Driving Torque

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Archive for the tag “Mercedes”

Mercedes GLA Class – First Drive at UK Launch

Mercedes GLA sideAs a rule, a manufacturer develops a mainstream, run-of-the-mill model, has some success with it, and then spawns various ‘niche’ models based on the back of this success. Mercedes are perhaps the king of this school of thinking, seemingly offering a model to suit every individual’s needs. The A class has always been a little different; in an apparent fit of reverse evolution, the original, quirky A class was like nothing previously offered from, well, anybody, with it’s current incarnation having been transformed into a regular, Golf sized hatchback.

But, hang on a minute though. What we have here is an apparent return to form – it’s  the Mercedes GLA – a jacked up, SUV derivative of their now sensible ‘A’, fully prepared to jump on the small SUV bandwagon that’s taken the world by storm.

Mercedes GLA rearEvery manufacturer is keen to emphasise the real-world capability of their off-road models, regardless of size, and Mercedes are no different. I’m fairly sure that 500ft below the roads is a unique location to showcase these abilities but that’s where we found ourselves, 500ft down a salt mine in sunny Cheshire, no less.

This might sound a little extreme and, possibly a tad irrelevant, as there was none of the usual mud, deep water and nerve-janglingly steep inclines that off-road courses generally boast. In fact though, it served very well in replicating the demands that are more likely to be made of cars such as the GLA – an uneven, unpredictable surface with a few ascents, all tackled at around 20mph – more school mum than Sahara desert.

Back on top of terra-firma, away from 100% darkness, it’s easier to gain a true perspective of what the GLA is all about.

Mercedes GLA front and side

 

Visually, Mercedes haven’t strayed very far away from the A class recipe – it obviously sits higher than the hatch but other differences are subtle, the most obvious being some chunky aprons and wheel-arch extensions. The rise in ride height isn’t over-dramatic, rather just enough to make the GLA noticeable next to a regular hatchback.

The GLA comes with a choice of two Diesel engines – 200 or 220 CDI, and one 250 petrol. You can opt for two driven wheels instead of Mercedes’ 4Matic AWD system, and a manual ‘box, but you’ll be restricted to the lesser powered Diesel engine if you do.

Mercedes GLA sideSpeccing your GLA is fairly simple, with two lines on offer – SE or AMG. A GLA 45 AMG is due out in June, but for now, going for the latter option won’t turn your GLA into a 911-baiting monster. The AMG part equates to some sports suspension and a few visual tweaks, inside and out, it also provides you with some AMG sports seats. Having experienced both specs, I’d personally opt for the SE  – the ride seems more appropriate with a bit more ‘give’, and those AMG seats can pinch a little – especially on those of us with, shall we say, a more generous frame.

Mercedes GLAWith prices starting at £28,850 OTR, I foresee the 2WD, 200 CDI model being the pick of the bunch as it combines an admirable 119g/km CO2 output, with those sought after SUV looks – historically the two most important factors in this genre.

By Ben Harrington

For full details go to; www.mercedes-benz.co.uk/GLA_Class

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smart fortwo Brabus Cabrio – Driven and Reviewed

Over the years, the world of music has presented us with many artists collaborating into what have been dubbed ‘supergroups’. This usually involves previously highly respected artists coming together in the hope that the result will be greater than the sum of its parts. With varying success.

On the face of it, what we have here is the automotive equivalent of a supergroup; We’ve got Mercedes as the all-seeing management company and the glue that keeps the assembly together. The frontman is Smart who were instrumental in the modern city-car phenomenon  and have had the grit and determination to stay credible in a highly competitive market for 14 years. The wild-man of our group is undoubtedly Brabus who have been tuning and modifying Mercedes in somewhat extravagant fashion since the 1990s.

The question is though, do we have here a beautiful combination who compliment each other in perfect harmony? Or have they created a monster that should never have seen the light of day?

First impressions are good; visually, the Brabus additions are pleasing without being too dramatic. The extra skirting at the front and sides adds to the overall sporty feel but doesn’t look out-of-place. This is possibly thanks to the exclusive alloy wheels which measure 16” at the front and 17” at the rear – that might not sound too impressive but when they’re bolted to such a small car, they look quite large enough.

