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Rupert SurenDO you want to know whether to buy a prop forward, a hooker or a fly-half ? No, not really, but cars are as different as players and there’s no point in having a fly-half to carry the kids, the dog and all the kit for a quick thousand kilometre drive down to the Cote d’Azure. No, you might need a prop if the kids are older and the dog is a beast, but if you want to hustle along a bit you should be looking for a  Lomu on the wing, perhaps something like an E-class AMG estate. If on the other hand it’s just you and the blonde and a black Lab for the weekend shoot, then it’s a Ferrari FF the fastest estate car in the world with a 6.3 litre V12 and 651 bhp. Oh, and you can hustle along at over 200 mph.

We’ll keep you informed about what’s hot and what’s not, what’s coming and what should be going for a song anytime soon.

Rugby Unplugged’s own ex-racer, Rupert Suren, will keep you informed with accurate and intuitive reviews on the first fifteen must haves to the quick up and coming under twenty ones, and of course there will be the occasional review of the Super Rugby exotica. We will also be running monthly competitions with great prizes.


Motoring Reviews

by Rupert Suren

FIAT 500 TWINAIR PLUS

Fiat 500 once upon a timeTHE last time I drove a FIAT 500 Topolino was, well, a long time ago as you will see from the picture of me in my mother’s 1950s front engined model. It was equipped with a 569cc four cyclinder side valve bursting with 13 bhp.

The stealth fighter coloured Electroclash Grey TwinAir crouching outside the house one early morning last week is something entirely different. This little grenade is equipped with the world’s cleanest internal combustion engine, a twin cylinder 875cc producing 85bhp and loads of torque from just 1900rpm. My car had standard 16” black alloy wheels and the optional red leather interior which contrasted beautifully against the sinister grey.

Fiat 500 TwinAir The StoopDo not bother asking for a music system upgrade because this engine provides all the sounds that you’ll want to hear. At idle it is difficult to know if the engine is on or not and you will find yourself checking the rev counter for signs of life. Blip the throttle, engage first, and that silence becomes a muted growl which grows in intensity and octaves as the little twin heads towards the rev limiter. First and second gear are short, with third and fourth giving the legs to the car and fifth there to settle things down at your chosen optimum speed.

The Fiat 500 TwinAir will reach 62mph in a highly respectable 11 seconds with a top speed of 108mph. On a run from Twickenham to Berkhamstead with Madame, weekend bag and with the rear seats folded flat for a 66kg French Mastiff, I had no problems staying with the Mars bar reps in lane three even if it did mean a drop down to fourth for the occasional hill.

Fiat 500 TwinAir Lion GateOn the dash there is an ‘eco’ button which changes the engine mapping, moving the torque curve down to help the engine run economically and more efficiently as well as shutting it down when stopped in traffic. Pootling around the suburbs in ‘eco’ mode, stereo on and enjoying the sunshine, I got just over 70mpg. However, it was not long before temptation got in the way of moderation, and the opportunity to spin up the turbo and blatt around the outside of a 911 on the slip road onto the M25 meant that all thoughts of eco driving went out of the window. This car is fun. It is cheeky and can be driven hard although the consumption figures will take a beating. Turn in fast and deep to a corner or roundabout and it is possible to just lift the inside rear wheel. Broad grin time, even for the old boy in the 911 who gave a cheery wave as he howled past!

I expected the ride in such a short wheelbase car to be choppy. Wrong again. The ride is a perfect compromise between comfort and firmness which was only disturbed by the oversized speed bumps put in by the muesli-crunching Liberal council. I even saw the supposedly intelligent Bamber Gascoigne bumbling along in a G-Wiz, a ten grand tupperware box, and felt like shouting, “You could have bought this for a grand more brillo head.”

Hopefully my editrix has allowed me my rant and I can continue...

Fiat 500 TwinAir The body hugging red leather seats are comfortable even on a long run, while the rear seats are adequate for children or two adults on a short trip. Fiat’s brilliant Blue&Me hands free system means you can make phone calls by voice command and listen to an MP3 player. There is provision for an optional TomTom which mounts on the upper dash and communicates with the car’s computer telling you where the nearest petrol station is when the fuel level warning light comes on. On this occasion, I was using the latest Jeremy Clarkson GoLive 800 series TomTom. Geeks will be glad to know that you can download information from the ecoDrive onto a USB stick and have your driving style analysed on line.

TwinAir prices start from £11,100 OTR. The car tested here with optional Electroclash Grey paint (£440) and red leather interior (£775) is £14,910

Price:
Fuel Urban:
Fuel Extra-Urban:
Fuel Combined:
CO2 Emissions:
0-62mph:
Max speed:

from £11,100 OTR
50.4mpg
68.9mpg
58.9mpg
95g/km NO ROAD TAX & NO congestion charge
11 seconds
108mph

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CATERHAM 7 ROADSPORT 175

Caterham 7 Roadsport 175I collected the Caterham 7 Roadsport 175 from their showrooms and service centre and in stark contrast to my first impression, I was pampered by reception and given an informative briefing on the do’s and don’ts of driving a Roadsport by the very knowledgeable and lovely Emma.

My first mission for the day was to drive up to visit TEAM LOTUS at their headquarters in Hingham, Norfolk.  Tony Fernandes owns the Formula 1 team as well as Air Asia, Caterham Cars, the Tune Group and has recently acquired a major shareholding in QPR.

The weather was blustery but in the hope that it wouldn’t rain I opted for a top down run, though quite frankly you shouldn’t use the hood for anything other than as an overnight cover. I couldn’t wait to get off the M25 and the M11 and head onto the A and B roads that would let this car’s brilliance shine through.

No radio of course, so I was unable to listen to Alan Partridge or pick up the adverts for the A11 road side café serving spinal cord in a bap. Who needs a radio when you can listen to that bellowing roar of the 175 bhp Duratec in second and third gears as you take the revs to the limiter. Hit the optional engine start button and click the stumpy gear lever into first. First is short geared, second is where the fun starts. The flickering red light in the rev counter tells you to jettison stage one and ignite the second booster rocket, and the power rush keeps on coming all the way through to fifth. With nearly 450bhp per ton nothing else on the road gets close. Ferraris, Lamborghinis and 911s look decidedly bloated and slow.

Caterham 7 Roadsport 175The broader SV chassis, which is still a snug fit, has the wider front suspension of the Superlight. With CAD facilities Caterham has been able to increase chassis stiffness by 12% to cope with the new more powerful engine options. The 2 litre Duratec in both the Roadsport 175 and the R300 is exactly the same. The main difference is that the Roadsport has a five speed box compared to the six speed of the track day car. There’s fist fulls of torque and with a feather light 550 kg to push along, the extra gear is not worth having as an option.

You need to concentrate as the chunky Avon tyres (CR500 195 x 45 R15) will tramline and try to follow white lines like a super model on coke. Give up trying to drive this car; you have to become a part of it. The steering is as sensitive as a single seater’s, its sudden darting path as it tracks every contour in the road means that you should flow with the chassis and not fight it or try hanging on grimly to the tiny Motolita wheel.

By the time I turned off the A11 onto the B roads leading to TEAM LOTUS I was part of the car’s DNA. I was straight lining fast series of S bends, overtaking two ‘county ladies with head scarves’ in a drophead Z3 with the staccato blast from the exhaust ricocheting off the high banks. I could still hear them braying in fright as I turned off for the final run into Hingham.

Sunday was a mixture of bright sunshine and thundery showers here in Twickenham. In the wet, treat with caution and unleash the power only when you are facing in a straight line unless of course you like scaring the pants of your passenger. Just allow a little extra space each side for the tail to wag. There’s no need to put the roof on as the rain will curve over the top of the screen and with a heater capable of melting your socks you’ll feel a warm glow as you blip the throttle to make that dash down the touchline.

A day after handing the Caterham back I still have a broad grin on my face. You will have so much fun embarrassing the poseurs, and everyone from mums and their kids to middle aged men who still have that glint in their eyes, love this car.

