But there is so much more to this car than just speed. The gear changes are all but instant, helped by the very low inertia engine which makes down shifts as fast as up shifts. In fact it’s so fast I can actually play a tune by shifting gears rapidly, not a very good tune, but a tune none the less. The ease of shifting compels me to
continually change gear as I drive round the high speed test route, each shift commanded by a simple flick of the very well placed steering wheel paddles, left for down shift, right for up. It’s simple, intuitive and works fantastically well.
Not that it really needs to, the torque curve from the engine is indecently flat, pulling as strongly at low revs as it does near the ear splitting red line. 600Nm from 3000rpm to 7000rpm from the 3.8 litre V8, which is more than respectable in a sub 1400kg car.
This makes it very easy to drive, any gear will do for normal driving, and the flexibility of the engine is matched by the suppleness of the suspension. It’s undoubtedly a
supercar, but it doesn’t knock your teeth out with a bone crunchingly harsh ride, ok it’s a bit firm in ‘Normal’ mode but perfectly acceptable and makes long journeys a completely reasonable proposition. Even getting in and out is made easy by the wide aperture and decent leg room, unlike many other supercars. In fact the whole cabin is an ergonomic triumph, everything you need is where you need it. The seats are comfy but supportive and can be adjusted for a diverse range of body shapes because they contain a number of inflatable bags which you can set to suit yourself. The controls are very well placed and everything the driver could need falls nicely to hand. The rear view over the transparent engine cover is a little narrow but perfectly usable.
And that cover lets you see the throbbing heart of this magnificent creation: a twin turbo V8 that at low speeds makes an exhaust not reminiscent of might Deltic locomotives, the throbbing engine complemented by the whistle of turbines, but once up to speed make a screaming soundtrack that lets you know that the manufacturer learnt its craft on race tracks.
You might think a transparent engine cover is a little exhibitionist, but why not show such beautiful craftsmanship? After all, this car is street theatre, just like any other supercar it’s more art than transport, you buy it because you want it not because you need it. But this piece of art is more subtle than many of its competitors, the lines are uncluttered and have a beautiful simplicity that doesn’t need to be decked with multi stage wings and complex splitters to work.
This is a testament to the skill and experience of McLaren aerodynamics engineers, they are arguably the best in the business and have made a shape that inherently works. The rear wing is an inherent part of the rear design, not just bolted on. Not only that but they have added a few features so that the downforce and drag can change to suit your driving mood. There is a button that provoke active aero, a rear spoiler popping up under heavy braking to give greater traction and also work as an air brake, something they first tried on their mighty Mercedes SLR.
Mood control extends further, there are two rotary switches to set up the car for your chosen task, each has three settings: Normal, Sport and Track. On the right we have Powertrain control which adjusts the way power is delivered, more instant and aggressive for track, more gentle and progressive for road. It also sets the gearbox up for fast hard shifts on track and soft comfy shifts on road. On the left we have the Handling control which adjusts damper firmness and the effect of the active roll control.
This is all the adjustment you could need, if you want a fast blast on rough country roads then leave the suspension on Normal and switch the powertrain to Track, there are sufficient options to tailor the car to your preferences. I like that, it’s flexible, effective and simple.
Driving the car is a joy, the soundtrack from the engine is delightful and only intrusive when you’re going a bit too fast for the road anyway, drive within reason and you could sit here comfortably all day.
But get on a smooth track and twist the controls to 11 and this car will throw you at the horizon with indecent haste.
But if that is not enough for you, there are special track and race versions too, the CanAm harking back to Bruce McLaren’s racing heyday, and the GT picking up where the old F1 LeMans cars left off.
So underneath this fine road car is clearly the heart of a race car. It really can deliver, it’s not just some pretty boy wanna be, it’s well though out proper engineering. Hugely competent without shouting about it, very British in a way.
In summary, I like it, quite a lot.
Drivetrain Layout: Longitudinal Mid-Engine, RWD
Body Structure: Carbon Fibre MonoCell with Aluminium Front and Rear Frames
Suspension: Double wishbone all round with ProActive Chassis Control
Active Aerodynamics: McLaren Airbrake
Transmission: 7 Speed SSG
Engine Configuration: V8 Twin Turbo / 3799cc
PS / rpm: 625 / 7500
Torque Nm / rpm: 600 / 3000 – 7000
Brakes: Cast Iron Discs with Forged Aluminium Hubs (F 370mm/ R 350mm)
Length (mm): 4509
Track, F/R (mm): 1656 / 1583
Width (mm): 1908
Height (mm): 1199
Wheelbase (mm): 2670
Dry Weight (kg / lbs): 1336 / 2945
Pirelli P Zero 235/35 R19 /
Pirelli P Zero 305/30 R20
Wheel Sizes (F/R): 19” x 8.5”J / 20” x 11” J
More info (and much better pictures!) can be found here:
Time travel is a wonderful thing, you get a great view of time as you warp through the decades. The recent PetrolBlog big day out at
Vauxhall took me right back to the dawn of my motoring career, the sounds and smells of old engines are so amazingly evocative of the age before fuel injection and catalysts. And this got me thinking about just how far we have come, there have been some remarkable advances in areas such as performance and refinement, but also we seem to have lost something along the way.
Fienza HP (Droop Snoot)
My first drive of the day, and one that instantly transported me back to my first ever car; a Cavalier mk1. There is the smell of fuel you only get with carburettor cars, it’s raw, pure, and for people of my
generation it’s hugely evocative of an era when just getting your car to start was an achievement.
This car was a complete bare shell restoration which I covered for Practical Classics a few years ago, absolutely everything had to be rebuilt from the ground up and is
another great example of the fantastic work that master mechanic Andrew Boddy at the Vauxhall Heritage Centre undertakes, and it is wonderful to see the car fully finished. It’s even more wonderful to drive it.
