Friday 24th September 2004


PETROLHEAD HEAVEN FEELS LIKE THIS

Which would you drive? Manek Dubash was forced to make the choice.

Try to imagine what petrolhead heaven would be like. Suppose the top car makers gathered together in one place, and eagerly pressed the keys of their top motors into your sweaty hand, saying: "Go play."

From time to time the car industry's organisation, the SMMT, does exactly that for motoring journalists at the Millbrook Proving Ground near Bedford. The facility includes a high-speed circular track, and a hill section with carefully graded turns and gradients -- it's like one of the best B roads you've ever driven, with sweeping turns, tight corners, humps and dips.

And this year's shindig has just happened.

From Ferrari to Porsche, Mercedes to Renault, BMW to Subaru, they were all there (apart from TVR). Cars on offer included the silky Ferrari 575 Maranello, the chunky Porsche 997 S and the giant-killing Renault Clio V6 Sport -- and that's just a taster of those I got to drive.

So here's what my day in petrolhead heaven was like. These are impressions rather than full reviews, as you only get 10-20 minutes of driving time with each car, just long enough to circumnavigate the hill circuit and a couple of laps of the high-speed bowl. This makes it hard to evaluate a car in any depth, especially those that need the most time to absorb.

Least exciting cars first.

11: VW Golf GT TDI

A strange choice you might think, given what was available, but apart from the ubiquity of the Golf -- and I hadn’t tried the new Mk5 yet -- this range-topping model featured the innovative, super-fast Direct Shift Gearbox with its double-clutch arrangement. This makes for millisecond-slick shifts and feels very impressive, if almost entirely uninvolving -- just what you want on a shopping car. The engine note drops on the upshift but acceleration continues unchecked, and I couldn't catch it out. The interior used high quality materials and design for a mass-produced vehicle too.

The DSG technology made for a novel driving experience, though contrary to VW's claims, I couldn't detect any extra driver involvement.

10: Mercedes SLK320

Jewel-like inside, the latest SLK has had a much better press than the earlier model. And in pure performance terms, the 272bhp, 3.5 litre supercharged V6 with 258 lb/ft of torque is no slouch. However, the chassis / suspension combination tells you little about what's happening at the rubber-road interface and the brakes, though effective and showing no signs of fading when repeatedly hauling up the car's 1,465Kg, had little feel. It sounded characterless too.

An attractive car in many ways, but not a driving tool.

9. Audi S4 Quattro

First impressions were that the technology-loaded, all-black interior was a bit grim. Once driving, the 4.2 litre V8 and four-wheel drive takes over your senses: you expect this beast to be fast, and it is. The 17-in. front brakes stop it in short order too. However, you’re never in any doubt that there's considerable tonnage involved -- 1,959Kg  in fact -- any time there's a change in direction or speed. The other big issue is that, like every other Audi I've driven, there's little or no feedback from the road: it's like driving a videogame. Which is why it makes sense for it to be loaded with safety electronics, as the driver can gain little inkling when grip from the 18-in. wheels is about to disappear.

Fun in a straight line.

8. BMW Alpina B7

Not a million miles from the S4 in its approach, the B7 is however much more involving -- and much quicker. Tarmac-rippling really applies to this two-tonne behemoth's 500bhp and 516 lb/ft of torque, which hurl it down the road from 0-60 mph in an implausible 4.8 seconds. Based on the previous generation E65 7 Series, it's big and loaded with all the toys you could possibly want, including the iDrive system which I found reasonably intuitive. What I found scary was throwing this car at corners at speed and finding that coped with them way better than anything this size and weight has a right to.

Improbable, big and imposing -- you could get used to it.

7. Mitsubishi MR FQ340

Kart-like in its approach, there's only one way to handle this machine and that's with an attitude to match its own. You grab it by the scruff of the neck and chuck it around. The suspension was rock-hard -- hardest of all the cars I drove -- but the turbo rush that kicks in at 4,000 rpm from the heavily tweaked 340bhp powerplant is highly addictive. It chucks you down the road like a fielder lobbing a ball at the stumps -- 0-60 in 4.4 seconds is claimed. But below that engine speed, not much happens, so you end up driving everywhere at 11/10ths. And the exhaust rumble doesn't exactly make the hairs on the back of your neck bristle.