Caterham 7 Roadsport 175

Engine:
Power:
Torque:
Top Speed:
Wheels/Tyres:
Weight:
Basic Price:

2.0L Ford Duratec
175 bhp
139lbsft
0-60: 4.5 seconds
138mph
Avon CR500 195 x 45 R15 550kg
£23,650 (factory built) test car had around £9,000 of options

Caterham

 

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Motoring Reviews

by Mike Tremlett

AUDI S4 QUATTRO AVANT

Audi S4 Quattro AvantTHE biggest conundrum facing motor manufacturers in this green- obsessed, taxed-to-the-hilt era is the fact that just about every buyer wants to drive a cleaner, more economical car but, when it comes down to it, very few of us are prepared to sacrifice power, performance and golf club or office car park credibility in order to chalk up brownie, or should that be greenie, points.

Well, if you want to retain all of the above and keep your conscience clean by taking a step forward on the green front , try Audi’s third-generation S4 Quattro Avant for size.

More often than not, previous S4s were regarded as the car you bought if you couldn’t afford the brilliant, but now discontinued, RS4 or you couldn’t bet on keeping your licence intact because of the temptation of regularly exploiting Audi’s 414bhp V8 super saloon would be impossible to resist.
Well, now Audi buyers have no choice because the RS4 is gone but those nice people at Ingolstadt have responded by unveiling the best S4 to date.

The very first S4s came with a 265bhp, 2.7-litre, twin-turbocharged V6 petrol power unit before that made way for a naturally aspirated 4.0-litre V8 and both cars were quick, very quick indeed but they would both be left breathing in the, albeit much cleaner, exhaust emissions of  the latest S4.

Audi S4 Quattro AvantIt comes powered by the Audi’s new V6 3.0TFSI engine, which was developed for the bigger S6 and while outright power is down to 333bhp from the 344bhp kicked out by the superseded V8 , it’s half-a-second faster from standstill to 60mph – five seconds dead - and just half-a-second slower than the iconic RS4.

Indeed our test car, an S4 Quattro Avant equipped with Audi’s brilliant seven-speed twin-clutch, paddle-shifting S tronic automatic transmission, concedes just over half-a-second to BMW’s bonkers-quick M3 saloon in the 0-60mph dash and that’s a pretty impressive yardstick by any standard.

The silky smooth 3.0TFSI power unit sees Audi go down the supercharging route for the first time, mounting the new engine’s compact compressor between the two banks of cylinders to boost torque output to a prodigious 440Nm with all of it available from just 2,500rpm.

That gives the engine truly elastic power delivery all the way from standstill to its electronically-limited 155mph top speed with the test car’s S tronic transmission offering lightning fast up-shifts and a blip of the throttle on down-changes in the selectable Sport mode.

The big payback for the switch from V8 to V6 with supercharger comes at the pumps with fuel economy improved by a whopping 27 per cent. Our test car returned very close to 30mpg in a week of mixed use and Co2 emissions are down from 322g/km to 225g/km - a major boost for company car users/chargers eyeing up an S4.

On the road, the new generation A4 chassis with its repositioned front axle feels far more agile than even the old RS4 and the S4’s Quattro all-wheel-drive system with its 40/60 front-to-rear torque distribution and clever active sport differential, which can transfer torque between the front and rear axles and between the rear wheels to find grip makes for highly composed progress at warp factor ten speeds on A class roads.

The S4 comes equipped with Audi’s selectable driving dynamics package which allows the driver to fine-tune throttle response, steering assistance, damper settings and transmission shift points on S tronic-equipped variants, using centre console buttons.

To endow the S4 with impressive street presence and a lower roll centre, it rides 20mm lower than standard A4s on specially tailored ‘S’ sports suspension and 18-inch ‘S’ design alloy wheels with aluminium-look door mirrors, xenon plus headlights with LED daytime running lights, special ‘S’ front and rear styling treatments and black painted brake callipers sporting the S4 logo all hinting at the performance available.

Audi S4 Quattro AvantFor the first time in an Audi model at this level, the S4 gets distinctive LED rear lights and, inside, sports seats upholstered in leather and Alcantara bearing the ‘S’ logo, silver-faced dials and a multifunction S-branded sports steering wheel maintain the theme.

Our fully-specced test car also came equipped with options including a 505-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system, an Audi Music Interface with iPod connectivity, adaptive cruise control, side assist lane change assistant, a park-assist system and swivelling headlamps.

Driven properly, and it does take time to get used to its four-wheel drive characteristics, the S4 is one of the most effortlessly fast and safe performance cars – either saloon or estate - on offer from any manufacturer because, trust me, you will run out of nerve long before the S4 runs out of performance or grip.

And, you know, what? You won’t feel guilty when you’re enjoying yourself either.

CAR FACTS

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ASTON MARTIN V8 VANTAGE COUPE

Aston Martin V8 Vantage CoupeLORD help me, I’m in lurrrrve! I’ve just spent a long weekend behind the wheel of what is known as the ‘baby’ Aston Martin - the Vantage Coupe - Gaydon’s alternative to the seminal Porsche 911. And what an answer it is.

I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I just drove because from the moment I first turned the key and pressed the starter button, I wanted to savour every nuance, every response, and every precious moment.

Indeed, my nearest and dearest actually thought I’d moved out when I was, in fact, practically kneeling in the garage at night in supplication to the finest car I have ever had the pleasure of driving.

Powered by a 4.3-litre V8 engine designed and developed by Aston Martin, built in Cologne using a dry-sumped Jaguar  AJ-V8 cylinder block, the Vantage is Aston's lead-in car and it will set you back a modest £89,950 to have one in your drive.

That, it has to be said, is a lot of moolah but for any car but for a car with Vantage’s stupendous performance, rich heritage, drop-dead gorgeous looks and more in-your-face allure than Kate Blanchett sucking a Flake, it’s peanuts.

The aluminium alloy, quad-cam V8 engine develops 380 bhp at 7000 rpm and a peak torque of 302lb.ft at 5000 rpm, delivering 0-60mph time in under five seconds - faster than Jaguar’s supercharged XKR - and, where legal, 175mph flat out.

Aston Martin V8 Vantage CoupeThe motor’s raw figures suggest the Vantage has to be thrashed within an inch of its life to extract that performance but, far from it, it is wonderfully smooth and tractable - an absolute pussy cat in traffic.

Tucked right under the front bulkhead in the interest of perfect weight distribution, the V8 engine drives the rear wheels through a carbon-fibre prop shaft inside cast-aluminium torque tube, making the car’s structure wonderfully stiff.

At the back of the prop shaft  is a 6-speed Graziano manual gearbox mounted on an F1-style transaxle, giving the Vantage 49:51 weight distribution in percentage terms front to rear with the lucky driver sitting slap bang in the middle of it all.

The transaxle set-up means the Vantage’s gear-change needs a firm hand and the weighty clutch pedal can make for tiring progress through persistent in-town traffic, but then Astons were built for namby-pambies.

It encourages you to put some effort into your driving and if you do, the reward in terms of what it does for your senses, all of them, is utterly beyond price. No car, in my experience, has ever dished out such an immense emotional dividend. 

First, there’s the noise. it’s straight off the race track - induction roar, exhaust throb, bass growl and, as the revs mount, a turbine-like wail which, literally, stops traffic and turns heads almost as much as the car does when it‘s parked up and an absolutely irresistible magnet for attention.

Second, there’s the physical feedback. You are always fully aware of what the suspension is doing as out smoothes out the tarmac-covered nonsense below and the talkative steering never lets you forget exactly what is going on at the sharp end.

The svelte, hand-built Vantage body and its chassis is an amalgam of glue, rivets, resin, and magnesium. aluminium and steel in various extrusions, castings and pressings put together with infinitely loving care in a factory where your lunch could be eaten off the floor.

Aston Martin V8 Vantage CoupeThe interior is just as lovingly assembled by hand with every stitch in the leather upholstery millimetre perfect in its precision and regularity and every square inch of aluminium facing on the dash polished to within an inch of its life.

The dashboard combines the highly technical with classical simplicity.  Every button and switch feels connected to something with an engineered solidity to it and the main instruments - a pair of contra-rotating dials conveying revs and speed - are a joy to gaze upon.

Alongside the classical touches, there’s all the modern creature comforts like  automatic temperature control, electrically-adjusted seats, a trip computer, reversing sensors and an exhaustive list of options includes sat-nav, Sportshift paddle-operated automated transmission, heated seats, cruise control, voice-activated Bluetooth phone and even an Aston Martin umbrella in its own holder.

