Even kids let loose in sweet shops don’t have it as good as this. Oh, I forgot to mention that we had sweets too. I know, I know . . .
ALL in the name of journalism of course. Mrs. B and I sacrificed Wednesday night sat in front of the TV with a bottle of wine and packets of Roysters crisps (always go well with a cheeky Pinot) to journey down to Bedfordshire and spend the night sleeping on a petrol station forecourt.
Okay, perhaps we didn’t sleep on the forecourt but the Travelodge hotel at Marston Moretaine does sit at the end of a forecourt and on a warm night, with the windows open, it certainly sounds like you’re on the forecourt. Or at least in the shop, between the sucky-sweets and the warm sandwiches.
I made this sacrifice to ensure that I was up early enough in the morning to attend the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders event which was being held 5 minutes down the road at Millbrook Proving Ground where I was to get to drive any number of cars I fancied from a choice of 117, representing 35 brands.
Why Mrs. B was making a sacrifice, I have no idea. She wasn’t allowed into the event on account of not being a journo. She wasn’t even allowed to come and spectate – even if she just sat in one place and didn’t speak. However, she still chose to support me on the long trip and it was nothing to do with me moaning about “being on my own” or “having to spend the night in a strange hotel. With strangers.”
Anyway, the next morning I was up and out early. I waved goodbye to Mrs. B who was looking out from the hotel window and waving enthusiastically. As I drove off I heard the words “sodding”, “bus” and “no” but then I thought I caught the words “taxi” and “shopping outlet” so assumed a natural order had been resumed.
What is a SMMT Test Day anyway?
For those of you who don’t know what an SMMT Test Day is all about then, in a nutshell, it’s an annual event to showcase the best the UK car market has to offer and that includes, city cars, SUVs, sports cars, family cars, luxury saloons, pick-ups, electric and low/no emission vehicles, hydrogen-powered cars and there’s even some nostalgia thrown in too – this year it included a 20-year-old Mitsubishi 3000GT and a Mk.1 Nissan Micra.
You won’t find many super-cars here – there is no Bugatti, Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren or even Tesla, but you will find Aston Martin who have attended for the last 2 years, Porsche, Maserati and all the top-end cars from Mercedes, Lexus, Volkswagen, BMW and Audi. If the exotic is not your thing then you can quite happily spend the day driving more mainstream vehicles which make up the vast majority of choice.
It’s a press-only affair but “press” now includes bloggers, website owners and video-reviewers of course so you will find a wide and varied amount of experience as well as a decent mix of male and female journalists covering a wide age-range. Male journalists still dominate but there were a lot more females in attendance than I had expected which can only be a good thing for the industry, both motor and press.
Speaking of age; there are some restrictions on those aged under-25 who are not allowed to drive some of the more powerful vehicles – obviously a restriction from the insurance companies. I had no such problem though! Affiliated photographers are allowed in – but are not allowed to drive the cars and filming is only allowed with special permission.
The Millbrook Concept Centre, breakfast and briefing
After parking up (at the mile-long straight) we were bussed to the Concept Centre, in front of which all the manufacturers were displaying their wares – a very impressive sight, especially for a newbie like me.
Between 8 am and 8:30 am breakfast was provided in the Concept Centre and at 8:30 there was a briefing by SMMT Chief Executive Mike Hawes on the current state of the industry. We were assured is looking very healthy with last year’s new car registrations hitting a record 2.7 million. 8.2 million used cars changed hands and the UK exported 1.4 million to more than 160 countries.
Brexit will, of course, present a challenge as continued growth will rely on trade deals being struck that won’t slow the momentum and it was interesting to hear that unfavourable conditions could see £1,500 being added to the price of the average car sold here in the UK.
However, Mr. Hawes assured us all that the SMMT is working hard with the government and those across Europe to ensure that priorities are understood and the general feel was of great optimism for the future. I did wonder, however, how much of this optimism was a direct result of low interest rates making Personal Contract Plans so attractive and what will happen if those rates rise . . .
