The Vikings had Valhalla, Odin’s banqueting hall where buxom Valkyries delivered mead to those slain in battle. The Greeks had the valleys, mountains and fields of Elysium, a peaceful realm where the sun always shone. Christians, Islamists, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists all have their versions of the afterlife and each sounds attractive in its own way, but as a practising petrolhead I very much hope that the afterlife takes on a form similar to the SMMT Test Day at Millbrook Proving Ground.
Picture a place where car manufacturers get together with a selection of vehicles, then add a twisting hill route, high-speed bowl and challenging off-road courses to drive them on. Then mix in a crowd of eager motoring journalists, each dashing around to try as many cars as possible before the end of the day.
This year was my first time at the event (although not my first visit to Millbrook) and it was an amazing day. You may have heard about Millbrook before but if not you may have seen it and not realised. Top Gear and Fifth Gear are regulars on the Proving Ground and it was also the venue for the record-breaking Aston Martin DBS barrel roll recorded for the Bond film Casino Royale.
The famous hill route is specially designed to find any weaknesses in a car’s setup with a mixture of steep gradients with blind crests and sharp troughs, off-camber corners and tricky tightening turns. Oversteer, understeer, lack of power – all these things will stand out like a sore thumb. Add to that the high-speed bowl, where you can test the V-max of a car on the steeply banked two-mile circle, and you have a venue that gives cars a thorough workout and petrolheads a huge thrill.
The SMMT day is not all about driving cars either. Mercedes were brave enough to allow their new Actros truck and Unimog out in the hands of the gathered journos. The new electric Renault Twizy, which can almost be called a car, was available to drive and proved to be hugely popular. Then there were the passenger laps in the bonkers Nissan Juke R, demonstrations of budget versus premium tyres and the latest advances in safety technology … the list of things to do is long and varied.
On the day I was lucky enough to drive a number of cars, but rather than list each one I thought I’d have a little award ceremony to celebrate the highlights. So without further ado, here are the results for the inaugural Driving Spirit SMMT Test Day Awards.
Powerhouse Of The Day
It was the sound of the Audi A6 BiTDI that caught my attention first. A discrete but purpose rumble that hints at power and yet barely sounds anything like a diesel. This 3.0-litre powerhouse, when bolted inside the frame of an Audi A6, gives the driver access to 313PS and a monstrous 650Nm of torque. Those are big figures and allowed the A6 to make mincemeat of the steep hills on the hill route, the 8-speed Tiptronic gearbox making sure the engine is always working at its best.
The A6 is another typically slick product from Audi. Beautifully engineered with top quality fittings and a very smart LED dashboard display with all manner of useful information. At £45,250 this A6 is certainly expensive but in bi-turbo form it makes a very good case of justifying that expense.
Car I’d Happily Spend Money On
There were a few candidates here. For outright driving thrills and desirability I’d go for the Porsche 911, simply because it’s so well engineered. On a more realistic budget I’d be happy to spend money on the Renaultsport Megane 265 because it has the whole ‘hot hatch’ thing sewn up perfectly.
Car I Wouldn’t Spend Money On
The polar opposite to the Skoda Citigo would be the Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speed. Starting at around £150,000, this 6.0 W12 powered monster could almost fit the Citigo inside it’s leather lined interior.
I’m unlikely to have to make the decision about whether or not to buy a Flying Spur, but if I were I think the amount of switches and displays that are clearly lifted straight from the Volkswagen parts bin would make me think twice. For that much money I would expect something like hand-crafted aluminium switches, not the same plastic items that you’d find in a Golf. Nice leather though, and blimey, it doesn’t half shift for such a big car.
Scariest Drive Of The Day
This award has to go to the Volkswagen Up. I should immediately point out that this is no criticism of the Up’s handling and more a fault of the driver i.e. me. After a succession of generously rubbered hot hatches my confidence on the hill route was growing. On the first incline the Up was struggling, the gradient making the relative lack of torque obvious. Then the gradient eased and the Up started picking up speed…
It corners very well, a little softly sprung but controlled and with decent steering, but pitch it in too fast and understeer is very much on the cards. Lots of it. On the more demanding corners the nose would wash wide, heading for the steel barriers as if someone had lined them with magnets. As I say, more the fault of my own over-exuberance than any fault of the Up, but there were a couple of heart-in-the-mouth moments that I will remember for some time.
Best Drive Of The Day
The last car of the day was the Peugeot 308 GT 200THP. The day was nearly over, a lot of people had already left and the circuits were starting to get quieter. It was also obvious that people were starting to pay less heed to the marshalls at this point, unconcerned about having their driving permits taken away at such a late stage. Speeds were increasing so I thought I’d follow suit.
The next ten minutes were fantastic. There was no-one in front of me, apart from a well-driven BMW Gran Coupe for one lap, and it almost felt like I had the place to myself. The Peugeot was a willing partner with a feisty engine and rorty exhaust note and for a precious few minutes I was able to push harder than I’d dared earlier in the day. The Peugeot might not be as incisive or controlled as the Megane 265 I drove earlier but on the quieter circuit I was able to make more of its power and grip.