Immediately the car feels direct and delightfully connected to the road, with non-assisted steering you can feel the road under the wheels, it feels alive. Even before I get out the car park I’m smiling like a lunatic, but once out in the country lanes this car delivers joy in great bucket loads. It’s by no means perfect, the 185 tyres seem skinny by modern standards and let go readily, but delightfully progressively making it deeply rewarding to drive. Would I take this car out just for the thrill of it? Well yes, but half the thrill would be wondering if it will make it back in one piece. This is an old car, there are a few clonks and rattles, but it all adds to the theatre of this marvellous car. And when I finally get out of the car and walk away, I just cant help looking back at it and enjoying the superb lines and proportions of this classic beauty. Surely that’s a sign they must have got something really very right.
Astra GTE MK1
Now this was a very interesting car, because my colleagues formed a notably different view of it to me. This highlights how personal car
tests actually are, our view of a car depends on our own preferences, past experiences, expectations and driving style. Every road test is as much a reflection of the tester as it is of the car.
This car was from a far simpler age, non-assisted steering giving lovely feedback through the spindly steering wheel, the view from the large windows is complemented by the low waist line so you can see everything on the road with no blind spots. But that’s where the fun stopped for me.
On the road the performance of the 1.8 8 valve engine is modest, maybe I’m spoilt by the thrust of modern performance cars but this one just didn’t sing for me, despite not having a rev limiter. The handling is poor by modern standards, but very much the norm for small hatches of that era, go into a corner fast and it understeers horribly, and if you have to back off for some reason mid corner the understeer immediately translates into annoying oversteer. Not that slowing down is that easy, the brakes really don’t do much, press the pedal hard and you really don’t slow down very much, press it harder and a wheel locks up, and you still don’t slow down very much.
But this is in itself important, it’s stable mates at that time had even more pedestrian engines which didn’t overly tax the brakes and handling. By taking the standard car and fitting a slightly more powerful engine they created a dynasty that leads directly to today’s Astra VXR.
Astra GTE MK2
With the MK2 they put a decent engine in, in fact that 16 valve 2.0 litre lump became a legend in racing circles and managed to dislodge
the Ford Pinto as the engine of choice in many club racing specials. In the GTE it’s pleasantly nippy and buzzes along with happy eagerness, the understeer is still there but less intrusive, and the lift off oversteer is much better. The brakes are still inadequate when ‘making good progress’, it
doesn’t really do emergency stops as such but at least it has the ability to slow down a bit, unlike its predecessor. It is quite a fun car, but still doesn’t quite work as a complete package.
Now, our illustrious leader Major Gav has actually owned two of these fine motorcars, so I was a bit worried when he joined me for a quick blast through the countryside, was I about to show myself up at the wheel of one of his favourite machines?
This particular version is the higher powered version, still based on the Lotus Elese but with the suspension and engine tuned by Opel. It seems to be set up for a race track, with very hard suspension that is not helped by the non standard ultra low profile tyres, it crashes and bangs over irregularities and pot holes are like a kick in the butt. It’s not nice.
But on smooth stretches it sticks to the road quite well and picks up pace briskly, the steering is direct and it changes direction swiftly. It’s quite a lot of fun and begs to be pushed harder, and somehow as it wears a Vauxhall badge and not a Lotus one it seems a bit more humble, I like that.
The last stop on the time machine was the present day, and here I had the opportunity to sample the descendants of these old cars and see exactly what their future held.
Now, those who know me will be wondering what witchcraft managed
to get me into this sort of car. It’s not a fire breathing supercar or a go anywhere off road superhero, but putting my own preferences to one side I find that this sort of car is a very good idea. Its big inside, not too big on the outside, it goes and stops as it should and doesn’t use too much fuel. Normally that formula could be dangerously close to dull, so the splash of stainless steel and the nice blend of colours adds a touch of interest. In short it’s a perfectly good car. If you like that sort of thing.
This was a surprise. Again not my usual sort of test car, it has very little power and has no noticeable acceleration. Inside it is very roomy for two adults and two small kids at the back, an ideal car for a young
family, and I think that is a useful focus for this test. The car is painted to look sporty, it has stripes and graphics, even the headlining is a massive chequered flag, which initially seems at odds with its lack of performance and its super soft suspension, but I actually think it makes sense. If
you have just started a family you might not want to give up on the idea of a sports car, but even if you had one you would drive it gently with your new family installed, so this car works; it has a fun and sporty image yet delivers sensible family practicality.
I drove this on a test track last year, but driving it through the heart of Luton was a far more realistic test, particularly accelerating between speedbumps up some of the towns steep hills. Now, you might expect me to slate electric cars, as I spend most of my time testing things like
Bentleys, Jaguars and Porsches, but actually I am a strong believer in electric cars, which are in many ways still in their infancy but will increasingly meet an exceed the abilities of internal combustion.
But this car should not be judged as an electric car, it should be judged as a normal small family car, and that is something it does very well, in fact in many ways it does it better than the Adam. It has reasonable performance, it’s quicker than many other conventional cars in this class and handles acceptably well too, although the low ground clearance at the front can be an issue on speedbumps. The interior is well equipped and spacious, not massive by any means but certainly big enough for most things.
In short this is a good car in it’s own right, and if I had the cash I would probably buy one.
So in summary, there are many things that are good such as ABS and crash safety, but there are many things that are a bit of a sad loss too. Being able to feel the road through the steering wheel in such a vivid way that you know how much traction the tyres have has completely gone, and whilst it may be true that you don’t need to read the road any more because the car stability control does that all for you it also means that drivers aren’t compelled to concentrate on the road like they used to. One result being that crashes keep getting more frequent, and now for the first time in decades road deaths are increasing.
The styling of cars is much more intense than it used to be, we are cocooned and protected with styling flourishes here there and everywhere. The window glass area is increasing, front screens are massive now, but the view out is getting more restrictive. A pillars are huge, mirrors are multifunction colossus, waistlines are getting higher, our actual view of the road is diminishing. In fact it is quite easy to loose sight of a car behind the mirror and A pillar whilst waiting at a T junction or roundabout on a modern car, by comparison a car of the ’70s with its spindly A pillar, tiny mirror mounted lower and not obstructing your line of sight forward, all makes for a far better view of the road, I felt much more a part of the traffic in an old-timer than in a new car.
