Oliver Hammond at SMMT North 2012

The main SMMT Test Day at the iconic Millbrook Proving Ground back in May felt like an eternity ago, such is the way with modern life. Fortunately, SMMT hold smaller, regional Test Days, the ‘North’ day held at Wetherby Racecourse, North Yorkshire. I shared the journey with Ben Harrington, the exceptionally decent chap and fellow motoring writer behind DrivingTorque. Our trusty steed for traversing the M62 came in the form of a SEAT Exeo 2.0 TDI 140PS Sport Tech press car, and we must say that it represented a perfectly good motorway mile-muncher.

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We arrived in time for breakfast and the obligatory recharge of coffee, before hitting the cars (not literally, of course). The manufacturers and attendees were grouped together in one large function room, so it was a much cosier and more intimate affair than back in May at Millbrook. I won’t waffle on about all the various nuances of the day, as many of the manufacturers know how much I appreciate their support. You know who you are. And it was equally nice to catch up with other fellow motoring bloggers who I hadn’t seen since the national bash in May. The Whitby seafood pie was splendid, too – thanks, SMMT.

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After spending a preposterously long time trying to decide which personally-unchartered car to drive first, I chose to take a Ssangyong Korando SX for a spin – which would hopefully make my colleague Simon proud, as he’s a big advocate of Ssangyong.

Ssangyong Korando SX

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Hoorah – the chance at last to pop my Ssangyong cherry, with their unmissable, orange (oops – ‘Vitamin Red’, to be precise!) Korando SX. Priced from £16,995, it’s aimed as a cheaper alternative to the ubiquitous and well-mannered Nissan Qashqai, stylish and solid Kia Sportage and Hyundai’s ix35. Looks-wise, I actually quite like it, the styling holding its head up alongside its aforementioned rivals and other C-segment 4×4 crossovers. The Korando SX was designed by Giugiaro, don’t you know? I climbed into the SX fully expecting the interior quality to be on the robust but cheap and cheerful side, so I wasn’t disappointed or surprised. Even Kia cars are a bit plasticky in places and the Ssangyong SX packs in loads of kit as standard, from rear parking sensors, ESP and hill start assist to Bluetooth and a clever ‘Torque on demand’ four wheel drive system. This test car was even fitted with an aftermarket touchscreen sat nav and audio system. I’m just not a fan of seat-back nets, preferring pockets – and having to turn the key to lock and unlock the doors felt quite nostalgic.

The 6-speed manual gearbox wasn’t the slickest and the 2-litre 149bhp diesel engine was noisey at times but once the Korando SX got going it drove pretty well, except for sharp corners which weren’t its forte. The Korando’s torque figure impresses at 360Nm but it’s delivered within a narrow power band of 2,000-3,000rpm. It’s roomy inside, has a capacious boot and is said to be a proper 4×4 as it’s got a locking diff’, clever distribution of torque to whichever wheels need it and a 50:50 power split to make towing up to 2 tonnes on tricky terrain that bit easier. So at £18,975 for this particular car and after a mere 20 minutes behind the wheel, I’d say it’s generally a good effort for those on a budget who can’t afford one of its rival compact SUVs. Trouble is, it’s only about £2,000 cheaper than them, so badge snobs may still elect to go elsewhere – and the Korando will definitely have its work cut out as the market’s bargain offering when it is soon barged into second place by the Dacia Duster which will be priced from only £14,995 in diesel 4×4 form, albeit less powerful than the Korando. Still, in the meantime, I quite liked the Korando SX after my brief stint in it today.

BMW 330d Luxury Touring

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Compared to some other estates out there, the new ‘F31’ designation BMW 3-Series Touring could be viewed by some as slightly bland in the execution of its exterior design. But as is often the case in life when it comes to any product, the class-leader is usually the one which doesn’t have to shout about it. Look carefully at each angle of the new 3 Touring and like me, you may warm to its understated shape, which discretely oozes quality, solidity and heritage. The smart exterior gives way to a beautiful interior, which in this test car with its gorgeous brown leather, could almost be described as opulent. The dashings of chrome and wood trim, the iDrive controller and the widescreen display all oozed exquisite taste. Room in the back felt very generous and the seats usefully split 40:20:40 allowing you to carry long items in-between two rear passengers. The boot (which opened and closed electronically at the touch of a button) hardly had any lip on it, too, and came adorned with lots of useful nets and compartments. Yes, as far as the interior’s concerned, I can see what all the fuss is about.