Great fun for a Sunday afternoon, but I wouldn't want one as my daily driver.

6. BMW Alpina Z4 Roadster S

A smooth operator, this jewel-like car is fun to drive, is immaculately put together and delivers plenty of punch -- 0-60 in 5.1 seconds. Most people could jump into one of these and drive it fast with little experience. However, there's plenty of body roll and the overall impression is that, given the choice between out and out fun and playing nanny, its job is to protect you. This muted response to inputs dents the enjoyment of the hugely impressive performance delivered by the 300bhp 3.4 litre 6-cylinder Alpina powerplant. It's way better than the Z3 though.

Better-looking than its predecessor, the Alpina Z4 offers a lot of practicality and fun.

5. Subaru Impreza WRX STi Type UK

Much like the Mitsi at first blush, in fact this car is much more tractable and enjoyable to drive. Like the FQ though, it has a penchant for reeling in the horizon at an addictive rate. It can still be driven below the turbo threshold without feeling underpowered, though there's not much reward. However, the adaptable suspension means that, if relaxed cruising is the name of the game, the Scoobie can (just about) do that too. What's more, the interior is an attractive place to be, and the 260bhp boxer engine and exhaust combination make good music -- for a four-pot. Oh, and there's all that wastegate chuffing going on, which some people enjoy.

If it weren't for the gross bonnet scoop in your eyeline and the look of the car when you get out -- Britney it ain't -- the Scoobie might move up a place.

4. Renault Clio V6 Sport

This car was a hoot to drive. Kart-like with a 255bhp 3.0-litre V6 mounted behind the driver's left ear and driving the rear wheels, it's highly chuckable -- in fact it begs to be picked up and thrown around. You can get the tail out if you want, while instant throttle response means that it's remarkably controllable. Inside it's a bit Renault but you don't have time to look at it -- nor would you care if you bought this machine.

Though not much to look at in the acid-lime paint job coating of my example, the V6 Sport is a highly affordable enthusiast's car.

3. Ferrari 575M Maranello

Tough task finding superlatives about this iconic machine, especially since the time allotted was so short that there wasn't time to absorb its deeper qualities. The whole aura of the thing aside, the combination of luxurious leather and creamy, unending reserves of gorgeous-sounding power from the 515bhp V12 was deeply addictive. Zero to 60 in 4.25 seconds anyone? It felt planted at speeds well over the ton and handled twisty hills with smooth equanimity and just the right amount of feel. The only downside was the paddle-shift-driven gearbox whose shifts are anything but smooth. While you can forgive it when making progress, in cruise mode it's not what you'd want.

With looks to die for, unsurpassed driving ability and a price tag to match, only the gearshift lets it down.

2. Porsche Carrera S (997)

Much like the 575M above, the 997 requires several days to appreciate its full qualities; I got 10 minutes for my first experience of one. It's similar to the 996 but feels more refined -- everything is just that bit more sensuous from the gearshift to the quality of the interior materials. At once, you sense that the driver is in control, even when cornering at a rate seemingly unfeasible for a rear-engined machine, in part aided by the variable ratio steering rack. It delivers a similar feel as the old air-cooled 993, with the rear end signalling precisely what the rears are up to but with less front-end patter. Add in all the gizmos you could want, a 3.8 litre engine offering 355bhp and 400nm of torque, and a shape and look that's closer to the traditional 911, the 997 is a car to die for.

Looks great, sounds great, drives like a dream.

1. Vauxhall VXR220

This Elise-based two-seater looks taut and spare both inside and out -- not an inch of it is wasted. This telepathic driving tool hugs the ground on its Speedline Corsa wheels and Yokahama AO48 rubber, and leaps forward with enthusiasm -- 0-60 in 4.7 seconds, its featherweight 930Kg propelled by the reprogrammed 220bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine -- and stops on a sixpence. Its brakes are the most impressive of all the cars I drove -- though servoed, there's loads of feel. In terms of handling, the car is highly intuitive and communicative, turning in with razor-like precision. Yet while you might jib at driving it from London to Scotland without a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, this good-looking motor could still be your daily driver.

The most impressive car of all: after 15 minutes of driving, it left the biggest grin. Look beyond the badge.