Friday, 14 December 2007

Classic - Lancia Stratos HF

Believe it or not, cheese has been instrumental in the design of many iconic and noteworthy cars over the years. Not just in the way that every Ford built before 1990 - and indeed every car ever built in Italy - have sills and strut tops the consistency of Emmental, but in that the good ol’ wedge shape of a nice portion of cheese has inspired a plethora of classics; the lovely Austin Princess (and its hideous son, the Ambassador), the Triumph TR7, the Bond Bug (so cheesy that it may well actually have been chiselled from a hunk of red Leicester), the Aston Martin Lagonda, the Lamborghini Countach, the TVR 280i, the Lotus Esprit… and, of course, the timeless Lancia Stratos.

This particular dairy treat has a unique claim to fame – it was the first car ever to have been specifically designed from scratch as a rally car. Prior to 1970, rally cars had always been based on production road cars such as the Mini and the Ford Escort, modified to suit the differing conditions of rally events by a dedicated works or privateer team, and this is still for the most part how it happens today. The idea behind the Stratos was one that was truly pioneering in its day, heralding a sea change in the way rallying machinery was developed. While homologation specials are rare and modern rally cars carry mainstream silhouettes, the ideas that Lancia brought to the fore altered rallying exponentially.

Appearing as a concept under the name of Stratos 0 in 1970, the Fulvia V4-powered wedge looked faintly ridiculous. Impressive, certainly, in a plasticky futuristic-in-the-seventies kind of way, but not wholly credible. It cleverly predicted, if not directly inspired, the shape of the Lamborghini Countach of 1974, but this wasn’t entirely logical: can you picture a Countach bouncing through a gravely, rock-strewn Welsh forest?

The finished product, the Stratos HF, was a much more sensible interpretation of the concept, although ‘sensible’ doesn’t by any means equate to ‘dull’. The car was an event then and it’s an event now; if you were to drive one down your local high street today there would be more than a few dropped jaws. The fact that the puny V4 was replaced by the powerplant from the recently discontinued Ferrari Dino 246 – a 2.4-litre V6, no less – added screaming potency to the lairy and purposeful styling.

Lancia were allowed to test prototypes in the 1972 and ’73 seasons in Group 5, with full homologation in 1974 allowing them to enter and, in the hands of rally legend Sandro Munari, win the championship for the next three years. The design evidently worked rather effectively.

The unstoppable Stratos unfortunately hit a political brick wall in 1976, however. Parent company Fiat, ever keen to create strife wherever possible, decided that due to certain internal conflicts they would be focusing their rallying efforts on the Fiat 131 Abarth. While the Stratos could still be competitive in the hands of privateers, it wasn’t easy to go toe-to-toe with the sheer might of Fiat’s budget. By 1981, the Stratos’ rally career was over.

The legacy lived on gloriously into the eighties, with the clinically insane properties of the little Lancia inspiring many of the central tenets of Group B rallying, which replaced Groups 4 & 5 in 1982. Teams continued to make ground-up homologation specials (the Ford RS200 and Lancia 037, for example), while also aping the purposeful, mid-engined, ultra-lightweight, possibly mentally ill format of the Stratos to create ever more astounding versions of existing models – see the Metro 6R4, Renault 5 Maxi Turbo and Peugeot 205 T16 to witness the utter, utter madness of it. Unfortunately, the series was cursed with numerous serious and often fatal accidents, finally being abandoned in 1986 when Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto were killed in their Lancia Delta S4. An unfortunate end to the era.

But let’s not remember the Stratos for the tragedy of its legacy. It was a spectacular concept, singular of purpose and devastatingly effective. With only 492 of them ever leaving the factory, it’s a rare car indeed. Its vast wraparound windscreen, dinky roof spoiler and fat flared arches screamed functionality; the outlandish beauty of it merely a by-product of the genius of the design. The Stratos, quite simply, is the stuff of legend.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Test Drive - Renault Mégane Scénic

The concept of practicality is a very flexible and malleable thing. When mountaineering, for example, the practical notion would be to adorn yourself with a lovely warm coat, some kind of rope gizmo and a nice pointy set of crampons. Attire yourself in such a way at the beach, however, and you’re probably going to have a pretty rubbish time; you’ll get all sweaty, kids will tie your ropes to nearby groynes and you’ll probably spear some voluptuous young beach maiden on your spiky shoe. Nightmare.

The point is that it’s hard to find a suitable catch-all solution to anything beyond a narrow set of parameters. Cats – good as pets, bad as kitchen utensils. Pencils – handy for doodling, unsatisfying as cushions. The Mégane Scénic – well, what’s this good for? Primarily, it’s very accomplished at hiding stuff. If you need to get a few pounds of heroin across the border, this is the car for you. Trust me.

You see, this thing has cubbyholes everywhere. Lift the dinky handles protruding from the carpet, you’ll find little boxes for your sandwiches under the floor. Pull out that plasticky thing from under your seat to reveal a voluminous storage drawer. That’s useful, isn’t it? You can put your cds in there, maybe a small map or something too. And what’s that little black cylinder wedged in the cupholder? Ooh, it’s a removable ashtray. Super.

It’s not bad at shifting people about either. We managed to get five rambunctious and fidgety adults plus numerous suitcases and posh wedding outfits into it with relatively little shoehorning and almost no faces pressed against glass. Considering that it’s not even the biggest of the big Renaults that was reasonably impressive, in an ‘I’m driving a small van’ sort of way. The bold styling is also very welcome in a sector dominated by the we-think-price-is-everything Citroën Xsara Picasso.

So, a practical car, then? Hmm… it is and it isn’t. Sure, it has Tardis-like load swallowing capabilities, but all this melts away when you actually get to the act of driving: it’s just one irritation after another. Program the satnav – no problem. The clever little box can direct us to a tiny and remote hamlet via the complex déviations of central Lyon. But how do you get the bastard to play a cd at the same time?

After ten minutes of fiddling, you just have to give up and resign yourself to the fact that there is to be no music. The lovely aircon’s kicking in now, and the cool wafts keep you sanguine. Snick it into first, reach for the handbrake… and it’s not bloody there. But of course, why would it be? It’s far more logical to have a mini handbrake – a fingerbrake, if you will – by the door under the dash. There’s a little lever to pull, a button to press, a light to extinguish; sod it, it’s probably off, let’s go. You put your foot down. And nothing happens.

Nothing’s still happening.

You count to five.

Suddenly the turbo comes on boost in a tidal wave of thrust. This lasts for a good second and a half before everything gives up again, you shift up a gear and have another excruciating wait for action. The dCi 130 engine is an impressive unit in terms of frugality, don’t get me wrong – in fact I’m reasonably sure we didn’t actually use any diesel at all throughout the entire weekend – but it was clearly designed by a gaggle of moronic cack-handed berks with no interest in useable dynamics or driving pleasure whatsoever. The gut-wrenching chasm of turbo lag is enough to make a grown man weep; in truth it’s borderline dangerous. The fact that the ludicrously floppy gearbox gives you no clues as to what ratio you could end up with next makes the whole experience tremendously frustrating, although in fairness to Renault this may not be their fault. It’s a hire car after all. People will have abused it. I know I did.

The stupidest thing of all is that, from the driver’s seat, you can see so little of what’s going on behind you. The beyond-inadequate wing mirrors are tiny enough to seriously imperil any motorcyclists in your blind spot (the blind spot being any part of the scenery that isn’t directly in front of you) while the glass area is oddly small, the thick and chunky pillars preventing you from having any idea of what’s going on around you. It’s much like driving a Transit van really – you just have to remind yourself not to give a toss about anyone else and simply follow your own agenda.

So, it’s big, it’s frugal, it can take a lot of cargo and an equal amount of abuse. But is it practical? Well, mostly. It served more than adequately as a well-equipped runabout for a small gang of inebriated ne’er-do-wells and it didn’t misbehave. Wasn’t any fun though, and a car that serves no thrills is fundamentally pointless. What the Scénic really needs is the old V6 Clio’s tweaked 3-litre unit – you might as well embrace the fact that you’ve got no idea what’s behind you by getting the fuck away from it as swiftly as possible, right? Go ahead, take your crampons to the beach… at least no-one’s going to mess with you.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Test Drive - Vauxhall Astra SRI

Life is full of little disappointments. Godfather III, Coke Zero, the last three Manic Street Preachers albums – all tame imitations of strong and impressive origins. The worst kind of disappointment, however, is the really niggly little one that spoils an otherwise joyful and satisfying experience. The kind of situation where, for example, you meet the girl of your dreams in a bar; supermodel flawless, brewery heiress, private racetrack in the grounds of her mansion, can recite verbatim every Monty Python sketch… and then you discover that she has rampant halitosis, or she laughs like a freshly wounded hyena trapped in a bagpipe, or she used to be called Kenneth. The one little irritation spoils the entire experience and you’re left thoroughly unsatisfied.

If you’ve driven the new Astra (or, indeed, the new Vectra) then you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to. It’s the indicator stalk. It’s what’s known in the world of motoring journalism as ‘a right little bastard’. But we’ll come back to it later, it’s not really fair to introduce the SRI on such a negative note.

You see, against all the odds, the new Astra is a genuinely good car. Astras of yore have seldom been anything to write home about; granted, I’d truly love to own a mkI GTE (for its retro eighties angles alone), and the late-model mkII GTE had a superbly naughty 16v XE engine that thrived on revs and was virtually unbreakable. Unfortunately, there’s no escaping the fact that the vast majority of Vauxhalls of the eighties and nineties were fundamentally, well, shit. Inexpertly nailed together, formed from funfair-grade steel with integrated rust accelerators, wired by vagrants with severely impaired vision and upholstered using the offcuts from a ropey wild west saddlery, there’s a reason why most Vauxhalls you see on the road are sitting on un-hubcapped steels with comically faded paintwork and arches you can waggle your fingers through. But something has changed. Vauxhalls in the 21st century are good. Seriously.

