the sat nav). It’s no more of a prima donna than a Prius.

The ride is calmer than I expected, too. Firm but finely damped, it takes pockmarked city streets in its stride. It’s certainly more pliant than a BMW M2 – let alone most hot hatches with similar performance.

We eventually reach the autopista and I can wait no longer. The engine erupts with a rich, cultured snarl that puts the lumpy, four-cylinder Cayman squarely in the shade. There’s a hefty wallop of mid-range torque, but it’s almost too smooth, too civilised. Like most turbocharged motors, it doesn’t urge you to wring out every last rpm.

A question of SPORT

Fortunately, a large button on the centre console marked ‘SPORT’ tenses up engine and gearbox response, adds heft to the helm and stiffens the suspension. It also opens flaps in the twin-exit exhaust, unleashing a glorious straight-six howl. The car switches from calm to combative, and suddenly comes alive.

Blasting along capillary lanes, the Supra has the feel of ‘flow’ common to all great driver’s cars. It hugs the topography tightly over crests and compressions, turning in sharply and seeming to pivot around its own axis. The steering doesn’t fizz with abundant feedback like the GT86, but grip levels are hugely higher.

Granted, some four-wheel-drive hyper-hatches would be quicker still on roads like these – especially in the hands of an average driver like yours truly. But it’s feeling that matters, right?

Tracks of my rears

Jarama is a technical circuit of short straights and tight turns, spiced up by the close proximity of the crash barriers. It’s a stern test for any sports car, even one honed on the Nordschleife.

Tada-San, though, has done his homework, and the GR Supra’s brilliant balance comes firmly to the fore here. It feels malleable and confidence-inspiring, rewarding commitment yet forgiving mistakes. You can do your best Tokyo Drift impression (and I did), but side-on isn’t its preferred angle of attack. It’s too tenacious for that.

With the mid-afternoon mercury reaching a scorchio 31 deg C, too many hot laps take their toll on the brakes. The pedal softens in line with my nerve and I potter gently back to the pits. If you plan to use your Supra for track days, it’s probably worth an upgrade. Doubtless many aftermarket tuners are already on the case.

Wait of expectation

As Toyota’s in-house tuning department, Gazoo also has further plans for the Supra. A faster, harder Supra GRMN is allegedly under development, possibly using parts from the GT4 racer.

Until then, the range consists of just two models: ‘standard’ and Pro. The former costs £52,695 and has heated Alcantara seats, LED headlights, adaptive cruise control and a 10-speaker stereo. Upgrading to Pro (£54,000) adds leather trim, head-up display, a wireless phone charger and 12-speaker JBL audio system.

If you want a Supra, though, join the queue. The UK’s allocation of 300 cars for 2019 has already sold out, including 24 examples of the matte silver ‘A90’ launch edition. As if we hadn’t already waited long enough…

2019 Toyota Supra verdict: 4 stars

There have been mumblings in the media that the Supra is too ‘BMW’. I’m not convinced that matters. It feels closer to a well-sorted M car than a Z4 – and that alone shows the depth of Toyota’s input.

Even so, it isn’t quite the “Porsche-killer” Tada-San promised. The mid-engined Cayman is still a more polished dynamic package, but the Toyota counters with two extra cylinders and a vastly superior soundtrack. Then there’s the Alpine A110, arguably the best driving machine of the lot, albeit down on power and subjectively less substantial.

So, you pays your £50,000 and takes your choice. But really, there are no wrong decisions here.

2019 Toyota Supra: Specification

Price: £52,695

Engine: 2,998cc turbocharged petrol straight-six

Drivetrain: front engine, rear-wheel drive

Transmission: Eight-speed semi-automatic

Suspension: MacPherson struts front, five-link rear

Wheels: 19 inches

Tyres: 255/35 ZR19 front, 275/35 ZR19 rear

Power: 340hp @ 5,000rpm

Torque: 369lb ft @ 1,600rpm

0-62mph: 4.3sec

Top speed: 155mph (limited)

Fuel economy: 34.5mpg

CO2 emissions: 170g/km

Length: 4,379mm

Width: 1,854mm

Height: 1,292mm

Kerb weight: 1,495kg

Toyota GR Supra review: in pictures

Audi S8 long-term review: life with a classic super saloon

Audi S8 long-term review

It’s the tail end of 2001. The Millennium Bug has buggered off and the Millennium Dome will soon be sold on. Meanwhile, the coolest super saloon on the block is the original (D2) Audi S8.

Despite starring in one of Hollywood’s most epic car chases (in 1998’s Ronin), the subtle S8 flew under the radar. It’s a bit of a unicorn these days, garnering respectful nods from the sort of car geeks you’d avoid at a dinner party. We absolutely loved it.

Übermacht: meeting the Audi S8

Audi long-term review

In the over-styled, over-sized, and obese automotive world of 2019, the S8 looks modest: perfectly proportioned and effortlessly tasteful. It’s a collector of double-takes, as onlookers realise this low-slung saloon isn’t a typical old Audi. Watching it trundle into the office car park was enough to eke an ‘Ooohh’ out of several MR staffers.

The first S8 was launched in 1996, some 10 years before the R8 supercar arrived to drag Audi’s music-video appeal up by the scruff of the neck. Big wheels and those signature alloy mirror covers complement flashes of chrome on the grilles and window trims. Today, that sounds like a paint-by-numbers Audi S model. Back then, it was über-cool.

