Land Rover Defender in Namibia
No need for a 2020 disclaimer here: had I driven the new Defender across Namibia in any year previous to this one it would have ranked as the irrefutable highlight. Land Rover is justly famous for its international product launches (the L405 Range Rover announced itself to the world’s motoring press with a jaunt over the Atlas Mountains, an experience which also lived long in the memory) although clearly the replacement for its all-season icon was going to require something special. The manufacturer duly delivered, spiriting the chosen few to a part-time airstrip in Kaokoland, and letting them loose in Namibia’s sprawling, sparsely populated, slightly malarial and intensely spectacular north west.
We did Van Zyl’s Pass. We did copper-coloured deserts. We camped. We saw elephants. We marvelled at moonscapes. We did the Skeleton Coast. We got stuck. We got free. We crawled and careered. We stormed up sand dunes and sauntered into rivers. It was truly epic. And yet the experience did not overshadow the car. The new Defender did that thing that all superlative machines do in their element; it made each pinch-me moment that bit sweeter with its knack for either meeting or exceeding your expectations. It is the world’s premier off-road SUV, no question. That it will also get you to the pub in unruffled, upmarket style merely speaks to absurd bandwidth Land Rover is capable of in 2020.
As for Namibia, and our circuitous route around a comparatively small portion of it, there is too little space here to give it its due. Perhaps that’s for the best when a trip to the next county is starting to seem adventurous. I visited Namibia in February, and already a temperature check was a prerequisite for entry. What chance now a return trip to Kaokoland? The pandemic has slowly turned improbable journeys into virtual impossibilities. It is a miserable state of affairs, bookended only by the idea that it can’t get much worse. If 2021 delivers a drive even partway as extraordinary, we’ll have been exceptionally lucky. And newly grateful for it. NC
Toyota GT86 in Suffolk
For so long - almost for as long as anyone can remember, in fact - getting into a car and driving wherever we wanted, at whatever time and via any route was something we all took for granted. Obviously that wasn’t the case in 2020. And even when we're all vaccinated, just nipping out for a drive is probably going to feel a whole lot more significant in 2021 and beyond.
Back in September, restrictions were sufficiently relaxed that I could be back home in Suffolk with family; far more excitingly, though, I had a Toyota GT86 for the weekend, a car I’d vigorously campaigned to have PH Hero status applied to. Though it needed none, that sleepy provided all the evidence required. Directed just over the Essex border at roads like the B1035, B1414, B1033, the GT86 could not have felt more at home. Narrow, twisty, imperfect B-roads suit the Toyota perfectly; being as small and as light as it is, roads that hem in others suit it down to the ground. In the same way that a big GT on open A-roads is supremely satisfying, so the same joy is there for the ’86 on the squiggly tarmac between farmer’s fields.
Flitting this way and that with barely a hint of inertia, its flat-four providing just enough gruff power to feel exciting and with barely a soul on the road, it was easily the best drive I’d had in months. A reminder of how liberating a great B-road blast can be, and how effective Toyota’s oft-forgotten sports car is at accessing the feeling. I even got a McMuffin at the end. 2020 produced no finer Sunday mornings. MB
Porsche 911 RSR-19 in Italy
It’s a measure of how mind-bending the experience of driving the 911 RSR-19 was that it was easily my shortest stint behind the wheel this year. Ten laps – barely seven of which were flying – of the fast-flowing Autodromo Vallelunga was all it took to alter my understanding of what a car is capable of. Jumping from a 911 GT3 RS straight into the thoroughbred racing machine was like stepping from a pub karaoke stand onto the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. Everything – vibrations, volume and speed included – multiplied tenfold.
Obviously, I knew the RSR, with its bespoke chassis, mid-engined layout and competition powertrain, was going to be fast. It’s a proper GTE machine that won the 2019 World Endurance Championship, after all. But I did not expect it to be so inviting, so instantly predictable or so forgiving. As soon as I’d learned to trust that the rear end could hang on to such aggressive direction changes and ridiculous corner entry speeds, it felt like the sky was the limit. Rather than relying on blind faith, every bend was test of how much later I could brake, how long I could trail that left pedal into the corner, and how much earlier I could stomp on the throttle again.
The car felt alert and quick to respond to steering and throttle inputs, but more planted and progressive in rotation than I could have ever imagined. Sure, I don’t doubt that the team – who were the actual race squad that ran car 91 in the WEC and Le Mans – gave me an RSR in the ‘softest’ possible setup, but the fact I could begin to chip away at its limits and edge closer towards the RSR’s potential emphasised how absorbing the whole process of going quickly in it is. The flat-six soundtrack projected by that 4.2-litre motor only sealed the deal. It was the most exciting automotive experience of my life. SS
Audi RS2 Avant at Goodwood
Nothing against the Audi RS2 Avant. In fact I’d been enjoying the car, appreciating that unlike its modern day equivalent that seems to do so much of the work for you, in the RS2 you really had to put some effort in. But for the purposes of this short piece, the car might as well have been a bog standard 80 Avant. I was laughing far too hard to savour the warbling five-pot soundtrack, or appreciate the car’s Porsche-sourced engineering integrity.
We were lined up in chronological order, meaning that immediately behind me was an original RS4 Avant. Through my windscreen, separated in time by a decade but by only a few metres in reality, rose the towering rear wing of a short-wheelbase Group B Audi Quattro. At its wheel was 1984 World Rally Champion Stig Blomqvist. I’m not a religious man, but sometimes you have to wonder.
On the eve of Goodwood Speedweek in October, while Audi celebrated the 40th anniversary of Quattro, we paraded our cars first up and down the famous hillclimb, then around the circuit itself for a handful of laps. We weren’t to drive too quickly, but at every opportunity Stiggy would hang back for a moment, then stomp on the accelerator pedal to send his machine squirting forwards, exhaust and anti-lag barking furiously.
And every time he did so, little flecks of clear liquid appeared on my windscreen. After two laps of this, my view through the glass was getting blurry. I didn’t dare flick the stalk to send the wipers arcing across the screen, though, because this strange fluid wouldn’t be easily swept away. It would smear, impeding my vision even further, because it was Stig Blomqvist’s unburnt race fuel. And that was how I got baptised. DP
Aston Martin DBX in Somerset
Having been forced to cancel the DBX launch in Palm Springs, Aston ended up holding the first media drives in the UK in July. The format was simple and COVID-distanced – go to Silverstone, experience the car on track at the dinky Stowe circuit, get it muddy on the off-road course and then take it away for 24 hours. I opted to head for Exmoor, with the combination of motorways and the empty roads that lead to the West Somerset coast perfectly suited to finding out how Aston’s first SUV dealt with the real world.
It was a fine test, the Aston revealing its laid-back side on the long schlep and then doing its Man of Steel transformation when asked to deal with the B3224 and B3223, two of my favourite roads in the UK, with the challenge increased by heavy rain. But it was the journey home that I’ll remember for longer, after taking a break in Lynton and opting to take the A39 around the coast rather than head cross-country. It was evening and I had the road pretty much to myself all the way to Minehead; not something I would have experienced with everyday traffic. The DBX proved itself mighty on the empty tarmac – but the bigger buzz came from the freedom of my first proper post-lockdown drive, on an epic road as the light was fading. MD
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