It’s not just that they’re actually stuck together properly now, but the design work is little short of revolutionary. Honda Civic aside, you can’t name a current hatchback that’s as mould-breaking, striking, and with as much sheer road presence as the Astra. Even as a five-door (because obviously three-doors are much cooler), this one cuts quite a dash. But it’s far from a simply cosmetic marvel – it’s actually really rather pleasant to drive too.

On paper, the power figures aren’t that mindblowing. 138bhp from an 1800cc 16-valver? My old Renault 19 16v offered that, and she was built in 1993. Still, there’s clearly something special going on under the bonnet, some form of magical trickery or euro-stardust under there that gives an impressive combination of immediate acceleration and a broad spread of torque from 2000rpm upwards. In fact, this 1.8 feels much peppier than Renault’s current 2.0 16v engine; alright, it lacks the throaty roar as you approach the redline but you can’t argue with the thrust.

The handling is, again, not Astra as we know it. A pronounced history of cribbing notes on chassis development from Lotus is evident here in the way that the ride is compliant and everyday-smooth, yet creates very little body roll through the corners and displays almost none of the understeer you’d expect from a spicy front-driver. Contrary to expectations, those ultrasexy 18” alloys don’t destroy the ride with the 17-year-old-seafront-cruiser-with-Nova-on-nineteens overkill that seems so inevitable; they just directly follow the laws of physics – the increased rubber contact with the road exponentially increases grip, and that’s all there is to it. You simply point and squirt in the corners, it goes wherever you want it to.

OK, the dashboard is horribly plasticky and seems to have coagulated together from the greyish runoff of a Haribo production line, but to its credit it doesn’t rattle or squeak and feels solid enough. The driving seat is (as long as you fix your gaze outside of the car) an enjoyable place to be. The seats are excellent, gripping you in all the right places without being restrictive. The steering wheel is small and thick, giving a real sporting feel. The gearbox is a peach – slick, precise, superbly judged ratios. The stereo’s even clever enough to display track names on a Fratellis CD. It just all comes down to that indicator stalk. I can’t even bring myself to describe how annoying it is. Try one for yourself and you’ll see how one simple thing can totally ruin a perfectly good car.
It’s an excellent machine, truly it is. Attractive and alluring, marvellous fun to drive, well engineered, reasonably exciting without being overstated… just don’t buy one. Trust me, that little stalk will drive you mental.

TVR Sagaris

Blackpool. Jolly old Blackpool, default holiday destination for the unimaginative masses. ‘It’s got a huge tower,’ they pointlessly opine, ‘and a pleasure beach.’ These people are to be ignored; the grim seaside outcast has little to offer – tries to make it look exciting by being bright pink (Christ, they must be wacky and interesting), but have a look at their ‘fun stuff’ section. An aptly sparse metaphor for the locale itself.

I actually like Blackpool, for one important reason: TVR. Ever since Trevor Wilkinson set up shop there making fibreglass kit cars in the fifties, those three evocative letters (rather less sexy when you realise it’s an abbreviation of the founder’s first name) have represented originality, quirkiness, good old honest-to-goodness British engineering. Using a selection of domestically-sourced engines over the decades – MGA units, Ford crossflows and Essex V6s, Rover V8s – shoehorned into lightweight bodies over tubular chassis, TVRs are no-compromise machines for enthusiasts. Current models shun the Euro-imposed guidelines of fitting ABS and front airbags to all new cars… why would a TreVoR need all that? It adds weight. Just make sure you don’t wang it into a tree.

The nineties were good to TVR, the launch of the Griffith in 1992 heralding a new era of outlandish design. With good public reactions to the styling, combined with the knowledge that you can do anything with fibreglass, they charged headfirst down the ‘let’s make it look like a spaceship’ route with the Cerbera, the Tuscan, the Tamora and the Typhon among others. 2004 saw the release of the most extreme yet, the Sagaris - the first car released under the reign of Nikolai Smolenski.

Depending on perspective, Smolenski is either the company’s saviour or an utter bastard. He brought much-needed cash to the company as well as stringent and rigorous quality control, keen to exorcise the appalling-build-quality-demons of, well, every TVR ever built. (TVR ownership before Smolenski involved a lot of sitting on hard shoulders and grumbling.) He did also, however, sack loads of old-timer employees and move production out of Blackpool, having sincerely promised that he wouldn’t. Well, honestly.

So the Sagaris… one of the most brutal-looking cars on the road today, but it’s by no means all show. Under the bonnet is TVR’s bespoke Speed Six engine, which is mounted as far back as possible to achieve a front-mid engined layout akin to the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti. Its outrageous roar is backed up by 400 staggering horsepower which carry it to 60mph in 3.7 seconds. That’s very quick. And it’ll do 100mph in second gear.

In appearance it is genuinely scary up-close; the series of chunks that have been slashed out of the front wings, the perspex rear spoiler, the gargantuan exhausts that poke sideways out of the back – this car has surely been styled by somebody who swats at imaginary flies and doesn’t own any matching shoes. This is a car that wants to eat your soul.

In short, the Sagaris is the quintessential TVR. It stays true to the founding ideals of the company – lightweight, uncluttered, straightforward engineering, staggering performance – yet leads the charge in terms of what modern sports cars should look like. The most astonishing thing is that a new Sagaris costs under fifty grand. It baffles me why there aren’t more of them on the road.

Classic - BMW 2002 Turbo

There are many reasons to dislike BMW owners. The fact that they will always sit in the middle lane of an empty motorway. They’ll never let you out of a side turning. They have absolutely no awareness whatsoever of where the indicator stalk is. These facts (and they are facts), however, are a question of cultural prestige and certainly not the fault of our Bavarian chums. Sure, Chris Bangle may have gone a bit loopy with his Etch-A-Sketch of late but there’s very little you could do these days to stop people buying Beemers. It’s a pre-requisite of London life that you must either drive an X5 or at least be near one at all times. Jesus, what if someone pulls out in front of you? It’s your duty to plough through them as if their puny econohatch were made of marzipan.

Things weren’t always so rosy for BMW. In the early 1960s Bayerische Motoren Werke, a company known principally for creating incredibly pricey roadsters and peculiar little bubble cars, needed to find some common appeal. The Neue Klasse saloon was the car that saved the company, but it was the 1602/2002 series that achieved true icon status by providing a sensible little three-box saloon with a decent four-banger under the bonnet and, yes, just a little bit of sauciness to boot. It sold in spectacular quantities and inevitably had a very successful racing career, mimicking the wonderful Lotus Cortina trick of cocking a front wheel in the air under fast cornering.

Now, picture yourself as a BMW bigwig in the early seventies. Your previously ailing company is now going from strength to strength, your product is internationally renowned for it’s technological innovation (the 2002’s independent rear suspension, for example, making the back end of a Ford Escort look terribly dated), your balance sheet has never looked beefier. What’s the next step? Well, come on… you work in the motor trade for a reason. There’s more than a little 4-star in your veins. You want to make the car faster.

Forced induction had never successfully entered the mass-produced mainstream prior to 1973. Talk of superchargers conjured up images of Blower Bentleys hammering around Brooklands, turbochargers were just something that got bolted to diesel locomotives to make them marginally less turgid. But of course, BMW have always liked to stay one step ahead of the field. Why not bolt a turbo to the old M10 mill in the ’02? Why not see what happens? So that’s exactly what they did.

It scared the shit out of everyone.

You see, production turbocharging was (of course) in it’s infancy in 1973; nobody had really experienced turbo lag before, so it was just accepted as part of the package. Trust me on this – there are few things scarier than suddenly coming on boost half way round a blind corner. You can’t lift off, you can’t brake, you just have to grit your teeth and hold on. And once you’re a few miles closer to the horizon and you’ve managed to prise all of your fingernails out of the back of the steering wheel, you really want to do it again...

The 2002 Turbo was a revelation. It proved that the Germans weren’t staid, dull corporate suits obsessed by function over form and sales over renown. Look at the front spoiler – that isn’t a reversed photo. BMW deliberately wrote ‘turbo’ on the front of the car backwards so that lesser motorists would see it coming in their mirrors and know they’d have to dive out of the way. This confrontational bravado so incensed the German authorities that they banned BMW from applying the stickers.

This cheekiness sums up the whole ethos of the 2002 Turbo. It looked kind of like your auntie’s shopping car, but it’d happily chew you up and spit you into a tree. Still, it’d make a beautiful coffin and there are much worse ways to go than gripping that chunky wheel, planting your right boot and waiting for the…


Friday, 2 November 2007

Spyker D12 Peking-to-Paris

Having children is, I’ve heard, quite a life-altering thing. For the first year or two you won’t get any sleep and you’ll be up to your elbows in dinky little faeces. The next few years will be consumed by irritably correcting their rubbish grammar and packing them off to school where they can be mercilessly bullied for the cheap shoes you bought for them in the market because, hey, kids are expensive. Their teen years will herald a relentless pursuit of stealing from you, hating you and mocking you in the presence of their grubby little friends. Sooner or later they’ll move out, leaving you to consider quite how disappointed you are that they didn’t grow up to be neurosurgeons or beekeepers or something worthwhile. The most annoying thing, of course, is that you yourself have to grow up and be sensible. Urgh.

