AS first-world problems go, this has got to one of the better ones. A line-up of brand new cars and PR folk who are willing to allow – nay, positively encourage you, to drive them as you seem fit for as long as you like; so long as you don’t take all day and make the effort to bring the precious metal back in one piece.
Yes, it’s another Test Day organised by the good people of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). The Northern event, from the Racecourse in Wetherby, Yorkshire, is not quite as big or spectacular as the Test Day they organise at Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedford, but for us Northerners it’s reet good to nae have to travel all that way darn saarf (a smorgasbord of regional accents right there for you). And, since moving to Scotland a couple of years ago, it’s also a great excuse for me to meet up with old hacks from south of the border to discuss all that is wrong with the government’s flip-flopping of policy when it comes to the motoring sector and the dire state of the country’s e-infrastructure. But mostly, it’s speculation on what could be on the menu at lunchtime.
However, there is also driving to be done, notes to be penned, features to be compared, photos to be taken and questions to be asked. I never said it was easy.
So, here’s a quick round-up of the 6 cars I managed to take for a spin and, not surprisingly, the electric outnumbered the ICE – Just as the entire line-up of over 50 cars did.
First up was Kia’s EV6 in GT-Line S trim. A fully-electric, RWD, SUV that looks great from the rear, good from the side and ok from the front. Inside is quite spectacular though, with 2 huge digital displays taking up 2-thirds of the entire dash, a floating centre console and quality materials all-round. A quick look in the rear reveals an impressive amount of leg room that had me thinking this was the perfect SUV for the growing family. If your family grow to 6ft 4in they’d still be happy back there. Impressive stuff.
It drove like I expected. Quiet, refined and quick when you want it to be. The Yorkshire weather was horrendous when I took the EV6 out – torrential rain and poor visibility – but I did manage to find some non-waterlogged country lanes to thrash about on and the Kia was absolutely fine. A real-world range of just over 300 miles makes for more than a short-commuter/shopper EV; it’s a great all-rounder and if I were in the market for a refined family SUV, it would be up there on the list. Mind, at £52,745 on the road, it isn’t cheap.
Next up was the Citroen e-C4 X which doesn’t have a name that easily trips off the tongue. The looks are even more awkward though – and that comes from someone who has a Mk.1 Cactus in the family.
It just looks, too . . . bulging. like the designer had bulges in mind but wasn’t too sure where to put them. The scalloped area at the front of the main doors, where the lines don’t meet up with the front wheel arches is just messy and would bug the hell out of me.
The bonnet bulges are just unneccsary too. The rear looks okay though, despite there being one-too-many horizontal lines.
Maybe the interior is better? Well, no, not really. I may have been more impressed if I hadn’t just gotten out of the Kia EV6, but the Citroen dash looks positively poverty-spec in comparison. The dark plastic on the dash is disappointing and the small digital dash fails to impress, as does the old-fashioned pop-up HUD screen. The 10in main screen is more impressive though and it’s sharp and responsive to the touch.
On the positive side – because there is more than one – it starts at just over £35k which isn’t bad for a mid-sized family car that has plenty of interior space and probably some of the most comfortable front seats you’ll ever sit in. Spec is good too, with plenty of driving aids and toys to keep you happy. The steering wheel feels good and chunky.
Rear space isn’t great, thanks to that sloping roof, but 3 kids would be okay back there and a couple of sub-6ft adults shouldn’t end up miserable.
On the road the Citroen will be more than suitable for around town or motorway driving. It isn’t particularly quick for an EV – 0-62mph takes 10 seconds, almost 3 seconds slower than the Kia, but it’s adequate.
Range is officially 222 miles, but expect sub-200 in the real world, especially in colder weather (which adversely affects all EVs, to varying degrees).
As in most Citroen’s ride-comfort is paramount and you do feel the effort Citroen have put in to make the e-C4 X a relaxed ride. Perfect for longer journeys.
The next car was one I have been particularly looking forward to driving – the Alfa Romeo Tonale (pronounce it as you wish, I don’t care).
I love the Giulia Veloce – which I prefer to the Quadrifoglio (I know, crazy) – and this Tonale sports the Veloce badge too, so expectation was high.
I’m not overly keen on the Tonale’s looks. They’re okay, but not distinct enough from the plethora of small/mid-sized SUVs that swarm over our roads. An Alfa should be distinct, like the Giulia is and the Stelvio is not.
No matter. The interior is typically Alfa Romeo – classy looking with a whiff of compromise. The steering wheel, with those huge aluminium paddle-shifters behind, is a thing of beauty and looking through it you see the classic twin-dials – although now they’re LED displays, of course.
The centre console is the bit that looks like it may fall apart, while the rest of the interior is impressive enough, if lacking a little colour or tone-change.
