Archive for the ‘Magazine’ Category

…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…


English | HQ PDF | 244 pages | 110MB



This month’s TopGear Magazine comes to you from 1972. Sort of. That was the year the first Lancia Stratos was given to the world, and now – 38 years later – it’s back. And we’ve driven it. We’ve driven lots of other stuff too, which you can read all about once you’ve watched your free DVD that’s all about cars with soul. Or you can read the mag first. It’s a free world.

Dust off the remote, fire up the telly box and tune in to BBC2. The boys are back and we’ve got a big fat series 16 preview in the mag, including a little insight into life behind the scenes, plus much toilet talk, with exec producer Andy Wilman.

This month’s news section is kicked off by the new BMW 1-Series M Coupe. An orange one. We snuck it into the TG studio and took some shiny pictures.

More orangeness comes in the shape of the Ford Escort Mexico, driven around the TG test track by a man called Hammond. It reminded him of peas, but you’ll have to read the story to find out why.

Then it’s off to France for a spin in the new Stratos. It’s a custom-built special, based on one of our favourite Ferraris, with some cunning German engineering. But is it any good? Hmm… does James May like a pint?

It’s been a while since Citroen made a proper hot hatch. So when the DS3R arrived, we begged for the keys and went for a drive. If anyone from Citroen is reading this, your car is fine. Well, it’s ours now, but it’s fine. Honest.

Stuck for a new year’s resolution? TopGear is here to help! Have a flick through our feature on All the Cars Worth Caring About in 2011, then promise yourself you’ll buy one. We’ve got the lowdown on all the good stuff.

If you grew up in Russia, you probably know about the Lada Niva. If you grew up in Rushden, allow us to enlighten you. Actually, allow James May to enlighten you – it’s officially being imported into the UK and he’s driven it. On some snow.

The Lambo Gallardo Performante and Porsche 911 Speedster are the ultimate playboy playthings. We arranged for them to meet in the Californian desert. Then we took some pics and wrote some words, because it’s important to share the joy.

After all the supercar frolics, we put on our road-test flat caps and arranged a fight between the Citroen C4 Grand Picasso and the new Ford Grand C Max. Which one is worth your dosh? There’s only one way to find out. Buy the mag. Go on. It’s only £3.95.

Finally, we send a hairy man up a Glacier in the new KTM X-Bow R. Why? Because it was there. And because it looked fun. And dangerous. Which it was.

The December issue of TopGear magazine hits the newsstands today, and features an ear-splitting match-up between two of the loudest objects known to man: the Pagani Zonda R and the Jeremy Clarkson.

Yes, in the pursuit of Much Loudness, we crowbarred our very own JC into Pagani’s Nurburgring-destroying, in-no-way-road-legal Zonda R and donned earmuffs. “It screams like a psychopath stuck in a gin trap, hurls itself at the end of the runway and before you’ve stopped gurning, the speedo is reading 200mph,” reported our intrepid correspondent, shortly before his ears fell off. Trust us: this is one power test you really, really want to read.

At the very-slightly-quieter end of the spectrum, we get under the skin of Audi’s stunning Quattro concept, built to commemorate 30 years of four-wheel drive. Time to party like it’s, erm… (TopGear takes off shoes and socks and begins tortuous process of counting backwards)… 1980!

Argh! Cover your eyes! It’s the Xenatec Coupe, a terrifying two-door based on the bilious Maybach 57S. We take a good close look so you don’t have.

Seb Loeb has just won his seventh WRC title. Seven. Seven. We talk to the people who know him best – his co-driver, his team principal, even his osteopath – to find the answer to the million-dollar question: how the hell is he so good?

The original Merc CLS was a mighty car, a banana-shaped behemoth that spawned a generation of big, fast sort-of-coupes. And now there’s a new one. Can it improve on its predecessor’s stellar reputation – and deliver a kicking to the Audi A7 and Porsche Panamera? Jason Barlow finds out.

