This week I was invited to the annual SMMT Day at the Millbrook proving ground in Bedfordshire. Put simply, the SMMT Day involves automotive journalists and bloggers getting together in a central place with the primary aim of driving as many cars as possible. Or as I like to call it, speed dating with cars. OK, there's also the opportunity to mingle with the good folk of the UK press offices, but in truth, the real attraction is the vast selection of cars available to drive. Think 'kid in a sweet shop' and you'd have some idea as to how it felt to be there.
Before I talk about the cars, a quick word about Millbrook. The proving ground is situated just off the M1 some 40 miles north of London and is home to automotive test centres, laboratories, workshops and many, many test tracks. The whole site is spread across some 700 acres of land and upon arrival for the first time, gives an impression of a kind of Disneyland for petrolheads. Of course, Millbrook is about serious testing and research, but the sight of high speed bowls, Alpine-style road routes and off-road courses really does stir the soul. To finally get the chance to go there was something of an ambition realised, so I need to thank the SMMT for the invite.
In true PetrolBlog style, I avoided the temptation to test some of the expensive metal and instead hunted down the more affordable, real world cars. OK, so I did try and get a drive in the new BMW 1-series M Coupé, but such was the demand for the car, I eventually gave up. Still, there was a rather tasty cake on offer on the BMW stand, so I managed to blag a slice of that. Thank you BMW press office. I also wasn't brave enough to take out any of the available Porsches. I was tempted by the white mid-1980s 911, but the constant rain showers encouraged me to think better of it. Besides, if by some miracle the people of Porsche had read Fahrtman Longstroke's recent rant, I may have found myself escorted from the premises. Probably sideways.
So if you can forgive the lack of BMW or Porsche based content, read on for my highlights of the day.
Unexpected pleasure of the day: Peugeot 508 saloon
Peugeot has done very little to stir my imagination in recent years. In fact, I made my dissatisfaction with the brand quite clear here and here. So I wasn't expecting much from the 508 and in truth I wasn't planning to drive any Peugeots on the day. But straight after lunch, I ventured outside and in torrential rain I headed for the nearest available car - a Peugeot. Great. But, just as the heavens had opened, it was time for me to open my mind.
The 508 is Peugeot's replacement for the 407 and the 607 and is up against the likes of the Mondeo and Insignia, so it needs to be good. My test car was the £28,750 GT model, which comes fitted with a 2.2 litre diesel engine and six speed automatic transmission. The first thing that strikes you is that the Peugeot 508 GT is a rather handsome car. Clearly influenced by the SR1 concept car, the 508's styling is sharp, purposeful and dare I say it, elegant. Three words I wouldn't use to describe many Peugeots in recent years. The back end is particularly convincing, with the rear section sculpted from a single piece and enhanced by twin exhausts. The GT's standard 18" Electra alloy wheels are similarly successful and help to give it a sleek and piercing side profile.
Things are equally encouraging once you get inside. Entry is via a keyless entry system and the door shuts with a reassuring thud. Getting comfortable is effortless thanks to electrically adjustable seat and within seconds I felt quite at home in the 508. The quality and design of the materials and switchgear in the 508 is on a par with anything I've experienced in this sector and the first word that came to mind on the day was 'Germanic'. The colour 'head up display' is also a nice touch and communicates critical information to the driver.
Pulling away is surreally smooth, helped in part by a stop/start button and electric handbrake. The 204 bhp 2.2 litre diesel lump generates a massive 450 Nm of torque at 2,000 RPM and therefore propels the car at quite a rate. The six speed automatic 'box is smooth, but can be operated manually via the central stick or paddle controls. Manual changes are immediate and smooth, the steering is crisp and direct and the handling is far better than you'd expect from a large Peugeot. It all helps the 508 GT to present itself as a compelling alternative to the normal choices. Forget the Insignia and Mondeo, Peugeot will be troubling the Germans with the 508 GT. It really is that good.
It is worth pointing out that at high speeds the wipers are totally ineffective, as I found out at 100mph on the high speed bowl. Believe me, it is quite unnerving to drive blind at those speeds and even reducing the speed to 70mph did little to improve things. I pointed this out to the press team and they told me they'd had similar comments that day and it was probably down to a faulty fixing, but such a defect could have serious safety implications. Worth checking with Peugeot before venturing out in the rain.
But wiper issue aside, the Peugeot 508 quite simply astonished me. The design, the quality and the drive were completely unexpected. I need to balance my comments with the fact that my conclusion is based on a brief drive and that I'll be doing my best to conduct a full review in due course. Watch this space...
Best Slush Puppie of the day: Skoda
An easy winner for this category - Skoda. Partly because I believe Skoda was the only company to be serving the ice-based sugary treat. A brave choice given the weather, with rain of biblical proportions doing its best to ruin the day. But no matter, as the choice of Slush Puppie was a bright and cheery drink on an otherwise cold, damp and overcast day. In fact, the Skoda stand said more about the brand than any amount of PR could dream of. The cars were in constant demand and on numerous occasions there were no cars available to drive. Seeing an empty display must have been encouraging for the press office. Secondly, the team manning the stand were the most enthusiastic, welcoming and upbeat of all those at SMMT. A clear indication that confidence is high at Skoda. Or maybe they were just high on sugar?
