SMMT test day: the good, the bad and the awful

25 May 2012

BMW 116d Efficient Dynamics Edition at Millbrook

Every year the UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) holds a test day at the Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire. The site is generally closed to the public but it provides a variety of different circuits designed to simulate public highways – including twisting B-roads, tight city streets and a two-mile circle of endless five-lane motorway. It also provides gradients more challenging than the steepest hills and off-road routes of varying difficulty. And there are (almost) no traffic jams. In short, a little piece of car driving heaven.

SMMT test day brings together a host of manufacturers and an even larger host of motoring journalists, all keen to compare and contrast different cars on these interesting roads.

Yesterday was my first visit, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The full roster included 32 different manufacturers, from Alfa Romeo to Volvo, and taken together they had brought examples of about 140 of the new cars 2012 has to offer, from A1 Sportback to Ypsilon TwinAir.

It seemed wise to make a list, so I arrived clutching a roster of the top 20 cars I definitely wanted to try.

Mini Roadster in blue

This being, I studiously avoided the very tempting temptation to blag a drive in the new Porsche 911 or Bentley Mulsanne, instead focusing on smaller and more modest motors – or at least cars with an eco button lurking on the dashboard.

In the end, I managed to fit in only 10 different cars, which is probably some sort of record for the least impressive tally. I also seemed to be driving somewhat more sedately than average. The general approach seemed to be to drive each car as if you’d stolen it, or indeed as if the fuzz might be in hot pursuit and about a yard from your back bumper.

The cars I sampled were a very mixed bag, but for me they fell into three distinct buckets: surprisingly good, surprisingly bad, and utterly awful.

Let’s get the worst-case scenarios out of the way first. I really didn’t like the Chrysler Ypsilon or Brabus-edition Smart ForTwo cabriolet.

The Chrysler is of course really a Lancia which is in turn really a Fiat. Despite the resulting schizophrenia the Ypsilon felt single-mindedly mediocre to me. The driving position didn’t help – if you have very long arms and very short legs you won’t mind the steering wheel’s lack of reach adjustment. And the centre-mounted array of instruments put the vital speedometer about a yard and a half to the left of my eyeline. I didn’t like the rubbery gearchange and the TwinAir’s engine note – normally a delightful sewing-machine thrum – had somehow been replaced with a biscuit-tin full of broken bricks.

The Smart ForTwo was less of an unpleasant surprise, but only because I’d read about its gearbox before driving it. I was thus almost but not quite sufficiently prepared for how much the semi-automatic box ruined my enjoyment of the Smart. It will shift down to first gear of its own accord if you draw to a stop, and that’s about the only good thing I can think to say about it. The rest of the time the car felt like it must have stalled every time I pulled a paddle to change gear.

Not actually awful but still in the surprisingly bad camp, sadly, goes the Citroen DS5 Hybrid4. I really wanted to like this adventurously styled, interesting car, but I just didn’t enjoy driving it. I know the French firm is shooting for a relaxed, un-German kind of motoring, and I’m usually very willing to embrace comfort, but I think Citroen has missed the happy medium. Using the DS5’s two pedals felt like stepping on a wet sponge to go faster, and treading on a bag of marshmallows to slow down again. The automatic gearbox, by contrast, seemed to swap cogs with all the seamless rhythm of a deaf DJ.

Not quite as far behind expectations but still disappointing was the Fiat 500C TwinAir I tried. I liked lots of it – the folding roof is good, even if the open car does resonate alarming at motorway speeds, and the TwinAir engine pulled strongly while sounding lovely. But the interior felt cheap, I couldn’t get comfortable, and I wouldn’t want to live with its confusing dial-within-a dial-within-a-dial instrument panel.

The BMW 116d EfficientDynamics Edition unsurprisingly felt better screwed together, but even it had its faults – most notably a clutch-side footrest which snagged my shoe pretty much every time I changed gear. It’s a small point – perhaps trivial – but surely an ultimate driving machine oughtn’t to have any unwelcome sticky-out bits down there in the pedal box.

And on the surprisingly good side? I very much enjoyed a spin in the diesel-powered Mercedes SLK 250 CDI sports car, about which I had few preconceptions aside from not liking its nose-heavy styling. I expected to hate the cramped little Audi A1 1.6 TDI but found it utterly charming. I thought the Mini Roadster was a silly idea until I drove it. And I found the BMW 5-Series hybrid addictively intoxicating and unexpectedly relaxing, in a way the DS5 should have been but wasn’t.

Range Rover Evoque in white

Top of my list, though, was the Range Rover Evoque. I thought it might feel claustrophobic, compromised and contrived, but after testing the two-wheel-drive version on tarmac followed by a 4x4 both on and off road, I stepped out with an entirely recalibrated mind.

The Evoque is a wholly convincing car that I would love to own, even if it isn’t really remotely green. The front-wheel-drive version does have an eco button, though, so that’s OK. If I could afford it, which I can’t.

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