Aston Martin V8 Vantage CoupeTo protect you from yourself behind the wheel when the going gets slippery, there’s a state-of-the-art Conti Teaves stability and traction control system, which interacts with the ABS and ventilated discs and massive calipers to keep the Vantage on the straight and narrow in all but the clumsiest of hands.

On the test car, the massive grooved discs sat behind 19-inch alloy wheels clad only in very low-profile, but hugely sticky, Bridgestone Portenzas and passive safety is taken care of by dual-stage front airbags, side airbags, and side-impact bars.

Unlike Jaguar’s XKR Coupe, the Vantage makes no pretence to be anything other than a strictly two-seater, but as a bespoke grand tourer it has all the bases covered with a sizeable boot under its large tailgate, which could easily handle all the baggage necessary for a leisurely blast around the more beautiful and exclusive parts of Europe .

And the sum of all that for me is - if the Vantage doesn’t turn you on, you ain’t got no switches!

Aston Martin V8 Vantage Coupe

CAR FACTS

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ALFA ROMEO BRERA Q4

ALFA ROMEO BRERA Q4‘STYLE’ and ‘Italian’ in the rag trade are two words invariably linked in any sentence concerning matters sartorial. It is that way and it has always been that way – a situation the fashion world shares with the motoring world.

Ask any driver to name the most beautiful car he has ever seen and it’s a short-odds bet it’s an Italian car – a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, a Lancia, an Alfa or a Maserati of some vintage or other.

Now, I listed Ferrari at the head of the list and Alfa and Maserati together at the end quite deliberately, because all three are part of the Fiat empire.

Ferrari are at the very top of the pyramid with Alfa, intent on building on the comeback foundation laid by the 156 and 147 models, now more closely aligned with Maserati than other mainstream Fiat products.

And as new alliances go, the espousement of signor Maserati and signorita Alfa has a lot of mileage in it if the new Alfa 159 saloon and sport wagon and their coupe sister, the gorgeous Brera, are anything to go by.

Rarely has this scribe driven any car, however briefly, in Bath – a city where beautiful and expensive cars are a common sight – and seen a car make such an impact.

Wherever I parked the blood-red Brera, with its frowning face and beautifully rounded rump, aggressive wide-planted stance and overtly sporting leather and aluminium-splashed interior, it drew an approving crowd.

ALFA ROMEO BRERA Q4It shares its front-end architecture with the newly-launched and extremely handsome 159 model range but from the A pillar backwards it’s all bespoke design from the imagination of Italian design maestro Guigario and some seven inches shorter in the wheelbase than its saloon sibling.

And it’s not just drop-dead desirable, the Brera is hugely practical if you regard it as a strictly two-seater grand tourer because truth be told the rear seats, which can be folded flat, are little use unless you intend to tote around passengers more than unusually short-changed in the lower limb department.

I’d drop them permanently; use the car as two-seater and make maximum use of the luggage capacity under the tailgate for the luggage necessary for a summer holiday hurtle around Europe because that is what this car is made for, especially in the test car’s 3.2-litre V6 four-wheel drive Q4 guise.

Breras can be had powered by four engines – 1.9-litre four-cylinder and 2.4-litre five-cylinder diesels and 2.2-litre, four-cylinder and the mouthwatering 3.2-litre V6 petrol units.    

The V6, which shares its 3.2-litre capacity with the engine it replaces, is all new - a 24-valve, chain-driven four-camshaft all-alloy power plant which harnesses Alfa’s JTS direct fuel injection system and twin-phase variable valve control technology.

That all adds up to 260bhp with 90 per cent of its 295lb.ft of torque available from 2,000rpm. In plain English, it goes like a train, it pulls from any revs in any gear and rev it hard and it howls like a good Italian tenor.

As far as performance goes, that’s 149mph as the top whack and 0-62 in under seven seconds and all of that delivered through a slick six-speed manual gearbox and a state-of-the-art four-wheel drive system which endows the Brera Q4 which leech-like road holding.  

ALFA ROMEO BRERA Q4Behind the wheel, the steering is superbly responsive, very quick – 2.3 turns lock-to-lock - and beautifully weighted.  The ride for an overtly sporting car is well-damped without being harsh and it allows the Brera to take poor surfaces in its stride.

The Brera shares the 159’s double front wishbone front suspension and its multi-link rear set-up and the shorter wheelbase makes the Berra more ‘pointy’ than the bigger saloon.

Some 64 per cent of the Brera’s all-up weight is over the front wheels but the four-wheel drive system gives the Brera Q4 a rear-wheel drive bias, which, aided by state-of-the-art traction and stability gizmos, does away with any tendency toward understeer.

Make no mistake, the Brera Q4 is a seriously quick point-to-point machine, which looks the part in terms of prestige and style and, it’s a fair bet, they will be a bit of a rare bird, adding a whiff of exclusivity to the mix.

Spend your cash on a Brera Q4 and you will get a high-quality sports coupé with a decent boot, luxury saloon car levels of comfort and more than enough performance to keep a permanent smile on your face.

CAR FACTS

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NISSAN 370Z GT

Nissan 370Z GTNISSAN’S 350Z won legions of fans around the world with hugely competitive on-the-road pricing which gave access to a heady blend of muscular styling, effortless performance and exhilarating driveability.

The 350Z was one of those special cars that gave you all the feedback you needed through the most important source of sensory feedback in an enthusiastic driver’s body – the bit you sit on - and its successor, the 370Z, has raised that level of spine-tingling stimulation to another level. 

The Japanese manufacturer, which is currently caning the supercar brigade with the magnificent GT-R, has, predictably, given the old 350Z a complete ground-up work-over to deliver the 370Z with a bigger, more powerful engine, design and engineering upgrades, new technology and a major step up in terms of cabin quality.

The upshot of all those improvements is a tightly-packaged hard core coupe – yes, there is a roadster as well – which is slightly smaller all round than its predecessor, which looks better, goes harder and goads you just as hard to come out and play every time you get behind the wheel.

In direct comparison with the old car, the 370Z is 100mm shorter in the wheelbase and 70mm shorter overall bumper to bumper  but its lighter than the 350Z, the body structure is significantly stiffer and the rear track is 33mm wider, giving the new car an even more aggressive stance than its now superceded sister.

Parked alongside a 350Z, the two cars’ shared DNA is obvious with the new car featuring much tauter smoother lines, especially at the rear where the 350Z’s slightly notchback look has been ironed out.

New light clusters clean up the front, which boasts a new, aggressive grille and splitter, and the rear, where you’ll find a neat diffuser, twin pipes and a tidy boot spoiler, all of which combine to give the 370Z an almost 911-esque look.  

So it looks fresh and dynamic, especially in our tests car’s deep metallic blue paint with its arches packed full of very wide 19-inch Ray alloys.

Nissan 370Z GTAnd when you get behind the wheel and push the starter button, anybody new to Nissan’s Z cars will quickly cotton on to what makes them special – a highly charismatic power plant, a beautifully poised rear-wheel drive chassis, a functional cockpit that fits all sizes and a clear hint at the hooliganism which is standing by to be unleashed at a twitch of you right foot.

At the very heart of the 370Z’s appeal is a new 3.7-litre, V6 engine. Some 35% of the old 3.5 litre’s engine’s components have been changed with Nissan’s VVEL variable valve timing technology helping it produce 328PS at 7,000rpm and 363Nm, endowing the 370Z with superb mid-range acceleration in almost any gear from almost any speed.

Use the whole rev range and the predominantly bassy V6 burble gives way to a chainsaw howl close to the red line and, make no mistake, the engine, while happy to bimble along at tick-over in town traffic just loves to be revved and revved hard.

Nissan offers two methods of transmitting all that power to the rear wheels - the close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox fitted to our test car or a new seven-speed automatic box with steering wheel-mounted paddle-shifters.
The superb manual features Nissan’s newly-developed Synchro Rev Control function which apes racing drivers’ heel-and-toe technique on downshifts, blipping the throttle between ratios to match engine speed with road speed.