Style over substance award: Audi A1 1.4 TFSi Sport S Tronic
Regular readers of PetrolBlog will already know about my dissatisfaction with modern Audis, so I won't go over old ground here. But having seen a few A1s on the road, I was beginning to warm to Audi's supermini. Sadly, after my brief trip around the hill route, I was back to square one. Yes, the A1 is brilliantly put together, that's almost a given with Audis these days. But consider the fact with options, the 1.4 TFSI Sport S tronic is priced around £25k and the A1 becomes less convincing. £25k? For a supermini? Seriously Audi, give me a break. I'd much rather take the Fabia vRS or Polo GTi and keep the change.
The A1 feels claustrophobic inside, the DSG 'box feels lethargic and the drive feels soulless and lacking in drama. The 185 PS 1.4 TFSi engine is sweet enough, but the seven speed DSG does its best to dilute the experience and the A1 feels heavy and too grown up to chuck about with any degree of delight. In truth though, it really doesn't matter what I think - the Audi A1 1.4 TFSi Sport S Tronic will sell like hot cakes. Just try fitting the name on to a boot badge.
Unluckiest pigeon award: Vauxhall VXR8
Vauxhall decided to restrict the VXR8's use to the relative safety of the high speed bowl. Given the weather conditions, this was probably a very good move. The VXR8 was in high demand all day, but I finally managed a drive as the day drew to a close. This was bad news for a rather unfortunate pigeon who came to a rather abrupt end on the bowl. At 100 mph I caught sight of two pigeons sat in the road and having recently posted this article, I guess I should have expected what happened next. One of the pigeons flew away but the other, being a little more portly, took a little longer to rise and met the top of the VXR8's windscreen. At best it would have had the headache from hell. At worst, it would be having a slow and painful death. Oh dear.
As for the Vauxhall VXR8, a quick summary would be a lovely V8 soundtrack, a rather cheap interior and a fair amount of old school muscle charm.
Most disappointing car award: Fiat 500 Abarth Esseesse
I was eager to drive the Fiat 500 Abarth Esseesse. It is, after all, a darling of the performance car magazines. Sadly though, the 500 Abarth Esseessee is probably the most obvious indication yet that I'm getting old. I just didn't get it. I found the interior too loud and brash, the ride to be jumpy, jittery and uncomfortable and the steering completely devoid of any feel. What's more, I never felt engaged by the car and I simply couldn't wait to get it back to base. Oh dear. Of course I'm fully aware that I seem to be a lone voice when it comes to the 500 Abarth, but I'd much rather have a Ford Puma or Swift Sport. Sorry.
Soiled pants award: Jeep Compass 2.2 CRD
On the face of it, the new Jeep Compass looks quite appealing. It is loaded with standard kit and the entry level model is yours for less than £17k. I tested the 2.2 CRD 4x4 which comes with a Mercedes-sourced turbo diesel engine and costs £23,595. Decent enough value, but a price that sees it competing with the likes of the Yeti, Tiguan and Kuga - tough acts to follow.
And follow it does. On the evidence of my brief drive, it simply cannot match the refinement and reassurance of its competitors. The interior is a sea of grey plastic, the diesel engine is noisy and clattery at idle and the car's on road manners are appalling. On Millbrook's hill route it cornered with all the reassurance of a jelly on a plate and you feel totally detached from the road. Any attempt at enthusiastic driving results in a genuinely terrifying turn of events. Lots of body roll, a nose that lurches forward under heavy braking and an inability to cope with the undulations of a British B-road. Things improve slightly on the straight and narrow, although a lap of the high speed bowl revealed an excessive amount of road and wind noise.
I drove a Compass at the same time as Honest John. I'll be keen to find out what he thought of the car...
Fast, frugal and fun award: Mini Cooper SD
At the end of each 'date' with a car, I wrote some brief notes in my Moleskine notebook. For the Mini Cooper SD I only wrote four - 'Fast, frugal, fun. Nice'. There are some people in the world who will view the addition of a D to the Cooper S badge as tantamount to sacrilege. But on the evidence of my test drive, Mini should be a applauded for delivering a convincing diesel hot hatch. The headline figures are 114 g/km of CO2, 65.7 mpg and 225lb ft of torque, making it quite easily the torquiest Mini in the range. Impressive. At £18,750 it is some £3k more than the standard Cooper D, but it might just be worth every penny. I'll be looking to deliver a more rounded review in due course.
Greatest missed opportunity award: Subaru Impreza WRX STi
I waited all day for a go in the Impreza, but sadly my turn coincided with the time the Citroen DS3 Racing 'incident', so I spent more time stationery than I did moving. At least this gave me enough time to draw some conclusions on the interior. The leather and Alcantara Recaro seats could lay claim to be the best racing seats available on a sub £50k car. But the rest of the inside remains typically Subaru and therefore a sea of scratchy plastic and cheap feeling switchgear. At a £33k base price, this would be unforgivable if the WRX STi didn't have any redeeming features, but fortunately it does. Wet weather grip is astonishing and the pace is exhilarating. And of course, a return to the Impreza's classic four-door saloon approach is a welcome relief. I only wish I'd had a longer go in the Impreza as it could have easily been my car of the day...
