Driving Torque

Articles, reviews and opinions about cars and all things automotive

Archive for the month “May, 2012”

SMMT Test Day 2012 – Popping my Cherry

I was fortunate enough to be invited recently to the 2012 Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) Test Day, being held at the Millbrook Proving Ground and I jumped at the opportunity to go and see what it’s all about. Being a Test Day virgin, I arrived with a certain amount of trepidation, trying to look unfazed and yet feeling that I was somewhat gate-crashing a well established, strictly invite only party. As it was only 07:30 when I arrived, the mist was still set in over the 700 acre site and as we were being transferred from the car park, in the distance I spied some almost eerie shapes emerging from the gloom. These turned out to be the very welcome exhibition stands of some 32 car manufacturers, ranging from Alfa Romeo to Volvo, all fronted by a selection of their models for our delectation, imagine an automotive Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and you’re somewhere near. Naturally, more in-depth reviews of the cars I drove on the day will appear on Driving Torque shortly but for now, here’s a little taster of what a Test Day has to offer.

Mercedes SLS Roadster at the SMMT Test Day 2012

Mercedes SLS Roadster

Following a spot of breakfast, an opening speech by the SMMT Chief Executive Paul Everitt and a safety briefing, we were released like a hungry swarm of ants onto the awaiting PR folk and their wares. I had noted on our drive in that the Mercedes-Benz stand was located at the farthest point of the arena and whilst always trying to maintain an air of composure, I made a beeline for it, mentally reminding myself not to break into a run. As I neared my goal I spotted it; the reason for my haste and also the reason why I’d convinced myself that if I’d turned around I’d have been overwhelmed by the hordes of drooling journalists, all rampantly stalking my prey. It was of course the Mercedes SLS Roadster gleaming in designo Mystic White with contrasting designo Black interior and roof. At £210,000 including options this was one of the most expensive cars present and arguably the prettiest. My plot was foiled however as a chap from Parker’s Price Guide had beaten me by a whisker and was to be first in the SLS. The nice people from Mercedes did a sterling job of consoling me though, using only four letters and two numbers – C63 AMG. That’s right, whilst awaiting the return of the Roadster, I was more than welcome to sample this deceptively tame looking coupe with its legendary 6.2 litre V8 engine shoe-horned under the bonnet.

Mercedes C63 AMG at the SMMT Test Day 2012

Mercedes C63 AMG, 6.2 litres of V8 loveliness

Whenever I drive a car for the first time, I like to do two things; turn the stereo off and wind the driver’s window down, I like to hear an engine as well as feel it. One thing’s for certain in this Merc, that engine’s performance is matched by its spectacular soundtrack. It builds quickly from a deep, bass-drum rumble of thunder in the distance, all the way up to the percussion section of the London Philharmonic orchestra recreating a tropical storm in one’s cranium. Navigating the twists and turns of the Alpine road route in such a beautifully set up car was nothing but pleasurable, even with a little voice inside my head reminding me- ‘do not do a Bond’ (Milbrook was where 007 rolled his Aston Martin in Casino Royale). Having safely returned the C-class to its owners, it was my turn in the SLS and with some guidance from one of their own pro-drivers, including checking that I was aware which one the brake pedal was(!), we did a few laps of the 2 mile, banked circuit at speeds of up to 100mph. The SLS shares a lot of its drivetrain with the C63 I’d driven previously but this is where the similarities end. This is a ‘proper’ sports car with a low slung driving position, its two seats placed practically over the rear wheels and a seemingly endless bonnet. The SLS also manages to gain the equivalent of a family hatchback over the C63 in terms of power with its 571 bhp compared to 487 bhp found in the C Class which includes a 30 hp factory upgrade.

So just to recap, two cars driven which equated to 12.4 litres, 1058 bhp and a combined value of nearly £285,000. All before 09:30, there are definitely worse ways to start your day.

The Test Day isn’t only about the machinery however; it’s a fantastic opportunity to put a face to some names and start building relationships with the various PR staff who make all of this possible. I must admit to initially feeling a little apprehensive on that front due to it being my debut. Any nerves were very quickly dissipated though as each and every person I introduced myself to was chatty, smiling and more than happy to help in any way they could. The day was also a great chance to meet some of my peers; I’m still a huge believer that old-fashioned socialising beats digital networking hands down and over the course of the day I had many conversations with people who I’d previously only been able to exchange emails and tweets with.

