At the beginning of May, I had the extreme good fortune to attend the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) Test Day at the Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire. Here are my – somewhat belated – thoughts on the day.
With over 100 cars available to drive on a variety of circuits – city, Alpine hill, high speed bowl and off-road – the SMMT Test Day is rather like having a birthday and Christmas all at once for those of an automotive persuasion. Having read about previous test days, I’d always thought this event was the preserve of proper motoring writers, and so was stunned to receive an invite (thank you, Major!).
Perusing the list of cars on offer, I’d already resigned myself to not even getting close to current automotive darling de nos jours, the new Jaguar F-Type, though the potential prospect of driving a McLaren 12C (!) was something to really look forward to. There would be more to the day than the driving too, with the chance to catch up with other motoring twitterati in between drives to compare notes and chew the automotive fat; great stuff!
The number of attendees and cars available to drive meant that drives were necessarily brief. Here are some fleeting impressions of the cars I drove on the day.
Renault Zoe Dynamic Intens
In my capacity as treehugging petrolhead, I suppose that I had to make this my first drive of the day. Having driven electric cars before, I had an idea of what to expect, but the Zoe seemingly surpassed memory. An innate serenity is a given with EVs, yet still somehow seems odd from a small car (or maybe my old Punto is getting on a bit). It felt so tactile, with nicely weighted steering and a wheel which I thought was a lovely thing to hold. Watching the battery range fall going uphill and rise again going downhill on the Alpine course was amusing and, knowing how breathless little hatchbacks can be once they reach the tops of hills, the Zoe’s linear power delivery was a positive boon. Like the Nissan Leaf, the Zoe has been designed from the ground up to be an electric car and it shows; indeed, I thought it made some of the internal combustion-engined cars on offer seem old fashioned.
I must admit that I didn’t really do the GT86 justice. My abiding memory of driving it was of the gearchange, which was very short in a ‘snicky’ kind of way that precluded any particular tactility, and had a much narrower gate than I’m used to (inadvertently changing from 2nd to 5th more than once wasn’t brilliant). It was a great car to drive around the Alpine course when I did get it right, but I think I definitely need to spend more time with one. I wonder if there are any plans for a hybrid version – it could be a real low-carbon ‘halo’ car.
Fiat Panda Trekking
I’m a huge fan of the previous model Panda and so was quite looking forward to driving this. Despite having read much about the TwinAir engine, I still couldn’t help but think its distinctive thrum was redolent of my Punto when it was poorly. All at sea on the Alpine course (a corollary of the raised suspension on the Trekking model?), it nonetheless excelled on the city course. The Panda Trekking is a very comfortable ‘little’ car, but I think I’d like to try a regular Panda before I decide how much of an improvement the new model is over the previous, frankly brilliant, one.
The most powerful and expensive car I’ve ever driven, the 911 was the only car I took on the high speed bowl where it was predictably unflappable at the maximum 100mph we were permitted there. On the Alpine course, its acceleration was intoxicating to one more used to 1/6th of the power, and the handling was inevitably surefooted. A lovely, easy car to drive and yet still very much possessed of its own ‘essence’, this basic, manual, no frills 911 would do very nicely, thank you.
I only managed to take this around the Alpine course and, after the 911, it felt … I don’t know … maybe it was the PDK gearbox, but it didn’t feel as connected or as ‘special’; it certainly lacked an intangible ‘something’ of the 911. I’m sure it would work better in the hands of someone more used to it and not as overawed at the prospect of driving such an expensive bit of ‘new’ technology without any previous acquaintance (I’ve never used ‘flappy’ paddles before). Like the Toyota GT86, I think I need another go in one.
Skoda Citigo Sport
After my cotton-wool approach to driving the brace of Porsches, I thought the way I then climbed into the Citigo and proceeded to throw it fearlessly around the Alpine track was striking – have I become conditioned to cars like this? A hoot to drive, I found it to be simple, unpretentious (stripes notwithstanding) fun; I absolutely loved it and, on this showing, I think I might prefer one of the VW group’s upmiicitigo siblings to the new Panda.
Brought by Vauxhall to celebrate the 100th birthday of the 30-98 model, I didn’t actually drive this 1920’s-built example – instead, I was taken for a five-mile spin around the Bedfordshire countryside in it. Being driven in such an old, open car is quite an experience, especially on such a glorious day – the sounds, the smells, the sunshine – and passing some of the older cottages en route in a vintage sports-tourer felt particularly evocative. Cars have come quite a way in the last 100 years or so, and the 30-98 clearly requires some effort to drive, but it’s great fun to be driven in.
Mazda MX5 2.0i RC
Very much a chance drive as someone else hadn’t turned up for their slot, it was also a brief drive in case they eventually did! As such, I only managed one circuit of the Alpine course but I was instantly struck by a delicacy in the way it handled; this was the first MX5 I’ve driven, and it seems the hype is true. So tactile and easy to drive, the MX5 was possibly my favourite drive of the day, prompting a perusal of a certain used-car website when I got home!
Mazda 2 1.3
An affiliated understudy for the Fiesta EcoBoost that was never around when I visited the Ford stand (neither, unsurprisingly, was the ST180), I found this to be a thoroughly pleasant little car. Being accustomed to all of 60bhp from my own car, every car at Millbrook inevitably had great performance but I also really liked the 2’s ride and handling. It was such an easy car to drive smoothly; the air-conditioning was very welcome too!
BMW Z4 sDrive35i
From the pleasant to the potentially sublime, the Z4 was a stark contrast after the Mazda 2. Not being obsessed by powwwwerrrr, I was actually a little disappointed that the promised newly-introduced 2-litre sDrive18i model had been substituted for a 3-litre model with all of 306bhp – overkill, surely? It may have been a tad conspicuous for my taste, and lacked the delicacy of the MX5, but it did make a lovely noise while blatting up and down the Alpine course; I’m not sure that the lesser sDrive18i would have sounded quite the same.
Vauxhall Firenza Droopsnoot
My final drive of the day was in this almost mythical (only around 200 were made) 1970s icon. Sporting shades, boot-cut jeans and an ‘appropriate’ haircut (think Milky Bar hippy), I must admit I had a bit of a Spencer Haze moment as I opened the driver’s door – indeed, someone shouted “It suits you!” as I got in. The simplicity, the weight of the steering and the quality of the gearchange served to highlight how much cars have changed in the last 40 years or so; it was certainly an intensive driving experience. A fabulously contemporaneous car, though I think I’d prefer a Triumph Dolomite Sprint.
So there we have it – ten all-too-brief drives and one countryside spin, in cars spanning almost a century. Many thanks must go to the SMMT for organising a brilliant day, which was blessed with equally brilliant weather. And, no, I didn’t get to drive the McLaren.