Smart ForTwo Brabus Cabriolet Interior

smart fortwo Brabus Cabrio Interior

The interior is similarly smattered with various Brabus-only parts including the dashboard, heated leather seats and aluminium levers which proudly sport the Brabus logo. It was never going to achieve the opulence of an S-class or a Maybach but it’s worlds apart from the utilitarian cabins found in lesser Smarts. This little car initially seems like the real deal.

Once on the road however, cracks start appearing in our lineup as the car’s limitations come into view. The dimensions of the car were never going to easily lend themselves to a road-hugging, sports car sensation but thanks to the lack of height adjustment in the seats, I sometimes felt like I was sitting atop a skateboard whilst careering downhill. Surely this one little feature which would have relieved me of the need to duck to see through the window could have been built into the seats? Rear visibility isn’t any better. Once the roof is down – no matter how the rear view mirror is adjusted, the only view it offers is of the sky.  Maybe Smart assume that their target market will all stand well under my 6ft height and won’t encounter this problem, who knows?

The ride in the Brabus is something of a paradox. The 10mm lowered, sports suspension initially feels taught and responsive, appearing to suggest snappy, sharp cornering. The stiff, crashy ride is apparently flattering to deceive however as at the first sign of a corner, the body rolls and wallows and the whole car under-steers horribly.

Smart ForTwo Brabus Cabriolet 2

smart fortwo Brabus Cabrio

It’s a similar story with how the Smart Brabus sounds. At tick-over, the sports exhaust does an admirable job of squeezing a pleasant tune out of this unlikely 999cc, three-cylinder engine. Depress the throttle, though and the note reverts to a highly unpleasant strangulation which does nothing to encourage spirited, roof-down driving. This is possibly a ploy to prevent overuse of the brake pedal as it sprouts from the floor in the same manner as a 1960’s Volkswagen Beetle and achieves roughly the same result; press a little – nothing, press more – still nothing, press firmly – the car shudders to a standstill. Not really what we’ve come to expect by modern standards.

All of this is overshadowed, however by what can only be described as the worst gearbox in the world. I’d heard reports previously but this was my first hands-on experience and I wasn’t disappointed. I sampled it first in automatic mode and the inherent problem is startlingly obvious. The time this ‘box takes between changes is almost painful. Just when you expect the ratio to have changed and drive to be available, it’s not there at all. I would lean forward, ready to be pressed back into my seat when the propulsion forced me but it takes so long that I could honestly have caressed the steering wheel with my forehead before the ‘box had remembered what to do. The story’s just the same if manual gear changes are attempted, I’d go as far as to say that with this gearbox in the Smart Brabus, I’m surprised they’ve sold a single unit; it’s dreadful.

All of the problems stated above could perhaps be overlooked if the car were a giveaway, a bargain. This is possibly the final nail in our supergroup’s coffin though  – it costs £16,750 before options. This is very similar money to the Mini Cooper Convertible and the range topping Fiat 500C Abarth; both of which feel better to drive, offer seating for four and are arguably more attractive.

In conclusion, combining these three automotive legends has unfortunately created less of a supergroup, more of a one hit wonder.

By Ben Harrington

Specifications; smart fortwo cabrio 98 Brabus Xclusive, Price – £16,750, Engine – 999cc 3-cylinder turbo, Layout – Rear engine, RWD, Power – 102 bhp, Acceleration – 0-62mph 8.9s, Maximum Speed – 96mph, Economy – 54.3mpg combined, Emissions – 119g/km CO2

Mercedes SLS AMG vs Mercedes SL 63 AMG. Both Driven, Reviewed and Compared

From Romulus and Remus to the impressively mono-browed Gallagher brothers, sibling rivalry has been well documented throughout history, proving to be a source of amusement for onlooking parties, be it citizens of fledgling Rome or fans of a now defunct Britpop group.

It usually transpires that it’s the similarities between brothers or sisters that generate their discontent and are their eventual undoing and on the face of it the Mercedes models we have for comparison here are two peas in a pod.

