SMMT Test Day 2013: Part I

I was pleasantly surprised to be invited to the 2013 Test Day of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), given our relatively minor presence among the British press. It is a great step for Autosavant, a golden opportunity to network with motor manufacturers as well as to drive the latest cars in the market.

Like what it says on the tin, the day is appreciably straightforward, with a quick presentation and safety briefing before we were given the entire day for test drives. Altogether, 33 manufacturers or traders were present, and each brought 4-5 cars for test drives. It was like speed dating (not that I ever tried it), except with cars. Although we could take out the cars as long as we like, courtesy weighs in to pass on to the next waiting driver at an appropriate time. On average, I took about 20-30mins per test drive. Out of a gargantuan list of more than 100 cars to sample, I diligently earmarked about 40 cars I would like a go in.

However, I soon realised that whatever time I had was severely limited, and with some realistic adjustments narrowed the list down to 20. It then got narrowed further – youth worked against me today as it robbed me of the opportunity to sample some of the finest cars on the planet because of insurance restrictions for younger drivers. As a result I had to forgo thoughts of driving cars like the McLaren 12C Spider, Bentley Mulsanne and BMW M135i. Although a disappointing (but not entirely unexpected) outcome, I made the best of my situation and grabbed the keys of the cars that I could drive and would have a measure of interest for Autosavant readers. Also, wherever possible I sat in with other journalists in cars I could not drive.

It was a glorious day for driving, with deep blue skies and a blazing sun that kept tyres glued to the road. It was an important factor that made Millbrook Proving Ground – our venue and perhaps our playground – such great fun. Grip was paramount in the challenging Hill section, which was stuff straight out of legend. I must have watched dozens upon dozens of car videos where skilled drivers tackled the undulating, fearsome circuit. It was slightly intimidating, but at the same time an awe-inspiring challenge that I was glad to accept. It was my turn to finally be in their shoes and I wouldn’t have thought I would ever see the day.

The Hill was not the only available driving venue; we were also allowed to go on the ‘Bowl’, which is a high-speed banked course where we could test the cars up to 100mph; there was also a City course, an off-road course and public road driving. I focused my road tests on the Hill course, which was a convincing discriminator of a car’s talents – and faults. Although it mimics a 2-lane B-road, traffic only goes one way – so you can take the best lines without worrying about oncoming traffic. With the course carefully designed to test a car’s handling capabilities, there was no place better to test a vehicle’s limits. And thus, in no particular order, here are the reviews of the cars I test drove. Five will be reviewed in Part I, and another five in Part II.

2013 Giulietta 1.4 MultiAir 170bhp TCT Veloce 

Since its launch the Giulietta has always captivated me with its looks. Sure, it did not have a massively handsome front end but the side profile and rear was near perfection to me for a hatchback. The interior seemed to be a huge step up for Alfa Romeo too, although after feeling it first-hand today it seems more flashy than high-quality. There were a lot of shiny materials in the car which, from afar, made it look expensive; however, memories of a MiTo or even a Fiat came rushing back with the first turn of the ignition key. The wobble of the key and the primitive graphics of the instrument display confirmed my thoughts: this is definitely no Volkswagen Golf.

At least Alfa’s Selespeed is long gone and now replaced with its twin-clutch solution, the TCT. With the standard template of a turbocharged engine and dual-clutch gearbox of modern hatches, the Giulietta is thrusted into direct competition with other hatches possessing the same credentials. And at least on one front, it succeeds – the MultiAir engine has received much praise and rightfully so. With 170bhp and 230Nm on paper, the motor feels like it has got a lot more than that, punching out of corners with conviction. That said, power does taper off very quickly towards the top end, which means you are likely to make best progress riding on the wave of torque in the mid-range. Overall, it is a very impressive engine that sadly is let down by TCT.