It works quickly and smoothly and it makes even the clumsiest driver sound as skilful as Jenson Button as he comes down the gears on a motorway slip road or on the brakes into a slow bend, if there is such a thing for a 370Z pedaller.

Nissan 370Z GTWhen it comes to making fast point-to-point progress on A-class roads, there are few better tools than Nissan’s latest offering. Its well-weighted steering is highly talkative, the brakes are powerful and progressive, turn in is instant and there’s grip by the shed-load and torque and traction a-plenty to spit you out of bends like a bullet out of the proverbial gun.    

Thanks to the car’s stiff structure, the suspension is remarkably compliant for a sports car with tight body control and next to no roll; pitch or dive but there is a trade-off for all that in terms of road rumble. It’s not a problem at A-class road speeds but it does get a bit noisy in the cabin on concrete covered or badly-surfaced motorways.      

Inside, Nissan have made more big strides forward by moving away from the stark, hard plastics which furnished the 350Z’s interior to stitched leather and soft-touch finishes, which make the cabin   of the 370Z a much classier place to be.

Although the car is physically smaller than the 350Z, there is more leg, elbow, shoulder and head room and four-way electrically adjustable seats and an instrument binnacle which moves with the steering wheel make it easy to get comfortable, even if, like me, you are a generously upholstered six-footer.

Still a strictly two-seater, the 370Z has a shelf and lockable storage bins behind the seats and the massive strut brace which bisected the 350Z’s boot has been moved in the 370Z to a position immediately behind the seats, making the sizeable boot much more easily accessible.

Running a powerful sports car is never a cheap exercise with all that power and performance coming at a price but the 370Z is nothing if not competitive in terms of purchase price or running costs when you take into account the fact that you could have a b rand spanking new example of our test car on your drive for less than £35,000 – half the price of, for example, a Porsche 911 Carrera 2.

Insurance pitches in a Group 20, which is far from ridiculous when you consider that puts the 370Z in the same class as the likes of Alfa’s 3.2 litre GT V, Porsche’s Cayman and BMW’s M3, all of which it matches in performance terms and undercuts significantly on purchase price.

You will, it has to be said, quickly get on first-name terms with your local filling station forecourt staff with 25mpg arguably the best you will see on a regular basis driven relatively gently and as little as 12mpg par for the course if, like me, you regularly take the lead right foot approach to fully explore the 370Z’s performance repertoire.

And trust me, you would because the 370Z is one of those cars that loves to be driven hard, one of those cars that gets better the harder you push it and one which gives a driver a real sense of occasion every time you reach for the key.

Cars like that, especially in this day and age, are all too few and all too rare.  

CAR FACTS

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AUDI A3 SPORTBACK 1.6TDI S-LINE

GETTING your hands on an economical car without compromising on good driving dynamics, decent equipment levels and a prestige badge, if that’s a consideration in the buying equation, hasn’t been the easiest task in recent years for drivers bent on salving their green conscience by going down the low-emission route.

Now they can, because Audi, for so long renowned for ultra-high performance cars like the V10-powered RS6, R8 and S8, which all pack stampeding horsepower by the stable-load, has developed a highly fuel efficient version of its premium A3 powered by a new, sweet-revving and highly refined 1.6-litre common-rail diesel power unit.

Capable of reigning in Co2 emissions to just 99g/km in the base three-door model and claimed to be capable of delivering over 70mpg on the combined cycle, the new engine matches the soon to be dropped 1.9-litre turbo-diesel unit’s performance figures and betters it on every other count.

In our test car, an A3 Sportback in S-Line trim, the 1.6-litre unit delivered 105PS, 250Nm of torque and 109g/km, putting it in Road Tax Band B, but its strongest suit by far was a hugely impressive average fuel consumption figure of some 55.6mpg over 1200 miles of mixed driving in our hands.

And it did so without compromising on willingness or refinement, proving to be a quiet motorway cruiser while the lighter weight of the power unit made sure the test car delivered agility and poise on A road runs more akin to that served up by petrol-powered cars. 

Out-and-out performance falls short of the levels attained by Audi’s superb, and much more powerful, 2.0-litre TDI unit but a maximum speed of 121mph, where legal, and 11.4 seconds for the 0-62mph sprint means the smaller-engined car is no slouch either.

Audi has pinned a raft of efficiency elements to the 1.6TDi A3, including a modified final drive ratio for the standard five-speed manual transmission, reduced ride height, under-body revisions to reduce aerodynamic drag and 15-inch alloy wheels shod with low rolling resistance tyres.

The 1.6TDI power unit also comes equipped with Audi’s start-stop system, which can be over-ridden at the touch of a button on the dash. Switched on, it turns the engine off at a standstill in neutral with the clutch released. You simply depress the clutch to engage first gear and the engine instantly restarts.

And that is backed up by Audi’s energy recuperation system which is always on. It captures kinetic energy normally wasted when the driver brakes and recycles it to recharge the battery.

All of which makes the new baby A3 quicker, cleaner, more economical and much more driveable than its 1.6-litre petrol-powered sister in two-door cabriolet, three-door hatch or five-door Sportback guise.

All A3 models have recently been given a mild external make-over which brings more muscular front wings and a tweaked grille and sharper headlight contours with the side indicator repeaters moved from the wings to the door mirrors.

Inside the cabin, materials, fit and finish have been significantly improved with S-Line trim bringing attractive aluminium design details to complement revised switchgear and a tweaked instrument panel, raising the ambience of the interior to the high standards set by Audi’s A4 and A5 models.

A wider range of upholstery choices and colours is available on the latest A3 and our test car, courtesy of its S-Line spec, came with heated black Vienna leather bucket seats, Audi’s superb Bose music interface audio system, satellite navigation, phone preparation and bigger alloys.

Matching Audi’s, or any other manufacturer’s, claimed fuel economy figures is well-nigh impossible in the real world but 55mpg from our test car was hugely impressive and it armed out test A3 Sportback with colossal range – well over 650 miles on a 12-gallon (55-litre) tankful of fuel and that’s no mean feat for a premium hatchback.

That makes the A3 in this guise one of the greenest cars of its kind, hugely attractive to company user-chooser keen to snare any tax benefits going and a superb proposition for private buyers, who will spend far less time at the pumps with a hose in their hands than they ever thought possible  

And the green technology makes no unusual demands on the driver because, provided you are prepared to use the 1.6-litre engine’s power band to the full – suspend the usual diesel driving technique of letting it slog along on a raft of torque and drive it like a petrol engine – most owners won’t be disappointed in the slightest by the fact that its performance doesn’t fall into the blistering category.

Our test car, priced at over £24,000 on the road, isn’t cheap but factor in the Audi quality and the fact that you’ll be smiling your way past filling station after filling station, making significant savings on fuel bills and road tax from day one and it’s a snip.  

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PORSCHE CAYMAN S

JUST what does a manufacturer renowned for building the best sports car in the world do when it identifies a sector of the market begging to be filled? Simple, it goes and builds arguably, the best car ever to roll out of one of its factories. Simple? Probably not or we'd all be driving perfect cars, but that's what Porsche have done with the fabulous new Cayman S.

On first sight, it's a Boxster with a roof pitched (sorry!) into the market for a very competitive £43,930 - small change for Porsche buyers inured to parting with well over £60,000 for the world-beating 911. But, take it from me, there's nothing even remotely budget about the Cayman S. This is the best out-and-out sports car this humble scribe has ever pedalled, bar none.

When it unveiled the Boxster, Porsche brought to the UK a roadster honed to perfection for British roads. In recent years, it has been viewed as a tad passé by Porsche aficionados - a bit hairdresser-ish. But that opinion is widely held by drivers who, in the main, have never pedalled a Boxster in anger.

So, the Cayman looks very familiar. But Porsche's latest offering is much, much more than simply a Boxster. It's the prettiest sports car Porsche has ever built and it brings 911 performance and cachet within the reach of a whole new tranche of potential buyers, who should be flocking to their local dealership in droves. It's that good.

Like the Boxster and unlike the seminal 911, the Cayman S totes its power plant ahead of the rear axle and right behind the driver's left ear. The immediate pay-off is absolutely perfect balance which makes even a Porsche novice feel he has the skill, touch and panache of the legendary Jacky Ickx - umpteen times a Le Mans winner for the Stuttgart marque.