Our connection to the road and to the traffic is reduced, our responsibility in terms of controlling the car and observing traffic have been eroded. But it is possible to design a car with the best of both old and new, spindly A pillars made out of stronger modern materials, mirrors replaced by cameras and a head up display, nicely assisted steering but with the soft compliant isolation removed etc. Driving both old and new on the same day brings it all into sharp focus.
And a final observation, not about cars but about our car industry in the UK. Currently UK automotive is doing very well indeed, the car sector is probably better than it has ever been. But there is a sobering reminder of how things can change for the worse in the Vauxhal
museum, there is a map of the site from the early ’80s, it shows the massive scale of the sprawling complex, with roads and railways running through the site. Some areas are marked up for planned expansion, there are research and development facilities, prototype workshops, a styling studio as well as a myriad of huge production buildings. Thousands of people worked there, the streets around the plant housed thousands of families dependent on the thriving factory, for every job at the plant it is reckoned that about 5 further jobs were supported in support activities such as parts suppliers, transport drivers, sales staff and even the local shops and restaurants. The whole town fed this plant, and the plant fed the whole town.
And it’s all gone. Only a skeleton crew remain, some marketing people and a few support activities, even the fantastic array of cars in the heritage centre are restored and maintained by just one bloke. The streets reflect this change, there is not so much money about round there at the moment.
And this is not a case of me dreaming of a bygone industry, I’m not lamenting the passing of steam engines of horse drawn ploughs, no I’m cross because all those jobs went somewhere else. Vauxhall make more cars now than they did back then, the demand for there product is there, production is marching on, research and development is busier than ever, the jobs exist, but not here.
I’ve driven some very impressive cars here today, and I thank Vauxhall very much for the opportunity, but as I drive away through old streets, past the large retail site that has been built on part of the old factory, I feel a bit sad that all those jobs have gone. And with that loss the skills have gone, the real heritage of a hundred years of Vauxhalls, the stories, the effort, the stress of pushing out a new model, the dramas, all become fading memories.
Stuart Gunn did something remarkable; he set about creating this remarkable car in a remarkable way.
He sat down and thought about it, worked through the options, made templates and jigs and then went about welding it all together in a sensible logical well engineered way. Which is remarkable when the very idea of a V8 4×4 Midget is so splendidly mad.
The basic concept was to take the drive train (gearbox, props, diffs and hubs) off a Sierra XR4x4, take a Rover V8 3.5 with a good road tune, add in the MG Midget and blend with a home made chassis and subtle body mods. The result is a beautiful looking car that is easy to drive and blisteringly quick, particularly off the line where the extra traction from the four wheel drive gives it one hell of an edge.
Stuart learned his craft over the years with a number of projects, which all started off a couple of decades ago as a yoof with a Morris Oxford with a jacked up rear, a flip front and side exhaust pipes. By trade Stuart is a panel beater, which shows in the skill with which the steel wheel arches are seamlessly blended in to the MG body.
The build started with his mildly tuned Midget that he had driven round for a year or two. He then measured everything up and made suitable jigs for the wishbones and chassis out of steel box, so that the final result would be spot on and match on both sides.
The chassis uses the best bits of the original MG tub, added to a box section lower chassis and tubular upper rails which hold the top wishbones and coil over dampers on.
The 4×4 system uses the Sierra front diff and so Stuart created his own unique front cross member with the diff mounting on the right hand side (on the Sierra it mounts onto the sump).
Wishbone jigs held the bush carriers in the correct place, then steel tube was cut and welded in place to join them together, that way Stuart knew the geometry would be as predicted and both sides match.
The suspension uprights have the struts removed and a ball joint fitted in there place, these parts came from the kit car manufacturer, MK Engineering. Being a tad narrower than a Sierra, the drive shafts had to be shortened, but not by too much, only 70mm.
Springing comes from coil over AVOs all round, with adjustable spring seats and damping. The first iteration saw 150lb springs on the rear but these ended up coil bound, now it has 225s which are spot on. Damping was adjusted to give good ride quality and handling, but also to stops the mud flaps dragging when going over speed bumps.
Stopping the car is taken care of by Sierra based disk brakes with EBC Green stuff pads. As yet there is no servo, this is one possible mod for the future, but for now the braking is still excellent as long as you press the pedal firmly.
When it came to fiddling with the engine, Stuart had a chat with Dave Ellis of DJE fame. Stuart is working on a tight budget and isn’t after stupid horse power figures so a package was assembled to give the 3.5 litre about 200bhp and great drivability. It has a pair of 4.6 heads which have bigger ports and valves than the old 3.5 units and are not too expensive, a DJE 210 cam for good road manners, a Webber 500 4 barrel carb and Rover electronic ignition coupled to an Accel Super Coil. The carb breathes through a filter with a cleaver mod, because of the lack of space the top of the filter housing is the bonnet, a flexible mounting lets the filter seat even when the engine twists under acceleration. Though fuel injection is on the cards for a future mod.
Stuart made his own exhaust manifolds from tube and then Custom Chrome Racing very kindly chromed them and made the rest of the system. Stuart has known CCR for many years and so was allowed to use their workshop to do the fiddly bits. In fact CCR even provided the steel for the chassis and wishbones as well as making the oil catch tank. The resulting exhaust has that wonderful V8 burble but is not intrusively loud, quite subtle in fact, in keeping with the theme of the car. And all with just one small CCR muffler on each side.
Various wheel arches were tried by Stuart, including ones off a Transit double axle, but in the end he again made his own which complement the understated look perfectly. To make these he took a piece of small steel tube and bent it round the tyre, then he flattened the tube and braced it to the body with more bits of tube. This made a perfectly formed skeleton which he could then make up some cardboard arch templates and offer them up until he got the look that he wanted. Once satisfied with the templates he made steel arches and welded them on to the skeleton. The result is well made and has a factory quality feel to it as well as looking the dogs danglies.
The body was finished off by removing the bumpers, fitting a natty small bumper at the rear, adding a boot wing, a small bonnet bulge and smothering the thing an a gorgeous Rover Caribbean Blue paint job.