TCT feels awkward when the car first moves off, sending a slight judder throughout the car that is a definite hit to refinement levels. Although this is a characteristic of dual-clutch gearboxes, it feels more pronounced here than its competitors’ units which have been improved significantly. Perhaps its best trait could be sprints where you apply heavy throttle, but not completely. At this point, the gearbox upshifts quite accurately and makes use of the engine well. However, ask more of the gearbox and it just doesn’t deliver. If you manually control the shifts, downshifts are awfully slow (you could literally count seconds before it responds) and abrupt. Manually-initiated upshifts also seem abrupt and uncouth. Overall, it is a big improvement from Selespeed, but still a long way off from the finest dual-clutch gearboxes in the market today.

On the Hill circuit, the Giulietta did not particularly inspire much confidence; its suspension felt too soft and although overall handling does feel capable, it just does not ignite any excitement in the driver nor stoke desires of driving well. It felt quite average in the company of some seriously fun front-wheel drive vehicles I got to try after it.

 So did the car meet expectations? In a nutshell, I was not expecting too much from it – so it did. Its MultiAir engine delighted me, its looks could allow me to forgive some faults, but I cannot see myself owning this car any time soon. Perhaps another go in a manual-equipped car might change my mind.

2013 320d Gran Turismo 

I will be completely honest here: I have never quite accepted the BMW 5-Series GT as a proper BMW, and I never accepted the 320d GT as a BMW. Those cars look so radically different from the essential BMW look that they kept me bewildered, angry and then eventually ignorant. They look awkward and although they do fill a niche that could make a nice profit for the company, I felt they showed that BMW had gone too far.

Even though my views on the looks stand, I have to admit here that the 320d GT I drove was excellent. Blessed with a frugal and muscular 2.0-litre diesel, it feels strong, refined and even slightly sporty. Sound insulation is so good that you tend to forget that its a diesel, and its power delivery so linear that you don’t quite miss a petrol that badly. A lot of that talent is found of course by its stupendously good 8-speed gearbox, which has received praise no matter which car it is fitted into. It is snappy, upshifts and downshifts are ask-and-deliver efficient and in Sport Plus the 320d GT does punch above its weight considerably. Although lugging more weight around than the regular saloon, the 320d GT feels adequately powered and its rear wheel drive balance is clearly demonstrated in the flowing corners where load tends to pile up on the outside wheels. You can use the rear to reign in the car’s stability, with ESP always reassuring the driver that it will trim the car’s line so that it will make the most of RWD without being restrictive.

With more space than even a 5-Series saloon, this car is ideal for the family which really needs a lot of space. However, I would still say go for the Touring [wagon] variant – it just looks so much better. Looks aside, the 320d GT is an excellent car and undoubtedly a BMW inside, one that if driven blindfolded would still deliver the ultimate driving machine persona.

2013 Focus ST Estate

I have always been a fan of fast Fords, and almost considered purchasing a Mk2 Focus RS. However when the new ST first came out I did not like the news: an inline-5 turbo engine was swapped for a inline-4 turbo, which is the hot hatch bread and butter these days – and that spells like a potentially generic product yet again.

 I was quite wrong on that front. Although losing the charm of the inline-5, the new engine is no standard run-of-the-mill unit. With 247bhp and 366Nm, the ST feels like it has every one of those horses pulling its mighty estate body, and with a fruity exhaust note to boot. What is even more impressive though is the sweet, feelsome steering that seemingly can only be mastered expertly by Ford. It is a very fast rack, very direct and even torque-steers a little with full-bore acceleration, which is slightly unexpected but at the same time thrilling.

What complements the steering so well is the chassis, which feels first rate. Unlike other cars tested today which felt slightly unnerving through fast sweeping corners and switchbacks, the Focus ST gave the driver supreme confidence to tackle these roads with fervour. Its front end feels planted and sure, very sturdy on the road whatever the surface, deploying as much grip as you like and delivering just the right amount of slip to deliver joy.  It is genuinely fun to drive, a true product of a driving enthusiast, a car that blends comfort and sportiness extremely well. And to my eyes, the estate is simply gorgeous – the sort of Q-car that I would like in my garage one day. Say what you will, but this is definitely the estate to have if you are looking at a fun hatchback but need more space. Actually, even if you don’t need more space, the Estate it worth a look too because it just looks so good. Utterly brilliant.

