My #SMMT in a Nutshell

Friday 27th May, 2011
Great day out at SMMT yesterday on what @majorgav very accurately described as "speed dating for cars". I went with no real expectation of what I might drive but was pleasantly surprised at how accessible many of the vehicles and motoring PRs were. It was a truly great value day and I figured I'd do a quick write-up of what I drove and first thoughts for each in this (rather bigger than the claimed nutshell) article.

Subaru Impreza

My first, and only, experience in an Impreza was in my previous boss's car on a rather quick Belgium in 1999. Hitting speeds of around 140mph on that journey it was noisy from both the external wind and internal rattles. It was good at one thing, going quickly, but it was rather good at it. In fact, at speed, the air was going over the windscreen so quickly that I remember him struggling to get the wipers to wipe off the bug splats without first slowing down.

Driving the 2011 Impreza yesterday, was nothing like that memory. It was comfortable, smooth and well built - I even recognised some of the switch-gear used from my own Lexus! When you gave it some it had a lovely engine/exhaust note but there weren't any unwanted noises. I found the turbo a bit laggy at low revs but if you kept it in the rather large power band it just kept on going - marvellous. Most amazing of all was its ability to keep grip on the tarmac of the tricky handling circuit at Millbrook. When hitting bumps in the road, I'm quite used to cars skipping a wheel off the road, over active traction control kicking in etc. The Scooby just didn't let go at all and I've not grinned so much in quite a while. I drove 2 different models and the higher powered one was the one for me and well worth the extra money, however much that is.

Skoda Yeti

I'd heard a lot about the Yeti due to the amazing media coverage it has had recently, especially the dazzling review from Top Gear. I expected a lot but it didn't really disappoint.  On the Millbrook off-road track it was more than capable, in fact more than I was at avoiding all the ruts that caused the car to keep grounding unnecessarily. I guess I'm used to off-roaders with more ground clearance and have never had to worry about it so much. I think that's the main thing that struck me about the Yeti - it was a lot smaller than I expected - but its light weight made it nimble around the off-road track and the engine, despite being a petrol model (rare in an AWD car), felt more than capable around the steep inclines.

Overall it wasn't really to my taste, especially given how much I'd have to spend to get it to the trim level I'd desire, but I can truly understand why people buy them - especially at the budget end of the price list.

BMW 1 Series M Coupe

A lot of people getting very excited about this car so I was amazed when I arrived at the BMW stand to find it waiting for a driver - was rude not to have a go. First thing I noticed was the smooth throttle pedal - been a while since I last drove a Beemer and I'd forgotten how tricky that pedal can be with leather soled shoes. Plenty of rubber grip on the brake pedal, thankfully, but I'm left wondering why the loud pedal is built that way; I wouldn't really want to change my shoes every time I took the car out, but maybe you get used to it as an owner?

Short throw gear-box was just perfect but I found the gear knob a little big for my small girlie sized hands. I may sound like I'm nit-picking but you kinda have to with this car as the rest of it was superb. Great engine noise, great exhaust note, pulls pretty nicely from any revs and the only major fault was the tremendous wind noise through the A-pillars at high speed on the oval. Sure, if you're going to stick to road legal speeds you'll never notice but if you're doing a ton down the fast lane of the M40 you won't feel like you're in a £40k+ car.

Edit - BMW PR have since let me know that this was a "prototype" car and not representative of the finished product. Apparently the wind noise, for example, was a known issue with early builds but the released model should be OK. Hopefully they fixed the noisy windscreen wipers too. I'll update again should I get to drive a production model.

Merc C-Class

This one just kept ticking boxes for me as I drove it around. Comfortable. Low noise, even at speed. Smooth gear change and, without any doubt, I got out of it knowing it was the best diesel car I had ever driven. Yes..I drove a diesel...they can actually be rather good at times.

Porsche 911 GTS

If you've ever driven a modern Porsche, you'll appreciate that everything about them says quality. As you drive down the road, you'll appreciate where every penny of the price you paid has gone. The GTS is more of the same and, compared to the normal C2S, this model is lowered slightly and has some fantastic single nut alloys. The changes in suspension make the car feel a little lighter as you pick up extra response through the steering wheel and a bit of extra power and noise are thrown in for good measure. As usual with 911 models, I just couldn't really fault this one aside from it being a bit of a firm ride for a daily drive so, for my money, I'd stick with a fully loaded C2S, but for a weekend car, the GTS may be the one to get...if the GT3 is a step too far.

Infiniti M35h

Having driven to the event in a big hybrid powered executive saloon, it was quite exciting to compare it directly to the Infiniti equivalent. Whilst these cars have nothing in common component wise, they are very similar to drive. The main difference, as far as I could tell without a spec sheet, is that the Infiniti has an auto gearbox whereas my Lexus GS has a CVT set-up. When pulling away from a standstill, the M35h felt a little more pokey, like it was using a little more engine than battery when compared to the Lexus - maybe this will show in the emissions and economy figures when I look closer. The difference in gearing was very noticeable and on a couple of changes I noticed some very perceptible lag when the Infiniti engaged the right cog for the throttle position - despite being in the "sport" mode. I also noticed that when I got out to change drivers that the engine was still running, something that would never happen in the full hybrid Lexus which stops immediately when you pull up.

