SMMT Day, 2017 - Millbrook Testing Facility

Over the years, the SMMT day at Millbrook has quickly established itself as TML's event of the year, with over a hundred cars, from 35 manufacturers, to choose from, it’s easy to see why.  Then of course, there are the 5 routes: the famed hill route, high speed oval, city route, off-road route and of course the road route that takes you out of Millbrook and around local villages.  As I've described it previously, it's like speed dating, only with cars, and you get to try them out, if you want to!

When details of the 2017 event arrived I went through the list of cars that I wanted to drive and marked them with a highlighter.  However, once I'd tallied them all up, the list came to 22 cars, and at 20 minutes per car, that's 7-1/2 hours of driving.  That wasn’t going to happen so I would have to be ruthless.

Peugeot 3008

I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on one of these since I first saw the press photos last year.  There were 2 versions to try out, the manual 1.2ltr PureTech 130 petrol, and the auto 2ltr BlueHDi 180 diesel, for my first drive I opted for the former.

I love the interior, though it isn’t for everyone.  The steering wheel is ovalish, sitting low enough for you to read the instrument panel above it, and the left hand side of the dash tapers in like you’re in a cockpit.  However, for all of its funkiness, it has 2 flaws, the first being that the foot rest next to the clutch pedal is a tad too wide and too close to the clutch pedal, which meant it stopped me from changing gear as I couldn’t fully depress the clutch.  Having said that, I’m confident that after a week or so of driving it I'd get used to repositioning my feet.  The second annoyance is that the bottle / cup holders are right behind the gear stick making it difficult to change gear with bottles in situ.  I find it difficult to believe that no one ever noticed this during tests, it's such an obvious design flaw.

Acknowledging my moans, Mason, Peugeot’s media guru suggested I try the automatic version as not only does it have just the 2 pedals, but the auto gear stick suits the interior far better and by-jove he was right!  Driving the auto around the hill route was fun, there was a little wallowing, but that’s the nature of the road.  The auto box worked well with the 2ltr diesel, and I’m looking forward to spending a week with one to see how it copes on the daily commute and longer journeys.  Unfortunately Peugeot aren’t giving the 3008 a 4wd system, though on certain models it does have their remarkable Grip Control.

Mercedes Benz Marco Polo

Another vehicle that I read about last year was Mercedes’ Marco Polo camper van.  Based on the V-Class, it has a fully equipped kitchenette with a two gas hobs, a fridge, a sink, a luxury couch that extends into a bed and a another bed within the easy-up electric pop-up roof.  There’s even a camping table and chairs stowed in the luggage compartment so you can enjoy the great outdoors.

As you would expect from Mercedes, it’s packed with loads of safety features that help you stay alert at the wheel, including a Garmin Map Pilot navigation and a self-guided parking system that manoeuvres it into parking spaces with minimal effort. 

With a starting price at just over £53k, the Marco Polo is a classy camper and ticks a lot of boxes for those of us who need to escape regularly.  

Mitsubishi L200 SVP

I love this pick-up, I’ve borrowed a few of them over the years and although I’ve never worked them hard, they have always been a joy to drive, and live with.

In this new guise, the L200 SVP Barbarian Double Cab, giving it its full title, starts at just under £28,500, and has a host of new features that includes a premium leather interior,  17” bespoke black alloy wheels shod with BF Goodrich All Terrain tyres, aggressive over-sized wheel arch extensions, puddle lamps, a mesh sports grille and front and rear foot-well mood lighting (catches breath), amongst many.

I only took the SVP around the off-road course, which of course it walked, but I’m hoping to borrow the automatic version soon which I’m told makes the L200 a very different animal, so watch this space.

Jaguar XJR

As soon as I noticed that JLR had an XJR on their list, there was no way that I was going to leave Millbrook without driving this car, not only was it the 548bhp fire breathing monster version, but the perfect colour combo too.

I always feel like a kid on Christmas morning when I get behind the wheel of an XJ, it’s one of my favourite ‘normal’ cars, and will be one of the first in my 'lottery-win' garage.  Although we only had 20 minutes together I was totally satisfied, taking it around the Hill Route was a hoot with its poise and power, and that acceleration - 0-60mph in 4.4 seconds and a top speed of 174mph - absolute bonkers.  This, dear reader, is a proper Jag.