Our S8 – on loan from Audi UK’s extensive heritage fleet – is no spring chicken. In our month-long stewardship, its mileage ticked over the 157,000 mark. As such, some of the paint is a bit faded and the leather a touch tired. No matter, we love a bit of patina and it is, after all, a mile-munching luxo-barge.

Read our long-term review of the classic Audi A4 DTM

Littler than large luxo-barge

Audi long-term review

Getting inside, it couldn’t be more ‘2001’ if Ricky Martin was blaring out of the stereo. The leather chairs – yes these are chairs, not seats – absorb you. The tiny infotainment screen is dim in daylight, and outdone in the dark by quintessential Audi red backlighting. The plentiful wood shows even this most modern premium marque was chasing old-school luxury tropes back then and there’s no sign of the stylish sloping centre console of subsequent generations just yet.

The electric rear blind is perfect for shielding back-seat passengers from the sun, or hiding Justin Timberlake from prying paparazzi lenses (possibly).

For its comparatively slight proportions – it’s not much larger than a current A4 – the S8 is nicely spacious inside. The control weights are heavy, the buttons make a satisfying click and the shifter for the automatic gearbox has a hefty clunk that today’s drive buttons could never hope to replicate. Once your seat and mirrors are adjusted, it’s one of those cars that feels so right – an effect amplified once you hit the road.

Driving the S8 – a proper super saloon

Audi S8 long-term review

No starter buttons, no keyless go: the key goes in the column, kids. Turn it, and a nondescript hum fills the cabin as the 4.2-litre 40-valve V8 coughs into life. Yes, this engine would inform the unit that found its way into the middle of the R8.

Here, it’s no 420hp screamer, putting out 355hp, which goes to ground via a five-speed automatic transmission.

Engage drive, release the manual handbrake and the waft-tastic regression session begins. At the risk of outing myself for bad driving habits, the S8 is a car that inspires a spot of ‘palming’. That is, flat-handing the top of the wheel and guiding it round as you slither around urban streets.

Gear changes are a bit lurchy, exacerbated by the eager-to-rev engine. Make the V8 sing, however, and a reputation forged by Ronin is quickly justified. This is perfect early-2000s car chase fodder, as evidenced by the fact that Jason Statham swapped his BMW 7 Series for an A8 in sequels to The Transporter. What Ultimate Driving Machine?

Audi S8 long-term review

Beemer-beater, the S8 isn’t, though. The Quattro all-wheel drive is faithfully grippy and the chassis feels balanced if not pushed too hard. Its damping is compliant, but there’s just a bit more body roll than you’d want. If the driving gets any more exciting than a swift hustle, the fact that the engine sits almost completely beyond the front wheels becomes obvious. It’s definitely a super saloon rather than a sports saloon.

What the S8 has in spades (and which we sorely miss in modern cars), is a bit of tyre sidewall. It rides beautifully when pressing on, making light work of rutted British roads.

Big distances, big fuel bills

What the S8 is most good at is chewing miles. Sorry, chewing fuel. Sorry, both at once. The beautifully refined cabin, with its double-glazed windows, is the perfect place to forget that you’re doing, at best, 24mpg. If you’re exercising that V8 at all, it’s more like 15mpg.

The S8 on a long run is absolutely delightful, as reported by all at team MR. Tim took a family trip to Norfolk in it, Richard did some commuting and I ran it for miles in-between. Just as soon as you fall in love with the delicious bubble the S8 provides for a long journey, so too do you worry about its voracious appetite.

Audi S8 long-term review

The Audi S8, like the Millenium Dome, is of its time. Both represent the era from which they originate giving itself a hearty pat on the back. And both live on in 2019, with equally strong arguments for and against their suitability. You love it from afar, you enjoy it up close, but sooner or later, the novelty wears off. Almost.

You hand back the keys, quietly nursing your superleggera wallet, then you immediately have second thoughts. You’d take 10mpg if it meant you could go for one last waft. Boy, do we miss it now it’s gone.

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Beyond Skyfall: Bonding with a Volvo S60 in Scotland

Volvo S60 at Skyfall

You could justifiably buy a new Volvo S60 on the strength of its looks alone, and I’d salute you for it. Volvo’s compact saloon is, without question, the best looking car in the segment. Heck, it might be one of the best looking new cars on sale in 2019.

And the chiselled, catwalk styling might be the S60’s strongest attribute, that’s if my first drive in Scotland is anything to go by. Behind those supermodel looks lies a car that’s very easy to like, but surprisingly difficult to love.

A case of style over substance, then? Read on to find out (if you can stop drooling at the pics).

As soon as I was told I’d be flying to Edinburgh to drive the S60, I had one destination on my mind: Glen Etive. It might be as clichéd as turning up at Scottish-themed fancy dress party wearing a kilt and a Rod Stewart wig, but the area in Scotland where 007 and M went ‘back in time’ has become a popular spot for fans of the 2012 film Skyfall.

Hold your breath and count to 10

Volvo S60 in Scotland

I wanted to venture beyond Skyfall; to continue along the road past the point at which the characters played by Daniel Craig and Dame Judi Dench stood in front of the DB5, staring into the middle distance, presumably feeling the effects of spending 500 miles in a 50-year-old Aston.