The main difference came when driving around the oval test track for high-speed testing. Compared with the Lexus all I heard was wind noise, oddly from the rear and sides not the front, and this made the car feel a bit cheap despite (ignoring the awful faux wood) arguably having a much nicer interior than the now dated Lexus design from 2005. This may be a pre-production model and not representative of the final build quality but I'd recommend you do a high speed test drive before committing to a purchase. In my eyes, it's built for the 65mph US market.

Mini Cooper SD

I'd never driven a MINI before, ever, but it was rude not to with the new Cooper SD crying out for me to give it a go. I'll admit, I wasn't really a fan but mainly for subjective reasons...not the car. Ultimately, I'm not a huge fan of front-wheel drive cars as they wheelspin a lot. This was no exception so I don't think I'd really enjoy it on short journeys or on long journeys either, due to wind noise at speed. I can truly see the appeal for those that like them, just not me...I'm too old these days. I wasn't a huge fan of the diesel set-up either. It felt a bit gutless at the bottom end and then, as soon as the power came on-line, it ran out of revs and I had to change gear. I think I'd like a go in a petrol one...

Vauxhall VXR8

I guess they'd call it a big powerful muscle car. Personally, it's been a long time since I drove anything quite so nasty. Words can't truly describe how much I disliked this car from the moment I touched the hand brake lever which was made from quite possibly the cheapest plastic I have ever known. My dad always had Vauxhall cars when I was a kid, Cavalier, Carlton etc. and I have always been a big fan as a result. Cars have come a long way since, however, and it seems Vauxhall hasn't and are still living in the past with regards interior trim. Sure it was powerful and made a big noise but that was about it really. The car was only available to drive on the high speed oval on which all I got was error messages regarding faults in brake assistance, stability control etc. To be honest, I couldn't really give the keys back soon enough.

Mercedes CLS

One of the cars I've always wanted to try. I've always regarded the CLS as an even more posh version of my own GS so I couldn't wait to get behind the wheel. This car didn't disappoint in any way. The seat adjustments alone were dumbfounding, with an adjustable length seat base and even a button that moves the sides of the seat to determine how much they held you in place. The C class' reign as best diesel I have ever driven was so short but at least it's been beaten by another Mercedes.

Obviously it's just a short test drive and not a full ownership experience but I drove around the high speed oval and the hill track trying to think of ways in which my own car was better than this one. I'm still pondering over this...

Bentley Flying Spur

Amazingly big. Amazingly heavy. Amazingly luxurious. Amazing noise from the W12 power-plant. Amazingly expensive and truly amazing that it has less seat adjustment than the Merc CLS. It's a truly breathtaking car, particularly the speed at which it takes off, but I could never get comfortable in my seat and for that reason alone there's no way I could ever justify the price tag.

Porsche 911 G-Series

This is what I can only describe, for fans of 80s TV show Dallas, as the Pam Ewing Porsche. If ever there was a car you didn't want to drive in the pouring rain, it's this one. Anybody who's used to the over-assisted steering and brakes of modern cars will get quite a shock when driving this one which feels like a Go Kart. I'm truly glad I took the opportunity for a drive but it's ended my ideas of owning a classic 911 as it would just be wasted on me. Cars need to be driven, in my opinion, and you couldn't get much further from a daily drive as this one which can only be described as hard work around town...I'll stick to the new ones, built for lazy people.

Mini Cooper Countryman SD

I've often said that I prefer the Countryman looks to the standard MINI and the practicality appeals too, so it was great to have a chance to try out the AWD version. For me, the drive matched the looks and I much preferred it. The FWD wheel-spin was replaced by AWD grip and I found it a much easier drive, although perhaps a little firm with the Cooper set-up. It came as no surprise to me that 1 in 4 MINI sold this year is a Countryman and I can easily see why.

Renault Megane Sport

I think he said this car had 130bhp and, for the first Renault I had driven in years, it was a pretty nice drive. Highlight for me was the indicators which made a computer game style noise that reminded me of Pac Man.

Merc 560 SEC

Last, but not least, I was persuaded to give the big old left-hooker Merc a glad I did. This thing was HUGE but a great drive and apparently used to be owned by Nigel Mansell. From the moment the electronic system moved the seat belt alongside as I started the car, I knew it could only be a fun drive and I grinned all the way around the track. I'm not going to be trying to bid for one on eBay but it was a true eye opener and amazing how advanced a car of its age could be.

Car of the Show

If I had to take any of the cars I drove home with me and use them as a daily drive, it would have to be the Merc CLS. It meets all my needs, is the most comfortable car I've ever been in of any class and somehow manages to hide a big 3.2 litre diesel engine under the bonnet without the noise giving it away. It truly blew me away.

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