Then for a laugh I took it around the tight and narrow city route that mimics, well, city and town centre driving with tight turns and mini roundabouts.  Of course the XJR felt equally at home tootling around this short course as it did the hill route with its fabulous electric steering making light work of it all.  If I had to have only one car for everything, and I'm not talking 4x4, then then XJR would be it.

Suzuki Swift

My first mistake of the day was not bringing any suncream with me, at Millbrook it’s either hammering it down in epic proportions, or it’s so hot that even sun-worshippers would go sit in the shade, today was the latter.  My second mistake, and certainly not my brightest decision of the day was driving the Suzuki Swift straight after the XJR.  Of course, I’m not suggesting in any way that the Swift is inferior, but in motoring terms they’re at polar ends of the spectrum.  

If you’ve read my previous reviews in the Suzuki section, you’ll know that I have a massive appreciation for them, especially the Vitara S, but what’s the Swift like to drive?  Well, it’s recently been updated and the new Swift comes with a raft of safety features and a new, more curvaceous body.  Zooming around the hill route with its 89bhp 1.2ltr Dualjet petrol engine, the new Swift handled the twists, turns and adverse cambers assuredly well, and I’m sure that Suzuki’s ALLGRIP 4x4 technology helped keep me on track on occasions.

At £16,149, this range-topping SZ5 ‘mild hybrid’ Swift offers great value and was an absolute joy to throw around the track!

Volvo V90 Cross Country

With just over 2” of extra ground clearance over the standard V90, it handled the off-road course incredibly well, and its articulation wasn’t bad either, considering.

Earlier on in the day I watched some guy make a real hash of the long descent, the Volvo’s front end scooping sand like a shovel as it barrelled down the hill.  However, on my go I edged the V90 carefully, and let the Hill Descent system do the work.  It worked impeccably, slowing this huge barge, and keeping everything under control.

The V90 Cross Country is a lot of car, and it means business too.  Alongside the extra ground clearance, the front and rear tracks are wider and features the aforementioned hill descent-control, as well as a dedicated off-road mode for the steering, powertrain and brakes

One thing I’ve noticed, or more to the point, haven’t noticed over the years with Volvo is that they don’t advertise their off-road capabilities, they really should as they’re pretty good once you get them off the beaten track.  Again, the V90 is another car that I'm looking to spend a bit more time with in the future.

MG GS

Launched at The London Motor Show in May 2016, MG sold over 500 GS’ in just 176 days proving again that the Crossover / SUV sector is the one to be in.

Jumping into the GS my first impression was that it was actually a pleasant place to be, and the dash layout was comprehensive with everything to hand, although the seat base, for me, was a bit on the narrow side. Driving around the twisty hill route, the GS’ 164bhp 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine had a nice rasp and picked up really well through the DCT 7-speed auto ‘box.  My only problem was the aforementioned seats, during tight left hand bends it felt like I was sliding off them!  To be fair, a true test would be normal day-to-day driving during which I reckon they would be more suited.

Starting at a smidge over £15,000, the 2wd MG GS is another great value crossover, and not a bad looking one either.

Discovery 5

Surprisingly for a mainly 4x4 website I’m a little late to the game, with regards to talking about the new Discovery 5, as this is the first time that I’ve actually got behind the wheel of one.

The 2017 Discovery was probably one of the most anticipated new cars of the year, with Land Rover slightly altering the recipe with a fluid new shape and a more upmarket interior. Arguably, I believe that it has lost its identity and no longer stands out as an individual vehicle, it’s now just another ‘jelly-mould’ that you can easily lose in a car park.  That said, I totally understand why it looks as it does, all manufactures are under pressure these days to make their vehicles not only pedestrian friendly, but as efficient as possible, and the Discovery 5 is as good as they get, though I still can't get over its bulbous bottom!

However, if reports are to believed, which they should be, the Discovery 5 is the most capable 4x4 out there and remains an incredibly practical and family friendly 4x4.  Our 20 minutes together entailed driving the the hill route a couple of times where its new platform and revised engine line-up was quite noticeable. The D5 will now usher you along in a new level of efficiency, refinement and comfort, it's so smooth you will think you’re in a Range Rover - seriously. 