There were an estimated 300 journalists at the event and obviously with so many people trying to achieve the same objective, the time available in each car was understandably limited. That said, the awesome facilities available coupled with some super-human organisation meant that over the course of the day I managed to drive 16 cars, all of which I’d never driven before. Without the SMMT Test Day, it would be very difficult, if not impossible for someone in my position to gain this kind of exposure to such a wide variety of vehicles.

Highlights of the day? Meeting Paul Horrell- associate editor of Top Gear magazine must be the absolute pinnacle but as far as cars go, here’s a little taster of the great and possibly not so great-;

Mini Cooper S Roadster at the SMMT Test Day 2012

Mini Cooper S Roadster

Subaru BRZ at the SMMT Test Day 2012

Subaru BRZ

Renault Twizy with optional doors at SMMT Test Day 2012

Renault Twizy

I’d like to say a huge thank you to all at the SMMT for inviting me to such a marvellous event, especially Janet Wilkinson and Ed Callow. I’d also like to thank all the manufacturers present and their staff for being so accommodating and genuinely friendly, particularly Tom Richards on the Subaru stand for politely tolerating my incessant requests to drive the BRZ – Thanks Tom!

By Ben Harrington

Jaguar XKR-S Convertible – First Drive

Jaguar XKR-S Convertible in Red

Jaguar XKR-S Convertible

121mm, or 4.73 inches in old money if you prefer. That was the average rainfall in Britain for April 2012, nearly double the expected monthly amount.  The more mathematically minded amongst you will have already calculated that this equates to 4.033mm per day, doesn’t sound like much does it? I can assure you that this insignificant sounding amount felt like a monsoon as it pounded on my windscreen whilst I was wending my merry way southwards on the M6, cursing my luck and fervently glancing skywards, searching for that small shaft of light that might result in some slightly less inclement weather.

The reason for my unrealistic optimism was that on this particular day, I was being given the opportunity to road-test the all new Jaguar XKR-S Convertible, better still; I would be able to perform a back-to-back test with its fixed roof sibling to gain a true insight into what differences exist between the two.

Jaguar XKR-S in blue

Jaguar XKR-S Coupe

Having driven the XKR-S hardtop previously, I deemed it only fair that I give the convertible the first chance to deliver that ‘wow’ factor that rarely fails to be administered when driving cars of this nature and it didn’t disappoint. Aside the obvious lack of a metal roof on one model, the interiors are identical. A blend of traditional high grade leather, huge swathes of carbon fibre and some tastefully designed ultra-modern switchgear  are the order of the day on both cars but the convertible has the privilege of encouraging a large grin to appear across my face first. There are many neat little touches in the cabin that are comprehensively overshadowed by these car’s performance but someone, somewhere will have put a lot of time, energy and money into them so they shouldn’t be overlooked. Not least of these features is the ‘stop/start’ button that senses when the key is nearby and emits an eerie, blood red glow to the rhythm of a heartbeat. What better way to cross the divide between an inanimate lump of machinery and a living, breathing creature than to actually give it a pulse?  Interestingly, the XKR-S differs from much of the Jaguar range by persisting with traditional mechanical dials, I assume that this is either a weight saving measure or a way of reinforcing the very nature of the model, function over form.

Having depressed the irresistible start button, the 5.0 litre, supercharged V8 awakens with a somewhat startled yelp that settles into a deep, mellow thrum. Audibility is a large part of the attraction of a performance car for me and although the XKR-S convertible isn’t exactly quiet, I’m almost disappointed that the high quality fabric roof does such an impressive job of keeping noise intrusion to a minimum. In fact, the majority of engine noise is not entering the cabin from roof level, it seems to be coming from below, giving the definite impression that the active exhaust system is routed through the base of the driver’s seat, not an approach that I’d be averse to if I’m honest.

Driving Torque drives the Jaguar XKR-S Convertible

Jaguar XKR-S Convertible – roof down

Time to get reacquainted with what 550bhp and 501lb ft torque feels like and as I tentatively pull out onto a drenched B road, it all comes rushing back, literally. Even left in ‘relatively sane’ mode, the acceleration is brutal with a claimed 0-60mph time of 4.2s, all being driven by the rear wheels as they competently scrabble for grip on a very unhelpful surface. The 6 speed ‘box is so subtle between gears that when coupled with such oodles of torque, it’s really anyone’s guess what gear you’re actually in but when corners are approaching as quickly as they do in this car, you have very little time to ponder such issues.