They’d have had no such problems in the S60. Volvo doesn’t build uncomfortable cars; the combination of superb seats, minimalist cabins and clever use of lighting means that driving one of its cars is no less relaxing than a foot massage from Enya.

The S60’s biggest problem is familiarity. It’s five years since the Volvo XC90 debuted in Geneva, and while the interior remains a fabulous example of fit, finish and ergonomics, the wow-factor diminishes with every subsequent new car. You kinda know what to expect.

Volvo S60 interior

Not that I was complaining as I made my way out of the airport car park and into the morning commute. The first UK cars are offered in R-Design Edition spec, which means all but the most opulent and lavish equipment is fitted as standard.

The sea of charcoal that swathes the cabin is as bright and cheery as a gentleman’s wash bag, but the gloom is pierced by a metal mesh inlay running across the dashboard. Predictably, the quality is first-rate, but I don’t remember the air vents feeling this flimsy in Volvo’s larger cars. Probably my memory playing tricks on me.

Stirling work

Volvo S60 dashboard

“Don’t drive tired”, proclaimed the matrix display above the M9 motorway, a stark reminder that I’d been up since 3am and crowbarred into a crevice on a red-eye flight from Bristol. I lowered the Volvo’s seat and steering wheel heating, reduced the temperature of the climate control, and changed the sat-nav route setting to ‘scenic’. Time to wake up.

The Sensus nine-inch touchscreen remains a visual treat, but too many commands and settings are hidden away and you’re required to take your eyes off the road for too long in order to change things. Fortunately, I remembered that Volvo’s voice control is one of the best, so I used that throughout the journey.

Try doing that in your DB5, Bond. “Set passenger seat to eject…”

The sat-nav directed me through Stirling, where the S60 seemed to be as eye-catching as the castle sat atop the rugged crag. I caught sight of at least three chaps turning their heads to get a better look, and it’s not hard to see why.

Volvo S60 at Glen Etive

The S60 looks alluring from any angle: as toned as a marathon runner, curvaceous in all the right places and far better resolved than the S90. It takes a lot to upstage the magnificent beauty of Scotland, but the S60 achieves it. It warrants a closer look, too. Note the voluptuous haunches and the wafer-thin panel gaps.

The R-Design treatment certainly helps, with the S60 packing high-gloss black trim, dual integrated exhaust pipes and 18-inch diamond-cut alloy wheels. The good news is that my test car was running on the standard 18s, which proves you don’t have to upgrade to the probable-ride-ruining 19- or 20-inch rims to achieve maximum glamour.

So far, so good, then. If cars were judged on the strength of their styling and cabin, Volvo would be off to Ikea in search of another trophy cabinet for another ‘winner takes all’ victory. Other Swedish clichés are available.

Feel the earth move?

Volvo S60 T5 R-Design Edition

But it’s at this point that the S60 starts to lose some of its lustre. There’s enough here for a terrific first date, but a lasting relationship might be off the cards.

Power is sourced from a 2.0-litre four-cylinder T5 engine producing 250hp and 258lb ft of torque, which sounds great on paper, but is more ‘meh’ in reality. The engine is totally devoid of character, and although the peak power appears at 5,500pm, the engine sounds strained when you reach the upper reaches of the rev counter – there’s no reward for pushing the S60 hard.

It’s strange, because the engine is far from slow. The 0-62mph time is a not-too-shabby 6.5 seconds, and because the torque is available from 1,800 to 4,800rpm, the S60 makes light work of slow-moving camper vans, mobile libraries and coaches. Yes, I’m speaking from experience here.

Volvo S60 first UK drive

Yet it never feels exciting, even in Dynamic mode, when the throttle is at its most responsive and the entire car feels tauter and more focused. It doesn’t help that the eight-speed transmission appears to prefer a slow dance to a waltz, with even the paddles seemingly unable to inject a dose of excitement.

This might be a touch unfair: Volvo isn’t pitching the S60 as a performance saloon, but when the roads are as good as this, it should be possible to have fun.

Accelerate hard and there’s a touch of torque steer, with the front end feeling detached from the asphalt beneath the wheels. This ‘floating’ sensation is joined by steering that is short on feel and too light in anything other than Dynamic mode. It’s not unpleasant to drive, but it’s far from engaging.

This might not matter in the U.S., where the S60 is built at Volvo’s new plant in South Carolina, because corners haven’t been invented there. But if you’re touring Scotland and fancy some excitement to go with the stunning scenery, look elsewhere.

At Skyfall

Volvo S60 T5 at Skyfall

Just before noon, I was parked at the precise spot where Craig and Dench stared into the Scottish mist. It’s easy to find – just look for the ‘layby’ created by seven years of location-hunting film fans. This must be the only layby in the world created indirectly by a Dame and a 007. There’s another worn-out patch of Scotland on the other side of the road, created by folk turning around and heading back to the A82.

But I wasn’t going back. Instead, I continued beyond the famous spot, taking the single track Glen Etive Road to its conclusion. For the benefit of any doubt, Bond didn’t continue along this road – it’s a dead-end – and Skyfall Lodge was built on Hankley Common, Surrey. But you probably knew that already.

It’s just as well Bond didn’t take the Aston too much further. In places, the road resembles Belgian pavé, which would have shaken and stirred the DB5 to bits long before Javier Bardem’s helicopter loomed into view.