When designing the car Stuart wanted it to be usable every day, and on a short trip round town the car proved that this goal has been well and truly achieved. The suspension soaks up the bumps well and copes with speed bumps effortlessly. Once out on the open road the thrust from the engine is never ending, pushing you into the seat and putting a grin on your face. The Toyo Proxes tyres grip well and corners are dealt with easily.
At low speeds the steering is a little heavy, using a power steering rack to get the 2.8 turns lock to lock, but as yet without the power steering bit fitted due to the lack of space in the engine bay. Electric PAS is a possibility. But as the speed builds it becomes lighter and very communicative.
All in all, this is a simply splendid car, well thought out and professionally built. Stuart has plenty of ideas for future tweaks but the basics are very well sorted out. The car would be marvellous at hillclimbes and sprints and Stuart is toying with the idea of doing a few competitions in the coming year, I for one would love to see it out there.
As a footnote, how different would history be if BL had put something like this into production back in 1972….
Stuart would like to thank the following:
Graham and Nigel at Custom Chrome.
Dave Ellis at DJE
Many friends, family and Midget And Sprite Club members for their support and encouragement.
MG Midget Mk3 1972.
Rover V8, 3.5l, lightened and balanced flywheel, Vitesse pistons, 4.6 heads, DJE 210 cam, Webber 500 4 barrel, Rover Lucas ignition and Accel coil. Approx 200bhp @ 5500rpm.
Owner fabricated 4-1 tube exhaust manifolds with Custom Chrome Racing system.
Owner fabricated spine type chassis.
Owner fabricated double wishbones all round. Fully adjustable.
Ford Sierra Xr4x4 gearbox (type 9), props, diffs, hubs, steering and brakes. Narrowed by 70mm each side.
EBC greenstuff pads.
Toyo 195/45-16 Proxes tyres on Ace alloys.
Avo coil over adjustable dampers with adjustable spring seats all round.
The Mugen Honda Civic Type R has a very long name, it also has a very big rear spoiler which is attached to a very small car. Small cars with powerful engines are a tried and tested recipe for fun, thrills and teenagers driving into lampposts outside McDonald’s, in short it’s a winning formula so it seemed rude not to take up the offer of thrashing this icon of the Burberry clad yoof of the day. The location for said thrashing was the fantastically twisting snake of a road that is Millbrook’s Alpine route, yes that’s the one where they filmed James Bond rolling an Aston but as I am not being chased by super-villains I feel confident that the car will remain shiny side up. And that is quite important as there are only 20 of these UK models, although as always with ‘limited editions’ if popular there will surely be further runs of similar but not quite exactly the same models. Right, enough preamble, to the car:
Snug is a good word, even the word ‘snug’ feels snug, as do the Mugen’s seats. The interior is a bit like a condensed version of that corner of Halfords where all the hoodies gawp at excessively loud stereos, as well as the usual dash with the now obligatory ‘Start’ button there is an extra set of largely pointless gauges telling the driver things that most wont really understand in a sculpted pod. When I used to write for Max Power magazine I would see a lot of this sort of thing. But whilst it is very easy to mock, the remarkable thing is I rather like it, it appeals to the child within in much the same way that those enormous Lego Technic sets do, I feel that at my age I really shouldn’t but actually I really want to. As soon as the seat hugs me and I pull the red seatbelt down the whole car just screams to me ‘drive fast’, so not wishing to disappoint that’s what I proceed to do.
The superb two litre VTEC engine is quite audible but still reasonably civilised, it pulls away without drama and can be driven normally, although I have no idea why you would want to because as soon as it comes on cam at about 5500rpm there is a goodly surge of thrust and the engine starts screaming like an aged rock star on a come back tour; strong, purposeful, loud, tuneful with a rough edge, exciting even, but not necessarily something you would want to listen to at 6am on a damp Tuesday morning commute.
In low gears the 8600rpm rev limit arrives rapidly and a certain joy is to be had swiftly charging through each of the close ratio gears, the selector is wonderfully accurate and fast (I believe the trendy term is ‘snickerty’ or something, but that sounds like a word made up by people who cant describe things properly).
The exhaust noise is predominant but the intake makes a healthy roar too, when blasting through the gears the rasping and popping is terribly addictive urging me on to higher speeds just so I can change gear again. I actually found myself laughing out laud.
Turning into fast corners in the standard Civic results in the now traditional dull under-steer and a vagueness to the steering, the Mugen is a world apart and very direct, a lot of the compliance has been taken out and the geometry altered to suit the sportier driver with remarkable results. The turn in is so positive that I feel I could just will the car to go round corners, it responds quickly to every input from me and almost becomes an extension of my body. I say almost as it is not quite the same as a true race car, but there again this is a road car that can still accept a full load of shopping, it’s still hugely addictive and I soon find myself deliberately taking tighter lines round corners just to enjoy the joy ride.
Each corner follows the same format; brake late enjoying the powerful and responsive brakes, short shift a couple of gears enjoying the bark from the exhaust on overrun, throw an arm full of steering in and power out with the engine screaming round to the rev limiter, slicing through the roller coaster Millbrook track. Admit it, you want a go now don’t you!
For the first few minuets this car brought me sheer joy, I was laughing out loud. But after a while the fact that I had to keep constantly changing gear became a tinsy bit tedious, and the fat tyres tram-lining on the rougher bits of road surface required constant correction which started to become tiring.
And that’s it in a nutshell; the Mugen is huge fun, briefly. Not an everyday car, unless you are extremely addicted to go-karts and are slightly hyper active, in which case constantly flailing your limbs about to get the best out of the car will second nature.
Would I buy one? Probably not. But would I borrow a mates one? Oh yes, as long as I could get back from the race track before he finds out what I’d done with it!