BMWs have always been renowned for their handling, so I was expecting the new 3-Series Touring to be good – and indeed it was. It dispatched twisty, fast A-roads with ease and felt equally composed on narrow and rutted B-roads, only letting itself down once or twice over deeper potholes or on very uneven stretches of road. The assisted steering felt precise and the 8-speed automatic gearbox seemed very smooth. I used the paddle-shifts a lot, to add a bit of excitement. Sport mode did stiffen the handling up, sharpen the throttle response and lengthen the gear ratios. I didn’t have time to try it in full Eco Pro mode, but the stop-start in Comfort mode worked unintrusively. It sounds incongruous that this 258bhp 3-litre straight six diesel estate with 560Nm of torque has a published average fuel consumption figure of 55.4mpg, and a brief drive at a SMMT Test Day obviously doesn’t provide the opportunity to test the claims – but if they’re true, this is one fine machine. The heads-up display is way better than Peugeot’s too, that’s for sure. Road tax will cost £120 a year as things currently stand, which is impressive considering what 3-litre diesels of yesteryear cost.

Volvo V40 D2 SE Nav (manual)

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An epicly important car for Volvo, who haven’t made a forray into the executive hatchback sector for quite some time – so it’s a good job the V40 is an aesthetic pleaser. In fact, I reckon it looks superb, rather like a squashed V60 blended with rear-end hints of the firm’s C30, P1800ES and even the 480. It looks a bit like a mini estate and in fact, it replaces both the V50 estate and S40 saloon in the Volvo range. From every angle, this car looks great, especially in white, which offsets the blackened glass hatch perfectly. Volvo interiors have always been very nice places in which to spend long journeys, with super-comfortable seats, surfaces and materials oozing a butter-soft tactile finish, and packed with the latest safety, entertainment and other kit. The V40 is no exception. I’m a leather man, but the cloth seats in this test car were just as comfortable and cosseting. The panoramic roof arched from front to rear was another very welcome (optional) feature and the dashboard in the V40 is very modern. I just didn’t like the transluscent design of the gearstick, which changes its glow according to the chosen mood-lighting setting. The V40 is an immensely safe car, too – not that I tested its safety systems out on the Wetherby roads, of course! In addition to Volvo’s commonly accepted systems like BLIS, warning you of blind spot dangers, the V40 packs in a reversing camera with guiding lines, Park Assist Pilot which helps you steer as you shift gears and control the pedals, City Safety, pedestrian detection, lane change warnings, knee airbags, adaptive cruise control, Rear Alert which warns you of dangers as you reverse out of parking spaces (handy for supermarkets!) and even external airbags making crashes in a V40 safer for the pedestrian(s) you hit. If you’re out of breath reading that non-exhaustive list of safety inovations in the V40, I was equally exhausted writing it!

As soon as I fired up the V40 D4’s 5-cylinder, 175bhp, 2-litre diesel engine, it sounded unmistakably like a Volvo, having spent three weeks living with Volvo press cars this year. My old friend the ‘D’ engine and I, reunited again. It’s an understatement to say that twenty minutes encompassing a brief A1(M) blast, a long A-road jaunt and a few windy B-roads, isn’t enough time to assess a car. The V40 handled memorably well, though, and proved fun to drive. It held onto the road well and ride comfort wasn’t sacrificed in the process. The diesel stop-start engine pulled well and felt torquey, so D4 buyers won’t be left wanting in the power department. The 440Nm or torque comes in early at around 1,700rpm. The brakes seemed very good too, stopping the car admirably well but without feeling too firm or sensitive. And the steering was nice and sharp even when left in Normal mode (Eco and Performance are the other two options). The big, in-yer-face computerised instruments and dials took a while to get used to but I rather liked them in the end. Space in the back seemed very good indeed when I had a quick poke around and the boot with its optional adjustable floor levels will no doubt swallow whatever a family throws at it. For business drivers, CO2 emissions are impressive at 114g/km. This test car would cost just over £30k once the options had been totted up, so a highly-specified V40 D4 won’t come cheap. I know a nicely-appointed BMW 120d rival would cost slightly less, but I’d rather be an individual and choose the V40 based on my short drive today.