The Cayman's ace card is its all-steel roof and tailgate. They may add weight, but they endow the Boxster-derived chassis with a great deal more torsional stiffness than its roadster sister. The payback is a better suspension set-up with stiffer springs, uprated dampers and thicker anti-roll bars, which provides pin-sharp handling, almost inexhaustable grip and the feeling that you're driving the car with all your senses being fed via the seat of your pants which, coincidentally, is just about exactly where the Cayman's centre of gravity is located.

The Porsche Stability Management (PSM) system comes as standard kit and the test car was also fitted with Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM). For an extra £1,030 you get push-button control of damper settings which go from stiff to stiffer. Realistically, there isn't much difference between the two settings on the road - the 'sport' setting makes the lumps and bumps a bit more intrusive.

Like all true drivers’ cars, the Cayman is a car you don't climb into as much as put on. Everything fits to absolute perfection whether you're 6ft 3ins tall and slightly (okay, I'm stretching a point, perhaps) overweight or 4ft 13ins and seven-and-a-half stones soaking wet. A quick tweak of the reach-and-rake steering wheel's lever and a fiddle with the electronically adjustable sports seat and mirrors and you'd swear the Cayman was built for you, and only you.

And like all Porsches, the steering effort, pedal weights and gear change shift are all superbly weighted. You sit properly, everything falls perfectly to hand and the car chatters away incessantly to you through every possible avenue of feedback. It makes driving the Cayman hard, and it positively begs to be driven hard all the time, a hugely enjoyable and rewarding experience every time you turn the key.

But this is no watered-down 911 because in real-world performance terms the Cayman S concedes very little to the wonderful 911 Carrera 4S, which I tested not too long ago. Zero to 62 mph comes up in 5.4 seconds and, where legal, the Cayman S will push well past the 170mph barrier.

The oomph comes courtesy of a 3.4-litre boxer six up on power and torque over the Boxster S, thanks to 200 extra cubic centimetres and the fitting of the VarioCam-Plus camshafts and valve gear from the 911.

That all adds up to a gutsy 295 bhp at 6,250 rpm and a flat torque curve between 4,400 and 6,000 rpm with 340 Nm on tap. Fuel consumption is also better than that of the Boxster S with Porsche quoting an eminently achievable, on the evidence of our week with the car, 26.6mpg.

Along with the Porsche Active Suspension Management system, the test car came with Porsche's Sports Chrono Package. It also modifies the settings on PSM and PASM systems and throws in a more aggressive response to throttle input. That's geared, really, for track-day drivers, who can make the most of its subtleties on billiard-smooth circuits and time themselves on the analogue chronometer mounted centrally on top of the fascia.

Luxuries are far from in short supply in the Cayman S cockpit either, by the way. Our brilliant white test car came with black leather upholstery, automatic climate control; a Porsche Communication Management system with integrated sat-nav, a six-disc CD auto changer and in-car phone preparation.

The test car added in 19-inch SportDesign wheels, coloured wheel centres and bi-Xenon headlights, all of which added up to a drop-dead gorgeous package which had every 911 driver I came across taking a long, lingering second look at the Cayman's clean lines and taut curves - arguably the best accolade which any new Porsche could be afforded by those probably best in the know.

Summing up then, the Cayman S is the best sports car out there. No argument and, like any Porsche, it needn't be a purely second car because it can handle everything you throw at it in day-to-day use....including luggage. Bags can be stowed front - a-la-911 and Boxster - and back - under the tailgate and behind and above the low-slung engine - 410 litres in all. Try finding that in a TVR.

And you know what, Porsche are so delighted with the Cayman S they've brought out a basic Cayman - no ‘S’ and cheaper but not a great deal slower. It has the original, free-revving 2.7-litre Boxster engine, a little less power and torque but it delivers the same glorious driving experience all wrapped up in that beautiful little body.

And that, I can tell you, is a sure-fire winner too.  

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LEXUS IS-F

HIGH performance saloons are big sellers, despite the current economic climate with BMW’s latest M3 and the Mercedes Benz C63 AMG, for example, finding homes quite readily and Lexus, builders of some of the finest saloons on the planet, have joined the manufacturers offering real performance in a four-door, high-spec package.

On paper, Lexus’ IS-F more than punches its weight in some very impressive company, boasting 417bhp from a 5.0-litre V8 which started life in the big LS400 saloon.

Re-engineered to incorporate titanium intake valves, lightweight hollow camshafts and improved lubrication systems, the IS-F’s power plant is no slouch, producing more power than the V8s in BMW‘s M3 and the Audi RS4, although it has to give best to the mighty Merc’s 6.3-litre engine in terms of sheer power output.

But the Japanese contender will hit 170mph, where legal, and storm from standstill to 60mph in 4.3 seconds, which puts it firmly in supercar territory and it has another ace up its sleeve in the shape of its gearbox - an eight-speed, paddle-shift automatic which offers quicker up-shifts in manual mode than  Ferrari’s F1 transmission as fitted the F430.

That means you can poodle around in full automatic mode in traffic and then unleash the beast under the bonnet when the open road beckons, aided by a suspension system which stiffened springs and a two-stage stability control system with a ‘Sport’ mode that allows you to get the tail out of line at times before it steps in and takes over.

Lexus have kept styling changes from the cooking IS model on the subtle side, although there is no mistaking the IS-F’s performance credentials flared wheel arches, four tail pipes, anthracite alloys and air vents in the trailing edge of the front wings adding muscle where its needed.

In the cabin, there’s a scattering of carbon fibre, the paddle shifters sit behind the wheel, drilled pedals fill the footwell and the instrument needles are finished in blue but, sadly, the front seats missed out in the makeover with pretty much standard pews in place rather than more sporty bolstered buckets.

Massive 360mm diameter front brake discs with six-pot calipers, 19-inch Michelin Pilot-shod alloys, eight airbags, twin-mode stability control, traction control, brake assist and brake force distribution all come as standard.

Build quality matches Lexus’ ultra-high standards with fit and finish up there with the very best and reliability problems need not concern potential buyers with the Lexus range always at or near the very top of every customer satisfaction survey on the planet.

At just over £51,000 on the road, the IS-F is anything but cheap. It’s more expensive than the BMW M3 coupe and comes within a few thousand pounds of the asking price for Nissan’s new GT-R, a car that has already been afforded iconic status before any of them officially arrive on UK roads.

The IS-F is Lexus’ first crack at the super saloon market and, overall, it’s a very good great effort which will appeal to buyers keen to avoid ‘going German’ but just as keen to drive a car sporting acknowledged up-market branding.

It offers a hugely attractive blend of everyday utility, huge performance and metronomic reliability and while it‘s not the most exciting offering out there, it will retain that vital air of exclusivity because it isn’t going to be as common a sight on UK roads as an M3.

And that alone will make it appeal to many potential buyers.

CAR FACTS

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MERCEDES BENZ E350CGI BLUE EFFICIENCY SPORT

MEET the latest Mercedes Benz E-Class – the latest incarnation of one of the best executive saloons in the world and the newest model to emerge from the Stuttgart home of the three-pointed star.

Stationed above the excellent C-Class and below the stunning S-Class in Mercedes’ model range, the E takes on BMW’s 5 Series, Audi’s A6, Jaguar’s XF, Volvo’s S80 and a host of other rivals in a hugely competitive sector of the market.

Benz afficionados won’t need to consult their car bible to know that our test E350’s moniker signals the presence of a 3.5-litre petrol V6 power-plant under the sharp end but if you’re thrown by the ‘CGI’ suffix, it stands for Stratified Charged Gasoline Injection technology.

It delivers fuel to the engine in quantities, at timings and at a pressure that makes the most of every last drop of go-juice to deliver the best compromise between performance and economy.

And, given that the E350’s V6 churns out 288bhp making it capable of hauling nearly two tonnes from 0-60mph in just 6.3 seconds an on to an electronically-limited 155mph top whack, its near-32mpg consumption figure in our hands over a week is proof positive that Mercedes’ trick technology works like a charm.

Its ace card is the sheer flexibility of what I believe to be one of the best middle-weight power units on the planet, developing its 365Nm torque output between 3,000 and 5,100rpm to make for truly effortless progress.