A cracking drive, all the more enjoyable because I’d not expected the 308 GT to be as good on the hill route. That car has now gone up in my estimation.
Most Surprising Use Of Leather
It took me a few seconds to realise that the white strip in the dashboard of the Citroen DS3 Ultra Prestige wasn’t plastic. No, it was leather, real leather, covering the full width of the dashboard.
It’s one of many bold design features that come together to create the very distinctive DS3. The added bonus is that it’s a good drive too, with the 155bhp 1.6-litre turbo proving to be torquey and quite nippy. The suspension is setup for comfort rather than handling but the little Citroen still made a very good stab at the hill route. A very appealing package.
Best Place To Park Yer Bum
There are three worthy mentions here. The winner was the Alfa Romeo MiTo Quadrifoglio that sported a set of carbon-fibre backed Sabelt bucket seats that were superb. Just the right size for my frame, they held me firmly in place and suited my driving position perfectly. Shame they’re a £2k option on the MiTo.
Sabelt seats were also used to great effect in the Abarth Punto. They didn’t have the same over-the-top appearance of the MiTo’s seats (a shame) but they were just as supportive and just as comfortable. Cheaper than the MiTo’s seats, they add £1,300 to the price of an Abarth Punto. I would say that they’re money well spent.
Finally there were the Recaros in the Renaultsport Megane 265. Visually they are slightly more restrained than the Sabelts but they are just as good at holding you in place and have the added bonus of a little extra padding.
The only problem with such snugly fitting sports seats is that they make you realise where you might be slightly wider than you used to be. Perhaps it’s time for a diet.
Buttons You’d Have To Press At The Start Of Every Journey
The latest Porsche 911 has a myriad of wonderful options, but three shone out for me, each with its own button. This was my first ever drive of a Porsche 911 and involved two laps of the hill route. On the first lap everything was in standard mode and the 911 was relaxed, refined and rapid to drive. Then, on the second lap, my Porsche pro-driver passenger set the suspension to its hardest setting, the engine to its most aggressive mode and opened up the active exhaust. The trasformation was incredible as the 911 leapt forward with increased vigour and the exhaust took on a louder and more metallic rasp. Stunning.
I can see why the basic 911 is considered to be such a good all-rounder. I now also understand what the fuss is about and I desperately want to dig deeper into the talents of this rear-engined hero.
Car Of The Day
I expected the Renaultsport Megane 265 to be good but it still amazed me. It felt ideally suited to Millbrook and was more than capable of dealing with the track. My biggest frustration is that both laps of the hill circuit were spent behind slower cars and I was always conscious of the ever-watchful gaze of the marshalls, frustrating my desire to really push the Megane to its (or more likely my own) limits.
Fortunately its abilities shine through even at modest speeds. The steering feels just right, nicely weighted and with feedback that shames a lot of its rivals. Grip and traction weren’t an issue except on the badly cambered descending hairpin at the top of the first hill, but the Megane handled it far better than everything I drove bar the Porsche 911.
I especially liked the silver of this car. Not as bold as the metallic yellow of so many of the cars seen in magazines and without the look-at-me stickers and enormous alloys. It looked almost discrete and is probably the colour I’d choose.
The recently refreshed SEAT Ibiza FR was available so I picked one up in 150PS DSG form. The DSG couldn’t make its mind up on the gradients and bends and unfortunately the wheel-mounted paddles have been dropped, meaning the stick is the only way of manually shifting. However, it still rides well and the engine has enough poke to be entertaining. The new nose also gives the Ibiza a much sharper look.
The Volkswagen Beetle was a pleasant surprise. The new model has a slightly more masculine shape than the old and looks all the better for it. On the inside there is the same mixture of retro dashboard design peppered with modern Volkswagen controls. Unsurprisingly it feels very much like a Golf on the move. All in all a decent package and the 160PS twin-charged engine made it lively enough.
The Audi A1 Sportback keeps the best qualities of the three-door A1 but adds a splash of extra practicality with two additional doors. In 1.4 TFSI trim with seven-speed tiptronic gearbox it is fast and refined, but lacks the sparkle to make it a truly fun drive. Lovely interior though.
Then there was the new Honda Civic. In 1.8-litre petrol form the lack of torque is an issue on the hill route but the engine revs very freely in typical Honda fashion and the manual gear change was one of the best I tried, quick and smooth. The new Civic is also a big step forward in terms of refinement and it still has one of the most interesting dashboards on the market with split levels and bright blue display. There’s a good hot hatch waiting to emerge, and I hear that Mugen are busy working on something special.
That’s It for This Year
After the run in the Peugeot it was time to go home. Back out onto the mile-long straight that had been converted into a car park for the day, around a steeply banked concrete turn that formed part of the detour into the site and out onto normal roads again. No more one-way mountainous climbs to fling cars around. Well, at least until next year.
If you want to learn more about the SMMT you can visit their website.
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