Well… this isn’t strictly true. There’s nothing to stop you getting your mid-life 911 once they’ve flown the nest with your Barclaycard and your plasma telly, but isn’t it tedious having to ferry them around in some soulless Espace or Previa while they’re growing up? You could squeeze them into the back of your cheeky little coupe, but you’ve got nowhere to store the toys. And they’ll probably damage the tilt mechanism on your front seats through overuse as well, the little bastards.

A depressing inevitably of parenthood? Nonsense. You need to think laterally. What’s big enough to transport the family, but sufficiently rapid to scare them into being quiet at the same time? It can’t be the Zafira VXR, because then you have to drive a Zafira. The Cayenne’s out of the question because people will spit on you in the street (and rightly so). Ditto the ghastly BMW X5 and ML-class Mercedes-Benz. But wait - what’s this rearing it’s odd-shaped head, open-mouthed and looking a bit like a diver’s watch? Why, it’s the snappily-monikered D12 Peking-to-Paris from Dutch aeronutters Spyker…

Bit of an odd entity, Spyker. The company motto – ‘Nulla tenaci invia est via’ – is Latin for ‘For the tenacious, no road is impassable’. Right. Like to see how far their tenacity gets them on a Welsh forest stage in a C8 Laviolette. Still, they’re interesting folk, handbuilding their sumptuous little masterpieces under the name of a Dutch coach-building and aeronautical company founded in the 1880s – a company that Spyker Cars, founded in 1999, actually has nothing at all to do with. But don’t let the details get in the way of the perceived heritage. It’s a lovely excuse to sprinkle the cars with little propeller symbols (rather more effectively than BMW do).

The D12 is an unusual mix of contrasts and contradictions which really shouldn’t work as a cohesive whole but somehow, well, does. It’s a substantial and surprisingly large SUV, but with all the character and styling cues of a coupe. It’s capable of tackling rugged terrain, yet is so intricately and exquisitely formed that you’d feel a tremendous sense of guilt even taking it out in the rain. It weighs nearly two tons, yet will accelerate to sixty miles per hour in five seconds dead and power on to the saucy side of 180mph. The interior is a mind-boggling blend of the sporty and the luxurious, with individual competition-spec bucket seats trimmed in sumptuous cream leather.

In short, it’s a pretty weird piece of kit. Named for the Peking-to-Paris race of 1907 – one of the most ridiculously unlikely motoring events ever, in which an original Spyker competed and took second place – the hyper-SUV is a riot of absurdity. Power comes from Volkswagen’s 6.0 W12 engine in a 500bhp state of tune, whilst final drive ends up at the gigantic 24” Aeroblade wheels. The steering-wheel is an almost F1-esque multifunction affair, and lurking behind it is a triple-faced dashboard styled to resemble an airline cockpit. Paddle-shift, air suspension, carbon-ceramic brakes… and a price tag of €230,000. Of course, the kids will probably smear their chocolatey hands all over your gorgeous creamy seats. Best to get a Golf for the missus and keep this little treat all to yourself.

Classic - Ford Escort XR3

There’s something brilliantly satisfying about being the underdog. Obviously there’s a weight of pressure from being severely outclassed, but this just serves to make potential victory all the sweeter. Look at David and Goliath – normal-sized man throws rock at colossal bastard, colossal bastard goes down, normal-sized man drives the girl back to his penthouse. Or something. Robert the Bruce surprised a few people at Bannockburn. The British fleet clawed some rather significant chunks out of the supposedly invincible Spanish Armada. Basically, odds that appear insurmountable are never quite the brick wall that they seem to be.

Optimism in the face of adversity was very strong in Dagenham in the early eighties. At the turn of the decade, Ford had done the unthinkable and given the latest iteration of the Escort a front wheel drive layout. At the time it was unimaginable, and it’s still looked on by enthusiasts as an improper classic; if it doesn’t steer from the rear, it just won’t do. Nevertheless, Ford were determined to maintain their exemplary motorsport credentials. After all, the mkI and mkII Escorts were celebrated heroes on the racetrack and rally stage – performance models were part of the process.

With the dawn of an entirely new Escort, it was decided to leave the old sporting monikers in the past and usher in the new: Mexico, RS1800 and RS2000 were out, XR3 was in. This is another point that irked the purists. Not only was it front wheel drive (with a goddamn fairyboy transversely mounted engine), but the old Pinto was ditched in favour of the shiny new CVH – complete with wobbly cambelt and weird ability to swiftly turn oil to sludge. And it was only a 1.6 – where was the fire-in-the-belly 2.0?

As if all this heckling wasn’t enough, there was a whole emerging breed of fwd hot hatches to contend with. The Golf GTI led the charge and was a formidable opponent; lithe, sleek and unstoppable on a b-road by all but blue lights or stray foliage. Ford have always been canny though, and they had an ace up their sleeve...

You see, the XR3 was a superb car. For starters, it was cheap. That always helps. But it was also really rather attractive. With the simple addition of front and rear spoilers, a pair of spotlights, some aerodynamic add-ons at the trailing edge of the arches and a set of rather sexy cloverleaf alloys, the plain-jane mkIII was transformed into an aggressive and purposeful little beastie. This wasn’t all, of course – it could handle too. Really well.

It was an unusual learning curve for the Escort aficionado. With the rear-drive Escorts of yore, the technique generally involved lots of revving and gearbox-stirring to keep the Pinto singing, combined with deft Scandinavian flicks to swing the tail out through the corners. The XR3 involved turning into a corner, putting the power in… and that was it. It just gripped. Then you’d have to take the corner again, just a little bit faster. And again. And again… over and over until the grip limit was reached (surprisingly suddenly) and you found yourself 40 yards into a ploughed field wondering how to explain your actions to your fleet manager. Marvellous.

The inexorable stomp of progress led to the development of a fuel-injection system in 1983, and a change of name to XR3i. This did wonders for performance and tractability, but for the purist there’s nothing quite like the savage suck of a Weber carb at full chat – and of course the original carbed model is so much rarer now.

The XR3 was quick to win petrolhead hearts. It may not have had the ruthless efficiency of its German contemporaries, the temperamental charm of the Italians or the playful tomfoolery of the French, but it was a good honest motor, and people appreciate that sort of thing. Simple, cheap and bags of fun… the spritely little scamp that shouted and bruised and took its rivals down a peg or two. How very Essex.

Porsche Cayman S

Ambition is a troubling and incendiary attribute. Defined as ‘an earnest desire for achievement or distinction’, it can also be interpreted as self-involvement, one-upmanship, arrogance and contempt for one’s rivals; a list that effectively reads as a mission statement for Porsche. In general, ambition is the defining notion of all that the company has achieved over the years… or at least it was until the Cayman came along.

Realistically, this is a car that is wholly lacking in any sort of ambition to fulfil its potential, which is disappointing coming from a company renowned for turning their designs up a notch, stripping away the chaff, replacing that sprocket with a carbon-fibre one, then turning it up once more. It’s little more than a mundane, moribund hatchback (sorry, coupe), and there’s something rather unsettling about that.

Perhaps I’m being a tad unfair. Taken as a stand-alone creation, I’ll concede that it is pretty impressive. The mid-engined layout adds, by its very nature, a sublime and perfectly poised set of handling characteristics that are a world apart from the tricksy, rebellious pendulum swing of the little Cayman’s big brother. The engine itself is a peach – the S variant (we won’t talk about the bog-standard base model Cayman, there’s no point) shares the Boxster’s 3.4-litre flat-six which, as you’d expect from Porsche, is strong, durable, tractable, rev-happy and delivers epic usable power in spades. Being the smartarses they are, the spec sheet brims over with impenetrable and improbable sounding devices and developments; VarioCam Plus, Porsche Active Suspension Management, Sport Chrono, resonance intake, ceramic composite brakes, stability management, blah blah, whatever. There’s a very strong feeling throughout the car that every single component, every nut, every flange, every switch has been analysed to an absurd degree by a Stuttgart boffin with a sonic screwdriver, an empty social diary and a particularly limited concept of reality. Whether or not you admire or deride this overly obsessive engineering is, I’m sure, determined by the size of your offshore Cayman Islands bank account.

The biggest problem that the Cayman suffers lies in grappling with its own identity. Is it a hardtop Boxster? Well no, the pricing would suggest that there should be rather more to it than that. Is it a baby 911? Hmm, it’s not quite as quick and the engine’s in a sensible place. So is it just a slightly reworked Boxster that they’re cynically positioning in an ill-conceived and probably fictional gap in an already bloated market? Oh, surely not. They’d research it a little better than that, wouldn’t they…?

You see, the positioning is a paradox in itself. Porsche are loathe to admit it, but the reason that the Cayman is not available with a limited-slip differential (for ‘not available’, read ‘definitely, categorically, 100% never will be available and if you ask again we’ll follow you home and batter your family’) is that it would be faster than a 911. No ifs, no buts – believe me, it would. In testing, the Cayman S has already proved to be several seconds quicker around the Nürburgring than a 911 Carrera – imagine the potential of a fully sorted lightweight Cayman S Turbo with a trick diff. Actually, you don’t need to imagine this – countless racing teams are building cars of this description for competition use. Why? You get all the trademark power, engineering excellence and tractability that you’d expect from Porsche, but with much more predictable handling. Because the engine’s not hanging off the arse end like a giant boil.