And where previous E-Class models have fallen short of the best in class in terms of driving dynamics, the new model has retained Mercedes’ trademark comfort levels and made major inroads into the clear handling and road-holding advantage previously enjoyed by BMW’s seminal 5 Series.

The steering is much more weighty and direct, boosting chuckability on twisting roads and Direct Control (DC) dampers, which deliver a gossamer smooth motorway ride,  stiffen automatically when their sensors detect a driver with fun on his mind.

And the Sport setting on the test car’s seven-speed automatic gearbox, which can also be operated manually by wheel-mounted paddles, hold the gears longer and dip into the higher end of the rev range, where the exhaust note takes on a distinctly sporting edge.

On the exterior styling front, the new E-Class borrows many of its design cues from the C-Class and differences from the model it replaces are evolutionary rather than revolutionary and inside the cabin, where there’s space in abundance, the materials, switchgear and fit and finish have that luxury S-Class feel, which is no bad thing.

On the technology front, the E-Class bristles with innovation which includes, Adaptive High Beam Assist, which uses a camera to dip the headlamps at night; Lane Keeping Assist, which vibrates the steering wheel when it senses that the car is drifting out of its lane; Blind Spot Assist to warn you when there’s a car in your blind spot and Attention Assist, which measures 70 parameters to detect if you’re falling asleep at the wheel.

Nine airbags are fitted as standard along with an active bonnet which raises up in the event of a collision to help protect pedestrians.

Our test car, which came in Sport trim with leather trim, bi-xenon lights, electrically folding mirrors, LED running lights, suspension lowered by 15mm, an AMG styling makeover, 18" alloys and an upgraded braking system.

And it carried the BlueEfficiency designation, bringing with it a wide range of detail modifications that combine to give a 3mpg economy saving through weight-saving measures, aerodynamic tweaks and low rolling resistance tyres, which added up to 32mpg fuel consumption in our hands over a week.

And that, coupled with a sub-200g/km Co2 emissions figure, means petrol-powered E350CGI owners will not have to dig significantly deeper to pay their running costs than those who opt for the oil-burning C350CDI.    

The latest E-Class, whatever is fitted under the bonnet, is a truly smooth operator in the traditional Mercedes Benz mould with an added, and generous, dose of pizzazz thanks to its blend of silky smooth road manners, commanding street presence and a new penchant for cutting a dash when you ask it to press on.

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AUDI TT RS

Rally fans throughout the 1980s, I was one of them at the time, spent hours standing by special stages the world over just waiting to catch a glimpse of Audi’s all-conquering Audi Quattros and they, like me, were turned on as much by the evocative five-cylinder engine’s warbling exhaust note as they were by the drivers’ exploits.

Now, in a bid to turn the company’s design icon TT into a fire-breathing tarmac-ripper fit to compete with the likes of Porsche’s Cayman, BMW’s Z4, the new Nissan 370Z, Audi have gone back down the five-cylinder route in search of power, performance and charisma.

And Ingolstadt has delivered all three in spades with the introduction of a new, bespoke and beautifully compact 2.5-litre, five-cylinder power plant which has been slipped into the TT to create the RS - a designation which Audi has never appended to any of its products lightly.

Although the TT, since its first introduction, has always been a quick and well-appointed car boasting four-wheel drive and turbo-charging at the top end of the range, it always struggled to tempt seriously enthusiastic drivers into its cockpit.

A very compact and light unit - it weighs just 183Kg without its ancillaries, contributing to an all-up weight of  1,450Kg for the Coupe - the new engine churns out 335bhp and 450Nm of torque from as low down the rev range as 1,600rpm, producing a governed top speed of 155mph, 0-62mph in just 4.6 seconds and shattering mid-range acceleration.

That makes the RS Coupe the heaviest TT, but you’d never know it from behind the wheel, where you have access to a specially developed six-speed manual gearbox, that iconic Quattro four-wheel drive system, heavily up-rated 370mm, four-pot caliper brakes, Audi’s superb magnetic ride system and a Sport button which sharpens the throttle response and opens a flap in the exhaust system to allow the engine to breathe more freely.

You’ll recognise a TT RS if you spot one of the 200 cars destined for the UK this year, not only courtesy of its evocative exhaust note but also thanks to its big front air-intakes, bulging wheel-arches and dramatic rear spoiler, all of which combine to give the RS a real aura of purpose and no little menace.

In the cabin, Audi have underlined their mastery of cockpit design with a trademark and superbly focused dash layout, featuring their excellent and intuitive Drivers Information System, alloy pedals, a flat-bottomed steering wheel and RS-branded leather sports seats, making the driver’s seat a very special place to be.

Both Coupe and Roadster versions are equipped with an advanced ESP stability control system with switch-able Sport mode, which subtly applies braking to individual wheels and reduces engine power when it detects a slide or wheel slippage.

It can be turned off if drivers trust their talent to harness the RS’s prodigious performance unaided in marginal conditions. I chose to err on the side of caution, but I still found the RS to be by far the most focussed TT I have ever driven.

Very, very quick, the RS delivers almost elastic performance with power and torque on tap anywhere in the rev range, it turns in with limitless enthusiasm, puts all of its power down on demand, scrubs off speed rapidly thanks to those massive brakes and, thanks to almost limitless mechanical grip, it simply rockets out of bends.

To get your hands on either RS before the end of this year or in 2010, when Audi will bring just 400, and just 80 of them Roadsters, into the country, you’ll have to move quickly and be prepared to part with £43,000 for the Coupe and a couple of grand more for one with no roof.

Audi claim the TT RS Coupe is the lightest car in its class, when compared with the BMW Z4 35i, the Mercedes SLK 55 AMG and the Cayman 3.4S and beats all three on outright performance, fuel efficiency, emissions levels and expected residual value after three years.

Audi’s RS branding, as applied to the iconic RS4 and sledgehammer RS6 in recent years, has become the watchword for massive performance and superb engineering wrapped up in packages which have attracted instant and devoted followings amongst, arguably, the hardest group of buyers on the planet to satisfy.

With the TT RS, Audi have added another instant legend to the RS bloodline with a car which cannot be taken anything other than totally seriously as a stunning tour-de-force in terms of performance and driving dynamics.

High-performance cars just don’t come any better than this.

CAR FACTS

 

TOYOTA iQ 1.0

TOYOTA'S miniscule iQ is very aptly named because the innovative Japanese manufacturer has come up with a clever, upmarket city car, which breaks the mould in a number of ways.

In fact, if it had been designed to wear a Lexus badge few potential buyers who have visited Toyota showrooms, tried and bought the iQ since it s launch would be surprised in the slightest.

Less than three metres long but packed with ingenious design features, the  three-seater iQ matches the smallest cars on the planet for size, but it delivers the performance of a supermini and the cabin space, design and build quality of a  much bigger family hatchback.

Toyota’s posh Lexus division has thrived by serving up cars with a ultra hi-tech equipment levels, bomb-proof mechanicals, performance and refinement to develop a range of cars ranked alongside the best in the luxury market.

The iQ dishes up Lexus quality for urban dwellers, who want the convenience and low running costs of a small car without sacrificing kerb appeal and creature comforts.

And, make no mistake, the iQ hits the mark on all counts. There isn't a better city car when it comes to tackling motorway miles, which they all have to do at some time if they are their owner's sole mode of transport.

At higher speeds on windy motorways, the iQ doesn't get pushed from lane to lane. It feels thoroughly planted on the road and there's none of the wind noise, tyre roar and general din which tends to accompany legal limit cruising in most superminis.

The ride is generally excellent, although if you hit a notorious Bath pothole, you'll know all about it, but at higher speeds, the iQ feels much larger than it is and its three-cylinder engine, which has a fascinating exhaust note, never sounds overly loud or overworked.

Around town, electric steering assistance makes tight manoeuvres simplicity itself and the tiny square-cut dimensions, minimal front and rear overhangs and London cab-like 3.9m turning circle mean it’s easy to edge the iQ into even the tiniest parking places.

City people comparing this three or four-seater with the cruder, cheaper but comparably-sized two-seater smart for two will doubtless want to consider the 6-speed CVT automatic version, but my advice is to stick with the standard five-speed manual gearbox.