Performance 6.0sec 0-62mph, 150mph, 30mpg
Length/width/height in mm 4280/1795/1440
Engine 1998cc 16v 4-cyl, 237bhp @ 8300rpm, 157lb ft @ 6250rpm
Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
The ‘Supersport(s)’ label is shared between two of the worlds most powerful luxury cars, both Bentley and Jaguar field ultra fast chariots with force fed V engines. But whilst the Bentley is a stripped down version of its much acclaimed two seat Grand Tourer, the Jaguar is a full fat version of its four seater limo. Two very different markets, two very different cars, but one very good excuse to go thrashing fast cars round the fabulous Millbrook test tracks. Oh I’ve gone all misty eyed just thinking about it. But this is no ordinary ‘journo thrashes a fast car’ type article, oh no, there is an angle that may enlighten…
Just walking up to the truly magnificent Bentley Continental GT Supersports is an occasion. As I get closer details start revealing themselves, there are no less than four radiator grilles plus two elongated bonnet vents which all collude to give the impression of a barely contained massive powerhouse under the hood. The huge alloy wheels, polished to within an inch of their lives, do nothing to conceal the equally huge cross drilled brake discs and shiny black callipers with Bentley scripted in elegant white lettering. Everything about it spells power, pure and simple.
Inside is furnished with the obligatory herd of dead cows but with the addition of box quilted fabric inserts in the door cards and seat centres, this combined with the beautifully crafted and very usable knobs and leavers with polished and machined metals gives a feeling of a classic luxury aircraft. Maybe I should have worn a flying jacket for this one.
Firing up the mighty W12 twin turbo engine is disappointingly undramatic, it just starts immediately and settles into a refined hum, surely this sort of machine should burst into life and crackle into a snarling and lumpy idle? OK, maybe that’s just me then. Being primarily a luxury car refinement is still prominent, but as the sporting variant the exhaust has been allowed a bit more freedom, the suspension is a touch firmer, its just over 100kg lighter and generally the driver feels more connected to the road. Which is nice.
Obviously with 630PS on tap from the 6 litre twin turbo W12 performance is brisk, in fact the 0-60 dash takes 3.7 seconds according to the spec sheet, but its delivered in a refined and constant wave of thrust as 800Nm of torque sweeps from a mere 1700rpm up to 5600rpm in an artificially constant level. This smoothness can be a bit deceptive, with the speed flooding in almost unnoticed. The stability control works with the 4×4 drive system delivering 60% of the thrust to the rear and allowing a tantalising amount of over steer drift when powering out of corners.
As an experiment I set it up for a long sweeping corner with a little over steer, then floored the accelerator pedal (can’t call it a throttle pedal any more as it isn’t directly connected to the throttles) to see what happens. Doing this in a 600bhp car a few years ago would have resulted in instant death as the back wheels spin into oblivion and the car pirouettes into the scenery, no such drama with modern cars as the stability control adjusts engine power as well as brake balance (yes it applies the brakes when you accelerate in a corner) left and right to keep the car pointing in what it thinks is the desired direction. All very clever, and essential if you are going to let ordinary members of the public loose in cars with twice the power of an original Countach! That’s why pretty much every modern car has some form of stability control, as an example going back a few years the Sierra Cosworth had a reputation of being a bit to powerful and wild, but that only had 204bhp which is less than an Audi diesel estate. How times have changed. Anyway, back to the Bentley which is still balanced on the power round that long corner…
When pushing hard the body roll is noticeable but controlled, you can feel the weight but it feels much less than the 2240kg that this ‘lightweight’ version of the Continental has. But it’s on the straights that the flying B excels, even on the damp Millbrook test track it rockets forward with unrelenting pace, luckily the massive ceramic brakes haul the speed down with even greater force, a testament to the amazing capabilities of the Pirelli 275/35ZR20 tyres. Interestingly the rear track width has been widened by two inches to improve handling, I say interesting because this now makes both the front and rear track near identical to the standard Jaguar XJ, strangely I never thought of the standard Continental GT as being a narrow car…
The last part of the stunning Millbrook ‘Alpine’ route, which I am sure used to be simply called the ‘Hill’ route before it featured in a James Bond film, is a little jump simulating a hump backed bridge. Actually it is not supposed to be a jump, drivers are supposed to slow down, but as the multitude of sump scars in the tarmac attest temptation to play can be irresistible. Anyway, the Bentley landed with minimal damage and carried on its way, ahem.
As I departed that circuit and drove gently back to the base camp situated in the middle of the complex of tracks and circuits the refined aspect of the car showed through, wafting me through roundabouts and junctions, pulling away on wet concrete T junctions with absolutely no drama, all in all a very usable and impressive car indeed. In another decade it would have been called a supercar, but in this moment it is just a blindingly fast big GT with epic presence.
Stepping from the glitz of the Bentley, the stylish Jaguar feels almost minimalist with that wonderful thin sweeping arc of dark wood traversing the dash and door tops, and just two air vents to break up the lines, with the digital dash sunk deep into the binnacle.
But here’s the thing; it is because I was just in the Bentley that the Jag looks Spartan, if I had just been driving a ‘normal’ car would it feel as empty?
And this is a crucial point, everything is relative, particularly in something as subjective as a road test. It’s all about reference points, it’s all very well for a motoring hack like me to go swanning around in super-fast luxo cars all day and say one has slightly better on the limit handling, but this is meaningless to anyone who doesn’t drive these cars on private test tracks.
So for this group test I brought in a bit of a wild card, possibly a joker, but in any case a dose of normality. The third car in this group test is the very capable Skoda Superb, the estate version, with a 1.6 diesel.
Now at this point you might think I have lost the plot, and obviously you might have a good point, but bare with me and hopefully things will start to make sense. No guarantees though.
Back to the Jaguar XJ Supersport, a totally different type of car to the Bentley with a full set of luxo seats and four zone climate control. The ‘sports’ aspect comes from the optional active differential and the supercharged 5.0 V8 engine. Pressing the start button breathes life into the surprisingly ecological recycled aluminium block, indeed it is amongst the smallest of the big engines (such as the Mercedes 6.3, the above mentioned Bentley 6.0 etc.) but punches well above its weight. Again this is a trend we will see more and more of, where manufacturers use smaller engines with more boost to deliver even higher performance levels than their older big engines, the VW Tsi uses a 1.4 to give 170bhp as an example.
Refinement is a Jaguar speciality and the car effortlessly glides away, as the speed rises the only thing that spoils the ride is the low profile tyres, a problem that infects far too many cars these days.