Anyway, nothing was going to spoil the day. The weather was beautiful and there were shiny new cars to be driven so, after watching a safety briefing which included an explanation of which flags may be waved at you (yellow, “slow down”, red “pull over you prat”, etc) at 9am we were sent out to pick up our name tags and then let loose on the metal. Oh joy!
Lots of cars, an Aston queue and an Alfa disappointment
I spent the next 20 minutes doing something that is very unusual on a Test Day – I queued. I queued at the Aston Martin stand to book a time slot for driving the DB11. I was too late, they had already gone – no doubt some of the bigger names had been allowed to pre-book – but no matter I was told the Vanquish S was available at 11:30 so I filled in a form and then made my way over to the Fiat/Alfa Romeo stand to drive the Giulia Quadrifoglio 510bhp, 2.9 Bi-Turbo.
Alfa Romeo, in their infinite wisdsom, had only brought the one and it was fully booked for the day. Damn. I was told I could drive the 4C Spider if I came back at 4:40pm though. I made my booking and headed off to the Maserati GB stand. There’s a pattern emerging here, I know; but if you’re a kid in a sweet shop with very limited opening times you’re gonna go for the stuff you can’t pick up from Morrisons, right?
First drive and something to cross off my bucket list – the Maserati Quattroporte
Anyway, the very helpful Anna Angelini and Jess Leimanis told me the Quattroporte would be available in 10 minutes, supplied me with a fresh coffee and sat me down. Sure enough, 10 minutes later I was being shown to a beautiful metallic grey Quattroporte S with a 3-litre V6 engine and 410bhp. With a price tag well north of £82,000 I can understand why some time was taken to run through some settings before I was let loose on the Millbrook courses.
Another journalist was climbing into a Maserati Ghibli at the same time and he suggested that we simply “swap over” in 20 minutes time. Sounded good to me . . .
The Millbrook Test Routes explained – sort of . . .
A word about the routes that we were to use at Millbrook: By far the most popular was the Hill Route (or Alpine Route, as some referred to it) which, as the name suggests has some mild to steep-ish climbs and some damn tight bends with both positive and negative camber along the route. If you’ve ever driven on Britain’s most dangerous road – the Cat and Fiddle between Buxton and Macclesfield – then you would have some idea of what to expect – except at Millbrook you have no oncoming traffic to worry about as you crest the blind summit on the “wrong” side of the road. It certainly induces some bottom-squeaking moments the first couple of times you fly round it.
There is a speed-limit of 55mph on this road but I expect the marshalls were giving some leeway and all I can say is that it feels like you are doing 155mph a lot of the time and it is immense fun and totally addictive. There is no overtaking allowed except at a couple of designated places which I always failed to spot.
Incidentally, this is the track that was used to film Daniel Craig flipping his Aston Martin in Casino Royale. Something I was acutely aware of later on when I was hooning around in a £250,000 Vanquish S . . .
Much less challenging but still great fun is the famous 2-mile, banked, circular High Speed Circuit which has 5 lanes. Use lane 1 up to 40mph, lane 2 for 60mph, lane 3 up to 70mph and lane 4 if you fancy doing a ton. To use lane 5 you have to be accompanied by a manufacturer’s representative and if you wish to go beyond 130mph you’ll need to be a manufacturer approved pro-driver. Not me then.
There is also the City Course which replicates urban driving, complete with pot holes and mini roundabouts. I used it once and got hopelessly lost for about 15 minutes.
The Off-Road Route is pretty much self-explanatory. Ridiculous climbs, deep water, deep muddy ruts and rollercoaster-like descents that make you swear inwardly until you realise the Auto Hill Descent means you’re doing about 2mph.
There was also a road route that meant you leave the complex and follow a map around the local roads. With my sense of (mis)direction I gave that a miss.
So back to the Massers – I confess I don’t remember much about them because (a) I was concentrating on finding my way to the Hill Route and (b) I was concentrating on not crashing on the Hill Route.