Open the doors and you’ll marvel at how Toyota has fitted in room for three adults and a child into a package hardly any bigger than the smart.

The big 15-inch alloy wheels really are at each corner of the car, so the space in between is virtually all dedicated to people, thanks to the front wheels and their drive shafts being repositioned in front of the engine and gearbox rather than in their usual place behind.

The iQ’s looks classy too with its wrap-around rear glass, smoked headlamp units and door mirror-mounted indicators and when you step inside it gets even better.

The asymmetric dashboard was designed to open up the whole cabin area, scooped out ahead of the front seat passenger so much that legroom is acceptable even when the seat is pushed right forward to allow for a large six-foot adult to sit comfortably behind.

It’s a different story behind the driver but a child would probably be comfortable there for short distances and there is the alternative of folding down half of the back seat – or all of it – to increase luggage space from a barely adequate 32-litres to a small Tesco shop-sized 242-litres.

In fact, the iQ cabin feels much larger than Toyota’s more conventional Aygo city car and shoulder-to-shoulder distance between driver and passenger is 50mm wider than in the company’s supposedly larger Yaris supermini.

A flat, thin under-floor fuel tank, a 20% smaller heater unit and repositioned steering gear all make this possible. One day, all small cars will be designed this way.

All iQs come with at least nine airbags (including the world’s first rear window curtain shield airbag), alloy wheels, colour-keyed paintwork for the bumpers and heated and electrically adjustable door mirrors, aircon, a six-speaker sound system with MP3 connection, electric windows, remote central locking, dark tinted privacy glass in the rear window and leather trim for the steering wheel and gear knob.

Weighing in at just 88kg, the iQ 1.0-litre produces just 99g/km in Co2 emissions, making it exempt from road tax and congestion charges and Group 2 insurance and 65mpg economy in our hands all adds up to extremely low running costs.

That makes the iQ a novel alternative to a conventional supermini as it will hold its value better, be cheaper to run and attract envious stares along the way, especially when you can get away with parking it nose to the kerb in half of a standard parking bay.

CAR FACTS

 

BENTLEY CONTINENTAL GT SPEED

BENTLEY1What do you get if you have the engineering and technical know-how to build a car which can blend genuine supercar performancewith the last word in bespoke, hand-built limousine-like coupe luxury for four?

The answer, and there‘s only answer to that question, is the Bentley Continental GT Speed.

Of course, you could spend well over £100,000 on Mercedes Benz’s mighty new SL63 AMG, a stunning sledgehammer of a Teuton armed with more gadgets than you can shake a stick at which is, itself, capable of telephone-number performance figures.

But where the Benz, albeit a great car in its own right, misses the mark when you compare it with Crewe’s finest is the sheer British-ness which oozes from the Bentley’s every sinuous curve and gloriously hand-fashioned detail.

Okay, everybody knows Bentley are now owned by the Germans  - the VW Audi Group - but don’t ever let anybody in Crewe hear you saying that Bentley are anything other than British to the very core.

The Continental GT Speed is the very epitome of power and poise, a car which moves Bentley’s performance game on from the already lofty standards set by the ’standard’ Continental GT, which is a very quick car in its own right.

For £20,000, a mere bagatelle if you already have a six-figure budget, Bentley will build you a Speed for around £137,500, depending on how many option boxes you tick when you place your order, and what you’ll get is a more driver focused car for your money.

Bentley’s chief engineer, Ulrich Eichhorn, learned his trade in the heady world of race engineering and the result of his work on the Speed has honed a new edge on Continental’s dynamics with no detrimental effect at all on the car’s legendary ride quality.

Yes, the springs are stiffer but the front anti-roll bar is a whisker thinner and you can also specify optional £9,000 carbon-ceramic brakes if you wanted to do anything as crass as take your Bentley on a track day outing.

Alternatively, you could add them simply because they can, say Bentley and I believe them, haul the near three-tonne Speed - the most powerful road car the company has ever built - to a halt time after time in totally fade-free style from a top speed of over 200mph.

The massive discs sit inside 9.5-inch wide, 20-inch diameter wheels unique to the Speed, which also sports a wider, lower air intake and a more upright radiator grille to increase airflow to the engine.

A dark-tinted front grille and larger sports tailpipes reinforce the Speed’s sporting character, although there is nothing pretend about its 600bhp W12 engine, which, with the help of low-friction materials and a new engine management system, develops 15 percent more torque and nine percent more power than the standard 552bhp  GT power plant.

That all helps the Speed to deliver a 202mph top speed, where legal, dispatch the 0-60mph sprint in a whisker over four seconds and hit 100mph from a standstill in 10.3 seconds.

The original all-wheel drive Continental GT changed the face of the luxury coupe market when it was launched and demand for ever more sporting versions led to the development and introduction of the 2005 GT Mulliner Driving Specification and the strictly limited edition 2006 GT Diamond Series to celebrate Bentley’s 60 years at Crewe.

bentley2The GT Speed brings together all that is best about all of those previous models - the Mulliner Driving Specification’s up-rated cabin with its choice of hand-made wood veneers, diamond-quilted hide seats with embroidered Bentley emblems, hide headlining, a sports alloy gearlever, three-spoke multi-function sports steering wheel, drilled alloy foot-pedals and ‘Speed’ logos to the door kick-plates.

And the Sped, like the Continental GT, is a proper four-seater with an interior which is a superbly judged blend of the traditional and the ultra high-tech, where chromed ventilation outlets sit side-by side with a touch-screen LCD display which controls the air conditioning, satellite navigation, computer information and entertainment systems with many of those controls duplicated on the steering wheel‘s spokes.

The Speed’s immense power gets to the road via a six-speed automatic transmission built by ZF for Bentley, which can be controlled by column-mounted paddles, providing a rear-biased four-wheel drive set-up which endows the Bentley with surreal grip and amazing agility, Aerodyamically, the Speed boasts rear venturi and an automatically lifted lip spoiler below the rear screen to increase down force when needed - a major consideration for a car with this Bentley’s effortlessly stupendous performance.

To get anywhere close to matching all of this magnificent car’s major talents, you’d really have to buy two cars - a Ferrari F430 for the shattering performance and, maybe, an S-Class Benz for the accommodation....and you’d have to part with getting for £350,000 for the pair.

Why bother, when the Bentley Continental GT Speed has all the bases more than covered?

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MINI COOPER S

miniThe new MINI has been on sale in the UK since last November but, while the original car which sparked one of motoring’s most outstanding modern cults is a common sight on our roads, spotting the latest model is a job for the genuine petrol-head.

The new car sports an all-new body shell and the difference from the old car is very much in the detail -  it has a higher shoulder line and it is a couple of inches longer, both developments to create more interior space.

While the original MINI, which evoked Sir Alex Issigonis’ legacy so perfectly it practically turned the clock back to the heady days of the 1960s overnight, it was never a comfortable place for four full-sized adults to spend very much time.

Now, it is possible provided the four adults in question are good friends and the journey is a short one, although the driver would still have to come and go a bit on his legroom to accommodate a six-footer behind him or her.

mini2But that job is made easier by the new car’s more spacious front foot-wells and a steering wheel now adjustable for height and reach, although getting in the back past the tilt-and-slide front seats is a task only for the agile.

And the fact that MINIs tend to be used more as two-seaters makes it of little moment that the front seats don’t automatically re-adopt their pre-set positions after they are moved to allow passengers into the back.

Where the new MINI does score heavily is its promise of superb durability. Much work has evidently gone into doing away with the feeling of flimsiness which it exuded from some of its switchgear, fittings and finishes.

The seats, for example, have a robust feel and they are much more supportive than the previous car’s chairs. The boot, given the MINI’s shape is still very limited in size and much of the new car's extra length has gone into injecting more space between the new bonnet and engine to make for cheaper repairs and improved pedestrian protection.

The original mould-breaking interior has become more even more stylish with the cabin and fascia dominated by a dinner-plate sized, central speedometer which cleverly incorporates the audio controls and the optional sat-nav system inside its outer ring.

Most of the minor switchgear remains of the toggle-type and a cute touch allows the owner to change the colour of the cabin lighting from blue (his, presumably) and orange (hers?), but the ventilation controls are a bit fiddly for big fingers.