Now this is where the question of ambition comes in. As consumers, enthusiasts or (internally at least) just dribbling, lusting schoolboys, we take our reference points from the pantheon of performance pioneers. At the top of the scale we find such names as Pagani, Koenigsegg and Bugatti, moving down through Ferrari, Mosler, Lamborghini and Aston Martin, past Maserati and Ascari and on to Porsche, who seem to be increasingly aligning themselves with BMW and Mercedes-Benz. (I ask you, a Porsche off-roader? Puh-lease, what’s next? A diesel 911?) These are names we trust to relentlessly pursue automotive perfection, whether it be in terms of beautiful design, revolutionary handling or balls-out grunt. Porsche, however, have lost their way. The Cayman is nothing more than a cash cow. Rather than stay true to the core values that the company has held dear since old man Ferdinand made friends with Hitler and built him a nice little runaround to mobilise his iffy regime, they’ve decided that they don’t want to make the best car that they possibly can. Not this time. Good enough is just about good enough; as long as they can make a few more deutschmarks to cram into their already over-stuffed coffers then it’s a lovely green light for an early lunch. For shame.

Thinking about buying one? Don’t. They’re entirely anonymous on the road – people who don’t know what it is will barely notice, people who do will think you’re a prat. Trust me, buy a Nissan 350Z instead. It’s much prettier, significantly more powerful, far cheaper and no-one will spit on it. Unless you feel you need the cachet of the Porsche badge, of course… in which case you’re exactly the customer they seem to be going for.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Classic - Volvo 850 T5

The incongruousness of seeing something very familiar acting in an entirely unexpected manner is one of those little pleasures in life that we can all enjoy. The short but happy moment at a wedding reception between your grandmother standing up to dance to Propellerheads and her legs, unable to keep up, collapsing beneath her and leaving her in a surprised but jolly heap is surely one to savour. Ditto seeing your headmaster in the supermarket and realising that he has a family and owns a pair of jeans. Members of the royal family staggering out of London nightclubs dressed as Nazis (alright, not that unexpected but still interesting). The taxi driver in The Bourne Identity running down the road shouting ‘you forgot your change’. What a funny place the world can be.

Now, what do you think of when you hear the name ‘Volvo’? If you’re an unimaginative sheep – don’t be offended by that, it’s just nature – you’ll have an image of a beige, boxy estate car in your mind, much like Karen Hill’s car in Goodfellas. Practical, roomy, safe for the kids… dull, uninspiring, unadventurous. Of course, this is unfair. A swift rake through Volvo’s history reveals a rich heritage of uncompromising design and sporting prowess; the sleek and swoopy P1800, the bombproof Amazon, the wacky and outlandish variomatic 66, the turbocharged 480 liftback – they’re not as dull as you might think.

Volvo are, of course, very much aware of this staid and sensible image; indeed, they revel in it. After decades of cosseting crash dummies and shifting wardrobes around Sweden they’ve carved themselves a wholesome little niche as the family load-lugger of choice. Their efforts to break into the Chelsea tractor market with the XC90 have been a rousing success and, yes, they still shift estate cars by the hangarload. But it’s a little-known fact that some of these anonymous estates are rather more potent than others…

The current hot ticket in the Swedish suburb of Torslanda is the S60 R, the latest in an enduring and celebrated line of Volvos to sport the T5 engine – an enthusiastic five-cylinder turbo mill; 20 valves, all-aluminium. With 300bhp cloaked in a reasonably unassuming shell it’s a recipe for some very satisfying traffic light conquests, and it owes much to its predecessor - the 850 T5.

Launched in 1992, with the estate arriving in ’94, the Volvo 850 didn’t really offer any surprises. It was spacious, it was well equipped, it performed well in crash tests, blah blah et cetera. You expect these things from a Volvo, it would be a disappointment if it wasn’t this predictable. The 850 T5, however… that was something special. You see, ballistic station wagons are ten a penny these days, what with BMW bringing out the V10-engined M5 Touring and Audi countering with the frankly ludicrous 572 bhp RS6, but a decade or so ago it was quite a stretch to believe that a vast metal box with the aerodynamic properties of an Ikea bookcase could punch through the air at over 160mph with a Labrador in the boot. And yet it was so.

The boffins at Volvo aren’t boring at all. In fact, you get the feeling that they just love to confound the stereotypes of the general public, hiding sniggers behind their hands as they formulate increasingly outlandish and freakish concepts. What next for the T5? Why, take it racing of course!

As well as competing in the Australian Super Touring Championship, it was impressively competitive in the hands of Jan Lammers and Rickard Rydell in the British Touring Car Championship in 1994. Built in conjunction with Tom Walkinshaw Racing, there was something spectacularly bizarre about seeing a family runabout plastered in the Securicor livery and bouncing over the kerbs at Brands Hatch. It was, rather sadly, replaced by the regular saloon version in ’95 after the BTCC rules changed to allow the massive rear wings that have since become the series’ trademark, but if, like me, you were trackside in those strange days of 1994 to witness the rorty Lagunas and screaming Primeras being monstered by a car which in all probability was piloted by a man in stringback gloves and a flat cap, you’ll feel somewhat nostalgic for the old brute. It’s like a special kid in a sack race – you don’t expect him to win, it’s just nice that he’s taking part.

Test Drive - Ford Focus TDCi

There are some things in life that you just don’t want to have to do. Visiting the dentist, for example; you drive across town, struggle for somewhere to park, feed the meter, sit in a dank dungeon-like waiting room for the lion’s share of an ice-age, only for a tedious middle-aged chap with sufficient hair up his nose to stuff a mattress to spend thirty-five seconds counting your teeth for you before charging you twenty quid and sending you on your way. Doesn’t really make you clamour for another visit, does it? Scrubbing your bathroom is another fine example. Once you’ve cleaned it, the bloody thing should stay clean – after all, it’s where all your cleaning type activities happen anyway. Where does all the dust come from? The room should be cleaning itself in empathy.

And so it is that eventually, sooner or later, you have to drive a diesel. Now, I would personally never consider buying an oil-burner unless it had something really spectacular to offer. Since I can’t think of anything quite spectacular enough to fit that remit (the option to destroy it after use, perhaps, or a weekend with the three or four Hollywood lovelies of my choice), let’s just say that I’m really not a diesel person. Life’s too short to take the ‘sensible’ option; if there’s a petrol variant available then I can see no conceivable reason to select something less powerful, less refined, less responsive, noisier, smellier and generally less pleasant. Fuel consumption? Cobblers. You’ve got to weigh up the pros against the many, many cons.

Perhaps I’m being a little unfair. Modern diesels are so far removed from those of twenty years ago, ten even, that it’s not right to lump them into the same category. Indeed, diesel technology has achieved some impressive things recently – the Le Mans 24hr-winning Audi R10 was powered by Satan’s treacle, the JCB Dieselmax hit 350mph on the Bonneville salt flats, The Peugeot 908 HDi is, er, pretty impressive… alright, these aren’t cars you’d see every day, but the technology trickles down from these lofty heights and into the mainstream. Basically, a modern diesel generally offers a bit less power than its petrol equivalent but a lot more torque, and the old agricultural tractortones have been largely silenced. Advancing turbo technology means lag is diminishing with every new launch, and they keep the greenies happy. God knows why, they smell awful. (Diesel engines, I mean, not the greenies. Although they smell too – I don’t think they wash.)

As dervs go, Ford’s TDCi unit is actually pretty good. Part of their Zetec family, you can even specify one in a Westfield if you so wish – called, brilliantly, a Wiesel. It’s a torquey and eager little lump, and in 1.6 guise in the Focus it offers surprisingly rapid progress with almost no turbo lag at all. Driving it is not unpleasant.

This isn’t a shock. The Focus chassis is so sublime, so perfectly balanced and well judged that you could power it with an old Eastern bloc two-stroke and it’d still be a riot in the twisties. As with all Foci, this is a very easy car to enjoy yourself in. The second generation Focus has made great bounds in passenger comfort over its forebear too; the dash and interior plastics all look like they were chosen by the same person and fit together as if, well, they’d been designed to do so. Marvellous. A hasty last-minute dash to the dump showed us that it will take two tvs and a cupboard in its cavernous boot, so it’s a winner in the practicality stakes.

Practicality’s for misers and losers though, everyone knows that. The point of a car, by its very nature, is to get the driver from point A to point B as quickly as physically possible, then back to point A (because you’ve left the gas on or something) at a speed several factors higher than the previous journey, then another blast to point B via the beautiful scenic roads around the area of point C, before heading off for a trackday at point D. Anyone who denies this is either a liar or a very dull person. Either way, you shouldn’t talk to them again.

So, the Focus TDCi is both a winner and a loser. A winner in that it’s impressively well built, Tardis-like inside and has easily the best chassis of the modern hatchback market. A loser in that it all goes to waste with that pointless engine. Yes, it’s frugal and it’s clever, blah blah yawn etc, but the Focus ST has a turbocharged 2.5-litre engine that forces you to drive like your pants are on fire. Don’t be a cheapskate, just buy a proper one. When you’re lying on your deathbed, you’ll never look back and think ‘I wish I’d bought that diesel Focus’.

Ferrari 599 GTB

Having famous parents is a mixed blessing. The opulent surroundings of your upbringing and easily-opened doors to your chosen career are offset by the pressure of being thrust into the limelight for the formative years of your life, the world’s press clamouring for you to hold up a Post Office or try to score heroin from a Daily Mail reporter. Certain spawns of famous seed have grasped the opportunities of their lineage with both hands – look at Liv Tyler, Stella McCartney and Michael Douglas. They built on their heritage with aplomb. Likewise, Kelly Osborne is having a game stab at making an unpleasant noise on MTV and Peaches Geldof is doing a fine job of crawling from bar to pub to club without any real idea of what’s going on, just like their respective fathers.

With this continuation of respect (or, at least, action) in mind, Ferrari’s 599 GTB has a lot to live up to. Any new Ferrari is, of course, a huge event in the automotive world, but the formaggi grandi at Maranello made very public their intentions to use the legendary F40 as the benchmark for the 599. This is confusing at best. The F40, a motoring icon of the who-can-break-200mph-first era of the eighties (charging head-on towards the Jaguar XJ220 and Porsche 959), was a stripped out, balls out, mid-engined hypercar. The 599 is a luxurious, leather-festooned, front-engined grand tourer. As machines, they are poles apart.