Mercedes Benz SL 63 AMG in Matte Silver

Mercedes-Benz SL 63 AMG Roadster

Visually, both sport the classic Mercedes silhouette of an impossibly long bonnet with the two-seat driver’s cabin positioned somewhere just in front of the rear wheels.

Technically, both models conceal a large capacity, V8 engine under aforementioned long bonnet, providing drive to the rear wheels only via a 7 speed automatic ‘box.

Nominally there’s hardly anything to differentiate the two. Both bear the moniker of Mercedes’ own tuning division – AMG, both have the numbers 6 an 3 smattered liberally about their person and the letters SL are proudly attached to both cars’ boot lids.

Mercedes Benz SLS AMG Red doors open

Mercedes Benz SLS AMG

Now, I know what you’re thinking; the one with extravagant gull-wing doors doesn’t just have one S on its rump, there’s a second one positioned immediately after the L; SLS.

I’d be inclined to suggest that never before in the history of vocabulary has one solitary ‘S’ provided such a monumental difference between the meaning of two words. One is defined as a relatively everyday sports car, the other conjures images of a spitting, burbling supercar with styling cues dating back to what is often cited as one of the most beautiful, well, anythings ever made; the (confusingly titled) Mercedes 300SL from the ’50s

The price is one aspect that provides a subtle difference between these two car; £110k for the SL vs £168k for the SLS. Bearing this in mind, I was recently tasked with driving these Bavarian bullets, back to back with the sole intention of eking out just what that extra £58k gets you. I know, it’s a hard job but someone’s got to do it.

I think it’s probably best to clear up one important difference here and that’s the rather confusing nomenclature applied to both cars. The SL’s full title is the SL 63 AMG Roadster, the other being called an SLS AMG. Contrary to Mercedes’ previous system of naming cars, the 63 part bears no relation to the engine capacity of the SL as it’s powered by a 5.5l Bi-turbo lump. Just to flummox further, the SLS has the numbers ‘6.3’ attached to its flanks. This is a really naughty trick as under the bonnet it has a 6.2l V8!

Mercedes Benz SL 63 AMG on Brooklands

SL 63 AMG on the Brooklands Railway Straight

Both of these cars may proudly wear the AMG badge but this is where another important difference occurs. The SLS is the first car ever designed and built with AMG at the helm, guiding things in their own particular direction. The SL was first conceived by Mercedes and then handed over to AMG to inject their brand of spice into the equation. This fact isn’t over-publicised by Mercedes, personally I wonder whether it should be in order to achieve a clearer division between the two cars.

So, with those aspects hopefully cleared up, we’ll move onto the important bit; how these cars make you feel and crucially, how they drive.

Even with its high sills to accommodate those signature doors, the SLS is surprisingly easy to get into and those sills immediately add to the all-important cosseted sensation provided by cars that sit so low to the ground. One tip worth remembering here is to shut the door BEFORE applying seat belt and getting comfortable. Unless you’re blessed with extra long arms, you’ll just have to reverse the process to reach up and grab the open ‘wing’. The impression of quality and craftsmanship is immediately evident in the SLS’ cabin but this is no more than we’d expect from Mercedes so no great shocks there.

Mercedes Benz SLS AMG in Red

The beautifully crafted interior of the SLS AMG

Features such as the aircraft inspired air vents are still a thing of beauty. The overall impressiveness of the cabin that wowed people upon its launch may have been watered down a little now though as many design features have been filtered down to other models including the SLK and the SL AMG we have on test here.

There’s really very little to choose between the living space of both cars here; both are beautifully crafted, pleasant places to be that would ease even the longest of journeys, both share a well thought out infotainment system that’s clear and requires little training to gain familiarity. There are very subtle aspects of the SLS’ cabin that perhaps give it the edge over the SL, not least of which being the hugely entertaining, F1 style ‘change up’ lights that come to life when the gearbox is in manual mode. Apart from this though, I’m not sure there’s enough here to justify that £58k price hike.