The biggest change to the new Cooper S, though, comes under the bonnet, where supercharging has given way to turbo-charging of a new 1598cc, four-cylinder, 16-valve power plant developed in conjunction with PSA, meaning it will do service in various BMWs, Peugeots and Citroens.

It delivers more power and torque much more smoothly than the old supercharged unit, although it lacks its more mechanically urgent sound track. Performance, predictably, is better and with significantly more torque available, it responds much faster to throttle inputs.

But the biggest payback comes in improvements to economy and emissions - the new Cooper S can eke out 31.7 mpg on the urban cycle against the old car‘s 20.4mpg and its CO2 output is noticeably down from 202g/km to 164g/km.

Behaviour on the road was one of the previous model’s biggest selling points and the new model adds a bigger measure refinement and sophistication. Its ride, while hard, is way better, especially on 16-inch wheels with 195/55 rubber but slap on the Sports suspension kit, 17in wheels and lower-profile tyres and you will feel every ripple in the road.

On the handling front, the previous car’s twitchiness has gone  but it can still be pitched into corners with real gusto firm in the knowledge that there is plenty of grip and a state-of-the-art  stability program working, albeit subtly, in the background to help the driver out if he becomes over-ambitious.

The new car’s steering accurate, well-weighted and very direct but while it is a bit short on feedback, it does make the new car feels every bit as nimble as its predecessor.

All in all, the new MINI is better in every department than the car it replaced and, not surprisingly that’s reflected in the asking price - £475 more for the Cooper S and £600 for the Cooper and the One, respectively although the hikes are vindicated by the fact that precious few cars in the MINI’s price range can match its character or its appeal to an unusually wide range of buyers.

The now superseded model was a massive sales success which developed a cult following from virtually the minute it appeared in showrooms and the new MINI is destined to be just as iconic.

CAR FACTS

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MERCEDES BENZ C220 CDI ESTATE

benz1Load space is firmly back on the agenda in the compact executive estate, where style has for so long been deemed more important than substance with Audi’s A4 Avant, the BMW 3 Series Touring, the Volvo V50 and various other offerings lacking in the one department that has always made medium estate cars great family buys.

Too often, rakish looks and that sport wagon or sport tourer label masked serious deficiencies when it came to lugging around a family’s bits and pieces, but Mercedes Benz, bless ‘em, has pushed things back on track with the latest C-Class Estate.

It’s a hugely stylish, yet practical estate which boasts a 1,500-litre luggage capacity, seats down, and a host of features included to make it just about perfect for the demands of family life and it‘s still fun for whoever gets behind the wheel.

Our test car - a 220CDI Sport - came fitted with Mercedes’ 2.2-litre, 170bhp turbo-diesel, which packs 400Nm of useful middle-range punch ans channels it all to the back wheels through six-speed manual transmission, although you can specify the superb 7G-TRONIC automatic system.

The Estate comes with self-levelling rear suspension but all C-Class models are fitted with Mercedes’ Agility Control package, which uses adaptive shock absorbers to adjust the suspension set-up according to the driver’s style to maximise either comfort or dynamic response.

Our Sport-specced test car went a step further with its dynamic handling package. That allowed the suspension to be set in Comfort or Sport mode, locking in their preferred characteristics, lowering the car by 15mm and used thicker torsion bars for improved rigidity.

benz2From the outside, the new C-Class Estate hints at its generous carrying capacity with its steeply angled rear screen and the tape measure shows the boot‘s capacity, seats up, is 146 litres bigger than the superceded model’s at 485 litres.

Two hooks are incorporated to keep shopping bags in check and four load anchoring points feature as standard. There are also net-covered compartments in the side walls and a collapsible shopping.

The real boon, though, is the Easy-Pack tailgate that opens and closes automatically at the touch of a button, great for impressing fellow shoppers in the supermarket car park.

The latest C-Class’s ace card, however, is its classy design and superb interior fit and finish - proof that Mercedes Benz have at least returned to giving buyers the bomb-proof build quality which was the company’s forte over a decade ago.

All C -Class Estates get a range of advanced safety systems, including seven airbags, anti-whiplash head restraints and the Pre-Safe technology that detects an impending crash, shutting the windows and tightening the seatbelts.

Fuel economy is one area where our test car excelled, returning 45mpg giving it a 700-mile plus range with its 73-litre tank and its 160g/km Co2 figure is remarkably low for a car with such brisk performance.

So, is it worth Mercedes Benz’s asking price. Yes indeed.

CAR FACTS

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AUDI R8 52FSi

AUDI2JOURNALISTS lucky enough to drive the now iconic R8 in V8 form at its European launch in the south of France some 18 months ago, and I was one of the fortunate ones, now know why Audi’s superb UK-based PR team were adamant we were not to refer to it as a ‘supercar‘.

It was, they insisted at the time, a sports car and any questions about whether there would be a ’super’ version of the R8 were met with knowing smiles and guarded silence.

Last week, the wraps were finally taken off the UK-spec R8 5.2FSI in Spain and after driving the 5.2-litre V10-powered R8 in the mountains west of Grenada for two days, this writer can fully understand why Audi saved the ‘supercar’ tag for the new arrival.

The original 186mph R8 won massive plaudits straight out of the box with its high-revving 414bhp 4.2-litre V8, quattro four-wheel drive system, brilliant driving dynamics, luxurious cabin and everyday usability which has seen it usurp the Porsche 911’s crown as the world’s best driver’s car. The V10-powered R8 has moved Audi’s game on again, dispatching the 0-62mph sprint in a stupefying 3.9 seconds and then romping on to 197mph, where legal - performance accompanied by the most glorious mechanical sound track this writer has ever wrapped his ears around.

The R8’s reputation for being an everyday car has remained intact because even though it boasts extreme levels of performance, it is an absolute pussycat in heavy traffic - as an hour in Grenada's rush hour proved - and the V10 version has retained the V8’s ability to flatter whoever sits behind the wheel to an almost ridiculous degree.

Audi has already used the V10 power plant twice - in its S8 saloon and the bonkers-fast RS6 Avant, where it is fitted with a pair of turbo-chargers to power the world’s fastest and most powerful estate car.

In the R8, the V10 has been installed with one target in mind - mind-blowing performance - and with 518bhp on tap at 8,000rpm and a massive 530Nm or torque available at 6,500rpm, the 1,620kg aluminium projectile, which weighs in just 31kg heavier than its V8 sister, is an extremely rapid one by any measure.

Audi offers the V10 with a choice of gearboxes - a six-speed manual or the sensational double-clutch, seven-speed, paddle-shifting R Tronic, which is marginally the faster of the two cars, reaching 124mph from a standing start in a mere 12 seconds. AUDI3Fitting the longer and heavier V10 engine which, like the V8 is mounted dead centre in the middle of the car’s footprint has helped the ‘super’ R8 match the V8-powered model’s 44/56 front/rear weight balance with its dry sump system allowing the engine to be mounted very low in the chassis and the car‘s quattro all-wheel drive system. Coupled with Audi‘s magnetic ride set-up copes effortlessly with the extra power.

Huge ventilated and perforated disc brakes all round make light work of hauling down the R8’s speed and Audi offers a ceramic brake system which further improves the car’s stopping power.

From outside, The R8 V10 differs very subtly from the V8 model, boasting a different front grill and air-intakes, 10-spoke alloy wheels, bigger side sills, wider side vents, oval tail pipes, a special rear diffuser and the nose is equipped with a world’s first - all-LED headlamps.AUDI1

In the cabin, superb leather seats, chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel and tasteful LED illumination will all be familiar to regular Audi buyers and R8 V8 owners, who will have to pay a hefty £100,000 to transfer their feet to a V10 model’s pedals before they tick any of the option boxes.

Standard kit alone covers a DVD satellite navigation system, electric seating adjustment and an excellent Bang & Olufsen stereo, making the V10-powered R8 V10 an attractive buying proposition if it’s measured against supercar competition boasting comparable performance with next to nothing on offer from Ferrari or Lamborghini for £100,000.

Audi created an instant legend with original V8-powered R8 and the Ingolstadtd-based manufacturer, which is still working overtime to meet the worldwide demand for that, has just delivered a pulverising blow to Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini with its latest offering.

I’ve started saving……

CAR FACTS

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