Volvo S60 at Loch Etive

The Comfort setting is advised if you value your spine – I dread to think what the S60 would be like on 20-inch rims. On 18s, the ride is a little on the firm side, if far from uncomfortable, but given the S60’s lack of precision, I’d have preferred it to be a little softer.

The 12-mile road follows the path of the River Etive, taking in open moorland, forests and small Scottish homesteads as it makes it way through the mountainous landscape.

The further you travel, the more you feel like you’re driving into the unknown, although the feeling of isolation is punctured by the endless stream of black Vauxhall Corsa hire cars. Still, it makes a change from the endless stream of yellow Arnold Clark stickers you see away from the tourist routes in Scotland.

Hear my heart burst again

Volvo S60 headlight

An hour or so later, not only was the weather on the turn, but the clock was ticking ever closer to my departure from Edinburgh Airport. Bond had a date with Raoul Silva – and M had a date with death – but I had little more than an Easyjet booking to look forward to.

The return leg was a frustrating mix of poor weather, coaches, roadworks and intermittent digital radio signal. I tried one last time to extract some enjoyment from the S60, but I reached the conclusion that it’s a little like fast food: quick, but lacking in substance.

A more pertinent issue would be to work out where the new S60 sits in the UK market. Will the styling, cabin and safety credentials be enough to counter the less-than-sparkling performance and the rather limited choice of engines and trim levels? A T8 plug-in hybrid, Polestar Engineered version and Inscription trim will be added in the future.

As I said at the beginning, you could buy a Volvo S60 on the strength of its looks and live happily ever after knowing that your car looks a million dollars. And you will enjoy some exclusivity – Volvo says it will “achieve higher sales than the outgoing S60”.

Volvo sold 960 previous-generation S60s last year, so the company is not expecting huge numbers from its compact exec. Standing out from the me-too German cars is almost guaranteed in an S60.

We will stand tall

Not Daniel Craig at Skyfall

Part of me doesn’t want to reach a conclusion, and not just because I’m forever being distracted by the library of S60 images on my desktop.

Please don’t get me wrong: there is so much to love about the S60. The seats in the R-Design are fabulous, the cabin is a delight and it’s probably safer than covering yourself in bubble wrap and never leaving the house.

So, like Bond, I’m going to stare into the middle distance and contemplate a more decisive future for the S60. As a trailer for the main feature, the T5 R-Design Edition is a competent teaser. Here’s hoping the Polestar version is more of a thriller, leaving the Inscription to feel as cosetting and cosy as watching a black and white movie in front of the fire on a wet Sunday afternoon.

Not much of a conclusion, is it? But what were you expecting, an exploding pen?

Volvo V60 T5 R-Design Edition

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, front-wheel-drive
Power: 250hp @ 5,500rpm
Torque: 258lb ft @ 1,800 – 4,800rpm
WLTP fuel economy: 35.3-39.8mpg
CO2 emissions: 152g/km
Price: £37,935
Price as tested: £39,160

DS 3 Crossback review: a small SUV with big ambitions

DS 3 Crossback

DS says it wants to ’embody the know-how of French luxury into the automotive industry’. In theory, that means channelling the spirit of the original Citroen DS – indisputably one of the greatest cars ever made – along with haute couture brands such as Chanel, Dior and Hermès. In practice, it means a compact crossover. Yep, another one.

DS split from Citroen and launched the 7 Crossback last year. The smaller 3 Crossback is part two of its reinvention as a standalone brand. A high-rise hatchback with SUV styling, it starts from £21,550 (or £351 a month). Rivals include the Audi Q2, Mini Countryman and Volkswagen T-Cross.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Citroen celebrated 100 years at Retromobile 2019. This sublime DS comes from its huge heritage collection.

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This is the first outing for PSA Group’s new CMP platform, which also unpins the next Peugeot 208 and Vauxhall Corsa. All versions are front-wheel drive, so don’t get any ideas about venturing off-road.

Most buyers will opt for the 1.2-litre petrol engine, which comes in three outputs: 100hp with a six-speed manual gearbox, or 130hp and 155hp with an eight-speed auto. There’s also a 100hp 1.5 diesel (manual only), plus a fully electric E-Tense version – due later in 2019.

DS 3 Crossback: first impressions

DS 3 Crossback

The 2009 Citroen DS3 – the first modern DS – looked suspiciously similar to the BMW Mini, but nobody could accuse the French of plagiarism this time. The 3 Crossback is a riot of design ideas, some more successful than others.  

Established DS themes include the LED fangs in the front bumper, shark fin between the side windows and (optional) contrast roof. There are other influences at play here, though: spot the Lexus-look front grille and Range Rover Evoque-style tail lights.

Neat details include flush door handles, which pop out when you unlock the car, plus a hidden boot release in the number plate recess. We’re less convinced by the startled-looking headlights and horrible fake vents in the rear bumper, though.  

Inside the DS 3 Crossback

DS 3 Crossback

The Crossback’s cabin is even more distinctive – its pièce de résistance, in fact. It’s wilfully quirky in the finest French tradition, combining  flamboyance with functionality.

Most of the infotainment and ventilation controls are clustered within seven intersecting diamonds, with a seven-inch touchscreen (10-inch on higher-spec versions) perched above. Driving modes are selected via jewel-like switches on the centre console. Their unusual guilloche finish resembles ‘braided or interlaced ribbons’ (it says here).

