2016 SMMT Day, Millbrook

I love Millbrook, this will be my 3rd visit in as many years, and as always, I’m excited. I’m excited not just because I get to drive a variety of cars around a variety of test tracks, but for the first time in a number of years, Aston Martin have finally decided to show up. Granted, James Bond’s favourite GT may not fit into The Mud Lifes remit of an all-terrain get away from it all 4x4, but I don’t care, to me they’re the best and I’m going to include them because, well, because I can!

However, before I bore you with my frivolities, I’ll quickly remind you of why I’m spending the day at Millbrook Proving Ground down in Bedfordshire.  The SMMT (Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders) promotes the interests of the UK automotive industry at home and abroad, and a couple of times a year they organise events for press to be able to mess around in cars, and motor manufactures to supply said cars. There, I said it’d be quick didn’t I?

Arriving on site at 8.00am, we park up on one of the testing roads then taxi’d to the Concept Centre where we're fed and watered. We're then shepherded into the auditorium where we listen to SMMT Chief Executive Mike Hawes discuss exciting industry news, and of course the rules for the day. Then we all rush out of the auditorium, grab our all important pass’ and leg it out and blag our first vehicles.

As I mentioned, Aston Martin was in attendance for the first time in 8 years, so demand to drive the Vanquish, Rapid S and the V12 Vantage S Roadster was going to be high, so like many others, I queued up and blagged myself a couple of time slots.

I then decided that I should also book to drive a couple of Rolls Royces as they’re just sublime.  As it turned out, there wasn’t a queue and I could choose any I wanted there and then, so off around the Hill Route I trundled in the 4-door Phantom.

It doesn’t matter what you think of its looks, once you get inside you’re transported into a different world, not just of automotive design, but a world of Butlers and balls (the word 'and' is important there).

The majority of the switchgear is hidden out of view to create an uncluttered environment, and you raise a section of the armrest to find the solid toggles to adjust your seat.  Once you're on the move the Phantom feels reassuringly weighty, yet nimble, and the huge 6.6ltr V12 is a fire breathing monster when you want it to be, yet subtle in its delivery.  Being honest, whilst driving around the Hill Route I didn’t glance at any of the dials, I was too busy enjoying myself and looking down the Phantom’s long bonnet to care about the speed, nor the Power Reserve dial. I felt cocooned in luxury, just as you should whilst driving a Rolls Royce.

I'm led to believe that a lot of owners have chauffeurs, and that's a real shame as the Phantom is a proper drivers car.  

All too soon it was time to return the keys, and manoeuvre the Phantom back into its spot. It amused me that reversing the camera doesn’t show the usual 'what's behind the bumper' view, rather a 360 degree view from the top, like you've got your Butler to stand on the roof with a camera! 

Whilst I was there it would’ve been rude of me not to have taken the Phantom Coupe out for a spin too.  Studying the lines of the coupe makes me smile, I can’t help but think about Miss Penelope’s Roller in Thunderbirds, it might have something to do with the colour (yes, her Rolls was pink, but you know what I mean). On the subject of colour, I really, really disliked the interior.  White or cream leather seats are a no, no at Muddy Towers for obvious reasons, but dear god it was bright.

Going back a few years, when I first set eyes on the Phantom I admittedly wasn’t keen, but over the years I’ve grown to find it more pleasing to the eye.  Some have called it vulgar, maybe that’s because of its looks, or of what it represents, but I’ve never been the jealous type and don’t resent anyone for having the ability to buy what they want.  Personally, if I could afford a Rolls’, I would.  I would drive it everyday, I would enjoy it everyday because for me it’s still a car, a mighty fine car that deserves to be used and enjoyed.

According to Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Chief Executive Officer, Torsten Mueller-Oetvoes, the current Phantom will enter the last stages of its celebrated production in 2016 as they've begun testing an all-new aluminium architecture that will underpin every future Rolls-Royce from early 2018.

Next on the agenda was another favourite of mine, the Infiniti QX70 3ltr Diesel Ultimate.  Granted, it isn’t the prettiest vehicle in the world with its bulbous nose, but it’s bloomin’ good fun to drive, especially with its Rear Active Steering and firm ride.  I would imagine the latter could become tiresome after a while behind the wheel, but as I've never driven one for longer than 20 minutes, I'm just thinking out loud.  

The standard equipment you get on the QX70 Ultimate reads like a petrols heads christmas list, you name it and it's there, but then at £53,570, it should be.

Of course it has some foibles, it's a little bit cramped in the cabin, which is a surprise for a car the size of the QX70, and the rear view mirror sits quite low obscuring views to the left. Other than that, it's great fun.

Next to take me around was the Suzuki Vitara, and you would probably imagine that after the last 3 vehicles, the little Zook would be quite disappointing... but you'd wrong, oh so wrong. 

This is the all new Vitara S model which came on sale in the UK from January 2016 with 1.4-litre petrol Boosterjet engine. it's a Direct Injection, Turbocharged petrol engine that not only produces 140PS, but offers a wide spread of torque from just 1,500rpm, which is 41% more than the 1.6-litre engine.  Anyway, if you want to read more about it, check elsewhere on The Mud Life as all I'll say here is, the Vitara S was made for this kind of environment.

Staying on the subject of small cars giving the biggest grins, I simply had to take the Mazda CX-3 out, I love this car.  Based on the Mazda 2 platform, Mazda have shoehorned their 150ps, 2ltr diesel into this curvaceous body and added their AWD system, and it handles brilliantly.  The fact is, I'm not a bad driver, but everytime I get behind the wheel of a CX-3 I feel inadequate, it has so much more to give that I walk away with my chin firmly pressed against my chest feeling ashamed that I've let it down. If you want to read a bit more about it, check out my review here.