And at last, there’s a start button (on the steering wheel, of course, like all Italian supercars) that actually starts an engine with a roar instead of just opening a circuit to a whine.
With the weather improving I shot out of Weatherby Racecourse to find some country lanes and the mild hybrid (48V)1.5 engine (okay, it doesn’t roar, but it does sound pretty good after the EVs) is keen to get on with it – as is the steering which is as sharp as as sharp thing that has just been sharpened. At last, some proper driving.
I couldn’t resist turning the drive selector dial to Dynamic and hearing the engine a little louder. Yes! it was, well . . . okay – but no Busso. The 0-62mph dash takes 8.8 seconds so don’t expect this Tonale to light up your petrol-head bonfire. It handles great though and you always feel like you’re going much faster than you actually are. The handling helps with that; it’s very good for a compact SUV and there is much fun to be had on the twisties – which is testament to how good the chassis is set up on this FWD SUV. A great, sporty compact SUV that doesn’t disappoint on the road.
After reluctantly handing the Tonale’s keys back I then picked up the keys to a pink Fiat 500 electric convertible. I know . . . I blame the lack of calories. It was just before lunch.
In all honesty, I thought I’d grabbed the keys to the Abarth 500e and it was only when I noticed the roof could be peeled back like a tin of sardines, that I spotted my mistake.
It was a nice car and I liked the way the roof opened.
The Abarth 500e was next.
And it’s the cutest car of the day, with a face that sighs, “Oh, go on then. I’m trying to nap but if you insist . . .”
You’d think the first thing you would notice about the Abarth 500e was the colour – but no, it’s the sound. It’s completely bonkers. Faux burbles, pops and whistles are synthesised not just for the cabin occupants but for any passing pedestrians too, thanks to a waterproof speaker under the back of the car. No, really. It’s utterly silly and probably one of the tiny hot-hatch’s best selling points. Thankfully, though, you can switch it off.
The 155bhp motor will throw you into 62mph in just 7 seconds and you’ll be giggling like a schoolgirl while it does this because this is a fully-electric hot hatch and the acceleration is relentless, with no pause between gears and nothing to suggest you won’t eventually hit a million miles per hour if you just keep your foot down. The faux-exhaust sounds actually help when you’re throwing the Abarth around B-roads. I’m not sure how, but they do. I suppose it’s another guage, in a way.
Range is around 160 miles which isn’t bad considering the Abarth has a relatively small battery to keep the weight down.
It looks fab, sounds great (until the novelty wears off or your neighbours threaten you with violence) and is a huge amount of fun to drive. The interior is proper Abarth-like with Alcantara a-plenty and a banging 320 watt audio system. Loved it, but for £34k it’s a bit short on space.
Last up was my favourite drive of the day – the Toyota GR86 sports coupe.
Believe the hype; it’s that good. I always fancied the earlier GT86 (or Subaru BRZ) as a replacement for my MX-5; it seemed the perfect, affordable, rear-wheel drive coupe. But alas, it was never to be.
And I doubt I’ll ever own the Gazoo Racing GR86 either as they’re in limited number and all have been snatched up. There’s a reason for that . . .
Toyota have taken a well-loved GT86 and fettled and cajoled it into a near-perfect GR86 by improving everything from handling, interior and performance to style and desirability. The 2.4 boxer engine pushes out 231 bhp and the 0-62mph sprint takes just 6.3 seconds. Okay, the Honda Civic Type R is quicker and has rear seats that allow you to keep your legs attached but it’s way more expensive than the Toyota and isn’t the classic front-engined, RWD sports car that the GR86 is.
It has a manual gearbox too, like the Honda, that is just as sweet to use and a digital instrument display that shows Track Mode as an option. Speaking of options – there aren’t many. You can specify an automatic gearbox if you physically can’t use the manual (why else would you?) and there is a choice of metallic or pearlescent paint. That’s it.
With the sun now shining, like God knew I was about to embark on short adventure in a proper sportscar, I took the Toyota GR86 for the a spin around the Yorkshire countryside – and loved every minute.
The unforgiving ride of the old GT86 has gone, to be replaced by firm, but pliable suspension that induces confidence and a big smile. The 7,500rpm rev limit looks tempting and the growl is satisfying as you make your way toward it – even though it is augmented. The Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres do a brilliant job of avoiding the ditches and as I flick through the 6-speed gearbox I’m amazed at how light but planted the GR86 feels.
Steering feel is spot on and you really can point the front at the next apex knowing the car will take you exactly to that spot. All in all it’s a cracker of a car and I envy those who have managed to purchase one. For just under £30K, it’s an absolute bargain
All too soon it’s time to head back. I’ve taken a little longer than I’d said with the Toyota GR86 – but I expect I’m not the only one today.