On the road, both are surprisingly livable. I found that it takes very little time to gain confidence in navigating those long bonnets around, even when driven through a busy town centre complete with rubbish trucks collecting their wares and Chelsea tractors being woefully parallel parked; show them no fear and they’ll both willingly respond. It has to be said that the SL was marginally easier to pilot than the SLS due to increased visibility but when compared to its outside competition (Ferrari, Lamborghini etc), the SLS is a relatively narrow and user-friendly. It may be worth noting here that whilst negotiating this busy town centre, complete with bustling cafe culture, the SL grabbed just as much attention as the SLS. If it’s crowd-stopping attention you lust after, the SLS  might not be quite extravagant enough.

Away from the refuse collectors and abandoned 4×4’s that populate urban areas, I head into the country to allow these cars to show off their true accolades – speed and handling. On paper, there seems to be a world of difference in performance; the SL gets to 60mph in 4.3s whereas the SLS is a full half-second quicker at 3.8s. This is a lifetime in the world of fast cars and bragging rights but in reality, both feel brutal when accelerating from standstill. That’s not to say the quicker acceleration isn’t noticeable in the SLS- because it is, but the SL is still more than capable of providing that grin-factor when the mood takes you.

There are buttons and dials to adjust both damper and gearbox setting on both cars and this is where the two cars differ hugely. The dial which alters the ‘box on both cars has four pre-determined driving modes; C – ‘Controlled Efficiency, S – ‘Sport’, S+ – ‘Sport Plus’ and M- ‘Manual’ – each mode altering throttle response and gearing to suit the individual’s needs. The dials themselves are identical but the effect that turning them provides is significant. The clearest way of describing this difference is this; the ‘softest’ setting (C) on the SLS felt roughly equivalent to the most extreme mode on the SL (S+), leaving the heady heights of the SLS’ S and S+ modes simply unattainable in the SL. The story was the same when adjusting the damper settings with the SLS starting off at roughly the SL’s hardest set up.

This could be looked at as a double-edged sword, however as the SLS inevitably struggled to achieve the comfort and easy-driving nature of the SL which we all sometimes strive for when cruising home and not trying to break Nurburgring records. One admirable aspect of the SL’s drive is the complete absence of the dreaded turbo-lag. Clever use of technology has resulted in an engine that revs and responds almost identically to a naturally aspirated one – no mean feat but a very welcome one.

The SL and the SLS are both aurally magnificent. That deep, V8 rumble of the SLS at standstill breaks into an all-out rock concert, headlined by an F1 car tribute act – it really is that good. The bi-turbos of the SL inevitably muffle the sensation somewhat but it’s still there, it’s just turned up to 9 on the SL, as opposed to the SLS which is cranked all the way round to 11. This, of course, may be no accident as Mercedes will want every aspect of the SLS to stand ever-so-slightly apart from their other models, even the sound produced.

This brings me onto an elephant that’s been standing quietly in the corner of the room. It’s no secret that the 6.2l n/a engine in the SLS has its days well and truly numbered. I was amongst the first to don my blackest of mourning suits upon hearing this news as it is a truly monumental engine, even if you just listen to it go down the road. This, of course, means that, assuming production of the SLS will continue, it’s going to need a new, more economical power plant – one that involves lower capacity and that utilises turbos to make up the difference.

There is already available the twin-turbo 6.0l engine found in ’65’ labelled Mercedes, but this is a V12 so whether it can be made to fit into the SLS’ engine bay remains to be seen. It also doesn’t offer much improvement in terms of economy and emissions over the existing 6.2l lump which begs the question ‘what’s the point?’ All this leads to the conclusion that Mercedes may end up substituting the SLS’ engine for the 5.5l V8 found in this SL. They’d probably beef it up a bit but that £58k price hike would seem quite hard to justify.

To sum up; comparing these models simply because they share similar looks and badges is a fairly fruitless task. Yes, their joint genealogy is evident but, as it stands, there are more than enough differences to allow these two siblings to co-exist in beautiful, agreeable harmony.