2013 Fiesta ST

Following the Focus ST Estate I was eager to try the new kid in town, the Fiesta ST. Using again a manual gearbox and a generous helping of 180bhp and 240Nm, the Fiesta feels good when you sit in. Driving position is excellent as in the Focus, except now you seem to sit slightly taller. I am not sure if it is just the shape of the car, but the Fiesta felt taller and I could feel it when I was driving too. The Fiesta just seemed to lean on corners just that bit more, although it is by no means a poor handler. On the hill circuit, the Fiesta feels like a brilliant little thing, helped by its surprisingly vocal exhaust note that upon keen inspection seems to be engineered into the cabin. It sounds distinctly different from the Focus, yet more characterful than inline-4s have any right to be.

Build quality is high and the steering wheel is a joy to hold. On the same roads, the Fiesta blends the same comfort-sport balance with the Focus, in a more compact and cheaper package. A compelling proposition, especially when I am always bruised in my uncompromising Clio 200 Cup…

2013 Swift Sport

The last time I drove a Swift Sport I was nearly convinced that, for nearly half the price, it was way more than half the fun of the VW MkV GTI that I have. Clearly these days it is only the Japanese manufacturers which are clinging on to naturally-aspirated engines for the mass-market, which is no bad thing in my mind. I have always preferred NA engines for their purity in delivery, sensitivity to throttle control and manic temperament.

Suzuki is one of them, and 134bhp and 160Nm today is almost comical next to its turbocharged peers which have effortlessly more of both of those. But that is not the key to driving pleasure, as I always like to think. It is not how much power you have, but how you deliver the power that is important. And in the Swift Sport, it builds upon the previous model’s eagerness by having an engine that is hungry for revs.

The shift sensation in the Swift Sport feels uncannily similar to the previous generation, so much so that the carry-over is perceptibly difficult to ignore. It constantly came to mind when I drove the car, because although it is improved in marginal ways it felt as if it was an effort that might be insufficient to fend off the competition. The engine, although effervescent, does not deliver any new tricks that the old engine couldn’t do. The handling is centred around the car’s amazing 1045kg kerb weight, which means agility and lightness on its feet. That said, it does not inspire a lot of confidence in the driver – there is a degree of excessive suppleness that does undo the car slightly in the most demanding of roads. This is really brought to light after driving the Ford products which have much better road holding, perceived or otherwise.

As much as I would like to champion the NA engine and to keep it alive, I get the feeling that Suzuki has not tried hard enough to improve the Swift Sport to levels that can keep it on par with the competition that has the advantage of technology and the conventional route of turbocharging paired with downsizing. If Suzuki really believes in preserving the virtues of a reverent NA driving experience, then it needs a more interesting proposition for the next generation of the Swift Sport – and fast. To put things into perspective, it is not only Suzuki but all Japanese manufacturers that have shied away from turbocharging. They have chosen the unconventional path and must now prove that the path is also worth taking for consumers too.

Stay tuned for Part II where I review the 2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo, the 2013 Honda Civic 1.6 i-DTEC, the 2013 Toyota Auris Hybrid, the 2013 Toyota GT86 and the star – the legendary Toyota AE86! Also, I managed to use the Go-Pro for some of the test-rides in the out-of-bounds cars too, so you can see for yourself how Millbrook is like.

Author: James Wong

The only writer to be based in Asia, James provides a refreshingly different perspective to the automotive industry with his unique experience of living in the Far East. He is a prolific journalist who has written for several leading automotive publications in Singapore, including Torque Singapore and REV Magazine Singapore. He believes in the thrill of driving and champions for an appreciation of driving pleasure above the horsepower race. In September 2010, James relocated to the United Kingdom, London, bringing him to a whole new environment from which to start a new chapter in automotive journalism.

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