Monday, 26 September 2011

101st Post:- Driven Redux

Think of this as a kind of Simpsons hundredth episode clip-show, in which I discuss some of my more noteable drives so far. Of course, I have more on the way, some of which you'd probably never want to own in a million years, but all of which have their place on the blacktop.

Reflecting on the last year, I'd like to have driven rather more cars, if I'm honest. Actually, I've driven more cars than I've written about, but usually not published my thoughts if I didn't get a chance to snap pictures of them. There are also the cars I've driven and written about, but chosen not to upload for political reasons. For example, there's a certain German 4x4 that was so bloody awful that I felt I'd probably be immediately fired if my employers read about it, and then Jeremy Clarkson reviewed the damn thing in the Sunday Times, saying pretty much exactly the same as me anyway. 

As per real life, some of the cheapest cars I've driven have been the most fun. 

The Renault Clio Sport 182, trade value £2000 at the time of my drive was, well, it was terrific. It confounded all my expectations of too much power, not enough car, with an alacrity for finding grip where you thought there couldn't be any, saving you from a terrible fiery death when you've arrived at the roundabout far too hot. Never, ever has a small, french, chav-friendly car impressed me so much. It seems tragic that a car this good can be bought for so little, and it's remarkable that so few seem to have found themselves in the hands of the throw-my-McDonalds-wrappings-out-the-window brigade.

At the other end of the budget car scale, I spent a very enjoyable hundred or so miles in a 1995 Mazda 323. It was worth £200, and didn't break down, catch fire or decompose in any way during my time with it. No, far from it, In fact, it managed to look quite sleek, be quite comfortable, and even entertained me with a nicely zingy engine. 

And then we had £750 worth of mid-nineties Jaguar XJ6. This thing was fantastic. Well, in many ways it wasn't, but I spent a good few miles stooging around in retro-gangster luxury. This thing was perfect for driving down to the boozer for a dozen pints of Abbot, then calling at the bank on the way home for a quick hold-up with a pair of sawn-offs, an' then all rahnd mine for a cuppa. Lahvely.

As befits anyone who chooses to patrol the streets in a '98 A4 and a '97 825, I have more than a streak of fondness for old, cheap cars. It actually saddens me that so few of them come into our place as trade-ins; the ones that do tend to come from elderly people making their final new car purchase, or from people who've had the same old car in the family for years, and it's time to chop it in for a few quid rather than just throw it away. I'd love more of this kind of stuff to come in; imagine something from the '80s arriving. A Sierra, perhaps. A Hyundai Stellar? I can only fantasise.

Sports cars, then? Well, I've driven a great many but two stand out as having been particularly interesting and for totally different reasons. The Honda S2000 was a car that I had wanted to try for a number of years, and one suddenly turning up for me was something of an event. Fortunately, driving it proved to be well worth the wait; a hundred or so miles that I had to cover against the clock so it could arrive on time with its new owner gave me an excuse to stretch the cars legs a bit.

And what I found was a car with the most distinct split personality I had ever experienced. If you gave this car to your mum she'd be content to just amble around in it as if it were an open-top Civic. Apart from the start button there are no real clues to the S2000s party piece, until the rev-counter gives the game away. No doubt, if your mum kept the throttle down all the way past 8000rpm, she'd never want to drive the S2000 again. It's wild. That little step in power, when the VTEC system paves the way for the full top-end maelstrom; using the gears to try and stay in that magical zone is like living in some alternative arcade-game dimension where physics are all skew-whiff and distorted. It's an extraordinary piece of kit, and one that I imagine you getting more and more out of the more time you spend with it.

That said, you could apply that final sentiment to the BMW Z4M. 

To help put this car into context, later in the year I drove the two-litre model of this straight-six, M-Powered brute and was reminded that the same basic frame could be made to have wildly different personalities. The four-cylinder machine was meek, deft, light-footed, and delicate in handling. It was totally predictable and could, therefore, be made to perform amazing balletic feats without fear of it chewing your limbs off.

Dial an extra hundred and ninety three horses on top of the 150 boasted by the 2.0, season with re-thought suspension and brakes, and beef it up with general stiffening and recalibration,oh, and a roof, and you've got yourself a Z4M Coupe, one of the most rewarding cars I've driven this year.

It ticks a lot of boxes. It has looks, power, sound and feel. And speed; yes, a lot of that. But it's a car that demands commitment from its master, a beginner will stall, kangaroo and wander all over the road; I know this because I did just that. In fact, it was that that made me fall ever so slightly in love with it. There's a slightly agricultural, minimalist feel to the controls, the whole thing feels like the driver is part dancing, part fighting with the machinery. If the two of you get on well, the drive is a genuinely sublime experience. It also presents quite a steep learning curve, and I really loved that about it. It may look like a bit of a fashion statement, but it turned out to be the embodiment of “the more you put in, the more you get out”.

It's also somewhat indulgent. You can have an awful lot of fun, but you can only share the experience with one friend; the Z4 is a strict two-seater. Who cares? Ship the kids, the mother-in-law, the wife, separately. Send the dog as freight, whatever it takes. Not practical? Bah. Not to worry, there are, as we know, plenty of four and five seat sedans where performance is every bit as important as cup-holder count.