The hip-hugging front seats are very comfortable and the main touch-points feel suitably plush. You’ll discover some decidedly non-premium plastics elsewhere, though. Rear-seat passengers may feel a tad claustrophobic, thanks to shallow side windows and limited legroom.

Standard kit on the entry-level Elegance includes 17-inch alloy wheels, Bluetooth, DAB radio, lane-keep assist, keyless start and rear parking sensors. Upgrading to Performance Line (+£1,500) gets you tinted windows, LED rear lights and Alcantara trim, while Prestige (+£2,000) adds leather, navigation, auto wipers, front parking sensors and the 10-inch touchscreen.

Fully-loaded Ultra Prestige (+£3,000) comes with 18-inch alloys, head-up display, reversing camera and advanced Matrix LED headlights. Apple Carplay and Android Auto connectivity is standard throughout.

DS 3 Crossback: on the road

DS 3 Crossback

We started out in the 130hp 1.2 petrol, the likely best-seller. It’s eager to rev and the auto ‘box reacts quickly and intuitively. Performance is modest – 0-62mph in 9.2sec and 124mph flat-out – although thrifty fuel economy of 42.2-47.1mpg (WLTP figures) makes up for that.

If you want a sporty drive, you’re better off with the DS 3 hatchback; the Crossback’s extra height and heft takes its toll in corners. It’s steering is direct but devoid of feel, while the damping is rather lumpen: firm around town, then floaty at speed. 

For everyday duties, however, the Crossback is perfectly proficient. It coped well with the cut-and-thrust of London traffic, helped by light controls and plenty of driver aids. 

That said, we would approach the 155hp petrol version with caution; it’s useful extra punch is offset by stiffer suspension, which makes the ride quite harsh. No doubt the larger 18-inch wheels of our second test car – a La Premiere special edition, only available at launch – didn’t help. As ever, try before you buy.

DS 3 Crossback verdict: 3 stars

DS 3 Crossback

The DS 3 Crossback won’t be joining its 1955 forefather in the hall of four-wheeled fame, but it’s a genuinely different offering in a crowded class. 

Crossovers sell on style as much as any perceived benefits in practicality or ability, and the DS delivers this in abundance. Pick one of the brighter colours, such as Millennium Blue or Imperial Gold (both pictured) and it will turn heads. The interior is a real talking point, too.

Prices are worryingly close to the Audi Q2, and we have some reservations about the ride. However, if the DS 3 Crossback’s outré panache appeals, you should certainly add it to your shortlist.

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Five DS 3 Crossback rivals

  • Audi A2
  • Mini Countryman
  • Volkswagen T-Roc
  • BMW X2
  • Lexus UX

How much did our test car cost?

DS 3 Crossback Pure Tech 130 Prestige auto: £27,950

Blockbuster: Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR vs greatest roads of Wales

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR in Wales

The hot hatch is best enjoyed alone. I came to this conclusion after spending a day in the company of the new Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR on the roads of Mid Wales. It was the kind of day that might have prompted Lou Reed to write a song. Almost everything was perfect, including the weather, which was very Welsh.

I’d arrived in Crickhowell, a small town in the foothills of the Black Mountains, just before 8am, feeling decidedly jaded following a three-hour motorway slog in a diesel-powered MPV. But there’s nothing like the sight of a freshly washed hot hatch – not to mention a fresh pot of tea – to stir the soul and awaken the senses.

Before most people had finished their morning commute, I was behind the wheel of a five-door Golf GTI TCR finished in Pure Grey, a colour unique to this run-out model. No passenger, no predefined road route and no rush to get back. Just a full tank of fuel and the entire Welsh road network at my disposal.

In truth, it wouldn’t have mattered where I went, because Wales is essentially a greatest hits album of epic roads: Now That’s What I Call Great Driving Roads. But I intended to put together a playlist of Welsh gems, so I took the A479 to Talgarth and headed for Builth Wells.

T, C and R, please, Bob

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR decals

First, a bit about the Golf GTI TCR. This is the last hurrah for the Mk7.5 Golf, its name and styling inspired by the Touring Car Racing series. Volkswagen has been successful in the formula, so it made sense to create a hotter Golf GTI inspired by the race car.

The tribute act is a lot more subtle than the track star, especially if you resist the temptation to spend £550 on the honeycomb design side decals. Maybe I’m getting old, but I’d prefer my TCR without the homage to Blockbusters plastered on the side. The letters T, C and R on the base of the rear doors are enough for me, Bob.

Other aesthetic upgrades over the Golf GTI Performance include a new front splitter, side skirts, a rear diffuser, black door mirrors and a larger tailgate spoiler. This particular car had the optional TCR Performance Pack, comprising 19-inch black alloys (18s are standard), semi-slick Pirelli tyres, de-restricted top speed to 164mph, suspension lowered by 20mm and Dynamic Chassis Control.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR interior

All in, my test car cost a not insignificant £41,289.19, its price inflated by the £2,900 TCR Performance Pack, £1,000 panoramic sunroof, £100 rear tinted glass, £555 decals, £300 rear side airbags and £534.19 vehicle tracker. A panoramic sunroof on a track-inspired hot hatch? No thanks.

But then everyday useability has always been one of the Golf GTI’s greatest strengths. An ability to switch from mellow roast to espresso in the blink of an eye. The TCR is no stripped-out hardcore racer in the style of the Clubsport S, it’s a car for all reasons, even if the Golf R is – on paper at least – a superior car for all seasons.