Or are they? It seems that Ferrari decided to use their rich heritage as a marketing tool to demonstrate how the breed has developed over the past couple of decades. The F40 will always be among the most evocative and recognisable Ferraris – alongside the 250GTO, Testarossa and Daytona – and is a pure sports car for the überwealthy connoisseur. There are no frills; everything within its lightweight frame is present for a significant purpose. Ferrari’s tactic with the 599 GTB was to demonstrate how the ballistic performance of such a mighty racer could be grafted into the plush comfort of a 21st century GT.

The results are really quite impressive. Obviously you would expect strong improvements in design, manufacturing, component efficiency and so forth over the course of twenty years, but the fact that the 599 is 600kg heavier than the F40 and still pips it to sixty mph by half a second raises an impressed eyebrow.

Quite simply, the 599 is a staggering piece of kit. It uses a 6-litre V12 derived from that in the Enzo, front-mounted but nestled way back in the engine bay, the engine’s centre of gravity falling behind the front axle line and creating a front-mid-engined configuration. This is very good news for handling, as the weight distribution from this set-up provides impressively fluid and controllable handling.

There’s a heady 611bhp available – that’s 133bhp (or one 205 GTi) more than the F40 – and a tarmac-worrying 448lb/ft of torque; approximately enough to pull the Newhaven lifeboat through a lake of treacle. It will crack 100mph in just 7.4 seconds – easy figures to throw around but look at your watch and count that out… it’s bloody quick – and storm on to a faintly ridiculous 205mph. This car is a force to be reckoned with.

Now, it costs £170,000, but presumably if you’ve got that kind of money to spend on a car then the price is largely immaterial in the first place. You do get a lot of toys for the outlay, including clever magnetorheological dampers, launch control, carbon-ceramic brakes, an impossibly luxurious interior and, most importantly, that prancing horse on the nose. You’d pay about the same for an F40, but this is where the cars demonstrate their basic dissimilarity of purpose… if your playboy lifestyle involves lots of jolly jaunts to Monaco, you’d probably prefer to eat up the swiftly-passing motorway miles with a stereo, aircon, comfy seats and the knowledge that when you arrive you won’t smell faintly of petrol. If, however, you want to feel like a driving god and make everyone you encounter weep tears of bitter jealousy you’d be better off with the F40. Either way you’ll be experiencing a slice of motoring perfection… but in very different ways. With the F40, you’ll be constantly terrifying yourself with the sheer anger of the beast. With the 599 GTB, you can pass the morning being very silly at Magny Cours, spend the afternoon blasting down the autoroute and arrive for dinner at Monaco as one of the locals. That, surely, is worth £170k of anyone’s money.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Classic - Alfa Romeo Alfasud

Heroes are brilliant. Whether we like to admit it or not, everyone has a hero in some form or another; be it your dad, Valentino Rossi, Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards or Clarabelle (the second of Thomas the Tank Engine’s coaches and by far the more adventurous of the two), it’s generally just nice to have someone to admire. What’s even nicer is to find that your pedestal-percher of choice is tangibly fallible in some way. I’m not talking about total Gary Glitter meltdown – just some sense of humanity to bring the hallowed figure momentarily down to earth.

JK Rowling and Judy Finnegan illustrate this point rather well. Alright, to most rational minds they’re an overpaid wand-toting lunatic and a horrifying sea-cow respectively, but to a generation of students (whose interests are nicely serviced by both of them) they are genuinely admirable characters. Refreshing, then, when their blouses fall wantonly open during public appearances without them noticing a thing. See? They’re people, just like us.

Or how about Craig Charles? As Dave Lister, he was one of the most quotable and weirdly charming comedy characters of the nineties. Who cares if he wants to smoke loads of crack? He’s famous, he’s earned that money, he can spend it on whatever he likes. As long as he can still strap on the dreadlocks and call you a smeghead in that charming Scouse lilt, he retains his place at the top table.

In the automotive world, Alfa Romeo are one of those heroic entities; steeped in the kind of heritage that most manufacturers can only dream of, with such purity of focus in terms of exquisite engineering and sublime driveability that they don’t let piffling things like good build quality or hardwearing materials get in the way of the fun. If you’re after a sublime engine note akin to a chorus of seraphim breaking protocol to scream at one another (as well as the unreserved respect of every enthusiastic motorist you may encounter) then you buy an Alfa. It’s that simple. It’s often stated that you’re not a true petrolhead until you’ve owned an Alfa Romeo in some form or another. In a way, this is more to prove your commitment to the cause than anything else – you will inevitably end up at the side of the road, either up to your elbows in oil or desperately trying to fathom why the electrics have died again. This is just a fact. It’s part of the package.

Coming from a lineup of revered and famous cars (see the boat-tail Duetto in The Graduate, for example, or the Giulias of the polizia in The Italian Job), Alfa decided to make a radical departure. They wanted to break the mould of all that they had done before, explore strange new territories, master a market that was yet to flourish. The Alfasud was the culmination of these aspirations.

The new model seemed at first to be a significant chink in the armour. A company with such a proud and noble history building a basic little runabout on the cheap? Come on, we all have character flaws but there’s a vast gulf between fallibility and plain idiocy.

Production began in 1971 in the then-new Pomigliano d'Arco factory in southern Italy – hence the name – and managed to shift nearly 900,000 units by 1983, at which point the diminutive shape metamorphosed into the baby GTV-esque Sprint. The ‘Sud was initially viewed with suspicion as, horror of horrors, it was front wheel drive, which obviously meant that it was at least part-Communist, and possibly a little homosexual into the bargain. Nevertheless, highly favourable reviews of the bold styling and keen handling combined with aggressive bargain-basement pricing to make it a pretty attractive prospect. Italians, after all, love dinky little cars. Look at the runaway success of the Fiat 500. The Alfasud recaptured some of that pint-sized magic, but with moderately peppery performance to make it that little bit more enjoyable.

Oddly, it didn’t occur to Alfa Romeo to do the obvious thing and turn the simple two-box silhouette into a hatchback, so it was really a saloon car in the same way that the old Mini was. Still, you don’t really need a big practical door at the back, do you? Practicality’s for squares, and in this car all the fun’s at the front end anyway. With MacPherson struts, discs all round and a punchy boxer engine, it did everything it needed to extremely well, and was far better equipped than most of its contemporaries.

A great little car, then – but not perfect. Remember, it’s an Alfa. The steel for the bodies was sourced cheaply from Russia in some ill-advised backroom deal, and consequently was of very, very low quality. Add to this the damp and poorly ventilated body storage facilities and the production-line shortcut of occasionally stuffing the wings with newspaper as basic soundproofing, they rusted with gusto. Their desire to crumble into a flaky brown heap was matched by their irrepressible enthusiasm for overheating without warning, and for no apparent reason.

But hey, these little trials are all part of the Alfa ownership experience. It’s important to try new things, and that’s exactly what they were doing with the little ‘Sud; it may have been brittle and occasionally dangerous, but what Alfa Romeo isn’t? The point is it handles fabulously and has an achingly gorgeous engine note.

And what’s more, you get to tell people you drive an Alfa. That little badge carries a significant nugget of respect.

Test Drive - Fiat Grande Punto

Funny things, hire cars. The one you’re given is guaranteed to have been thrashed to within an inch of its life and you seldom receive the car you expect, yet it still always comes as a disappointing surprise. When last week’s rental agreement read ‘Ford Focus or similar’, I suspected the inevitable… and would you believe it, I ended up with a Punto.

Now, there are a lot of fun games that you can play with a hire car, firstly because it’s not yours and secondly because everybody else who’s driven it has ragged the nuts off it already so there’s no guilt. There’s the ‘how deep past the redline can I go before bystanders start wincing?’ game, ‘how many clutchless gear-changes can I make before I lose my bottle?’, and of course the old favourite – ‘seriously… how fast will it go in first gear?’ But, worryingly, the Punto failed to inspire me to indulge in any of this juvenile japery. Why? Because it is so utterly soulless, so mind-numbingly devoid of joy or character that all you can do is sit behind the wheel, switch your brain off and will yourself into the future.

This is a real shame. Fiat used to be a more than just a manufacturer of tedious hatchbacks, they had passion and fire and so much enthusiasm. Their inspired ground-up designs were tastefully complemented by the spicy versions of their more mainstream models - for the former see the Dino Spider and the Coupe 20v Turbo; for the latter, the 500 Abarth and the 131 Abarth Stradale. With the Grande Punto they seem to have pissed away their rich and vibrant history in every possible respect, leaving behind a dry husk that carries one sole tradition that has blighted Fiat for generations: appalling build quality.

The entire concept, one can only assume, is one that was conceived by infants and constructed by sightless jungle mammals. Granted, eight grand isn’t a lot of money for a brand new car but you do get what you pay for… in this case, you get a fresh new model that doesn’t always start first time (this is inexcusable in 2007!), has temperamental rear doors that will only allow you to open them when they can be bothered, and generally feels like it’s shaking itself to pieces. It’s borderline insulting.

The driver’s seat is a particularly miserable place to be. The most irksome feature is the point at the windowline where the doors meet the dash, a collaboration of totally unrelated lines and materials straight from the fuck-you school of design that, once noticed, cannot be ignored. The interior materials creak and groan in exactly the manner you would expect of various different grades of plastic bolted together. The most irritating point, however, is the visibility.