But the Mr Nice-guy pretence is dropped as soon as the big Jag hits the test track, flooring the loud pedal engages warp drive which turns the swooping hill roads into a high speed roller coaster and the engine note is transformed into a gruff roar by the exhaust muffler bypass valves and a very cunning device that brings a subtle sample of the superb intake noise into the cabin.
In gear acceleration on a real road feels very similar to the Bentley, the 6 speed gearbox has very swift and precise shifts (both cars use the same ZF 6 speed box) but going fast into corners the Jag seems to carry more speed with less roll and greater composure. This is not surprising when you consider that this short wheel base XJ (still a foot longer than the Bentley) weighs in at 1892Kg, that’s over 300kg less than the Bentley despite being bigger with more seats and toys.
There are two reasons for this massive weight difference, first is Jaguar’s use of an aluminium shell, a technology they first used with on the old XJ and refined on the XK. Many manufacturers have looked at ally shells and of course Audi use them on some cars, but production challenges make it a much more expensive process and requires a lot of specialist knowledge to get right. On premium cars manufacturers can sometimes pass on the extra cost, but for mid range cars it is still not commercially viable which is probably why Jaguar still use a steel shell for their XF.
But the world is changing, and now fuel consumption (and therefore CO2 emission) is under scrutiny. This may tip the balance in favour of ally shells, just look at the CO2 figures for the Bentley (388g/km) and the Jaguar (289g/km), that’s a huge difference. As laws come in that will set ever tightening limits on CO2 even supercar manufacturers will have to take action.
The second reason for the weight difference is because the Bentley has four wheel drive, so has an extra transfer box, front prop shaft, front diff and half shafts. You might be thinking that this is unnecessary baggage for a GT car, but consider this: much of Canada, Russia, Scandinavia and the new markets in China spend a fair chunk of the year covered in snow where a rear wheel drive car will struggle to get off the drive way, they also have a lot of new rich who want a car they can be seen out in, you do the maths. Right, back to the track.
It’s remarkable how similar two very different cars can feel when being thrashed round a track, both have more than enough grunt to power up the very steep twisty hills of Millbrook and fling the occupants over the crest at break neck speed. But pulling away at that damp concrete T junction in the Jag highlights the big advantage the Bentley has with its 4WD, the rear wheel drive Jaguar limits wheel spin as it maximises grip from just two wheels, and whilst there is no drama pulling away there is also less acceleration. I suspect this is why there is such a big difference in the 0-60 times with Bentley smashing it in 3.7 seconds and the Jaguar smartly stepping forward in 4.7.
Both these cars are quick, in slightly different ways, but how quick are they in real terms? And for that matter how quick is quick anyway? To find out I drove exactly the same route in the Skoda estate diesel. The first thing I notice is the noise, the estate is very good for noise in its class, but having just complained about road noise from the Supersports low profile tyres I take it all back compared to the road noise at motorway speeds from a normal car.
As I head onto the first section of track I accelerate, but nothing happens. Two things are worth noting, firstly in all three cars I started this bit at about 70mph, in a normal car flooring the accelerator at 70 will obviously result in only mild acceleration, but when you have become accustomed to the Bentley or Jaguar you automatically expect neck snapping acceleration at this speed. Secondly this section of road is up hill, in the other two cars I hadn’t even noticed it was up hill, in the normal car I am considering changing down just to keep the speed up.
After a few tight corners to get the tyres up to temperature I hit the long left hander, in the other two cars I went in slow, about 60mph, and powered out to asses how they handled hard acceleration in corners. In the normal car I struggled to get it round at all at 60mph, let alone accelerate. It was in fact a fairly tight corner, but the big cars just grabbed hold and got on with it in a way that a normal car could never do.
Through the twisty bits I had noticed the Bentley had a bit of body roll, at a lower speed in the normal car changing direction mid corner resulted in a lurch rather than roll and enough tilt to worry about scraping the mirrors in the road, turns out that ‘bit of body roll’ was actually blooming impressive at that speed, and the fact that the Jag had even less turns out to be stunning. Again, totally different worlds.
Then there is the ability to be pushed hard all day, the hill route is relatively short, just a few miles, so the big cars had barely warmed up by the time it was over. By contrast the normal car was loosing power (modern diesels wind the power down when the intercooler or oil gets hot to preserve longevity) and the brakes just started to fade. This is no bad reflection on the car, no one in their right mind would drive a 1.6 diesel estate that hard for any length of time, it’s just silly and on anything other than a private test track it’s suicidal.
I think it’s important to get a sense of perspective, in order to better understand what is being looked at, I learned a lot about the Jaguar and Bentley by driving a Skoda Estate. Skoda also very kindly let me loose in their rather excellent VRS which is undoubtedly a fast car, in a different class of performance to the normal estate car, but again several classes behind the big boys.
All this goes to show the effectiveness of the Bentley and Jaguar suspension, brakes, control system, engine and transmissions. And indeed that of any of the very high performance cars about these days. There is a lot more engineering in one of those, and when I see the price tag the size of a house I can’t help but think that actually that’s not bad value. These cars are not just good, they are amazing.
The Dakar rally is themost spectacular and gruelling race in the world, ever. Some serious machinery has pounded the dunes over the years including Porsches and Mitsubishi specials. The cars are amazing, designed for the harshest environments, to ford rivers, scramble over rocks, wade through mud, jump metres in the air and race at high speed on the dunes, flat out for days on end.
Remarkably one of the most successful car manufacturers is based in a sleepy village in Derbyshire, I am of course talking about the fantastic Bowler Off Road team who design and manufacture the Nemesis, based very loosely on the Range Rover Sport, but with added warp drive.
Today I find myself let loose with the beast amidst sand and rocks, with the sun shining and a beautiful big blue sky, I could be somewhere exotic like the dunes of Morocco or Arabia, but actually I am in a disused quarry somewhere near Corby.