I hadn’t so much left the suburbs of Crickhowell before I had settled into a groove. Finding the perfect driving position is easy, while the TCR seats provide good initial comfort and superb long-term support. But while the red marker at the top of the steering wheel is a neat touch, I wish Volkswagen had finished the wheel in Alcantara to match the gear gaiter and door inserts.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR steering wheel

You can play around with the driving modes until your heart’s content, but for 90 percent of the time, I found myself in Sport mode and with the seven-speed DSG transmission set to manual. Some may bemoan the absence of a manual gearbox, but in the hills and mountains of Wales, the paddles weren’t a spoiler, they were adding to the event.

It’s not as though Sport mode turns the TCR into a rabid beast, loaded with pent-up aggression and egging you on to drive faster – this is not a hot hatch in the style of the Honda Civic Type R. There’s a noticeable difference between Comfort and Sport, but the ride quality is never uncomfortable, even on the 19-inch rims, and the exhaust pop-pops on the overrun are more pronounced.

Forget Eco mode, which is akin to exchanging the sticky Pirellis for a set of waders and asking the TCR to go bog snorkelling in Llanwrtyd Wells.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR seats

Not that the car ever lets you forget that we’re living in eco-conscious times. Every so often, the dashboard would display an ‘eco tip’ advising me to flick the shifter into automatic to save fuel. An unwanted distraction, especially when you’re enjoying the asphalt of Mid Wales.

The 20-mile drive to Talgarth was like a familiarisation event; like being reacquainted with an old friend, everything feels right in a Golf GTI. It might be easy to poke a stick at VW for being a little unadventurous with its interiors, but when the quality is this good, and the ergonomics are near-faultless, who’s complaining?

It puts you at ease and delivers the confidence you require to really enjoy a hot hatch. And as I peeled off the A483 at Beulah, that was precisely what I intended to do.

The Abergwesyn Pass

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR Abergwesyn

By now, the fine weather that had greeted me as I crossed the Severn Bridge had given way to sleet. The clouds hung heavy over the peaks of the hills towering over the Abergweysn Pass, while the roads were coated in a treacherous blend of sheep mess and drizzle. Conditions more suited to the Golf R, perhaps?

Not a bit of it. Up here, in splendid isolation, this was everything a car enthusiast could dream of. No phone reception, no need to be anywhere, no Slack notifications, no four-wheel-drive. A hot hatch should be driven through the front wheels. End of story.

Just a few weeks earlier, this road had been rendered almost impassable by Storm Whateveritsnamewas, but today it created a playground for the TCR, the peace and tranquillity pierced by the tuneful burble being performed by the stainless steel exhaust system. It’s not anti-social loud, but it’s just enough to add something to the occasion.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR Devils Staircase

From the three fords at the bottom of the pass, the road climbs up Devil’s Staircase, a one-in-four zig-zag hill requiring the use of first gear and an ability to see around corners. Here, the TCR struggled for grip, with a shift from first into second causing the traction control light to flash up as the car propelled itself to the next switchback.

I still hadn’t been able to make full use of the 290hp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine – that would come later – but I was already enjoying the thin-rimmed steering wheel, a welcome tonic to the ‘phat’ wheels deployed on some other hot hatches.

The steering itself is hardly brimming with feel, but it’s communicative enough to let you know what the front wheels are doing. It rewards a light grip on the wheel, and there’s a noticeable difference in weight between low-speed manoeuvring and high-speed cornering.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR on road to Tregaron

It was from here to Tregaron that I truly appreciated the manual function of the DSG transmission. Blessed with a stretch of freshly-laid asphalt, the first section is a series of tight corners, woven together by short and snappy straights. While the shifts through the gears aren’t lightning quick, the paddles mean that you can keep your hands on the wheel, which is handy when the road is barely wide enough for one car.

Get it wrong, and a multitude of terrors lie in wait, including rolling down the hillside, wheels wiped out by roadside rocks or a head-on collision with one of the many sheep. Get it right, and it feels like heaven, even if the sleet had turned to snow and the pine forests were in full-on Narnia fancy dress mode.

Once past the long-since-retired red telephone box, the road climbs like a helter-skelter, with the fresh tarmac making way for a more pitted surface. It’s here that I discover that the TCR can feel a little skittish when cornering on the limit, a symptom of the larger wheels and lowered ride height, perhaps?

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR 19-inch wheels

On the flip side, the way in which the TCR corners is utterly intoxicating and in many ways the raison d’être of a car of this ilk. It turns in with such precision and vigour, and the harder the corner, the more rewarding it gets.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I channelled my inner Meg Ryan on a number of occasions – remember what I said about enjoying a hot hatch alone? – and my heart skipped a beat when I laced together a series of bends to absolute perfection. And if I entered a corner too quickly, the TCR was on hand to get me out of trouble, and there was no passenger on hand to judge me.

Mountain road and the Elan Valley

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR in Wales

Dropping down into Tregaron and below the snow line, it was back to reality. The first sign of civilisation since I left Beulah over an hour ago, and the unwanted influx of messages appearing on the crystal-clear 9.2 infotainment screen.

Not that my playlist of great roads was about to fade to grey – there were no fillers or makeweights on this greatest hits album. Instead, I took the B4343 to Cymystwyth, where I’d join the mountain road to Rhayader, via the sublime Elan Valley.