I needed more time to adjust which was never more obvious than when a Kia Rio came past me on the first climb. I had 300 more horses but never caught him on that first lap. Never mind, it’s not a race. Well that’s what I thought but everyone else begged to differ . . . Although by the end of the day I had come to appreciate just how disciplined everyone was – I never saw any outrageous maneuvers and everyone seemed to give everyone else space and time. After all it was in everyone’s interest not to break anything and the army of marshalls scattered around the route were doing a fine job of keeping everyone from getting too giddy.
What I DO remember was the sound of the Quattroporte which was glorious, especially on acceleration but also when the autobox downshifted. The car didn’t feel too big on the road either. Make no mistake, it IS a big car, bigger than the Jaguar XJR but it somehow shrunk around you when driven hard. It handled beautifully too which I was grateful for on more than one occasion. The Maserati Quattroporte was always a favourite of mine and now it is even more so.
The Maserati Ghibli – a delectable diesel?
The Ghibli looked very similar, just a bit smaller but still with 4 doors and the interior was, to my eyes, identical – which means it looked very stylish indeed and extremely well finished.
However, a diesel in an Italian sports car? When I switched it on, I confess I winced in expectation. I shouldn’t have bothered. The Ghibli’s 3.0-litre V6 diesel won’t embarrass you and neither will the 275bhp it puts out. The roar from the exhaust is genuinely a roar from the exhaust – deep and guttural – it is not synthesised through the audio system like it is on lesser cars. As good as the Quattroporte? Nope. Definitely not but still very good indeed – and a lot cheaper to buy at around the £50,000 mark.
Porsche Cayenne Turbo S
Whilst waiting for my turn with the Aston Martin Vanquish S I wandered over to the Porsche stand as this is another marque I have yet to drive. There I was put straight into a Cayenne Turbo S that still doesn’t do it for me on the looks front I’m afraid. The proportions just look a bit odd. Ungainly. And then I drove it and kinda fell in love. All the Porsche drives were accompanied by a Porsche-approved pro-driver which meant I got to go quicker than I would have done had I been alone because the pro-driver explains how to get the most out of the car but without distracting you too much – which is quite a skill.
Again, the Cayenne seemed to shrink around me as I took it around the Hill Route. It felt very composed even with me behind the wheel. Although I was at the limit of my nerve on some of those hairpins the Cayenne felt like it was nowhere near its own limits. Grip, grip and then more grip. Oh, it sounded great too but nowhere near as loud as the Quattroporte.
THE highlight among many highlights – Aston Martin’s Vanquish S
After booking a drive in the 718 Boxster S for later I headed back to Aston Martin for what was, unsurprisingly, the highlight of the day. The Vanquish S just looks utterly magnificent – as did the DB11 and the V12 Vantage S next to it. But the Vanquish S is the one you’d pick if you could only have one. I was sort of glad that the DB11 hadn’t been available (which is something I never thought I would ever say!)
With every body panel made from carbon-fibre and a verging-on-the-overengineered V12 power unit below that huge bonnet it’s no wonder the Vantage S costs so much – and this one had around £50,000 worth of “tweaks”. No surprise then that this was another accompanied drive.
From the moment my bum hit the leather (boy, that seat is low!) I knew the next 30 minutes were going to be very special indeed. First impressions were (a) Good God, I’ve never smelt leather that expensive before. It smelled like money. But leather money that you would just hold up to your nose all day and never actually spend. (b) This thing is so low I could probably steal it without damaging the barrier on the way out. (c) There is no gearstick. Anywhere.
Then you push the key fob into the hole in the centre of the centre console while pressing on the brake pedal and Beelzebub himself roars into your ear that you’ve woken him and he’s not best pleased. And you can’t stop that roar either. It just happens. If you have neighbours and you leave for work at 6 in the morning you are going to be the most hated person on your street. I would suggest buying a house at the top of a hill so you can roll out of earshot before starting up the Vanquish.
Then again, if you own a Vanquish and give those neighbours a ride in it every now and again, you’d probably be forgiven anything . . .
The very nice chap from Aston Martin (whose name now escapes me) pointed out that the gear selection was a series of buttons on the dash which was great because I would have been sat there for ages. He also pointed out the Sport and Damper Adjust buttons for later use which I immediately thought he may come to regret . . .