Mercedes-Benz E300 BlueTEC Hybrid

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Merc-wise for me today, it was a toss-up between this and the SL350 BlueEFFICIENCY. Both cars were already out, while I was chatting to Caroline. When they both became available again simultaneously, I chose head over heart and went for the E-Class, as it’s brand new to the fleet and is said to be a remarkable, future-shaping car for the brand. Externally, I personally thought this particular new E-Class saloon looked fairly ordinary, mainly down to its small 16” alloy wheels and lack of any other styling accoutrements. When it came to the interior, I don’t know if it was partly because the gentleman who met me at the car was dressed like a chauffeur, but I felt slightly intimidated by the ambience of the cabin. This surprised me, as I’ve driven much more expensive cars like a Bentley Flying Spur and felt immediately at home in them. But the Mercedes made me feel very solemn and serious. Not particularly in a bad way, but it just did. I almost didn’t want to cough in there in case I spoilt the ambience. I was faced with a plethora of controls and screens, which would have required 20 hours to become fully accustomed to. So for the 20 minutes drive, I just focused on getting the thing out on the road. The gearbox is switched between Park, Drive and Reverse by the stalk positioned to the right of the steering wheel, which sounds unusual and indeed is, but I got used to it quite quickly. The operation I didn’t adapt to as well was the business of indicating, as the stalk I kept instinctively using was actually the Distronic control. The indicator stalk was located beneath. Two panoramic roofs, beautifully soft leather, bags of space for occupants and a large boot finished the package off nicely.

I’ve written up my thoughts on today’s cars in chronological order, so you’ll next be reading about Citroen’s diesel-electric hybrid, which they say was the world’s first. Yes, the Citroen was very quiet, but retrospecively comparing it to the E300 BlueTEC, I’d say the Merc’ was even more hushed, not only in full electric mode, but also when the diesel engine kicked in. In fact, I had to remind myself that the E300 BlueTEC uses a diesel engine, not a petrol. It really was that quiet – eerily so. And not just at slow speeds, but also on the motorway – adding to the library-like ambience. From what I could gather after a few fleeting glances at the array of screens before me, the fuel economy of the Merc’ looked impressive, averaging in the mid-60s. This reinforces Mercedes’ recent mission, which saw this exact car drive from Cornwall to the tip of northern Scotland on a single tank, and still had fuel left, indicating that its range may exceed 1,000 miles and putting its average consumption at 67.2mpg. Blimey! The 7G-TRONIC PLUS gearbox shifted wonderfully smoothly and the 4-cylinder, 2.1-litre engine taken from the E250 CDI remained hushed except when under hard acceleration. It’s augmented by a 27bhp electric motor. This diesel-electric hybrid saloon is no slouch, hitting 62mph in 7.5 seconds and a top speed of 144mph. CO2 emissions are a mere 109g/km. These impressive figures are contributed to by the use of a clever wet clutch system, and the electric motor acting in place of a torque convertor. Priced around £38,000, it’s slightly cheaper than the BMW ActiveHybrid 5, obviously depending on what options are specified. Despite the E-Class not being as long as say a S-Class, Jaguar XJ or Lexus LS, it actually felt like it, probably because of the long and relatively flat bonnet, with the three-pointed star perched on the end. I would need to spend much more time with the E300 BlueTEC hybrid saloon to fully form a view on it, but from my brief drive today, I’d say it’d make an excellent choice for businesspeople who do a lot of wafting on the motorway and want to do so in oppulent, economical silence.

Citroen DS5 DSPORT Hybrid4 200 Airdream

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As the founder of the Renault Vel Satis Owners Club, I’m obviously a big fan of leftfield French luxo-barges, so was naturally itching to have a go in a Citroen DS5 Hybrid4 – the world’s first diesel hybrid. A picture speaks a thousand words, so I’ll let the images speak for themselves. Suffice to say, though, the DS5 oozes sexiness from every angle and the level of exquisite detail implemented by Citroen is remarkable. I drive various luxury cars on a regular basis but they all felt a bit samey once I opened the door, dropped my jaw and sat in the DS5. Once again, Citroen have created a car like nothing else. The way the high-up seating position is juxtaposed by the elevated transmission tunnel is brilliant, giving you the combined impressions of sportiness, wafting-luxury and safety. The rulebook has been characteristically thrown out of the window, with even the electric window switches positioned on the centre stack, which is mirrored above by an aircraft-like array of buttons. Everything from the gear shifter, luxury-watch-style analogue clock, metallic surfaces and futuristic dashboard to the opulent and original two-tone leather interior design and the independent sunroofs with their own electrically-operated blinds is absolutely incredible. But the most heroic aspect of the DS5 Hybrid4 has to be its drivetrain, utilising a 163bhp 1.6-litre diesel engine with a 37bhp electric motor, together producing (for this particular DSPORT Hybrid4 200 Airdream model) an incredibly low 102g/km of CO2 emissions. This is all thanks to Citroen’s clever use of stop-start, gearbox and software technology and results in this model’s BIK for business users coming in at a remarkable 11%. The DS5 Hybrid4 can be driven in Auto, Sport or 4WD modes, and can be driven completely by electric power for short times in ZEV mode.