Standing next to the car I am immediately aware of its racing pedigree, it exudes ‘fast’
like a saddled race horse. This particular example has completed a number of events this year already and the TwinTex composite is scuffed where gravel and rocks have assaulted it withhours of high speed torture. The door is so light that opening it is like turning the page of a Sunday newspaper, I have to step over the high side protection bar and then I manage to slide into the deep racing bucket seat with all the grace of a greased octopus falling down a drain, but once installed I feel very comfortable indeed, if rather snug ( I am over 6 foot tall so the fact I fit at all is a pleasant surprise), and everything I need falls easily to hand or foot. The switches are laid out in three touch pads with ally shield plates, looking like a cross between a cash machine and the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise. The composite dash is styled to look similar to the Land Rover part, but it has an instrument binnacle with a large LCD display on both sides, the driver gets a big rev counter and a small digital speed readout plus a few other basics, the
co-pilot gets all the critical data to worry about leaving the driver to concentrate on winning the race.
Before the fun starts, the car shows its party trick of standing on one leg. The substantial sump guard doubles as a quick jack, two hydraulic rams drop it down and the car is raised clear off the ground, perfectly balanced for very rapid wheel changes.
Starting the 4.4 litre Jaguar V8 lets loose a savage bark from the race exhaust, which echoes round the old quarry walls like some sort of primeval beast letting the world know who’s boss. The stiff race spec engine mounts transmit a tingling thrill of vibration through the car, heightening the sense of anticipation. And all this fun before I have even put it in gear!
Driving the Nemesis in its native environment is more fun than mere words can convey, it thrusts forward with indecent speed, throwing the horizon into my face and then battering me about the head with it, soaking up severe bumps and ruts as charges over the moon-like terrain in a near deafening crescendo of mechanical aggression. It takes an off camber jump with ease, firing the car seemingly straight up on a path to the stars before landing hard yet gracefully on one corner, the competition long travel suspension
compressing with optimal control and allowing the power to be put down as soon as the car is on the ground again.
Turning hard into a corner the front is set to understeer, the technique is to power out hard and then flick the back end out, steering on the accelerator pedal – this is a specialist tool for a very special job, not for the faint hearted.
As it tackles the scenery with overwhelming capability, the drive is optimised by the very trick differentials with visco limited slip plus switchable air locking which let the wheels dig deep into very tight bends as I stab the loud pedal to slingshot onto the straight. The suspension is amazing, supple yet always in full control allowing me to pick the exact line I want between the rocks.
The car’s immense capability is a testament to the team’s high standards of engineering, honed over decades of working in the harsh world of competition vehicles. Indeed it’s been noticed by some of the world’s big movers and shakers, and a military version is on the cards with a machine-gun mount on top.
But my battle is over, finally I park up and ponder what a superb, pure bred, race machine this is. Then it occurs to me that Land Rovers great selling point is its every day practicality, and as this car shares about 40% of its DNA with a Range Rover Sport, I start to wonder how usable it is as an every day car. I bet no one else thinks like me.
So, I convince the chaps from Bowler that I need to take it on a run to the shops; I suspect this is a first for them. So we head out of the quarry onto some nice twisty B roads then into Corby town centre. On the road the car still feels absolutely wonderful, but in a different way, the Kumho race tyres are designed for grabbing lumps of the planet and throwing them rearwards and tarmac is not their preferred terrain, but they cope surprisingly well. In fact the car handles much like a sports car, the 60/40 torque split gives it a rear wheel drive like feel when powering out of roundabouts. There is less roll than I was expecting too, probably to do with the fairly low centre of gravity and the anti-roll bars helping the massive double wishbones. On mini roundabouts I can really feel the clever diffs working and on full steering lock the car shudders ever so slightly, though it might be just shuddering at the horror of driving slowly up a high street rather than enjoying itself racing at full tilt through the dunes. The only tricky bits are the brakes, which are very powerful and at low speeds leading to some accidental emergency stops, and the racing clutch which combined with the lightweight flywheel make it very easy to stall when trying to pull away gently in the queue to get into the Asda car park. Well, that’s my excuse anyway.
It turns out that driving a full-on Dakar race car into a local supermarket gets quite a lot of attention, I am not sure if it was the mud, the bright race paintwork or the exhaust sounding like the outbreak of war, but I have my suspicions.
Parking up is straightforward enough, although reversing is made a little tricky by the total absence of rear visibility, I have just the two door mirrors to work with, which are covered in mud.
People are looking at me as I open the door, twist the release buckle on the race harness and grapple my way out of the car. Now the next problem hits me; it’s a race car so it has no door locks, in fact it has no keys at all. But after a moment’s thought I realise that the alien world inside the cabin would stop any casual thief. That and the fact that the chaps from Bowler have parked up next to it, so I nip into the shops to get a few essentials.
On my return to the car I ponder where to put my bags. There is a parcel shelf, which normally houses the crew’s crash helmets and other race kit. The doors are hollow and normally used for storing documents, maps, drinks and nibbles that are essential on desert rally stages which can last for hours. But for getting the whole weekly shop in the car I turn to the rear storage lockers, their normal contents include sand ladders, emergency tools and rescue equipment.
So all in all it still manages a remarkable degree of practicality, its lots of fun to drive and is awesomely capable. Could it be the ultimate sports car? All it would need to be a perfect road car is an easier clutch and brakes, maybe an easier way of getting in and out, and probably some door locks would be a wise investment.
Which nicely brings me to the good news that Mr Bowler has decided to make a road car version, the EXR, with more refinement and comfy seats, an auto box option, air conditioning and something called ‘infotainment’, but as I hold a race licence I have no idea what that means. The result, currently at prototype stage, looks very tempting indeed and will give the sport minded Sheik most of the stunning ability of the race car in an accessible, easy to use package, ideal for weekend dune bashing or cruising the south of France.
I for one am really, really looking forward to that one.
The heart of the beast is the Jaguar V8 in 4.4 NA or the 450 bhp 4.2 supercharged form, Jag diesels are also an option and gaining popularity, and now the fantastic Jaguar 5.0 V8 engines are available with over 500bhp on tap. Gearboxes are 6 speeders, either the synchro H gate or sequential. The differential options are open, LSD or the top class Ricardo visco LSD with air locking too.