It was on the mountain road that I finally managed to stretch the TCR’s legs. It begins with a tight, technical section; the road behaving like a temptress, provoking you into a wrong decision. One minute you’re enjoying a ribbon of bends, the next minute you’re tangling with a savage cocktail of sudden camber changes, blind summits or unexpectedly tight turns.

Occasionally it’s a blend of all three…

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR near Rhayader

It’s fun, exhilarating and at times scary, but it serves as a prelude to the main event: a fast, open section to the junction for the Elan Valley, blessed with wild vistas and, on this occasion, snow-capped peaks.

When the road is free of sheep and day-trippers, it’s possible to unleash the full force of the TCR’s 290hp engine. The 0-62mph time of 5.6 seconds seems a tad pessimistic, but it’s the mid-range pull that’s most impressive. The full 280lb ft of torque is available from 1,950rpm to 5,300rpm, so there’s plenty of pull in whatever gear and at whatever speed. Make no mistake: the TCR is properly quick.

Peak power is at 5,000rpm to 6,200rpm, so there’s a reward for holding on to a gear for longer, especially given the fact that the soundtrack is at its most raucous above 4,000rpm. Annoyingly, the DSG will change up when you approach the redline, diluting the feel of total involvement, not to mention providing fuel for the fire for those who’d argue that the TCR should have a manual option.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR exhaust

Not me. I was revelling into the feeling of leaving my hands on the wheel, clicking up and down through the gears, listening to the pop-pops and spits on the over-run. With the sun shining and the road blessed with a 60mph limit, the Elan Valley road to Rhayader was arguably the high note of the trip. Everything fell into place – I felt no urge to stop for pictures.

After an unhealthy snack at Rhayader, I had a decision to make: take the A470 and A479 to Crickhowell, or the longer route via Llandovery and the Black Mountain Pass. Needless to say, I chose the latter.

Black Mountain Pass

In truth, playtime was over. After the rollercoaster B4358 to Beulah, the journey to Llandovery was a frustrating mix of no overtaking zones, lorries and mid-range hatchbacks. Worse still, by the time I had reached the bustling town of Llandovery, the sun had turned to rain and, for the second time this year, I was predicting a rather wet drive along the A4069.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR in snow

I was wrong. The A4069 – known to car enthusiasts as the Black Mountain Pass – was in the midst of a pounding by near blizzard conditions. For the first time on this trip, I figured that a Golf R might be more appropriate.

And the Golf R is arguably the Golf GTI TCR’s chief rival. While the Megane RS Trophy, Civic Type R and i30 N might seek to tempt a Golf driver away from the safe bosom of VW, if you fancy a hot Golf, you’re unlikely to be swayed by a  temptress wearing a different dress.

Personally, I’d choose a TCR over an R. While the additional 10hp and 4Motion might be appealing, the R is also heavier and seems to be driven by every Tom, Dick and Gary living along the M4 corridor.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR Black Mountain Pass

The TCR feels a tad more special, even if Volkswagen could have worked harder to increase the sense that it’s derived from a successful race car. And no, I’m not talking about adding more decals.

Whether or not the TCR is worth the £2,310 extra over the Golf GTI Performance is a matter of opinion. Subjectively, the TCR is the best looking Mk7 Golf GTI – especially in Pure Grey (£595) and without the decals – and the additional 45hp is most welcome.

But you’ll want the Performance Pack, which adds another £2,900 to the price. Heck, ‘my’ test car cost an eye-watering £41,300, which is big money for a Golf GTI, especially one based on an outgoing model and without the attraction of limited-run status.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR at ford

I called it quits on the ‘White’ Mountain Pass and endured a slow crawl back to Crickhowell, energy and enthusiasm levels hitting the floor following 12 hours on the road. I had done around 200 miles in the TCR, mostly on mountain passes and technical B-roads, averaging 22mpg in the process.

Nearly a week on, I’m still thinking about the Golf GTI TCR. It has renewed my interest in the Golf GTI and awakened a former desire to own a new one. I have owned a GTI in Mk1, Mk2 and Mk3 flavours – and enjoyed a brief romance with a Rallye – but the newer models have passed me by.

Thanks to the TCR and the magical Welsh roads, I’ve added the Mk7 Golf GTI to the short list of new cars I would buy with my own money. And the first place I’d head to having taken delivery: Mid Wales. Alone.

Seat Tarraco 2019 review: a seven-seat SUV fit for family life

Seat TarracoOur Gav recently enjoyed three months and 3,000 miles driving a Seat Alhambra, a ‘practical and flexible’ seven-seat people carrier. He declared it a ‘prime example of a properly sorted MPV’ and ‘worthy of your attention’. Well, sorry Gav, people just aren’t listening.

Sport Utility Vehicles are where it’s at, you see. Most of us venture no further off-road than mounting a kerb, yet sales have skyrocketed in recent years – and that trend is forecast to continue. Buyers like the high driving position and perceived safety of SUVs, but mostly they love their tough, go-anywhere image. If an MPV is a sensible sandal, an SUV is an all-terrain trainer.

Seat has jumped wholeheartedly on the SUV gravy train. Its new seven-seat Tarraco sits above the (small) Arona and (medium) Ateca in a three-tier range. It’s the Barcelona brand’s new flagship – and the aspirational alternative to an Alhambra.