The Lexus CT200h is what a Prius looks like if you’re not (a) a Hollywood celebrity or (b) a boring old fart. That’s the theory, anyhow. The reality of the lumpy ‘sports hybrid’, as Paul Horrell discovers, is a little less convincing.

Budget-conscious road testers that we are, we’ve conducted a thoroughly and selfless investigation of the record-breaking 268mph Bugatti Supersports, and can happily report it is the ideal car for young couples or recent retirees. We also get to grips with the new Ford Mondeo, VW Passat, Hyundai ix20 and Renault Gordini Clio.

The R8 GT is Audi’s fastest, most committed road car. The Isle of Skye is a very, very long way from anywhere. Add one Tom Ford and that’s a potent recipe for a Big TopGear road trip. And lots of unwanted police attention.

Mini and Prodrive are heading to the WRC next year with this archtastic Countryman. According to TG’s Big Book of Racing History, it turns out that both these firms have a rather illustrious history of winning rallies. Paul Horrell plays co-driver on a slidey, sideways ride to find out whether 2011 will see a little bit of history repeating…

Ha! Look at this ridiculous car! So tiny! So tall! So orange! Oh, what’s that? It has 805bhp and does 0-60mph in less than four seconds? We strap into the Tango T600, the all-electric super-thing that makes the Tesla Roadster look like an underpowered golf cart.

Gran Turismo 5 – the latest, greatest instalment of the epic Playstation franchise featuring the TopGear test track – is nearly here. No, really, it is. In a world-exclusive preview, we meet its creator to find out how the sights, sounds and unidentified smells of Dunsfold were committed to the virtual world… and why the hell it’s taken to long.

Mexico, as you may have read on the news, is not the world’s safest country at present. Especially not if you’re driving the ‘Road of Three Thousand Curves’ – the twisting mountain pass winding through the heart of drug-war territory – in a Porsche Cayman S. Can TopGear survive the drugs barons, the 1,000-foot drops and, most terrifyingly, the Really Quite Spicy Food? Find out this – and far, far more – in the December issue of TopGear magazine, out now!

from 10|2010

Want to know what 1,200 horsepower feels like? In a car that weighs a third less than a Bugatti Veyron? It’s violent, bonkers, near malicious. A crush on your body, a blur on your vision. As magnetic and sinister as peering over the edge of a cliff at crashing waves hundreds of feet below. A headlong rush – a physical one towards the far-distance, and a metaphorical rush towards the edges of your own self-restraint that, for me at any rate, exposes a gaping shortfall of skill to make the best of torque that can, because there’s no traction control, produce extravagant wheelspin in the first three gears and occasionally in fourth beyond 100mph. In the dry.

But that’s an original I’m driving. The spectacular white car in this gallery is its yet-unnamed replacement. Which will have some vital driver aids, but will also have another 150-odd horses, better aero and a whole lot less weight. Oh. Good. Grief.

It’ll cost $970,000, or £626,000 plus tax, when it goes on sale late next year. And its maker says it’ll do 275mph. The ever-intensifying fastest-car-in-the-world battle is being played out before us. If you’re male, you might remember being eight years old, and trying to pee higher against a wall than your mates. Which is about as relevant as the top-speed war. No one drives that fast. It’s like having the world’s most waterproof watch: a human would be crushed at that depth. You’re supposed to wear the watch on the inside of the submarine,guys. And building a car that can go so fast always compromises other aspects of performance: it adds weight and compromises normal-speed agility.

And yet we all love to see the limits probed. The SSC I’m driving is the actual one that broke the world production-car speed record, in 2007, at 256.14mph. The car that beat the original Bugatti Veyron. The record stood for nearly three years until the Veyron SuperSport scraped it back in July.

Back in 2007 you could have legitimately questioned whether SSC really was a production-car company at all. The record car was just the sixth SSC made. Anyway, Jerod Shelby, founder and prime mover of SSC, the Shelby Supercar Company, wanted to get the car right before he chased publicity. But SSC has done 15 now, and the company is still very much here and has taken several orders for this wonderful-looking new car. Being on to its second model and into its second decade puts SSC a major step beyond the usual here-today-gone-tomorrow hypercar dreamers who pop up at motor shows with their overwrought but underfinished cars.

