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…