SMMT Test Day 2013: Part II

Continuing from Part I of the SMMT Test Day 2013 series, where I test drive the 2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo, the 2013 Honda Civic 1.6 i-DTEC, the 2013 Toyota Auris Hybrid, the 2013 Toyota GT86 and the Toyota AE86.

2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo 1.6

The Veloster is the first car I picked to drive, primarily because most of the old hands have rushed to the cars that usually steal the show (think R8 or 12C) and I had the Hyundai all to myself. Apart from a stone cold engine that I had to warm up gradually (which is agonising but by no means any fault of the car!), the Hyundai was a surprisingly good experience.

It must be hard for hot hatch manufacturers these days. There are literally dozens out there to choose from, and newcomers are constantly getting into the market because hatchbacks are both relatively fuel-efficient and practical, while also being fun to drive, appealing to a massive set of buyers. So while consumers are now more spoilt for choice than ever, it will not be an easy track for Hyundai.

They made a good start with the looks. The Veloster looks original, with a unique identity of its own. I quite like the hidden rear door handles, although rear seat space does seem disappointingly small. The twin-pipe central exhausts at the back are of a not insubstantial size, which is a subtle hint to the power beneath. There is a bit of convergence of lines at the back overall though, which does confound some people when they look at the car. It isn’t exactly a pretty thing, but it is definitely unique, which is a lot to be proud of already considering generic designs just don’t quite cut it with the younger set anymore.

Like all turbocharged engines, there is a surfeit of torque to play with. However, there seems to be more power than the chassis can handle. Push more than a seven-tenths and the car just loses the plot to understeer. You can get it together again if you back off, but there is lacking a dynamic sparkle to the car that prevents it from being truly special.

However, I don’t want to belittle the car’s abilities. It is a well-sorted car, one that probably took generations for other manufacturers to attain. It certainly doesn’t feel like a first-time product (like Alfa’s TCT), and perhaps for the majority its tractable engine and funky exterior looks might just be enough to win them over. However, rather than delighting me, the car just delivers a mildly surprising lesson on how far ahead the Koreans have come. A great effort, but it will probably take another generation for this to compete with the best-handling hatches.

2013 Toyota GT86

With age restrictions I only had a handful of rear-wheel drive machines available at my disposal, so I had to have a go in the GT86 to make full use of the opportunity. I drove the car in a quick review last year and did not come away from it entirely convinced, so this is a second chance for Toyota’s sports coupe to shine again. What’s more, Toyota GB’s press office also brought along a pristine AE86 to drive alongside the GT86, so I got to try these two cars back to back. Although I did not get to drive many super cars that day, I sincerely believe that my experience with these two cars in that hour or so was undoubtedly the most magical things I have ever done in my automotive journalism career. It was something struck off the bucket list as one of the most special drives around Millbrook.

From the get-go the GT86 feels a lot better than previously. It could have been down to the climate, which allows the engine to breathe better compared to the tropical and humid climate in Singapore. Whatever it is, the GT86 of the Test Day felt like a more sorted machine with a more refined engine and less uninvited vibrations. It certainly was promising even before I left the press area.

A quick flick going out of the second runabout and into a first decent straight immediately displayed the cars playful character. Even though the roads were bone dry, the sophisticated play of balance between front and rear was keenly felt from the drivers’ seat, which was not intimidating at all. The ESP lights flickered for a second as the car reigned in the rear end; if it was off, the car would probably have been brought sideways – at just 30mph. It was a dimension of the car I never quite got to experience before. This newfound perspective continued into the Hill course, where I was confident to push the car to its maximum, with chirrups from its tyres indicating that the car was clinging on to its lines tenaciously. In corners, I could get on the power pretty early because of the cleverly designed ESP which doesn’t feel excessively intrusive. It keeps things tidy while flattering the driver. So although I did not get to switch off ESP on the Hill course – and perhaps wisely so – I had some serious fun. The car was keen, egging the driver on to push harder and harder every time, and also rewarding with every turn of the wheel. It is by no means fast; but it feels just adequate to exploit the chassis. More power will not go amiss, but as it is I am quite happy with it.

Needless to say, the GT86 certainly gained some points in my book after proving itself in a very trying circuit that has shown more of the car’s stellar abilities than I ever could have found. A wonderful work by Toyota, one that I am keen to support – lest we want to see less of NA, RWD coupes equipped with manual gearboxes and a transparent character.

