Archive for December, 2011

…As for the MP4-12C, well, maybe there was an excess of pressure here, too. The day before I drove an early car at Portimão, back in February, Ron Dennis – a man who’s definitely a little misunderstood, but is still the closest the car industry has to a Steve Jobs figure – claimed that McLaren has always been “passionate” about measuring things scientifically. “And we can prove scientifically that ours is the best sports car in history.”

Very Ron and not wrong. Unscientifically, however, it didn’t appear – at first – the most thrilling of mid-engined supercars. Because, pitched as it was against the Ferrari 458 Italia, it’s actually more about sheer speed than vociferous thrills. When we brought them together, the 12C couldn’t quite eclipse the 458, a car in which the myths and legends of Maranello segue perfectly with some truly extraordinary engineering. The Ferrari’s normally aspirated V8 sounds better than the McLaren’s twin-turbo unit, and its bodywork undulates as sinfully as a Fifties Italian screen siren. The 12C looks neat but functional. Plus, Ferrari would never name a car after a tumble-dryer. But the McLaren remembers when to shut up, which the more extrovert Italian isn’t so good at. Call it English reserve. That’s its character.

What if we were looking at the comparison from the wrong angle, though? Top Gear’s editor-in-chief Charlie Turner drove a 12C back to the UK from July’s Alpine performance-car gathering, and wouldn’t stop going on about how insanely good it was until we locked him in a small room and doused him with cold water. In the real world, a place we visit occasionally, the McLaren simply works. Well, it does now that the initial satnav and warning-light gremlins have been evicted.

We also thought more about the context of the 12C’s creation. From a more or less standing start to getting within a hair’s breadth of arguably the greatest-ever Ferrari is a seriously impressive feat. So here it is: our GT Car of the Year.

But not quite yet. Lewis will be driving it along a red carpet at a McLaren dealer opening, not long after our meeting. Then it’s ours, to do with as we please, for about 12 hours. Our allotted time with him is almost up. I ask him what he thought of the Senna documentary, arguably the film of the year. His answer is surprisingly reflective…

First drive: the new Fiat Panda

Posted: December 24, 2011 in Drives
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One of James’ favourite cars gets a new lease of life (and the Twinair engine). Paul Horrell reports

Life used to be easy for the Panda. It launched against generally rubbish opposition. The new one enters a different, more hostile world.

Most obviously VW has parked its tank on Fiat’s lawn, in the shape of the Up. But there’s also the Kia Picanto, winner of a Top Gear award this year for being a generally terrific tiddler. Or the Hyundai i10. Include the three-door posse and you get the Twingo, the Ka or Fiat’s very own sibling-rival 500.

If the Panda shows any weakness, this lot will nick its bamboo straight out from under its nose.

In the measurables, it does well. It fields very competitive performance and economy, good safety, comfort and enough space to tackle those rivals. It’s longer by a pencil’s length than the old one, in the name of a bigger boot.

But does it have the joy a baby car should have?

Fiat brings the unique Twinair engine to bear again here. It pulls like a bubbly little locomotive, and in the lower gears out-performs the ability of those little tyres to apply all the surge. In fifth, no other tiny car has this sort of effortless motorway fast-line smarts. If you drive it like that the economy won’t be special, but if you go gently you can stretch fuel. And the notional economy potential is what gets it its low-tax 99g/km CO2 rating.

Pity the Twinair is an expensive option. Still, if you can’t or won’t rise to it, don’t feel snubbed. The basic version’s 1.2-litre four-cylinder doesn’t mind being wrung out to within an inch of its life. It’s quick enough for the suburbs.

There’s a cheer to the way the Panda goes around bends and roundabouts, a willingness the Up doesn’t quite manage. The Up rides better, but again the margin isn’t a deal-breaker. The Fiat is supple without being floaty, and effectively muffles the sounds of the suspension hitting bumps.

The design has been growing on me. It avoids the Bambi look, and there’s strength in the big wheel-arches. The main motif is the ‘squircle’ – rounded-off squares and oblongs that define everything from the fuel cap to the side windows to the speedo and handbrake lever. It gives the whole thing a distinct design harmony. On the other hand, if you don’t actually like the squircle, it’ll annoy your eyes as some endless chirrupping noise would your ears.

There aren’t any chirruping noises actually. Or rattles. The Panda is properly made. Everything fits well. In the cabin, solid materials come in novel textures and colours. The old Panda had a dashboard made of blister pack. The new one has a dashboard made of dashboard.

Solid effort all round then. But given the current opposition, it couldn’t have got away with anything less.

Winning the green game by stealth is this, the Vauxhall Ampera

The Ampera is here as an example of technology that’s managing to sneak under the social radar and win the green game by stealth. It combines a load of realistic green technologies to produce a car that’s practical and easy to use (this really could be your only car), at a price – £29k – that’s easy(ish) to swallow. It’s a plug-in – with an EV-range of 50 miles, so it may never need to see a fuel station. But it’s also an ER-EV, or Extended Range Electric Vehicle, so the 1.4-litre petrol engine is never connected to the wheels – it’s there to drive a generator, just like the Fisker on p140, and allow for an all-up range of 310 miles on one tank.