But most of all, here’s the single fact that gives SSC credibility: that the vast Volkswagen Group built the Veyron SuperSport for the explicit purpose of winning the record back. Goliath was not only admitting that David existed, but felt it necessary to take up his mighty cudgel against David’s catapult. Actually, Jerod Shelby is perfectly happy that Bugatti did top his car’s speed. “No, our new car isn’t a response to Bugatti, because we didn’t know they’d break the record again. But their timing is exactly right for us as we’re about to launch the car that will get it back.”

SSC is absolutely one man’s dream, one man’s car. Jerod Shelby (no relation to Carroll, and good grief how he must be fed up with answering that question) made his fortune designing medical equipment, then in 1999 set out to build a supercar from scratch. He did it, with just a handful of employees and very little use of bought-in components. His final assembly plant is a shed behind his house.

The record top-speed run was done on a public road that Shelby found on Google Earth, a narrowish single-carriageway, just four miles long with a dog-leg a third of the way along that you hardly see on a map but had to be negotiated at a stately 210mph before the hardest phase of acceleration could start. It’s not terribly smooth – I’ve driven it at a fraction of the record speed. The police wouldn’t close it off for more than 15 minutes at a time.

Contrast all that with the resources that went into the Veyron. Consider VW’s Ehra Lessien test track, and its 5.5-mile, four-lane-wide, dead-flat main straight, with gentle banked curves at either end.

In initial testing of the SSC, Shelby used a professional test driver. But he got spooked by the high-speed wheelspin, so he was replaced by a 71-year-old mate of Jerod’s, Chuck Bigelow, who’d never driven the car before the final few tests. His only qualification was that he wanted to do 200mph before he died. (Thereby raising the possibility that those two events might have been separated by a very short interval.) He eschewed seatbelts and a helmet, doing the runs in a baseball cap.

For Shelby, doing 256mph was a lot more important than peeing high against a wall. If doing 256mph is a dicey business even when you own the road, the fact that SSC had done that speed gave the company instant credibility. They were no longer 16 guys in a shed. They were the designers and builders of an engine, a transmission, a chassis, an aero and cooling package that were more robust than any other on the planet at opposing the implacable violence of the speed-cubed law of drag.

To the next production cars Shelby added power steering, servo brakes, traction control, ABS and then a Brembo carbon option, not to mention a speedo you can actually read. Having driven the car without any of those, I can’t emphasise highly enough how much they were needed. There’s also an active air brake now for really big speeds, but I won’t fib and claim my open-road drive would have made use of that.

But then he realised that people wanted more, and although he’d pretty much overseen every detail of the car so far, he was smart enough to realise it was something he wasn’t personally able to supply this time. In design terms, the car needed an extreme makeover to play in the top league.

It was supercar-generic on the outside. The interior was frankly a bit kit-car. Shelby is candid: “I designed it. The aerodynamics were much the most important thing to me, and the appearance was only semi-important… and the interior was unimportant.” He’s a self-professed control freak, but in this case he now admits this was a crushing error in the eyes of actual customers. Luckily a hotshot designer had just become available.

Jason Castriota has one of the absolute premier-league supercar design CVs. An Italian-American who made his name in the former country and has since set up a design practice in the latter, he seemed a perfect fit. He knew the market for supercars, and he knew the super-expensive end of it through working with owners on multi-million-pound one-off commissions. He was also passionately interested in aerodynamics.

When Shelby first rang him, Castriota, like the rest of us, needed convincing that SSC was no flash in a pan. “I was very sceptical. After all I’d worked for the biggest and the best. But when I did finally meet them and had a ride in the car, I understood this is a well-done product. Jerod raced karts, was national champion and beat Michael Andretti. And he’s an engineer by trade. Once I got immersed in the project, I saw it was an amazing challenge. They need to set their sights much higher than merely breaking the world record and selling a handful of cars. They need to make a special product, a true American supercar with the best technology, for the world stage.”