By Ben Harrington

Specifications; Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Coupe, Price – £168,425, Engine –  6.2l n/a V8, Layout – Front engine, RWD, Power – 571 bhp, Acceleration – 0-62mph 3.8s, Maximum Speed – 197mph, Economy – 21.4mpg combined, Emissions – 308 g/km CO2

Mercedes-Benz SL 63 AMG, Price –  £110,735, Engine –  5.5l bi-turbo V8, Layout – Front Engine, RWD, Power –  537 bhp, Acceleration – 0-62mph 4.3s, Maximum Speed – 155mph ltd, Economy – 28.5mpg combined, Emissions – 231 g/km CO2

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

Simples!

Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL

Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL

The last few weeks have been quite eventful for me in motoring terms. Firstly, the Audi has moved on to pastures new. It was a great car but, although neither of us wanted to say it, we both knew deep down that it was time to move on. Sometimes that just happens in relationships, no-one knows why. This of course left me car less (except for the other two cars in the house but they don’t really count) and after two unscrupulous individuals attempted to swap their lies for my cash, I decided to leave the hunt until my return from a well earned rest in Spain. Thankfully some very good friends of ours came to my rescue and offered me the loan of an S-class Mercedes that they happened to have lying around, as you do. For two weeks I stumbled from one petrol station to the next, trying desperately to satisfy the 4.3 litre V8’s insatiable appetite for fuel, groaning at the slightest incline as this would inevitably result in actually pressing the accelerator. A magnificent car, effortless to drive with blistering performance (so I’m led to believe!) but I don’t mind admitting that it was almost a relief when our time together came to a premature end as the car was required elsewhere.

Brutus at Cholmondeley

Brutus + Rain = Terrifying!!

On Sunday the 17th of July, I attended the final day of the Cholmondeley Pageant of Power. The rain was incessant but the action continued regardless with most drivers simply adjusting their driving to suit. The fastest run of the weekend went to Nikki Faulkner in his Lamborghini LP570-4 Performante, beating other modern day super-cars such as the Nissan GTR and the Lexus LFA. The thing is though, lovely as they are, it wasn’t this modern exotica that the crowds had come to see. Their times were impressive but it became apparent to me that it’s the romance of the purer, rawer cars that appeals. For me, the sound of a car is a major part of the attraction and manufacturers are so stifled by bureaucracy today that even Lamborghinis are practically silent. Huge thanks must again go to John Hanlon of Hansport for taking me on the rally stage in Hannu Mikkola’s actual Audi Quattro. Having previously had a ride in it on the press day, John assured me he’d give it 100%, ‘No holding back this time’. I’ve captured it on video but I’m not sure it does justice to the speed of this machine and the skill of it’s driver. One thing’s for sure though, he didn’t hold back!

opel_combo_front

Our Opel Combo Rental Car

The next day was holiday time and off the Harrington clan flew to sunnier climes in Spain. This brought about some motoring experiences in itself, starting with the stifled laughter of our rental car rep when he introduced me to our steed for the week. ‘Is it this Focus?’ I enquired cheerfully, a sensible guess as they had provided us with this exact car last year. ‘Oh no’ he replied, avoiding eye contact, ‘Yours is an Opel Combo’ I mulled this over for a minute, wondering if this was the Spanish name given to an Astra or an Insignia. The gentleman obviously noticed my confused expression and simply said in reassuring tones ‘It’s very big’. He wasn’t joking. Turns out we do have Opel Combos in Britain, they’re obviously called Vauxhall Combos and they are vans. My prior worries about luggage space evaporated instantly and to be honest I really grew fond of the Pope-mobile. It was nippy, efficient and most importantly of all, the air conditioning was ice-cold.

Buggy safari Marbella

Buggy Safari

My other motoring experience of our week away came about when my friend Mark and I went on a mini adventure, or more accurately, a buggy safari. This basically entails driving what consists of some scaffolding, a 260cc engine, two seats, four chunky tyres and a steering wheel over the dusty back roads and through the river beds of Marbella. You very rarely get much speed up, the brakes may as well not be there and our buggy cut out regularly but I can honestly say that the fun factor was immense. Point in case again being that you don’t need huge expense and modern technology to have fun on four wheels, simplicity is best. Huge thanks to Mark for organising it, hopefully same time next year.