Next up was the very sensible, yet hugely updated Volvo XC90 D5. With an improved interior and tablet like touchscreen control console, it was very plush, and with the D5 being a twin turbo diesel engine with 225hp on tap, it was fun to drive too.

Now, don't tell anyone, especially the Volvo PR team, but I think I may have got some air under the wheels at one point as the seatbelt suddenly tightened and held me tight in the seat, incredibly tight, which is just one example of Volvo's safety features.  According to Volvo, 'in a run-off road scenario, the all-new Volvo XC90 detects what is happening and the front safety belts are tightened to keep the occupants in position. To help prevent spine injuries, energy-absorbing functionality between the seat and seat frame cushions the vertical forces that can arise when the car encounters a hard landing in the terrain.'  Well, it worked!

I took the DS4 Crossback out next, and if I’m honest I felt a little hemmed in, but then I don’t think it’s sold with the frame of a 6ft 1”, 19 stone bloke in mind.  Apart from a narrow cabin and pedals that didn’t quite suit my size 11’s, it again handled the Hill Route with aplomb.  I like the look of the Crossback, although it’s still front wheel drive, its 30mm increased ride height and plastic add-ons give it a certain rugged appeal, a bit like the Rover 25 Streetwise.

Walking over to see Lindsey on the JLR stand I was disappointed to notice that there was a distinct lack of Range Rovers present, so I slipped myself into the beautiful long wheelbase Jaguar XJ Autobiography.  I'm old enough to remember when they used to call Jaguars the poor mans Rolls Royce, but at £82,435 for this particular XJ, I’d love to be the ‘poor man’ who can afford it! 

Fitted with an updated 3ltr V6 diesel engine that produces around 300bhp, the large XJ went like the clappers around the Hill Route... in comfort.  Although comfortable, the big Jag also gave me a sense of what the road was like beneath the huge 20"rims, and the new electrically assisted steering offered more precision than ever before. You simply can't get away from Jaguars racing pedigree.

You will have noticed that I used the term 'updated' in reference to the engine, well the twin-turbocharged unit now has an additional 25bhp which means the it'll reach 60mph in a brisk 5.9 seconds and return a combined figure of 48mpg when fitted with 20in wheels. If you're interested, the official CO2 emissions are also down by 10g/km over the old model at 155g/km...

After dinner, or lunch if you live in the south, meant that it was my allocated time slot for the Aston Martin Vanquish.  I don't have much to say about the vanquish, except maybe that it was AWESOME!  Oh, and it went like a stabbed rat!

Question - Was the V12 Vantage S Roadster just as awesome as the Vanquish?  Hmmm, no, but only because I'm not keen on soft tops, and I preferred the more gentle GT ride of the Vanquish.  The funny thing is, with all the technology that goes into creating, in my opinion, the best sports car in the world, neither of these two fire breathing monsters had one-touch electric windows - must've been the poverty specs!

In an attempt to return to the real world, I wandered over to SsangYong and took their Korando Sport DMZ Limited Edition pick-up for a mooch around the off-road course, and do you know it was actually quite good.  In fact no, scrub that, it was very good.  In reality I shouldn't be surprised, it has a Euro 5, 2ltr diesel engine that produces 155bhp with 360Nm of pulling power, a 6-speed manual or 5-speed auto box and a selectable 4x4 system with low ratio. 

One of the USP of the Korando Sport is that it has 5 link rear suspension set up that gives it a comfy ride, and at just over £19k (ex VAT) for this model, you get a lot of standard features as well as a 5 year limitless mileage warranty, yeah, I said limitless mileage!  For more details check out their website: www.ssangyonggb.co.uk

Next I decided to get the XC90 dirty, and to my surprise it was better than I expected it to be, especially on the ridiculously steep decline during which the Hill Decent Control worked a treat.  Volvo aren't aiming the XC90 at the off-road market, rather as a family sized, 7-seat SUV with off-road capability, and it's an ideal candidate for those who don't want a 4x4 the size of a Discovery 4.

My last car of the day was the Lexus 450H, I chose it over the V8 Mustang because it intrigued me. After getting comfy I pressed the ‘start’ button, the dash lit up like a christmas tree, but there was no sound.  Forgetting for a moment that the 'H' in 450h stood for hybrid, I was about to press it again when I noticed a small light on the dash that read ‘READY’.  Slotting the auto gear lever into D, I gently pressed the accelerator, and off we drove, slowly and silently…

The 450h is powered by a 3.5-litre petrol V6 which drives the front wheels through a CVT automatic gearbox, while a pair of electric motors – one at the front and another at the rear – provides four-wheel drive.  On the track, once the engine had kicked in, it was a totally different animal, responsive, quick and fun to drive.

At a quick glance, the interior is typical Lexus, well put together, high quality and everything you touch has a premium feel to it.  Around the track it was fun, what it's like to live with for a week I don't know, hopefully I'll find out soon.

Before I knew it the day was over for another year, and I hadn’t even taken out the Audi Q3 Quattro, the BMW X4, Ford Ranger, and not even the Duster!

Mulling over the day at a local pub eating tea, or dinner if you live in the south, I pondered to myself, of all the vehicles I drove, which would I home?

I think it would have to be the Phantom.  Ah, but if I had to choose a last blast around the Hill Route, what would it be? That’s a tricky one, and not the obvious choice of the Aston, it would be a coin toss between the Vitara S and the CX-3!