The Grande Punto is seriously unpleasant to drive. Beyond the acre of drab grey plastic stretching across the dash to the windscreen base is a bonnet that slopes away so sharply that you have literally no idea where the front of the car is. But this isn’t the worst thing… no, the A-pillars elevate the car to a whole new league of ineffable crappiness, they draw you to the very cutting edge of bad design. It is impossible to imagine how anyone who designed and built this car could have spoken to anybody who tested it. If they had done, they would have been told; “That A-pillar’s way too fat. I can’t see a bloody thing.” Here’s an interesting test for you – try and drive this car on any road that has a series of reasonably narrow corners (I opted for the Ring of Kerry). You’ll find yourself crawling limply and turgidly around the bends, leaning forward as far as physically possible to see what’s coming towards you and still having desperately little visibility. Shocking.

All of this is academic really, however, as you’re never going to be travelling fast enough for it to get you into trouble. The 77bhp 1.4-litre engine is described by Fiat as ‘spirited’. A more appropriate description would be ‘barely noticeable’. Acceleration is basically non-existent in any gear and at any revs; allowing it to just roll downhill was infinitely more exciting than constantly having to mash the right-pedal into the carpet in a vain attempt to coax some life out of the retarded little unit. Indeed, opening the bonnet revealed what appeared to be some sort of Moulinex.
So no, I didn’t like the Grande Punto. Aside from the fuel economy (which, admittedly, was excellent), this is a car utterly without merit. It used to be the case that the Corsa was the default choice for people who had no idea what they were talking about and didn’t give a toss what they drove; now that Vauxhall have got their act together Fiat have filled that position perfectly. Put simply, this is a car by idiots for idiots. Don’t buy one, please – just don’t. Life’s too short to inflict this kind of misery upon yourself.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Lamborghini Reventón

There are some things that we, in our happy but deprived little lives, know we’re never going to own. The Riva 68’ Ego Super, for example. Whether you enjoy the homoerotic extravaganza of mucking about on the water or you consider the whole process to be a salty waste of energy, you can’t deny that this is truly a king among boats. 38 knots in a black walnut stealth missile with a Martini in one hand and a Montecristo in the other? You’re just a cravat away from being David Niven. Sitting beyond the scary end of three million euros, it’s an extravagance few men stretch to.

Likewise, the dream of a private island is one that must remain in the cerebral reverie of the common man. Little Ragged Island, a seven hundred acre chunk of paradise in the Bahamas boasts pure white sand, turquoise water, a sheltered harbour and numerous coconut trees. Yours for $23,500,000.

The automotive world is naturally rich in such unreachable aspirations. The flagship of this decadent opulence is, of course, the Bugatti Veyron (an achievement of engineering so magnificent and breathtaking that you truly have to be a twat to buy one; trust me, if you get stuck chatting to a Veyron owner, make your excuses as quickly as possible and find somebody who doesn’t have his head so far up his own arse he can lick his kidneys), and moves down the scale through the Ferrari Enzo, Porsche Carrera GT, Pagani Zonda, Koenigsegg CCX and so forth. ‘Down the scale’ is all relative, obviously, the meaning here being ‘only the price of one house’. The kind of people who shell out for these passionate figureheads fall into two distinct categories: those who enjoy the car holistically, appreciating the heritage, the verve, the mechanical complexity, the two fingers up to physics, and those who want people to see that they’ve got loads of cash. For the former, see Damon Hill or Gordon Murray; for the latter, see

There is a middle ground between these two groups, a halfway point between ballsy and bling. Organically, there has to be. It stands to reason that no matter how pure the intentions of the driving enthusiast, there must be at least a little ego involved in hypercar ownership. So where do you go if your exotic powerhouse starts to seem a little pedestrian? Don’t worry, your friendly auto manufacturer is one step ahead of you…

The Lamborghini Murciélago is one of the best cars ever created. This is a fact. Not so much built by men as hewn from the collective dreams of a generation of schoolboys, it ticks every box for a car of its genre – monstrous power, looks that make grown men weep, a deep history of automotive pioneering, a price tag to make Solomon blush. But oh, they’re awfully common these days aren’t they? They’re an everyday sight in Soho, generally driven by the sort of people who really don’t deserve them, have probably never taken it out of the city and certainly never venture as far as a race track. These posers are not the sort of people that the modern self-respecting enthusiast-cum-cash-haemorrhage wish to associate themselves with.

What’s available to these people? How do they differentiate themselves? Why, they buy a Reventón of course.

In simple terms, think of it as a tarted-up Murciélago that will be harder to fix when somebody bangs a Metro door into it in Waitrose car park. Officials say that just twenty will be built (although some say a hundred – either way, it’s a guarantee of exclusivity), and it’s a genuinely terrifying sight in the metal. Taking styling cues from the F-22 Raptor – an American fighter plane with fourth generation stealth technology – it seems to be composed entirely of corners; a sort of Cubist representation of the Murciélago, if you will. There’s also, somewhat bizarrely, something of the fifties American boulevard cruiser about the front end, due to the fuck-the-pedestrians jagged pointy bits that menacingly poke out. This thing doesn’t need to be friendly to passers-by on foot. If you do hit someone, you’re likely to be going so fast that they’ll be immediately pulped no matter what shape the nose is.

The 6.5 litre V12 has received a few tweaks to take output to a more than respectable 660bhp. As if this weren’t enough to keep the driver entertained, Lamborghini have fitted a G-force meter so that he may keep tabs on exactly how much damage he’s inflicting upon himself every time he powers through a corner, grinds the noisy pedal into the bulkhead or engages those Frisbee-esque brakes. It’s an event. It’s unique.

A concern for the driver, inevitably, will be whether or not to use it to its full potential; how far to take the shenanigans in such a prized and irreplaceable creation. You know the feeling you get when you see an F40 being thrashed to within an inch of its life on the racetrack? Part of you thinks ‘this is fabulous, that’s exactly what it was built for’, while the pragmatist in you asks ‘Christ, what if he stacks it into the Armco? There can’t be many of those left…’.

Annoyingly, this is a decision I’ll never have to make.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Classic - Volkswagen Polo G40

In the vast and irritating wake of 2001’s 'The Fast and the Furious' it’s been amusing to observe the extent to which young chavs have scraped together their pennies to buy tacky tat from Halfords to glue all over their grotty little motors. While it would, of course, be immeasurably cool to own an ori-mental Supra or S2000 with forty or fifty grand under the bonnet, it’s hard to make the leap from these behemoths to the shagged-out Nova feebly trying to pull a noticeable burnout in the McDonald’s drive-thru on a Friday night. Some Jap-style graphics and a whacking great aluminium spoiler do not a sports car make. (The general reasoning, incidentally, for fixing huge spoilers to the roof of your mum’s shopping hatchback? Daaaaahnforce, innit? Seriously, bolting fifty quid’s worth of Ripspeed sheet metal to a small front wheel drive car will definitely create rear-end downforce. Definitely. No question.)

Now, a flashy-looking car is all well and good if it has the balls to back it up, but there’s something rather futile about making a slow car look fast. You will be caught out time and time again by people with proper cars. You only need to scout eBay for a few minutes to unearth countless Saxos, 106s, Clios and so forth that have phenomenally extravagant bodykits, huge wheels and immaculate spangly paintwork but are still propelled by a wheezy, asthmatic little 1200cc lawn mower. This is precisely the opposite of what should happen: if your budget stretches to either looks or performance, go for performance every time. There’s nothing cooler than having a ratty little grotbox with a secret weapon under the bonnet – it irritates the hell out of Porsche drivers at the traffic lights. The key here is stealth.

Some manufacturers have a knack of building secretive little machines like this. It’s something that Volkswagen in particular have always been good at – look at the mkIII Golf VR6, for example, or the Passat W8, or the mkII Golf GTI 16v. Ordinary looking cars with weapons-grade plutonium under the skin. A very interesting example of this behaviour is the mkII Polo G40.

No, wait, come back. It’s actually pretty good.

The mkII Polo, you see, is quite a drab little car. It serves its natural function well enough; it’s a reliable and compact city car, economical, easy to park, cheap to run, everything you’d expect of a car in this sector. It’s not a car that anyone would aspire to own, it’s just something to get you about. It’s motoring without passion. All the more reason, then, to spice it up a little.

Not a sexy car to look at, is it? It’s not exactly ugly, just wholly unremarkable. Anonymous, almost. You wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s a 1.3, and you certainly wouldn’t have had your interest piqued by that info. Ah, but the G40 has a clandestine surprise… bolted onto that little 1.3 is a supercharger. The drabness suddenly starts to feel like an asset.

The wonderful thing about a stealthy car is that it will put a broad smile on your face on a daily basis – you’ll be constantly aware that you and you alone have a secret. Every Punto you see with a shopping list of aftermarket Japanese brands plastered over the doors (come on, what’s that about?) will seem all the more ludicrous because you simply don’t have to show off. You don’t need to force an illusion of speed in people’s faces. The sight of your taillights disappearing into the night will tell them all they need to know.

OK, the handling’s a bit woolly, the steering’s a little imprecise, the electrics are surprisingly temperamental for a VW, but none of this is really the point. If anything, the general holistic mundanity of the car serves to highlight and accentuate its most important trait: it has a supercharger. And nobody knows about it.

KTM X-bow

It’s not always a good idea to try something outlandishly different from your established forte. ‘Judas’ Dylan going electric is a good example; granted, he was right in the long run but the initial backlash was really rather spiteful. New Coke is another one: dead in the water. For that matter, what happened to Virgin Cola or Tab Clear? Or Polo Holes? Basically, it’s worth having a little goosey at where your market lies and what it’s willing to take before committing to something extraordinary.