Back in blighty and the hunt for a car is back on. My very generous friends who lent me the Merc mentioned that there was also a redundant Ford Ka on the driveway that I was welcome to use so this has bought me yet more time. I don’t remember ever driving a Ka before and I’m sure I would if I had as it’s just so much fun. I can honestly say that I wish I’d bypassed the S-class and gone straight for the blue oval. Yes, it would probably fit in the Mercedes’ boot but again, it’s beauty lies in it’s simplicity. The levels of grip are relentless and the feed back through the wheel is reminiscent of the 205 Gti I owned in the nineties, it really is that good.

So I’ve decided to make a sort of summer resolution, from now on, I’m going to be less blinded by big numbers and impressive performance stats and get back to the real thrill of driving, however slow or antiquated that may be. Oh yes, and I’m buying a Vespa………..

By Ben Harrington

Smarter Insurance

Fact number one – car insurance is not getting any cheaper, in truth it is estimated that the cost of insuring your motor will rise by 40% in 2011.

Fact number two – males aged between 17 and 25 are the demographic most likely to make a claim on their insurance policy.

Modded R5 GT

Modified Renault 5 GT Turbo

Sorry for the rather bleak news there but I doubt it will come as a surprise to anyone to read these inescapable truths. What we have to do is find a remedy for the problem of soaring insurance costs because, as with most things, it’s the decent, law abiding folk of this country who are finding themselves paying for others’ mistakes. The European Union were their usual helpful selves recently when they banned lower premiums for females as this was sexual discrimination. Of course, this didn’t result in lower premiums for all, don’t be ridiculous! It simply means that the statistically safer female drivers of the world are beaten with the same large stick as everyone else come renewal time.

One solution to this problem was forwarded recently in the form of the ‘Smartbox’. In simple terms, this is a box attached to the underside of your car which monitors everything about your driving habits, from speeds and distances driven to cornering techniques and the time of day the car was on the road. This little supergrass then transmits the recorded information to your insurance company and your premium is adjusted accordingly. Not a bad idea eh? Well, not too bad in theory but the glaring oversight in all of this is that it’s voluntary and I’m guessing that the type of driver who would volunteer to have their driving cross examined would not be the type to make a claim anyway, leaving Johnny Boy-Racer to drive in his usual fashion as he has no box fitted. In short, no fewer people would be making claims but there would be even less in the coffers to compensate any losses.

You’ll be relieved to know that I have come up with a rather ingenious solution to this mess. It would involve a rather simple law being passed; the salient points would be as follows-:

1. All drivers between the ages of 17 and 21 can only be insured on vehicles with two seats or less. 2. All drivers between the ages of 17 and 21 can only be insured on vehicles with an engine not exceeding 1 litre in capacity.

smart-carNot a substantial law I know but the more observant amongst you will have deduced that it leaves very few choices of car for the younger driver. My solution therefore is not so much the ‘Smartbox’, more the Smart Car. If all young drivers were forced to drive a Mercedes Smart Car, it would surely cut insurance claims at a stroke.

Firstly, they’re equipped with the automotive equivalent of bicycle stabilisers – removable plastic panels. These cause less damage when our young driver does bump another car, as they inevitably will and are both easily and cheaply replaceable, leaving a smaller dent in the insurers wallet.

Perhaps more significantly though, they’re painfully slow. The original models would only reach 61mph and achieve 0-60mph in 16.2 seconds, admittedly this is a lot faster than a BMX but it’s never going to set the world alight. The most important factor in my masterplan however is the lack of rear seats. I can confirm from first hand experience that many accidents involving young men occur as a result of that most masculine of pastimes – showing off to their mates. Removing the rear seats would cut this ‘mate factor’ by two thirds, rendering it almost extinct.

Now I’m not saying my solution’s perfect and I’m glad no-one forced me to drive a Smart when I was 19 and tearing around in a 205 Gti  but at this desperate stage, you can’t deny it’s worth a go.