Two TSI petrol engines are offered – 150hp 1.5-litre and 190hp 2.0 – plus a 2.0 TDI diesel available in two outputs: 150hp or 190hp. You can opt for two- or four-wheel drive (‘4Drive’), plus six-speed manual or seven-speed DSG auto transmissions.

Tarraco prices start at £28,335 for a 1.5 TSI 150 SE and stretch to £38,055 for a fully-loaded 2.0 TDI 190 Xcellence Lux. I ventured to deepest Berkshire to sample 190hp petrol and diesel versions on UK roads.

First impressions

Seat Tarraco

‘Tarraco’ is the old word for Tarragona, following a longstanding tradition of naming Seats after Spanish cities. Underneath, however, its roots are resolutely Germanic. The Tarraco is based on the same Volkswagen Group MQB-A LWB platform as the Skoda Kodiaq, and the two cars are mechanically nigh-on identical.

The Seat has more aggressive SUV attitude, though. It rides 20mm lower than the Kodiaq, with a jutting grille, bonnet bulges, sculpted body-sides and swoopy LED light signatures. This year’s must-have styling feature – a full-width rear light bar – is also present and correct, although the central section is only a red reflector. Those ‘tailpipe’ slots either side of the rear bumper are fake, too.

Nonetheless, the Tarraco has car park kudos that no glorified minibus (sorry, Gav) can match. At 4,735mm long and 2,118mm wide, its footprint is on par with a Land Rover Discovery Sport. Few cars offer so much metal for your money

Inside the Seat Tarraco

Seat Tarraco

Here’s where Seat’s oh-so-sensible Alhambra plays its trump card. The old-guard MPV is a true seven-seater (“Whenever we’ve carried a full quota of five children, there’s been a scramble for the rear seats,” says Gav), while the young-gun Tarraco is effectively a five-plus-two. Its rearmost chairs are only really suitable for youngsters, yet have no Isofix mounting points. You do get three Isofix points in the middle row, though.

Five-up, the Tarraco feels very spacious. There’s ample headroom and shoulder width, and the optional panoramic sunroof bathes the cabin in light. The second-row seats also slide and flip forward individually. Boot space ranges from 2,005 litres in ‘van mode’ to 700 litres with five seats occupied – and just 230 litres when fully loaded with passengers. All figures, incidentally, are fractionally smaller than the Skoda.

As for the driver, you get digital dials, and a media system with Apple Carplay and Android Auto connectivity. Shame the eight-inch touchscreen, perched atop the dashboard, looks like an afterthought.

Overall, the effect is pleasingly premium, as befits the Tarraco’s range-topping status. I particularly liked the wool and Alcantara (man-made suede) upholstery of our Xcellence-spec test cars.

Standard kit on the entry-level SE includes 17-inch alloys, three-zone climate control, rear parking sensors, auto headlights and wipers, cruise control and ambient interior lighting. SE Technology adds 18-inch alloys and sat nav, while the Xcellence and Xcellence Lux push upwards into Audi territory. If you’re quick, launch-spec ‘First Edition’ cars are even better equipped.

Seat Tarraco: on the road

Seat Tarraco

If you’re expecting a lively drive to match that purposeful mien, prepare for mild disappointment. The Tarraco doesn’t transcend its SUV origins like a Porsche Macan, and unless Seat’s sporty sub-brand Cupra gets involved (as with the smaller Ateca), that’s likely to remain the case.

Refinement and long-distance comfort are more the Seat’s raison d’être. Its suspension soaks up potholes very effectively – particularly if you opt for smaller wheels – and both petrol and diesel engines are hushed. For maximum quietness, wait for the plug-in hybrid version, due in 2020.

On twisty roads, the Tarraco is planted and predictable. Its steering is nicely weighted, body-roll is kept in-check and the DSG ’box is smooth and intuitive. Its brakes also feel reassuringly robust, backed up by standard-fit Front Assist with pedestrian and cyclist detection.

The predicted best-seller – the 150hp 1.5 petrol – wasn’t available to drive at launch. However, the perky 190hp petrol would be my choice versus the slightly sluggish 190hp diesel. For starters, it costs around £1,500 less, while the quoted fuel economy is hardly leagues apart (29.7mph versus 37.2mpg). And the diesel was just 3mpg more efficient on my identical test-route.

Seat Tarraco verdict: 4 stars

Seat Tarraco

Seat has hit upon a winning formula. Its sales were up 12 percent in 2018, making it the UK’s fastest-growing car brand for the second year in a row. Given such success, it’s hardly surprising the Tarraco doesn’t break the mould.

No, it isn’t a mobile Tardis like the Alhambra, but that’s hardly the point. For better or worse, the sort of people who occasionally tackle a gravel track en route to a National Trust property want SUVs. And this is a pretty good one: comfortable, refined, well-equipped and inoffensive to drive.

The greatest threat to the Tarraco comes from within. The aforementioned Skoda Kodiaq starts from around £3,000 less, and is a cheaper option spec-for-spec. Not quite the ‘reign in Spain’, then – more like Czech mate.

Seat Tarraco

Five 2019 Seat Tarraco rivals

  • Skoda Kodiaq
  • Volkswagen Tiguan Allspace
  • Hyundai Santa Fe
  • Land Rover Discovery Sport
  • Seat Alhambra

How much did our test car cost?

Seat Tarraco Xcellence First Edition Plus 2.0 TSI 4Drive 190 DSG: £38,605

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