With its miles of test track secreted away in the Bedfordshire countryside, Millbrook proving ground is a sight to behold for the fledgling motoring journalist. As the venue for the SMMT’s annual test day, it’s also a playground where journos get the opportunity to drive a vast array of metal under one roof, so to speak.
Held on a balmy Thursday in May, the 2012 event was my first test day outing. The day began with a presentation by SMMT top bod Paul Everitt, after which several hundred assembled car scribblers poured out of Millbrook’s auditorium and onto the tarmac, to be met by a smorgasbord of four-wheeled temptation. With the morning mist rapidly burning off, test cars began trickling towards the legendary hill route – and with that I was off in search of my first drive. Hackneyed though it is, I can only wheel out the kid in a sweet shop cliche to describe the feeling. I know some came with a game plan, but I just hopped into anything I fancied.
It’s been going for a while, so most seasoned car scribblers take it in their stride, but for those of us who’ve not been in the game long, the SMMT Test day is, frankly – a bit of a treat. I drove cars back to back from 9am to 5pm, stopping only to refuel myself for lunch. That saw me get behind the wheel of around 20 different cars, exploring the limits with increasing cockiness on the hill route. Here’s a run down of some of my highlights.
Porsche 911 (991) Carrera Cabriolet PDK
First drive of the day and I made a beeline for the Porsche stand, bagging the keys to a vanilla 991 drop top. Thing about this one is it was my first go in a 991 – and having only driven the 996 3.6 Carrera iteration previously, my reference points were limited. Without jumping on the electric steering bandwagon, I found the topless 911 experience pretty memorable – thanks largely to a wonderfully vocal sports exhaust and that PDK ‘box. With every downchange accompanied by an intoxicating blip of flat six, a couple of laps of the hill route in the new 991 cab provided far more of a hit than Millbrook’s slightly tepid coffee. A good start to the day…
Jaguar XKR-S Cabriolet
Next stop Jaguar – and the XKR-S. The coupe is already out on track, so I’m thrown the keys to a burgundy cabriolet. And it’s just monstrous. Motoring clichés were invented for this car, which serves up a wonderfully uncouth 542bhp from its supercharged 5.0-litre V8. And it does it with all the quiet reserve of a Spitfire on fly-past. Aside from slightly disconcerting steering which at first feels a bit light, but then turns out to be quite talkative, the 542bhp XKR-S is a marvel of accelerative mischief. What throttle response. And that bassy, resonating bent-eight snarl – oh the noise. Yes, £103k is a touch heavy for a Jag, but I was smitten – and went back for seconds. I’d love to live with one of these on the road to see if it could cosset as well as thrill. Hello, Jaguar PR.
Mercedes – C63 AMG Coupe, SLS AMG Roadster, SLK 250 CDi
As a bit of a Benz obsessive, I stalked the Mercedes stand with conspicuous regularity throughout the day. Target number one was the C63 AMG Coupe – a 6.2-litre V8-engined brute, which looks rather apologetic and under-wheeled considering the certifiable lump of handbuilt madness lurking under its nose. Endowed with the 480bhp performance pack, Merc’s SMMT example embodied that intoxicating AMG recipe – engine-led, effortless performance, as loutish or civilised as you choose. Predictably, given it’s a V8 Merc, I absolutely loved it.
From hairy-chested hot rod to hairdresser’s car – next up was a slightly effete white SLK 250 CDi. To me, oil-burning roadsters sound conceptually unpalatable, the combination of fresh air and diesel particulates not being something I’ve ever fancied sampling. The reality is that the open-roofed diesel Merc makes a lot of sense – it steers pretty accurately, like most current Mercedes fare – and despite betraying a penchant for the black stuff with some clatter at idle, the 2.1-litre 200bhp diesel version is quite appealing as an ownership proposition – if you buy into the SLK image. A claimed 56mpg, in conjunction with 500NM of torque lends it really strong cred as an all-rounder too. Punchy and agile, I’m not sure why anyone would opt for the pricier petrol SLK 250 over this – aside from the slightly reluctant throttle response of the oil-burner. Otherwise, the SLK 250 CDi is of its genre, a convincing effort.