Austrian motorcycle manufacturers KTM, like Dylan, have long been respected as elder statesmen of their genre. Established in 1934 and building bikes since 1953, they’ve positioned themselves at the cutting-edge of motorcycle technology. They were the first company to offer a liquid-cooled four-stroke engine for off-road use (subsequently supplying their radiators to Suzuki, who were playing a rapid game of catch-up), the first to offer front and rear disc brakes, linkless rear suspension, hydraulic clutch mechanisms… the list of innovations is impressively lengthy. Fans of two-wheeled motorsport will be familiar with their name, as they have countless entries in Motorcross and Supermoto events worldwide, as well as pouncing into the Superbike arena and reddening a few faces. They’re the manufacturer that the man in the street is oblivious to, yet those in the know offer enormous respect. The Morgan of bikes, if you will.

So what’s next on the list of world domination? Well, they have a cunning plan… It’s easy to imagine a certain awe and admiration about the KTM office for Soichiro Honda – a man who, at the helm of a motorcycle colossus, saw a Formula One race in 1960 and thought ‘how hard can that be?’ By 1965, Honda were at the top of the podium in Mexico. Today, they’re among the largest car manufacturers in the world. Of course, KTM don’t want to be massive… they just want to have some fun.

Enter the X-bow. An entirely new design from the ground up, it’s an astonishing achievement. In conjunction with Dallara, KTM have fashioned everything that physically can be from either carbonfibre or aluminium, leading to a size-zero kerb weight of just 700kg and an impressive practicality for racing and track applications; if anything needs replacing, it’s a simple bolt-off/bolt-on job.

Thrust is taken care of by Audi’s 2-litre FSI turbo mill, as featured across much of the VW/Audi/SEAT/Skoda group. A cheeky little number in itself, KTM’s bespoke chargecooler, fancy new LSD and clever push-pull adaptation of the Audi six-speeder equate to a respectable gain in power (up to 220bhp) and an ingenious means by which to transfer the power to the back end. 60mph arrives in just 3.9 seconds.

The suspension is equally clever, incorporating trick double-wishbones fashioned from drag-reducing wing-profile steel tubing, combined with pushrod dampers. The singularity of purpose and the purity of focus of the X-bow are nothing short of awe-inspiring. Indeed, keenly pricing the car at €40,000 (approx £31,500) means that Caterham, Westfield, Radical, Aerial and the plethora of other trackday specialists have serious cause for pillow-chewing sleeplessness.

KTM have retained a strong sense of brand identity with this new venture. Offered in their signature black and orange colour scheme, the X-bow has no doors, no roof and a narrow deflector in place of a windscreen. The superbike performance is matched by a superbike experience, the wind buffeting your head around with increasing violence as you pound towards the redline – it’s as close as you can get to a four-wheeled motorbike. Dainese, respected Italian apparel specialists, are even creating bespoke helmets and leathers to match the car.

The second-best thing about this car is the way it looks. Drink in the stark lines, the brash angularity, the two huge nostrils, the back-end-of-a-pitbull exhaust – it’s so ugly that it travels full circle into ‘stunningly beautiful’ territory. It looks like it hates you, yet in a very alluring manner…

…so what’s the best thing? Well, the simple fact that it’s been homologated for road use. You will actually be able to drive this apparition, this weapon, this force of cold logic on the Queen’s highway. Frankly, it’s worth £30k-odd of anyone’s money to look like the Stig every day… and there’s even a passenger seat, which could come in handy. If anything’s going to help you pull in Tesco’s car park, it’s this.

Test Drive - Porsche 911 GT3

Fear. It’s an unpredictable and unnerving state of mind. It can crop up in the most unlikely situations and lead you into all sorts of embarrassing behaviour; sweating, trembling, the classic tomato-face… but amid all this predictability one would assume certain conventions. Walking to the shops, you’d hope, would not be a particularly frightening activity (unless you live where I live – a hotbed of knuckledragging lowbrows intent on my gory demise, I’m sure – but I digress), whereas being chased through the American Gardens building by Patrick Bateman and his meaty chainsaw would probably get you a wee bit spooked. That’s just logic.

Strange, then, that driving somebody else’s Porsche 911 GT3 around Silverstone in some truly biblical rain provokes absolutely no fear whatsoever. This may well be attributable to the total sensory shock that the mind is already passing through; piloting a machine significantly more powerful and technologically advanced than your own, clad in alien overalls and a helmet that all but removes your peripheral vision, driving to extremes that you’d never contemplate on the road, hugged tightly by a six-point harness – the experience as a whole is so outlandish, so visceral and thrilling that fear can’t even enter your mind. All you have is purity of focus and a pulsing tidal wave of adrenaline.

And of course, this is no ordinary GT3. W44 GTR began life as a road-going 996 GT3 with the standard 360bhp before being, well, brutalised by Rupert Lewin Racing. Bored-out to 3.8 litres, the nat-asp engine kicks out a staggering 410bhp which, trust me, is several stages beyond plenty when it’s really rather damp outside and, oh yes, it’s not your car.

Phenomenal in more ways than it’s possible to count, this Porsche is verging on ridiculous. Everything about it is quasi-related to the driving experience of your average road car, but exaggerated to a ragged extreme. The accelerator is as ultrasensitive as a .357 Magnum trigger, the clutch contrasts by being sufficiently heavy to feel as if you’re stomping golden syrup through a funnel with a moonboot. The brakes are epic and immediate, the steering tight yet progressive, the suspension firm almost to the point of being solid… this is simply pure motoring.

The most impressive element of the setup is the sheer ocean of torque available. It’s so tractable that you could, if you so wished, lap the entire circuit in fourth gear – you simply mash the loud pedal into the bulkhead at any speed, at any revs and physics takes a wrecking ball to your chest. By the time your feeble human brain has registered where your braking point is, you’ve already passed through it at some unimaginable multiple of the speed you should be travelling at, leaving your mind trying to cope firstly with the problem of scrubbing all the speed off in minus-time, then pointing the car in the right direction, then figuring out how to prevent this dramatic sideways drift from turning into a full-on 360˚ spin. And then it all happens again at the next corner. Marvellous fun.

It’s not just the corners that distort your perception of reality either – the straights are just plain weird. Have you ever powered down the Hangar Straight at over 150mph? I think I have, but to be honest I’ve got absolutely no idea; a borrowed nanosecond’s glance is insufficient to differentiate between those little numbers on the speedo… it would be unsafe to study the dial in any detail because a) the scenery’s going all blurry and b) there’s probably an Enzo behind you. All of which mental wrangling leads you to a peculiar moment of muddled recollection as you enter the pits and cruise back to the garage. How long was I out there? How fast was I going down the pit straight? Did I really just overtake a Ferrari 355 at Silverstone…and did anyone see me do it?! (This is the point at which your ego goes into meltdown. It will take several days to wipe that grin off your face.)

The best way to describe driving the GT3 is that it’s the polar opposite of being drunk. Every reflex, every nerve, every synapse is manically alert, your clarity of vision is, by necessity alone, better than you could ever imagine it to be. Which is just as well really… the 911 is so rewarding when you do things right; the correct throttle balance through a sweeping curve or a perfectly-timed full-bore upshift is like a psychic link between you and the car. You’re playing together in harmony, complementing one another’s abilities. Get it wrong, however, and it will chew you up and spit you out. A breathtaking, wonderful, glorious machine – just make sure you stay on its good side…

Friday, 28 September 2007

Subaru Impreza - third generation

Time makes fools of us all. It’s an unfortunate but unavoidable fact that as we plough onwards into the ethereal mists of that which is yet to happen, the constant bouncing of atoms and microns from our taut and rosy skin gradually ebbs away our vigour and vitality. We turn into wrinkled, wizened husks of our former selves; ridiculed and derided by a disinterested society, a total loss of control over one’s bodily functions… face it, as the sand in your hourglass tumbles south, your jowls, cankles and bingo wings will inevitably follow.

Nothing to get too down about, of course. It’s just nature. Things age and things die, that’s just the way it goes. But where do we offset this inevitable decline? Why, in the things we create, of course! Our minds and our hands craft things of beauty – innovative designs, provocative forms, mouthwatering dreams. With a blank sheet and a pencil, there are no boundaries to that which we may conjure up.

So… how do we explain the new Subaru Impreza?

The first and second generations were obviously tough acts to follow. Bred on the rally stage and idolised by seafront pikeys and aging motorsport aficionados alike, the Impreza was fundamentally a cutthroat no-holds-barred technology race with Mitsubishi’s equally muscular Evo line. 150bhp per litre? Piffle. Check out my S-AWC and my active centre diff. Behold, my beefy Brembos. Tremble in the mighty presence of active yaw control.

The competition was fierce, the militant split between the yellow stars and the red diamonds was the most tangible social divide since Britpop. The constant stream of marginally upgraded editions from both camps – RB5, STi PPP, FQ-400, any other combination of random letters and numbers you can think of – kept appetites whetted, while the introduction of a facelifted model (or better yet, an entirely new one) sent followers and observers into a priapic frenzy.

In 2005 Mitsubishi showcased their Concept-X, a radical vision of the next generation of the Lancer bloodline. Too extreme? They confirmed the glistening extravaganza with 2007’s Prototype-X – effectively demonstrating just how serious the Lancer Evo X would be. Subaru would have to do something incredibly bold to retaliate.

Unfortunately, the Subaru execs were all in the pub at the time and missed the whole thing. While the world swooned at Mitsubishi’s golden child, some twats in Ota were discussing the profit margins of practical family hatchbacks. For shame.

The gen-3 Impreza will, of course, be a phenomenally clever and well-engineered car. It will be focused, balanced and tailored to the driving enthusiast. It will be successful in motorsport. It will be impressive on track. It will perform superbly as a daily driver. But this isn’t really the point… not any more.