Out on the road, the DS5 proved remarkably quiet, as you would expect. It attracted a heck of a lot of admiring glances from other motorists and pedestrians, too. The ride itself was refined except for the occasional ‘searching’ from the electronically-controlled automatic gearbox and the odd pothole – and from keeping an eye on the dashboard computer while I drove, the fuel economy looked very good. Toggling the DS5 from Auto to Sport to 4WD definitely made suitable differences to the way it handled, with more responsive steering in Sport and an increased feeling of plantedness in 4WD. It’s a heavy car in range-topping guise, though, so stepping on the gas and stressing the diesel engine isn’t exactly a spiritual experience. But despite honing in on what sounded like a couple of rattles, the whole DS5 experience provided an enormous sense of occasion, just like the Vel Satis did in its heyday. But just like its £32k price tag failed to entice buyers away from BMW, Mercedes and the like, it’ll be very interesting to see what happens to DS5 sales over the coming years. Whatever the case, it sure is one remarkable car that ticks almost every box.

Porsche Cayenne GTS

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I’ve always been known as an admirer of the Cayenne – the original model, especially. I drove the superb Panamera GTS at the main SMMT Test Day at Millbrook in May and was blown away. So it was music to my ears when Mike Orford told me the Panamera which was down on the list for SMMT North (Wetherby) 2012 had been replaced by a Cayenne GTS. I do admittedly prefer subtlety but certainly wasn’t going to complain about the Cayenne GTS being a conspicuous red. If you’re an extrovert type who doesn’t mind attracting a lot of positive and negative attention in equal measure, the GTS is for you (especially in red). Its full-fat bodykit, enormous wheels and racing-car-esque interior aren’t all there for show, though. Engine roar on start-up? Check. Lovely bellow as I pulled out of the car park, down towards the exit? Check. Awesome sound as I floored the Cayenne GTS at the first opportunity? Check.  For a car that weighs over 2 tonnes, this thing is quick – very quick. A top speed of 162mph and hitting 62mph in a potential 5.7 seconds have got to impress, courtesy of its 414bhp, 4.8-litre V8 engine. Despite all this, the GTS actually sits below the Turbo in the Cayenne range and costs a ‘mere’ £67k plus options.

The Cayenne GTS I drove was left in Normal mode for the majority of the 30-minutes’ drive around Wetherby B-roads, and unless your back can withstand granite-hard suspension, it’s perhaps best left in Normal, as putting it into Sport mode stiffened everything up too much to retain any comfort. On the flip-side, the throttle response is even sharper in Sport and the exhaust note even more capable of making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I was amazed at how well the Cayenne GTS handled, feeling more like a hatchback when chucked around rural lanes at speed. Indeed, it belies its actual size and shrinks around you. The ability to drive a mammoth SUV but for it to feel like a sports car is quite something. But as with any beastly car like this, the speed limit always comes up far too quickly, so as much as I enjoyed it, I was left with a slight ‘what’s the point?’ feeling. Richard from Porsche, who accompanied me, sang the 3-litre diesel Cayenne’s praises, telling me it has more torque than this petrol GTS. So after driving a brand new GTS, my Cayenne lust hasn’t dampened. A used ‘S’ will still be more than enough for me, that’s all. Thanks again to Mike for his patience (blame Citroen!).

So, there you have it. The cheapest proper crossover 4×4 you can currently buy, two very impressive diesel-electric hybrids, a remarkably good all-rounder executive hatchback, the class-leading compact executive diesel estate, and a ridiculously powerful SUV which handles rather well. Thanks again to the manufacturers, to Ben, to all the Racecourse staff, to SMMT and to the weather, for giving us a much nicer day than the attendees at SMMT South experienced.

© Oliver Hammond

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