And the SLS AMG Roadster? There was a long wait for that one and it was restricted to the high speed bowl only – so beyond a furious blast of right pedal up to the spoilsport 100mph limit imposed by Millbrook, it was all over too quickly. That evocative F1 safety car snarl did make the wait a touch more worthwhile though. On to the next one…
Bentley Continental Supersports Convertible ISR
Yes, there’s a theme emerging – I did go after the more tasty and exotic stuff first. And possibly the most exotic of the day was my 1pm date with the Bentley Continental Supersports Convertible Ice Speed Record. A bit of a mouthful, and at 640bhp and £190k, the vital numbers are pretty arresting. So too is the sight of this leviathan from Crewe, particularly when festooned with the contrasting red wheels and graphics of the Mulliner pack equipped test car. You can get away with gaudy stickers on a GT3 – but on a gentleman’s express like the Conti? I’m not so sure.
The ISR, a special edition built to celebrate rally champion Juha Kankunnen’s 205mph ice speed record, is a beautifully crafted, gorgeous thing to sit in – particularly with its distinctive red carbon fibre weave which adorns the dash. Discreet Naim audio logos on the door speakers and beautifully trimmed quilted leather also appeal. Sadly, given traffic levels out on track when I drive the ISR, it’s not possible to explore the performance envelope of this 2.4-tonne Bentley on the tight hill route, and the high speed bowl is closed, so I meander back to Bentley base and hand the keys back feeling a touch deflated.
Very much a car of the moment, this – and not surprisingly the queue for Subaru’s new kid on the block was a long one. When I finally bag the keys to the squat little coupe, late in the afternoon, I have to concur with some of the sentiment coming out of the established motoring press. I end up wringing its neck around the hill route, and the chassis is clearly tremendously biddable and well wrought. But the elephant in the room makes itself known pretty soon. No two ways about it – 197bhp just doesn’t feel like enough. I love the direct steering, I love the inherent balance and unfiltered purity of the driving experience – but it’s like the original ’96 2.5 Boxster – crying out for more power to fulfil its potential. Surely a light pressure turbo and about 40 more horses is what the BRZ needs.
BMW 116D EfficientDynamics
A bit of a wildcard this one – I went in search of the new 640D Gran Coupe – BMW’s CLS rival. I came away with the keys to an uber-frugal white 116 diesel – not the raw deal you might think. BMW’s most parsimonious diesel 1-series makes obvious sense to company car drivers, with 73mpg capability and tax-friendly sub-99g/km emissions (the only Beemer under the zero road tax threshold) – but it’s a genuinely good drive too. Slightly lower suspension which helps cut emissions over the standard 116D lends it a firmer ride, and thanks to the accurate, snappy six-speed ‘box you can make the most of the 2-litre engine’s modest 114bhp. Body control on the hill route was also great and it felt entertaining when pushed, the eco tyres providing a degree of slip when provoked. Proving to be one of the surprises of the day, I wouldn’t feel short-changed if had to choose one of these as corporate wheels. But it’s not a car I’d want to glance wistfully out of the office window at - it’s growing on me, a little, but there’s still hints of Amazonian sloth about that front end.
Suzuki Swift Sport
This one has to get a special mention. After a couple of laps of the hill route, I handed back the keys to most of the cars I tried – with limited time to play I wanted to drive as much as possible. But one of the exceptions was that diminutive nugget of Japo-fun that is the Swift Sport. So much did it engage me on the twisty hill circuit that I went back for a third lap – sorry Suzuki PR people. A modest 136bhp means it isn’t especially swift at 8.7 seconds to 60mph, but it makes the business of thrashing it and wringing out every last drop of performance, an absolute hoot. From the keen turn-in and direct steering, to the short-throw ‘box, it’s just so – *cliche warning* – effervescent. And it doesn’t feel like the plasticky buzz-box you might expect. This is a fine handling, beautifully un-pretentious warm hatch. Another surprise – less is definitely more sometimes.
The ones that got away…
There patently wasn’t enough time to get behind the wheel of everything on display. Here’s a few that I wanted to sample but which will have to remain on the to do list, for now. Unless any friendly PRs are reading this and want to chuck some keys my way?…
BMW 640D Gran Coupe
Bentley Continental GT V8
Renault Megane Renaultsport 265
Mini John Cooper Works Coupe