The classic four-door silhouette that one would classically associate with the Impreza name was never what you would call pretty. It didn’t need to be – the point was to be aggressive, menacing, bullish, a little scary… what Subaru have done to the newbie is tantamount to vandalism. All the technology in the world can’t save a mumsy shopping hatch as dour and drab as this.

The word ‘Impreza’ in Polish means ‘event’ or ‘party’, and in a way it’s still appropriate to the car. After all, you could argue that entirely ruining a loved and respected machine by making it look like a Mynheer Rover is an event in terms of general media noteworthiness if nothing else. Just doesn’t look like a party car any more though, does it?

The really irritating thing about the gen-3 is the sheer number of people that must have been involved in the horrific act of mass sabotage. Countless design teams, committees, boards, focus groups – it’s a shame. A real shame. They took their blank sheet and deliberately created something ugly and aesthetically offensive. Time, it’s a tragedy to say, has taken its toll on the Scooby.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Classic - Fiat Uno Turbo

The human brain is an irrational and inexplicable thing. The series of neurones or nerve impulses that may lead you to absent-mindedly hum along to a James Blunt song on the radio (even though you know he’s a godawful Satanist from the very depths of mediocrity) are the same that may force you to scream blue murder at an elderly woman on the bus, simply because she’s done something as innocuous as dribble slightly or smell of stale urine. We are complex and unusual creatures, naturally inclined to follow instincts however illogical they may be.

The Fiat Uno Turbo represents the zenith of this abject lack of fundamental logic. There’s very little reason to really like it, yet it’s quite hard not to. Perhaps it’s the little grotbox’s tenacity, its very persistence in continuing to exist despite all of the reasons central to the laws of physics themselves that suggest otherwise. It’s an ugly quadrilateral cereal packet fashioned from wafer-thin KwikKorrode™ steel, powered by a dinky motor lifted from a Scalextric model with an ill-advised turbo strapped to the side, with the underpinnings of a Co-op shopping trolley and upholstered with lawn chairs wrapped in J-cloths. It’s the automotive equivalent of the Red Dwarf ‘triple fried-egg chilli chutney sandwich’ (series II episode III, fact fans!) – all of the ingredients are wrong… but it adds up to something worryingly satisfying.

Designed by Giugiaro’s ItalDesign, if you can believe it, the Uno won European Car of the Year in 1984 for its effective optimisation of interior space and admirable fuel economy. Yawn. In 1985 Fiat nailed a turbo to the 1400cc hamster-wheel and the fun started. Of course, with a mere 105bhp and handling that quickly switched from “If it’s this shuddery on the flat it must have been engineered to handle, no?” to “Shit, that chronic understeer suddenly found sufficient front-end grip to become lift-off oversteer… which way am I facing now?!” in the blink of an eye, it was totally eclipsed by the 205 GTi and the Renault 5 GT Turbo. Maybe that wasn’t the point, however. In both its earlier guise and the latterly improved ‘Turbo i.e.’ version (with a Garret T2 turbo mated to the superior 1300cc engine), it offered forced-induction thrills at a bargain basement price. The flimsy build quality and potential to be horribly and unexpectedly killed at any moment simply served to add to the adrenalin rush.

So, in theory at least, a sound buy for the discerning family man with a sniff of petrol in his veins. It was certainly cheap and the admirable heritage and racing credentials were all present and correct in Fiat’s past (assuming you could look past their various catastrophic errors; the Ritmo for one – a sort of Innocenti-with-Ford-Corsair-face thing). The pseudo-glory of being judged as the best car produced in all of Europe – seriously, how did that happen…? – meant that such a purchase could be justified to the missus. The intelligent and sensible interior ergonomics ensured that the little ‘uns could fit in the back and the boot could accommodate the shopping, assuming you were raising a litter of anorexic midgets. Practicality, heritage, that little whooshy noise when you put your foot down… and all for the price of a morning paper and ten Bensons. What could go wrong?

Well, it was a Fiat, meaning it had been engineered to last about forty-five minutes before oxidising into a crumbly heap on the driveway, and everyone you tried to wheeze past on the motorway would give you a sympathetic little smile as if to say “Aww, bless him, he’s trying. I’ll back off a bit so he’s not embarrassed in front of his kids”.

OK – so it’s not the fastest of the hot hatches of the era, or the most powerful. It’s not the best handling by any means. It’s certainly not the best in terms of build quality, or the best looking. It’s incredibly hard to find a good Uno Turbo now because they’ve all rusted to pieces. But there’s just… something. Something about them that makes them fun, a little cheeky, a quirky offbeat choice that has the potential to surprise and enliven. Why do I so admire this terrible car? I have absolutely no idea. It’s just one of those irrational, illogical things.

Test Drive - RenaultSport Mégane 230 F1 Team R26

This week SuckSqueezeBangBlow test-drove the new hot Mégane… and had tremendous difficulty giving the keys back.

Renault have, in recent years, made rather a respectable name for themselves in developing their everyday hatchbacks into giant-slaying lunatics; whereas Peugeot used to be the go-to guys in the eighties & nineties for punchy, sure-footed hot hatches (think 205 GTi, 306 Rallye, 106 GTi…) they’ve become a bit flaccid of late, Renault picking up the baton with wild enthusiasm. The Clio 16v was the progenitor of their pocket rocket lineage that passed through the 172, mid-engined V6, 182 and 182 Cup to the current 197, but thankfully the Gallic technobods deigned to work their magic on the Clio’s big brother as well.

Now, when the Mégane’s second incarnation first surfaced the reaction was somewhat bipolar. Fans of Renault’s innovative design strategies praised the radical new direction, eschewing the lines of its comparatively curvaceous predecessor for bold, stark angularity. There were a lot of detractors too. It had a fat arse.

Never one to miss a trick, the marketing people swooped on this and used the chunky bottom as an advertising tool; ‘shake it!’ they cried, almost convincingly. Bless ‘em, it worked brilliantly and sales were strong. It was, however, hard to see how the company might turn this lumpen form into a genuinely entertaining sports car.

Thankfully, Renault being Renault, a performance range-topper was always on the cards and the RenaultSport Mégane 225 was launched in 2004. A laudable and impressive machine, it received excellent reviews for its engine, performance and driveability, but was criticised for the torque steer that is unfortunately inevitable to a certain degree when you combine a front wheel drive layout with a barking mad amount of power. Again, the boffins had an answer and in 2006 the 230 F1 Team R26 reared its pointy head...

…and what a car it is. The 2-litre 16v turbocharged engine is, put simply, phenomenal. Renault claim a 0-60 time of 6.2 seconds, and the astonishing thing is that there’s virtually no turbo lag at all. You just point it towards the horizon, put your foot down and have a nervous second-thought about the etiquette of depositing one’s waste on the seat of a borrowed car. The fabulous new limited-slip differential saves your arms from being wrenched lock to lock as you could expect from the 225; alright, the 230 does give your forearms a bit of a workout but you have to expect that when you’re throwing so much power through the front wheels. It wouldn’t be any fun if it was easy, would it? Renault even stitched a rally style deadahead marker on the steering wheel to demonstrate just how central it can keep itself. Well, that’s possibly not the real reason, but it’s an entertaining game to play.

The superbly effective LSD does more than prevent snapped wristbones. The handling on this car is simply astounding. Thanks to the Mégane’s Cup chassis with its thicker anti-roll bars and race-bred suspension (some say it’s too harsh and abrasive for road use; these people are wet jessies) and God’s-own diff, there is no understeer from the car whatsoever. None at all. Not a sausage. Enter any corner at any speed and you can feel the 235-section tyres burying themselves into the tarmac in an eager and constantly flabbergasting effort to keep you on your chosen line. The driver’s seat becomes your best friend at this point, as the cornering witchcraft is criminally addictive. The nature of the physics-defying process urges you to corner ever faster in a potentially suicidal yet hypnotically unstoppable quest to find the grip limit, and it’s here where the buckets come into their own; the Recaros are an inspired addition, gripping you just where you need it and preventing the horrific embarrassment of sitting on your passenger’s lap through the twisties. That they have dedicated harness eyelets speaks volumes about this machine’s purpose.

Hiding behind the gorgeous 18” lightweight alloys – masterpieces in themselves; their anthracite colour means they’ll never look dirty – is a braking system that lesser hatches could only dream of. Developed by Brembo, the front features 6-piston callipers clamping 304mm drilled & vented discs, and the stopping power they provide is ludicrously impressive. The monstrous blood-red callipers bite into the discs as if they hate them, speed being effortlessly sheared off in whacking great chunks as your kidneys – which had previously been forced out of the back of the seat – fling themselves forward and bounce off the chunky leather steering wheel. It’ll do this all day too; there’s no fade to speak of, just cold hard efficiency.

The six-speed gearbox is an absolute peach, short-throw snicking from cog to cog with the intent and purposeful feel that flows throughout the car. There have been criticisms that it’s too easy to slip from 2nd to 5th which would be horrifying if true, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all – in fact the gearbox acts as a metaphor for the car as a whole: everything is perfectly judged and exactly where you need it. This car epitomises reliable, controllable, predictable yet constantly surprising performance. Priced at £19,570 (or a bargain £17,995 for the 56-plate example on demo miles that I drove), it’s a lot of car for the cash. The handling is unrivalled in its class, the linear power delivery provides thrust through a surprisingly wide rev band but, most importantly, it feels worth every penny as you storm past the 5000rpm mark; the lightly whistling turbo and the subtly burbling twin exhausts morph into an ecstatic cacophony of raucous, tinny, sharp-edged malice. It’s impossible to describe – I urge you to experience it for yourself.