The space frame is immensely strong and can withstand the huge forces of racing and the unfortunately inevitable crashes, the overall stiffness is far greater than road cars and is essential for good suspension control.
Bodywork is made from a mixture of alloy plating and the composite ‘Twintex’ which is more durable than carbon fibre; the whole thing is very light but the car in competition is ballasted up to meet the minimum weight regulations.
Up to three FIA compliant safety fuel tanks allow a maximum of 406 litres, needed for the extremely long desert rally stages.
The Eibach duel rate springs are tuned precisely for this car, and the massive race dampers use remote oil reservoirs to cope with the heat generated in severe use. The double wishbones all round allow up to 300mm of travel.
The brakes have 360mm front discs with Brembo callipers and 350mm rear discs with Land Rover callipers, a brake bias valve allows the front/rear bias to be adjusted to suit the race conditions.
A range of wheels and tyres are available but this car has Kumho 275/65-18 race tyres on Compomotive 18” race alloys.
Gull wing doors, rorty 6.2 V8 engine, very long bonnet and stunning styling. It’s a winning formula without doubt.
Sitting in the sculpted seats and facing neat but effective dials I immediately feel like I have arrived somewhere special. Controls are familiar yet slightly odd, the doors are the first obvious deviation from the norm but this is complimented by the Park position on the gearbox being on a separate button next to the gear stick. The gear stick merely selects forward, neutral or reverse, the operating mode, manual, auto or sports is selected on a small dial, and manual selection is via the industry standard steering wheel paddles. The quirkiness adds to the special feeling beautifully.
A brief press of the start button swings the engine into life with a sudden burst of noise that scares small children, a noise I imagine would be similar to a dragon clearing its throat before destroying a castle.
This fearsome symphony is contrasted by the ultra smooth way the car pulls away and eases into the traffic. A quick sprint round a roundabout and I am on Millbrook’s legendary high speed bowl, 2 miles of banked concrete that has seen many UK speed records over the years. But today it is heaving with rain, a thunderstorm is crashing against the hills and venting its anger on the track, no matter the SLS barks back at the clouds and from this level easily wins the shouting competition.
563 bhp is let free by my right foot, the car duly surges forward with unrelenting pace, the ESP system does a magnificent of preserving the intended direction of travel as the rear wheels struggle for grip on the rapidly flooding concrete. The seating position is very close to the rear axle, a bit like a Caterham, and so every twitch and drama from the rear tyres is transmitted beautifully into the driver, you can feel this car, and its alive with power and purpose.
The great thing about banked tracks is that they drain quickly, as soon as the deluge passed the track dried and I was able at last to sample the delicious force of power without slip, it was not disappointing. Acceleration is on a par to a grand piano falling off a penthouse balcony, each of the seven DSG gears bangs home almost instantly with the engine billowing out a spine tingling symphony reminiscent of a WW2 fighter plane.
All too soon it’s time to come in, standing on the brakes at three figure speeds forces blood into my face like falling flat from a great height on a bouncy castle. Trickling the car back to the kind people at the Mercedes stand revealed a very civilized and easy to drive side of this magnificent car’s personality.
This test was prompted my a question from my better half, she asked ‘is the SLS any good’, my answer is a definite yes it is, it’s very good indeed.
Cresting a tree lined hill in majestically controlled opulence, I marvel at the sheer volume of technical excellence dedicating its existence to making my drive a simply fabulous experience.
The Rolls Royce Ghost is unusual in RR history as it is expected that owners will drive it, for some of the time anyway. Traditional RR theory has it that owners always travel in the back and so driver aids were kept to a minimum, but the Ghost has a plethora of modern technological wonders to make driving easier and more pleasurable.
As with many cars today it has an electric handbrake. But it performs a more sophisticated role here than on a humble peasant hatchback, it holds the car at rest until the accelerator is pressed when it is seamlessly released, leaving the switch in this mode means that the brake is automatically applied when at rest and if the driver exits for a quick ‘comfort break’ in the hedges the gearbox is automatically put into parked too. This is surprisingly useful when swapping drivers on long trips and the such like.
Gear selection is elegantly simple with Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive being the only options. It goes without saying that the system analyses your driving style and adapts to suit, almost anticipating your desire for a gear shift before you know it.
The head up display shows the current speed limit derived from the on-board camera and some very clever image recognition systems that look for road signs, this means it can pick up temporary and new speed limits which is something sat-nav based systems have no chance of dealing with. This is linked to the adaptive cruise control so you never need get caught for speeding ever again. The system also notices white lines and if it detects the driver drifting out of lane without indicating it will discretely vibrate the steering wheel.
But I found driving it a surprise for all the wrong reasons. For sure the power delivery is smooth and effortless, with a wealth of thrust available throughout the rev range, and the ride is supple yet responsive but a tad more twitchy than Roller’s of old. The cabin is well insulated from outside noise, shutting the door is like closing a granite lid on a padded tomb, but unfortunately there was a fair amount of road noise transmitted through the car itself, particularly tyre noise. This might be more noticeable because of the near total lack of other noise, yet having driven older offerings from this legendary brand where there was no noise at all at moderate speeds I do think this is genuine and a step in the wrong direction. Although it has to be said that with the Crewe built cars wind noise, scuttle shake and a tendency not to go in precisely the direction intended were always features, which have thankfully all been dispelled in the new models.
So if the new car is better insulated, more solidly built and has better suspension how come there is more road noise? Well, I think this may be due to the affliction that most modern cars suffer from; excessively low profile tyres.
The thing driving this move towards rubber bands is not solid engineering but the fickle whim of fashion. Even Range Rovers run on 40 profile tyres now, which is quite frankly ridiculous. Low profile means the tyre cant adapt to the road surface and makes for a harsh ride and a tendency to skitter on all but the smoothest of surfaces. Tyres are an important part of the suspension system and making them too stiff is like welding girders onto the springs. You’ll never see an F1 car on low profiles.
I would dearly love to drive this magnificent car on better tyres, then I am sure it would effortlessly waft in silent majesty, just as it should.