Car of the day: Mercedes-Benz G 350 CDi
Instead, my car of the day award goes to the Mercedes-Benz G 350 CDi, or the G-Wagen as it is more commonly known. It has been around for over three decades, but has been unavailable in the UK since 2004. But now it is back and with a price tag of £81,715 it is sure to be somewhat of a niche model. But your £80k 'only' gets you the base BlueTEC model. For the ultimate indulgence you'll want the G 55 AMG with a price tag of £117,460. Blimey.
Describing the G-Wagen is quite a challenge. If you can imagine what the offspring of a Land Rover Defender mated to a Range Rover Vogue SE would be, then you'd be on the right lines. It comes with a 3.0 TDV6 engine and a seven-speed automatic gearbox and is capable of a top speed of 108 mph, although you'd have to be pretty brave to attempt this. The styling is straight out of the 1970s and wouldn't look out of place if parked up outside a rebel dictator's hideout or in the parent and child spaces at Waitrose. It has a timeless appeal and a rare classlessness, quite an achievement considering the price tag
The inside of the G-Wagen is a complete juxtaposition of old and new. The original layout is maintained, which means you get a vast cabin, a fantastically high driving position and a properly old school Germanic dashboard. It all feels beautifully put together, but there's no fuss and not even a hint of bling. But Mercedes has managed to incorporate the standard pieces of kit that modern buyers demand, so even without looking at the options list, the G-Wagen is well equipped. It has to be said though, the optional DVD player and rear seat mounted TV screens look hilariously out of place.
But then laughter is a good thing and the G-Wagen made me smile more than any other car at the SMMT Day. This is a genuine 4x4 with three 100% diff locks and a transfer box off-road ratio that allows a gradient climbing capability of 80%. It's a car for people who prefer understated class and sophistication to 'look at me I'm rich' crassness and vulgarity. The fact that Mercedes-Benz has chosen to bring the car back to the UK suggests that there is demand for it and I doff my hat to them for doing so. From a price perspective, the G-Wagen is way off PetrolBlog's radar, but everything else about it makes it hugely appealing. If I bought one, the first thing I'd do would be to fit a set of anonymous 1987 'D' registration plates and get it plastered in mud. In the meantime, old G-Wagens are now a permanent feature on my eBay watch list.
Are they serious award: Chevrolet Cruze CS 2.0 VCDi
Chevrolet will sell you a Cruze CS accessory pack for £1,595 and suggest that it's 'a perfect look for a vehicle with a great racing pedigree'. They'll also tell you that it has been 'inspired by the track'. Well on the face of it, the CS pack looks promising, with a lowering kit, rear spoiler, CS carpet mats, CS graphics and 18" white multi-spoke alloys. Now the first rule about white alloys is that if you're going to fit them, you have to be sure that the car is good. Otherwise you'll look a bit of a wally.
Sadly the Cruze 2.0 VCDi is about as sporty as Russell Grant in a leotard. The diesel engine is unrefined at low speeds, but the biggest criticism is reserved for a woefully sluggish automatic box. The ride is atrocious, the steering is vague in the extreme and the handling is unbalanced. I haven't felt quite so detached from a car for quite some time. It's a shame really, because I really wanted to like the Cruze. Chevrolet's '5-year promise' is an innovative warranty package and the cars are very keenly priced. I also like the look of the Cruze and the interior is neatly laid out.
But I can't forgive the CS accessory pack. As a value-driven alternative to the normal choices, the Cruze might make a good case for itself. But with the CS pack it sets out a stall to promise something it can't deliver. Save the £1,595 for something else.
Greatest knob of the day award: Honda Accord Type-S
I've said it before and I'll say it again. Honda knobs are the best in the business and the one fitted to the latest Accord is no exception. The Accord 2.2 i-DTEC Type-S is a nice looking, well equipped saloon car that's let down by slightly suspect dynamics and a diesel engine that runs out of puff too early. But when the knob is this good, it doesn't really matter.
I now have to resist the urge to fit one to the PetrolBlog Shed.
SMMT Day novice award: MajorGav
Arriving at the Millbrook gates at 7.30am, I waited behind a long line of media and exhibitor cars. Told to follow the cars in front, I gleefully followed a white Suzuki Swift through the park. All was going well until I discovered that I was surrounded by lots of new cars, flags and PR people. I'd somehow found my way to the exhibition area rather than the media car park. Schoolboy error made just a few minutes into my SMMT Day debut, so I sheepishly made my way back out of the area before my S6 was considered to be part of Audi's heritage fleet.
But all things considered, despite the inclement weather, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I would have liked to have driven more cars, but if I'm invited back next year I'll be sure to have a more structured plan.
Just leaves me to say a big thank you to the SMMT for the invite and to the manufacturers who let me loose in their cars.
Apologies for the poor quality images. It was wet and I wanted to spend more time driving than snapping!