Toyota AE86

As good as the GT86 is, nothing quite compares to getting behind the wheel of the car that started it all. With bodywork that is already well-known by car enthusiasts worldwide (especially drift fanatics and Initial D fans), the AE86 cuts a classic shape that has its very own category. Neither looking like an all-out sports car nor like a bland hatchback, the AE86 is on its own very unique and very cool.

First stepping into the cabin, I am astounded at how airy it is. With the sunroof open and windows down, the AE86 delivers on the huge advantage I have always encountered with old cars – unparalleled visibility. A low shoulder line and huge windows means that you can place the car very well, knowing where the 4 points of the car exactly are. It helps with driving fast, because you can judge a car’s reactions so much more quickly.

Instrumentation is clear and concise, the steering wheel thin and perhaps a bit large in diameter by today’s standards (I almost felt like I was holding the steering wheel from a bus). That said, the driving position is near perfect and you do sit very low, as you do in most older cars, so you will be looking up at the fellow in the 5-Series driving next to you. With a twist of the ignition key the AE86 wakes to life. Equipped with a 4A-GE, the car rumbles about the vicinity with the effortless gait of a Japanese rarity. The sound is certainly enhanced by its Neuspeed exhaust, which really shows its mettle on full-bore acceleration that envelopes the whole cabin in a cacophony of noise and theatre. It may sound funny, but it felt as if I really was Takumi delivering tofu in Initial D.

In the context of the modern world however, there isn’t a whole lot of power to make the quick delivery. With only a little bit more than 100bhp when new, the engine isn’t helped by its exhaust which does seem to leak a couple more horses due to its big bore (I am speculating here). But no matter – with less horsepower, I really had to relish bringing the engine to its redline to keep the pesky new VW Beetle behind honest. After 4,000rpm, there is an awesome elevation of noise and power all up to the redline, although with the curiously long gearing it does seem to make more time than necessary to rev across the tachometer.

Brakes do feel slightly spongy by modern standards, but they do an adequate job of setting up the car for corner entry. With bone dry roads, it is almost impossible to get the tail loose unless violent intervention is taken, so handling is always secure and sure-footed. There is a crystal clear clarity in the steering feel that was a real shock to me after the power-assisted steering of all the modern cars. It was genuine, honest and hefty (I had to really use whatever upper arm muscles I had to turn that steering wheel at walking pace!).

On Millbrook today in the AE86, I am definitely not interested in the car’s pace so much. What has made it so special for me was the whole event of driving a legendary machine that, up till today, feels like a car I can use daily. I can honestly say hand to heart that the desirability of these old cars is, for me, a lot higher than most of these new cars out in the market today. As a comparison to its successor, the GT86, the newer car is quicker and more agile. Yet the old car has a charm and aura about it that can never be replicated again, what with new safety regulations and standards that prevent a car from being just simple and pure. What I do know is, it is a drive that I will never ever forget in my life.

2013 Honda Civic 1.6 i-DTEC

I always have been a fan of Hondas. My sister used to drive an EK Civic that I had fond memories of, one of which is her always bottoming out at car park humps because of the car’s low ride height! The new Civic no longer suffers the same problems, but worryingly, they also have become heavier, more radical looking and not much more powerful.

Testing a diesel Honda does seem like a bit of poetic irony now, but there you go. Honda really put in effort with this new i-DTEC engine, which has 120PS and 300Nm and a claimed MPG of 78.5 on the combined cycle. Built in the UK and sold exclusively for the European market, it is crucial for Honda’s success in the fleet market because of its 94g/km of Co2 emissions (thereby being tax free in the UK).

On first impressions, the car retains many of the Honda characteristics that I remember so dearly. The driving position, for example, always features a dashboard that seems lower and wider in comparison to the seat, which gives excellent visibility for the front and giving the sensation of a low centre of gravity. Sadly, the same visibility advantage is absent for the rear, which is tarnished by a two-piece glass greenhouse that is simply difficult to look out of.

More importantly, the engine feels strong and displays as little of the flaws of diesel engines as possible. It revs quite willingly to its redline and the manual gearbox has nicely spaced gear ratios that means you can make quite rapid progress with little effort. I like too that the Civic is sportier than what you would expect from a diesel hatch. It is genuinely good to drive, with lively steering that brings about a purity that you just don’t get from many inconsistent racks nowadays. Chuck it around corners and the Civic feels planted and confident.