The battery is guaranteed for 150k miles or 10 years. With a full charge, it’ll do the equivalent of 175-odd mpg and 40g/km CO2. So this is exciting new tech in a normal, useful package. An EV without the range anxiety. A green car without the sense of self-righteous anger. The future’s bright. The future’s quite subtle.

Audi unleashes 252bhp A1 Quattro

Posted: December 22, 2011 in News
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Christmas has come early, Internet: meet the turbocharged, all-wheel-drive mega-hatch

This is faster than a JCW Mini. It’s faster than the Corsa VXR Nürburgring. It’s also faster than a Ford Focus ST and nudges the VW Golf R for pace. This is the turbocharged, four-wheel-drive Audi A1 Quattro. Merry Christmas.

Like a mini Walter Rohrl-shaped gift to the world, Audi has announced plans to produce 333 left-hand-drive models of this, the fastest production A1 ever built.

It’s destined for mainland Europe for now, but Audi tells us positive customer reaction to this bonkers little thing could see it reach our potholed shores. And that’s an intriguing prospect, because it packs 252bhp from a turbocharged, 2.0-litre TFSI unit and 258lb ft of torque from between 2,500rpm and 4,500rpm. All the Audi’s horses and torques help propel it from 0-62mph in just 5.7 seconds, and on to a top speed of 152mph. That’s really quick.

It’s also the first production A1 to get the Quattro system – a system we tested in a prototype mule way back last year. As in that car, traction comes from an electronically controlled, hydraulically actuated multi-plate clutch rotating in an oil bath.

Which basically means its front wheel drive for normal driving, but sends power to the rear “in just a few milliseconds” if you start to Stiggify it. And there’s an electronic diff that brakes whichever wheel is losing grip, helping to keep you out of the nearest hedge/tree/sofa warehouse.

As we told you last year when we drove the prototype on ice – which was good actually – we feared Quattro on an A1 might have been overkill, had Audi not sufficiently ramped up the power. Consider this a sufficient ramp up in power, then.

The 333 cars are slightly longer than the standard A1, and get the full complement of Audi equipment: S sports seats, quattro badges, dashes of aluminium, Infotainment gubbins, a 465-watt speaker system… you get the picture.

No word on price, but if it does ever reach the UK, expect it to be significantly more expensive than the current range topper, the £21,270 1.4 TFSI S Line.

So, does this turbocharged, four-wheel-drive pocket rocket stroke the parts of your brain responsible for coherent speech patterns, or are you left feeling a bit cold? Speak!

Lexus LF LC concept leaked

Posted: December 21, 2011 in News
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New Lexus concept breaks cover ahead of its Detroit motor show reveal…

This slightly cryptic picture shows Lexus’s new LF-LC concept, due for a full airing at the Detroit show next month. All we know for sure is that it’s been created at the company’s California design studio, the same place where the original SC430 was drawn, presumably by someone holding a pen in their mouth with their eyes clamped shut. Could this be its successor?

Maybe. It’s about the same size and has two doors, but unlike the SC there’s a pair of seats in the back. And going by these pics, it looks like a targa top rather than a coupe-cabrio, with styling riffing the pointy bits of the new GS saloon. But could it be rear wheel drive? The Lexus people haven’t confirmed anything, but we’d bet at least £1.40 that this spaceage bodywork could be wrapped around the Toyota GT 86 platform – provided those rear seats haven’t made it too long – and become a posher version of the rear-drive coupe. Which would make it a sort of junior LF-A. But then again, it’s a Lexus, so it’ll probably be a hybrid.

Lots of questions. Much speculation. Hopefully all of which shall be cleared up in Detroit. We’ll be there with our hands in the air…

This is a Ferrari-beating Jeep

Posted: December 21, 2011 in News
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Hennessey Performance reveals its 800bhp Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8

Historian John Dalberg’s oft-quoted dictum that “power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely” can be sprinkled liberally across the automotive spectrum. Anyone familiar with an early Saab 900 Turbo (RIP) will attest to this. Here though, it takes on a grisly significance. This is the Hennessey HPE800 Twin Turbo Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8.

That 800 in the moniker stands, naturally, for how many horses have been strapped under the Santa-spec red bonnet. 805bhp, to be precise, that ride shotgun with 823 torques to give a 0-60mph time of 3.1 seconds. That’s fractionally, fractionally faster than a Ferrari 458 Italia. Mr Hennessey tells us it’ll do the standing quarter mile in 10.9 seconds, travelling at 130mph.

That massive 6.4-litre V8 gets rebigulated to 7 litres, treated to two turbos and mated to an upgraded transmission and torque converter. It also gets 20in wheels, much leather and Alcantara, a Brembo brake system, lowered sports suspension and a carbon fibre lip spoiler.

Says Mr Hennessey: “This vehicle is designed for the performance minded driver who live in Aspen or Moscow and wants to be the fastest in all weather conditions.”

Or indeed, the driver who enjoys plastering looks of sheer surprise across supercar owners at the lights. Yikes. Just 24 will be built, with prices starting from £150,000 ($235,000).