That special product is this white car, the first of which will be delivered in a year’s time. The four-cam 6.8-litre twin-turbo engine will rev to 9,000rpm and make 1,350bhp. Even the blowers are SSC’s own design. It’s already doing these numbers on Shelby’s dyno. Unlike the current car, which has some steel in the structure, the new one will be all-carbon except for aluminium crash rails beyond the wheels front and back. Its transmission is the same all-SSC unit that has been proved in the current car, with the same triple-disc carbon clutch, but it’ll have the option of sequential paddle shifting.

Shelby was so obsessed with the aerodynamics that he named the car after the science. He has a compadre in his new designer. “I studied aerodynamics a bit in school and read tons of books,” says Castriota, “but I had an even better training on site, being able to go into the wind tunnel with Pininfarina’s and Ferrari’s aerodynamicists.”

“It’s a lot of fun to use aerodynamics to create something new. If you want to make a splash you need something striking. And classically beautiful dash; the mid-engined proportions are supermodel proportions. The black teardrop canopy is suspended above this long main volume. And the strong volume of the air intake sits on top of the rear wheel like a cannon. Then you flip it with the negative space in the lower body side, air exiting from the front wheels and air feeding into the rear radiators. Real function, like the dihedral rear stabilisers. That all creates dynamic tension, layers of volume and detail.”

Shelby has performed astounding feats to engineer the current car. “At the start I figured that in three years and $4m I could get SSC on the map,” he grins, “But I was exponentially off the map. Initially the McLaren record was 240mph and I thought I’d need about 900bhp. In the meantime the Veyron took the record up to 253 and I got rather concerned.”

In the end it took him seven years to get the record, and he won’t say how far his cost estimate undershot. But let’s keep some perspective: he obviously did it all for what Bugatti spent on office stationery.

That doesn’t mean he thinks he’s capable of actual miracles. So he isn’t reinventing the wheel for the brand-new car. Anything that can be re-used from his existing Ultimate Aero will be. The whole bottom end of the engine for instance is the same; it’s just that he’s replacing the pushrod heads with OHC. The suspension, the Brembo carbon brakes, the steering aren’t changing for the new car. Nor the apertures for the dihedral doors, which are notoriously tricky to do as neatly as this. The sizes of the 10 radiators and their apertures live on. So do the wheelbase and overall dimensions, except it’s slightly narrower at the back because it was too big for FIA GT racing should any owner want to have a crack.

Actually though, Shelby absolutely has had the wheel reinvented. An Australian company called Carbon Revolution has developed for SSC the world’s first one-piece carbon-fibre wheel – the 19-incher at the front weighs an almost comically light 5.8kg. The new car’s entire structure will be made of F1-derived carbon. And by that, the dry weight will fall to 1,200kg-odd. Putting the power-to-weight ratio, even with fluids and the quivering driver strapped aboard, north of 1,000bhp per tonne.

Even in this four-year-old car, you can feel the potential for brilliance. It’s not just the engine that’s epic, but the thermonuclear drama of that V8 couldn’t fail to dominate. At 6.3 litres and with a 9.0 to one compression, it hardly needs the turbo, and anyway, they’re small low-inertia devices. So it’s not over-boosted, there’s no lag to speak of, and little in the way of a sudden mid-range bang. Instead the surge just builds and builds and – woooooaah – builds into a violent careen from well before the torque peak at 6,150rpm to the zap of the shift and the 7,200rpm limit, and then your head, which you’ve been bracing against the force, suddenly nods forward during the pause while you engage the next gear. If you’re good, you can, SSC claims, do 0-60 in 2.8secs. But you really can’t deploy all the beans in anything less than fourth – and then you’re going towards aircraft take-off speeds. Thanks be for downforce.

As if all that g-loading wasn’t enough, the engine adds to the drama with its unending variety of wastegate hisses, chuckles, and fluttering screams. At a volume of 11. All over the snarling V8 growl. My head bursts with the imagining of how the new engine – with its four-valve heads and its 6.8 litres and its 9,000rpm limit – will sound.