Just as I’m giving up all hope of ever getting the roof down, I have a ‘hallelujah’ moment and the rain
eases as I approach a convenient layby. The Jaguar takes 16 seconds to rid itself of its roof but unfortunately, this is a long time in British weather and by the time we’re topless, an annoying drizzle has commenced. I ponder for a while just how much of the £103,000 list price would be obliterated if the leather interior got a little soggy and then decide to throw caution to the wind and go for it. That £6000 price hike over the hard top is instantly forgotten as the engine note escalates into a satisfying bellow with nothing to mute the noise between exhaust and eardrum; it isn’t too long before that pleasure is taken away though. It obviously doesn’t take much time to reach 50mph in this car and as I accelerate on past it, my aural joy is replaced by a very normal buffeting wind noise. Even with the wind deflector deployed, it’s a strain to hear the exhaust and the whole experience becomes paradoxical: More speed = Less pleasure!

As the drizzle intensifies, the sensible side of me takes over and I spot another location up the road to weatherproof the Jag. As the speed decreases and the gearbox follows suit, something magical happens that could easily justify the extra premium of the convertible on its own. In complete contrast to the XK range’s somewhat gentlemanly image, the clever exhaust pops and spits pockets of fuel, resulting in a hugely satisfying cacophony, reminiscent of an old-school American V8. This noise should definitely not be muted by a roof.

In full sport mode, coupled with dynamic settings on and manual gear-changes selected, this car initially feels as fast and direct as anything I’ve driven, including its hard top sibling. It’s only after a few minutes that I wonder whether it’s just my imagination or has something been lost in the translation from fixed-head to drop-head? On such a precise piece of machinery it’s hard to detect any slightly rounded edges at all but thankfully I’m in the coupe next to draw a true comparison.

Jaguar XKR-S Convertible in red

Jaguar XKR-S Convertible – roof back up!

According to the facts and figures, this XKR-S coupe that I now find myself in should present exactly the same driving feel as the convertible I’ve just exited. They somehow both weigh the same and, according to Jaguar, the performance doesn’t alter even a smidgen from one car to the other. The way a car actually feels bears little relation to its facts and figures however so the only answer is to get hands on in the coupe.

That glorious V8 howl is still very noticeable with a solid roof, whether this is done on purpose or is simply a by-product of removing sound deadening in order to lose weight, I don’t know. Either way, it encapsulates the cabin and unlike the convertible, it shows no signs of abating at higher speeds due to wind noise.

Out on the open roads the XKR-S coupe initially feels absolutely identical to the convertible which truly is testament to the engineers at Jaguar as they battle with the laws of physics to eliminate the flex that naturally occurs when a car loses its roof. It’s only when the coupe’s settings are turned up to the max that physics begins to win. The car is so beautifully balanced and just seems to respond immediately and exactly to the driver’s every whim, inspiring previously unknown confidence as you  point that long bonnet in the direction you want to travel and the rest of the car follows – very, very quickly. It’s barely noticeable at first but after a few quick corners, it becomes more apparent that this car was designed from day one with a roof in mind and unfortunately, some changes in weight distribution must occur if this vital piece of bodywork is dispensed with.
It’s obviously no slouch but when faced with this competition, the convertible’s miniscule flaws become apparent. But let’s be straight here, when I say miniscule, that’s exactly what I mean. Unless you actually owned both cars and planned on driving them back to back, the experience of driving the convertible would satisfy even the most enthusiastic of drivers, day in, day out, come rain or shine.

By Ben Harrington

XKR-S Specifications                                       XKR-S Convertible Specifications

Cost – £97,000                                                        Cost – £103,000

Engine – 5.0L V8 Supercharged                      Engine – 5.0L V8 Supercharged

Power – 550bhp                                                      Power – 550bhp

Torque – 502 LB FT                                               Torque – 502 LB FT

Economy – 23.0mpg                                             Economy – 23.0mpg

Emissions – 292g/km                                            Emissions – 292g/km

Acceleration – 0-60mph 4.2s                            Acceleration – 0-60mph 4.2s

Top Speed – 186mph                                              Top Speed – 186mph

Weight – 1753kg                                                       Weight – 1753kg

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