By Ben Harrington

Jaguar’s 12 Year Plan

mg3 in yellow

MG3

Anyone who’s seen the press shots of the new models from MG – the 6 and the 3 may possibly be as under whelmed as I am with them. My fears seem to be confirmed, leaving this once great British marque a minority brand with seemingly no hope of regaining their status on the World stage. The designs mainly merge pitiful rip offs of genuinely inventive cars with a blandness not seen since, well, the last MGs. This coupled with engine technology from when Noah was a lad really makes me wish MG had been left to rest in peace with its friends who had already passed, the likes of Triumph and Austin.

This tenuously brings me onto an unreserved apology to Jaguar’s spectacular owners, Tata. When this Indian owned firm assumed control in 2008, I genuinely thought that any misgivings I saw in Ford era Jags would pale into insignificance once Tata’s influence had taken hold on this most historic of car makers. The XK was always good but it was inherited so credit couldn’t be given to Tata for this. Just wait for their first true car I thought, it’ll be amusing if nothing else.

First came the XF with its designer clothes, aimed squarely at the likes of BMW and Mercedes. I admit I’m still not too sure about the exterior but I seem to be in a very small minority on that one and the interior appears to have even fewer detractors. The motoring press also love this car, a point proven by the XF recently winning What Car’s executive car of the year award. For the fourth year running.

Ok, so the XF’s not that bad but surely this was just a flash in the pan, a stroke of luck and the unravelling of the Jaguar brand would definitely begin with the next release. Then along came the new XJ. I’ve made no secret of my unbridled passion for this car, I adore it from every angle, including underneath and I would sell my granny to own one. For me, the XJ is the yardstick by which every other large saloon is now measured and so far, nothing comes close.

jagx670

Jaguar XF

This was beginning to look like the real deal to me, I was in genuine danger of being proven emphatically wrong and then, just this week, I was. The plans for Jaguar’s next twelve years were unveiled, focusing on a 3 series competitor that once again shoots straight to the top of its class in the looks department. Other future releases include a new XF, a crossover model and most thrillingly for me – an XJ Coupe. I can only see a bright future for Jaguar now, a future that has truly dragged them into public view and out of the golf club car park.

On that note then, I would like to publicly apologise to Tata for ever doubting them and also to thank this Indian company for once again giving us a British automotive manufacturer to be proud of.

By Ben Harrington

All New Maybach

2014 Maybach

All new Maybach

Readers of a nervous disposition should probably do themselves a favour and not focus too hard on this picture of the forthcoming Maybach, due for release in 2014. See what I mean? – I did warn you!

Since Mercedes revived the Maybach brand and released the imaginatively titled 57 and 62 in 2002, they have been terrifying young and old in wealthy neighbourhoods across the globe and this one looks certain to follow in that tradition, a sort of son of Frankenstein if you will.

According to one Mercedes spokesman, they are keen to use the Maybach ‘as a technological showcase’ for the rest of their line up, a move which seems very sensible; after all, if you can’t use a £500k Limousine as a showcase, what can you use? From customer feedback, they have also determined that keeping the traditional three box design is essential, especially for existing Maybach owners whom they hope to tempt out of their now ageing models.

I’m fairly sure however that when carrying out their customer feedback, they will have received very few, if any forms stipulating that the new model must be, without question, the most hideous looking car to have ever made it into production.

It’s not just me is it? I appreciate that Maybach’s most obvious competition – the Rolls-Royce range are ostentatious, perhaps even vulgar but they are at least distinctive, you at least want to look at them even if you ultimately decide you wouldn’t want to own one. This new Maybach pulls off the wondrous feat of being ludicrously expensive and yet appearing to have been designed on a shoe string.

I find this car strangely reminiscent of the pictures we regularly receive from China. You know the ones – where you sort of recognise the car in point but then realise that it’s actually just a rip off of a premium European brand e.g. the stunningly awful Geely GE seen below.

Geely's blatant copy of the Rolls Royce Phantom

Look familiar?

Sources close to Aston Martin are reporting that they could be involved in the manufacture of this new Maybach. Just a shame that Aston weren’t given the reins when the designs for the exterior were being drawn up!

By Ben Harrington

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