We’ll skate over the unassisted non-ABS brakes of this particular car. If you were hoping for wonderful feel in recompense for the lack of artificial help, it isn’t there. I trust Brembo carbons to do a far better job on the new car. Instead let’s talk about the suspension. You sense no roll whatever, even cornering pretty hard, and the steering is accurate on-lock, at which point the car hunkers hungrily into a turn. It rides rather serenely and the damping seems beautifully judged. But the steering is sweatily heavy and it follows cambers (and the record-run road has a lot of camber), especially under brakes. But again, I won’t make a fuss because it’s replaced now by a powered system.

I will make a fuss, in a good way, about the damping and ride refinement. There’s remarkably little tyre slap, even on potholes and concrete freeways. The carbon wheels help here I suspect. Neither is there much engine harshness. Going at regular speeds is a pleasure, the aircon works well and the structure feels (and has proved in someone else’s crash) very solid. There are three SSCs that have covered 10k miles each.

In other words, there’s a lot that’s great about the 2006 SSC. And everything that isn’t is being fixed.

Before you ask, it’s nothing like a Veyron. It’s more visceral and more basic and, yes, more brutally fast. By some way. Shelby himself took a car to the Middle East where some local potentates arrived with two Veyrons and commanded the road be closed. It duly was, they duly did a TG-style drag race, and the SSC duly won. Two men ordered SSCs on the spot. The next day they paid. Using cash, pulled out of a Louis Vuitton holdall.

So it’s a must-have in parts of the Middle East. Yet Shelby notes a reticence among American buyers. Which strikes me as odd given the usual American patriotism – and their liking for big numbers. Numbers come no bigger than these.

Top Gear magazine out now: new Lambo world exclusive.


Friends, Romans, Mini Countrymen, lay down your keyboards. Step away from your computers, leave that colour-coded spreadsheet unfinished and stop watching The InBetweeners on 4OD. The November issue of TopGear magazine is in the shops, and it’s a cracker. It’s so damn exciting that it makes the Ryder Cup finale look like, er, a game of golf in Wales.

We’ve got a world-exclusive close-up with the Lamborghini Sestro Elemento, the full story behind Lotus’s possibly-insane Plan For World Domination and, oh, so much more.

So, that Lamborghini concept. The rest of the world was thunderstruck when the all-carbon Sestro Elemento was revealed in Paris last week, but – devious gadabouts that we are – TopGear had already stolen it away for an exclusive photoshoot and interrogation session with the most astonishing supercar concept of the year.

Six new models by 2015, a £770m investment, Ferrari-beating performance… as grand plans go, Lotus’s new strategy is the biggest since Alexander the Great said, ‘Goodness, Macedonia is feeling a bit crowded recently, isn’t it?’

Our man Paul Horrell gives you a comprehensive run-down of every new Lotus – including the amazing 620bhp V8 Esprit – and concludes with a thorough grilling of Dany Bahar, in which he discovers that the new Lotus CEO is not in fact a barking loon.

Jaguar’s C-X75 concept is an electric supercar with 780bhp, four-wheel drive and a pair of miniature jet engines. Now, you weren’t expecting that, were you? Tom Ford is your guide on an exclusive tour of the maddest thing to emerge from the Midlands since Noddy Holder.

But you don’t want a concept. You want something you can actually get your hands on, right? In that case… the Ferrari SA Aperta isn’t for you. The £350,000, 599 convertible is completely sold out, so the closest you’ll get to it is our preview of the 661bhp rag-roofed nutjob.

Kicking off our New Drives section this month is the Audi A7 Sportback, Ingolstadt’s answer to the bananatastic Merc CLS. Is it good enough to beat the mercurial Merc? And can it dish out a kicking to the base-spec Porsche Panamera? It might…

Also reviewed this month is the new Ford C-Max, a car that you really, really should care about, because it’s the first of a new generation of Focuses. And it’s great to drive. No, really it is. We’ve also got first drives of the Renault Fluence, new Nissan Micra, Volvo V60, Ferrari California Stop-Start and a whole bunch of other shiny new metal.