Mitsubishi Starion

Every so often manufactures bring along a couple of their heritage cars, museum pieces if you like, and this year it was the turn of one of my 80s pin-up cars, the Mitsubishi Starion, 2ltr, single turbo, wide body.  This, dear reader, is the car I was most looking forward to driving.

Back in the 1980s when I was a lanky and spotty teenager, I would gaze at the adverts that told me it was ‘The fastest 2ltr on the market’, and if I remember rightly, it was a shade quicker than the 2.8 Capri.

Unfortunately I was only allowed to drive the Starion around the city route, but still, it didn’t disappoint me.  Yes there were creaks and the odd rattle - not from me this time, but I will let it off, after all it is 29 years old!

Skoda Kodiaq

The Kodiaq is Skoda's first ever seven-seater and its first large SUV, though as you would expect, it shares some of its underpinnings with other SUVs within the VW Group, namely the Seat Ateca and VW’s own Tiguan.

Overall I like what Skoda have done with the Kodiaq, it looks clean, crisp and modern, and around the hill route it not only felt secure, but the seats kept me in place too.  One thing I will say is that the Kodiaq’s air conditioning was so good that it almost made my teeth chatter!  I’m looking forward to getting one on loan for a week and giving it a more thorough test, but my first impressions are more than favourable.

FIAT Fulback

On the subject of taking something and adding your own twist, jump into a Fiat Fullback pick-up and you’ll have the strangest of deja-vu moments as the Fullback is near enough identical to the Mitsubishi L200, which shouldn’t surprise us as it rolls off the same production line.

I had 2 options with the Fullback, take it outside of Millbrook on a road route, or the shorter city route, and as time was at a premium I opted for the latter.  Although I couldn’t really get a feel for it around the short and twisty section, everything about it felt right, and so it should, the L200 was my favourite pick-up until VW wedged the 3ltr V6 into the Amarok. 

With the Fullback, Fiat are offering UK customers 2 versions, the manual 148bhp SX entry model which is similar in spec to the Mitsubishi L200 Titan, and the 178bhp LX which gives you a higher spec and the choice of 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic.

Hopefully we’ll have have one on loan soon for a more thorough review.

Maserati Levante

Although I had the option of taking the Levante around the hill route, I chose to test its capabilities around the off-road course instead. With its modern AWD system the Levante cruised around with ease

Like other manufacturers, Maserati didn’t want to get left out of the SUV boom, as it’s the fastest growing segment, and no matter what your pedigree and heritage, money is money, and manufacturers have a responsibility to make as much as they can to appease their shareholders, and of course survive.

Driving slowly around the off-road course the Levante felt tight and secure. Though with no low box my escort for the drive encouraged me to constantly use the foot-brake to keep the speed down during the long, steep descents.  Inevitably we began to slide sideways, so a touch of the throttle was required to straighten things up again.  I need to check whether the Levante has any kind of Hill Descent Control as the guy from Maserati wasn’t sure, but I can’t imagine it hasn’t.

Being a Maserati, I wasn’t surprised by its level of opulence, though my lasting impression of the Levante is that its transmission tunnel tapers in near the pedals, thus I didn’t have a lot of room for my left foot.  On reflection I wish now that I had taken it around the hill route, I bet it would have been a hoot!

Ford Kuga Vignale

Vignale?  What’s that then?  The Vignale range is Ford’s attempt to place itself into the luxury brand market, and offers an all-options-included kit list, handcrafted detailing and a bespoke dealer service.

I quite liked the Kuga when I last had one on loan back in 2014, but my biggest complaint at the time was that the front seats were too narrow to get comfortable on. (There's a theme here, isn't there?)  The same applies for this £37k version, unfortunately driving around the hill route it felt as though my bum was about to slide off a tiny cushion.  The 148bhp 2ltr diesel didn’t excite me either I’m afraid, though it was nippy enough using the flappy paddles, but I expected more.  Have I mentioned that it was a bit wallowy around the corners?  It was.

Sorry Ford, I wasn’t impressed.

Ford Mustang

From one Ford to another, and this time I couldn’t stop grinning.  As soon as you plonk yourself in the big seat the car feels heavy and muscular - it made me smile, a lot!