Overall, I was really surprised at how well the car drives. It is seriously good fun, confidently shedding its diesel fleet image and rewarding the driver with much of the fun of a well-sorted hatch with as little of the costs as possible, by way of comfort, fuel consumption and running costs. Although Honda has disappointed many of its loyal followers by shelving plans of developing new models of its sportier variants with the traditional spec sheet (an NA engine with VTEC), its new efforts are quite encouraging, and show that it still has the formula of a good drivers’ car nailed.

2013 Toyota Auris Hybrid

Toyota has always shunned diesels and believed stoically on its Hybrid Synergy Drive pitch. To contrast with Honda’s excellent diesel Civic, I decided to try the Auris Hybrid to see how they compare.

At 87g/km, CO2 figures are superior to that of the Civic. However, it does not count for much in the UK because they are both tax-free anyway. Its claimed MPG of 74.3 on the combined cycle [note – this is not equivalent to U.S. MPG] is just below that of the Civic. These two contenders, then, are pretty much neck in neck in the same market segment.

The Auris has the refinement advantage, with a serenely quiet (or rather silent) idle and pretty much whisper-only motoring if you rely on the battery power alone. Push though and the petrol engine kicks in, layering in an added harshness that feels like the car’s unnatural state. This is confirmed by the instrument needle that turns red when you press on with the gas aggressively.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Auris has a delightful amount of torque which means that on most occasions, you will not want for more power for the daily commute. However it just feels somehow like an overly complicated way of getting to the same objective as a modern-day turbo-diesel. While a turbo-diesel is more or less a conventional engine, it does not need to regenerate power through braking, nor does it need to constantly switch between battery and combustion power. Yet the turbo-diesel can match the petrol-hybrid on most fronts and in many cases, exceed it. For instance, anything more than a light foot will start the petrol engine in the Auris, which immediately puts a drag on efficiency and degrades refinement. However, the diesel in the Civic is already quite refined to begin with, and you never need to press on too hard to get the full 300Nm, so you don’t really have to put up with any harshness. Another instance is where you let go of the throttle and let the car coast: the Civic can do it conventionally, while the Auris feels like its decelerating rather than just cruising. As such it feels quite unnatural.

The other aspect where the Civic outshines the Auris is in the steering feel and driving position. I seemed to sit much taller in the Auris, and its steering feels very wooden, with none of the feel offered by the Civic. The interior of the Auris feels a generation behind the Civic too, although perceived material quality is actually very closely matched.

Overall, I think it is a convincing win for the Civic here. Hybrids are great when they were pioneering technology in cars, but today conventional diesels and even petrols have improved by leaps and bounds, and can quite easily match the best of hybrids today.

As a conclusion to the Test Day I thought it would be fitting to give out some awards for the cars I have test driven. And here are the results:

 

Most impressive car: Ford Focus ST Estate 

The Ford didn’t seem very promising, but it lived up to the company’s reputation for building excellent cars to drive and live with. It is involving, lively and well-built. You can tell Ford really put effort into this car. The fact that the ST now has an awesome chassis and drivetrain mated to an estate body means that this is one Q-car that every family man should give a proper look at before they purchase that 320d Touring.

Most memorable car: Toyota AE86

Well, need I say more? A legend driven, and an experience to remember for life.

Most surprising car: Honda Civic 1.6 i-DTEC

The Civic changed my mindset about diesel hatches entirely. I was genuinely captivated while driving it, and it flows along the road in the most wonderful and effortless way. The engine is seriously a big step up: very refined, almost as quiet-running as a petrol, and yet having power in parts of the rev band where you never thought possible. A constant surprise for what is supposed to be a fleet car.

And the cars I didn’t get to drive…

12C Spider: McLaren almost forgot that I was under 25 and said ‘Do you want to drive or do you want me to drive?’ My conscience prevailed and I let the cat out of the bag. Could have almost gotten away with it! Nevertheless, here are two videos from my passenger ride.

B8 RS4: Going round the Bowl, the Audi RS feels utterly planted, but I would be lying if I did not feel a little scared that the car would suddenly lose traction and get flung out of the circuit!

If you have anything to ask about these cars, please feel free to leave your comments below! To prevent an excessively lengthy article I may have missed out a point or two that you want to find out more about, and I will be happy to help. I hope you enjoyed reading about the SMMT Test Day 2013 as much as I savoured it!

Thank you to Janet Wilkinson, the SMMT and Newspress for organising this wonderful event.

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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