For quite a long time this particular recipe, that of the family-hauler with the huge injection of grunt, has been most commonly cooked by the Germans, with the odd American guest chef appearing in the restaurant. This year I drove a pair of Demonic Deutschländers, both wearing the three-pointed star at the bows. I was rather impressed by the E63 AMG, but felt that, with the S63 they had taken a very pleasant steak and then ruined it with too much hot sauce. It was fast, sure, but it wasn't anywhere near as good at being a car. At the same time, the modifications that the E63 brings to the E-Class chassis only went to emphasise how good the basic car was in the first place. It was all irrelevant, though, because for some years my favourite Super-Saloon had been the BMW M5.

And then I drove the Jaguar XF-R and found myself confused and re-considering my values. The Jag turned out to be spectacular, mixing the hammer-blow performance of the AMG with the springbok agility of the M5, and all the while doing it while cosseting its occupants in a smooth-riding, glove-leathered, quiet personal cocoon. If only the engine was a little more vocal; the song it sung was a sweet one, but the Germans trump it for blood and guts. I got over that pretty quickly, and had to accept that the blood-curdling scream of the M5's V10 was, really, the only thing that car does better than the XF-R. It is, simply, the best 500hp saloon I've driven thus far. Roll on the next generation from Munich.

My four hundred mile test of the E63 had been a hell of an experience, made even more so by the fact that I was making the return trip in a Nissan GT-R Black Edition. Among playstation fans the GT-R and it's Skyline brethren have become legendary, and the GT-R in particular has gained a reputation as the ultimate do-anything supercar, and all for what is a ridiculously low price tag. But would it live up to the hype? The answer was, well, it depends on your priorities.

Of course, there can never be any doubts at all in terms of what it can do. The performance available is nothing short of mind-blowing, with less than four seconds elapsing before you hit sixty, and the century arriving just a few seconds after that. The ride is harsh, no matter how the suspension is set up, and the interior somewhat toy-like, if robust. But the way the car played its trump card, cornering at seemingly any speed and drifting safely, guided all the while by phenomenally clever electronics, slightly alienated me as a driver.

I ended up with total admiration for the GT-R, for what it enabled me to achieve as a driver, but not even a sneaking desire to own one. Great to have a best mate with one that you could drive every now and again, but somehow not organic enough for me to love, despite it being, obviously, excellent in most measurable ways.

Which was a similar attitude to how I first felt about the Mercedes-Benz SLS, with its look-at-me gullwing doors and the sad truth that only footballers and bankers will be able to afford the £180k admission fee. It looked silly, all ludicrously long bonnet and full of retro pastiche, and the interior had a few budget touches to it, too. But pretty soon I realised I was being rather hard on the Mercedes flagship. I think, to my detriment, I had waded in with my defences set far too high.

The SLS is a quite toweringly capable car. It staggered me by how much more advanced it felt than any other Mercedes I had previously driven, not just in power (the CL65 is arguably more impressive in that regard) but in competence. The chassis feels bespoke, because it is; it's not evolved from some lesser vehicle. As a result, it's a lot more comfortable than other AMG products, rather than just a machine for short, adrenaline-led blasts, the SLS is a genuine trans-continental bomber.

I also ended up liking its personality, and couldn't help but be enamoured with the drama it exudes. Nor the fact that, unlike Ferraris and Porsches which incite hatred in other road users, everywhere the SLS goes jaws drop and sales reps and lorry-drivers give you the thumbs up; which you then acknowledge with a nod of the head and a kick-down through the gears. An exceptional machine, and one that I feel privileged to have driven.

But, still, it wasn't my favourite car of the year. That car was several years old and had a trade value of just £16,000. Of all the cars I've driven in the last year, the one I most wanted to be mine has been:

The Maserati Quattroporte.

This was the only car of the year where, after work, I would just go outside and sit in it. Not driving anywhere, not even starting the engine, just being inside it was enough. Sinking into that rich, deep leather, looking down that long, sculpted bonnet and listening to the soft Essex rain as it caressed every curve.

I absolutely adore the Maserati, despite my actual review highlighting the manifold reasons that owning one would be a terrible idea. The car I drove was beset with niggling electronic weirdnesses, in the space of my half-hour drive the Skyhook suspension management system, the magical technology that allowed the Maser to scythe through corners in a way that belied its size, both worked and then, suddenly, didn't. Then the ABS and traction control followed suit and I was totally unaided and on my own in a powerful, front mid-engined saloon car with a dry-sump V8.

It's character! It's a grumpy Italian! It was just having a bad day, surely. The previous miles I had driven where everything had worked, they were representative of the many, many good days I could have with the Quattroporte. That cabin that damn-near suffocates you with rich wood and leather aromas, that beguilingly individual Pininfarina-penned shape that flickers between ungainly and mesmerisingly beautiful, and, finally, that noise.

There are things out there that have a primal effect on me. When I see my girlfriend in lingerie I'm, of course, aroused. When I see a harbour seal I become immediately dewy eyed and disarmed, and if I hear a Quattroporte my head immediately snaps around in the direction of the sound and any conversation ends abruptly. In all honesty, making that noise I'd be in love with the Maserati even if it was a total piece of shit. The fact that it isn't almost seems just a bonus.