Although I said that the Mustang felt heavy, I don’t mean like a lumbering giant, more of a secure, solid and steadfast heavy.  Fire up the 5ltr V8 and you’re rewarded with a traditional and pleasing burble from the exhausts, blip the throttle and the car sways from side to side - mwahaha…

Although it’s well proportioned, the Mustang is a big car, and I did expect it to be a bit of a handful on the hill route, but it wasn’t.  The steering became light, yet responsive and the traction control system kept everything in control, heavy braking wasn’t an issue either as slowing it down always felt strong and consistent.

This is another car I really want to spend more time with and get to know a bit better.

Audi Q5 Quattro

The first thing that sprung to mind when I sat in the Q5 was how well finished and premium it felt.  Although the Q5 is only in its second generation, it’s firmly established itself as one of the most popular premium SUVs on the market, which is no easy task when you have the likes of Mercedes and BMW biting at its heels.

I think the word that springs to mind when I reflect on the Q5 is sensible.  It has bags of safety technology and hi-tech equipment, and as I’ve already mentioned, a wonderfully finished cabin.

Blasting around the hill route, there’s no doubt that the Q5 offers a comfortable and refined driving experience, but 20 minutes was nowhere near enough.  Again, the Q5 Quattro is a car that I'd love to spend a week with.

Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT

The world needs more cars that are bonkers, and the Grand Cherokee SRT celebrates bonkers with gusto!  

Chrysler have decided to shoehorn in their 6.4ltr V8 HEMI with 468bhp into their Grand Cherokee which transforms this jeep into something special, very special indeed.

Now I didn’t tell you this, but amongst a host of goodies, the SRT comes with launch control, which you need to get maximum acceleration.  To achieve this you simply press the ‘launch’ button, hold down the brake, straighten the steering wheel and apply full throttle.  Then simply lift off the brake and the SRT accelerates as hard as possible off the line with maximum torque and minimal tyre spin reaching 0-62mph in just 5 seconds - phew!

Again, 20 minutes was nowhere near long enough to enjoy its performance, but it certainly whet my appetite for more, so again, watch this space as I’ll hopefully have more on the SRT soon.

Aston Martin V12 Vantage S - 7-speed manual

Before I begin to moan, let me first say that the V12 Vantage is a beautiful car, it’s a fast car and it’s an inspirational car, but it was an absolute pain to drive!  Let me qualify myself here.  For a while there was criticism that Aston’s most driver-focussed production Vantage was only available with the company’s seven-speed paddle-shift transmission, and according to people in the know, this has always vexed the purists.  Consequently, AM decided to give them what they wanted, and fit the Vantage S with a 7-speed manual gearbox, unfortunately for me it's an old school dog-leg manual gearbox.  What that means is, 1st gear is where 2nd normally is, 3rd is where 4th should sit and so on all the way up to 7th.

Whilst driving the V12 around the hill route a couple of times my entire focus was spent making sure I was in the right gear instead of enjoying the experience.  What made it trickier was the tightness of the gate and a spring bias that favours the 4th/5th over those for 2nd/3rd and 6th/7th.  So, unless you’re deliberate with your upshift from 2nd to 3rd you can end up slotting 5th instead, like I did, a lot!  Then of course was the worry of dropping it from 4th to 3rd and accidentally getting 1st.

Like everything in life though, the more you do something the better you become at it, so I reckon I need to borrow it for a week or so, just to get used to it you understand, but overall, what a car!

And that was it, the end of a long, hot and tiring day driving a multitude of cars.  I didn’t do too bad, I managed to drive 17 of the 22 cars that I'd highlighted, though I would’ve liked to have taken the Kuga around the off-road course, as well as trying out the new DS7 Crossback, Vauxhall Crossland, Lexus RX450, MINI’s new ALL4 and the Mazda MX5 RF, but I ran out of time.

Obviously 20-minutes per vehicle doesn’t give you enough time for a full evaluation, but it gives you an idea of what they're like, and as I always say, these days there’s no such thing as a bad car; it’s about cost, needs and expectations.

Leaving Millbrook, Lee, an ex-Land Rover World colleague, and I perused over the day's events at a local pub, swapping tales of which cars we would have (a lottery win would be needed), and those we'd avoid. The car I would want to drive home in - the Mitsubishi Starion, second on my list would be the Jaguar XJR, but in fairness, I was quite happy with the car that I had on test that week, which I'd driven down in and was taking me home again - the Kia Niro.