The Range Rover Evoque is gearing up to be next year’s must-have fashion accessory. Paul Horrell hoses through the Victoria Beckham-flavoured marketing fluff and gets right to the heart of the car that you don’t think you want, but you really, really do.

That’s the Local Motors Rally Fighter, a Dakar-style buggy designed and voted for by the good ol’ American public. Not designers. Not engineers. Plebs. And it’s tackling a 75-foot jump. With our man Pat Devereux in the passenger seat. Do you trust the American public?

And that’s the Peel P50, Clarkson’s office commuting tool of choice, in a shopping centre in the Deep South. Dan Read enrages small-town America (again) in a bid to discover whether James Caan’s money was well spent.

There’s all this and far, far more in the November issue of TopGear magazine, available in all newsagents of ill repute today.

Small Wonder from 08|2007

In the 70s, the Polski Fiat 126 put in some very big performances as a rally car. Bill Thomas heads to Poland where it was established.

There had to be a moment when I saw the Polski Fiat 126 Group 2 for the first time. It happened as we drove down a narrow road near Bielsko Biała, in south-western Poland – there, amid glorious rolling countryside, sitting in front of a neat, red-roofed workshop, was the little blue and white rally car, resplendent in the markings the original wore in the late 1970s, during some of the most heroic drives in rallying history.

This is a car that defies the laws of perspective, because it looks bigger from further away, and gets smaller as you approach. You need to be right up close to appreciate its sensational lack of size – if you’ve seen a 126 on the road recently, you’ll know what I mean.

Its lines have aged more gracefully than any 30-year-old car I can think of right now – it’s beyond ‘cute’, it’s properly pretty, clean, uncluttered, sweet. As we’ve read elsewhere in this magazine, if it’s small and it’s a Fiat, it’s hard not to fall in love with.

So I did – I had no choice. I fell in love, at first sight, smitten to the core. And so did Top Gear creative director Charlie Turner, another self-confessed small Fiat nut. Only ‘nut’ can describe a man who would willingly volunteer to accompany me on this 126 drive – a thousand miles from the factory in Poland back to London via Berlin.

You can now buy a 126 replica like this for around £7,000. The cars use original 126 bodyshells and are lovingly prepared by 126 Group 2 in Bielsko Biała, just as the old Polish works rally cars were – roll cage, tuned engine, trick suspension, stripped bare.

Over three million Polski Fiat 126 road cars were license-built by FSM in Poland between 1973 and 2000, so there are plenty of bodyshells to go round. Polish roads are still clogged with the things.

However, to qualify for FIA-spec in historic rallies – the main raison d’être for this replica, though I suspect many people will buy it just to cherish it – the 126 must use a bodyshell constructed between 1978 and 1983. No problem, thousands to choose from.

It’s a little-documented part of rallying history, Poland and Eastern Europe in the late 1970s, but talking to some of the participants and hearing their stories, I can tell you it’s at a very high level for sheer guts, bravado and skill. And the FSM-OBR Polski 126s were in the thick of it, scrapping with far bigger, more powerful cars, and often putting them down.

Andrzej Lubiak, one of the most successful of all the Polski works drivers, met us at the 126 Group 2 factory and told us some tales. I’ll never meet a more brilliant raconteur. Andrzej showed us one of his old stage results sheets – and there was his 126, running eighth overall, among Renault Alpines and Porsche 911s.

Tremendous. On one event, he lost a right front wheel – so his navigator climbed onto the left rear corner of the car to keep the nose in the air, then Andrzej finished the stage flat-out. One year he competed in Russia and had to deal with a centimetre of ice inside the windscreen.

The demister cleared only a tiny, heart-shaped area in the centre, yet, with his legs wrapped in newspaper, feet clad in ski boots, head bent low to peer through the heart, he carried on at full speed with the temperatures outside at -40°C.

Our first stop would be one of Andrzej’s old hunting grounds, the Walim-Rościszów road to the north-west, near the Czech border. Though it was hard to leave the factory, I couldn’t wait to try Poland’s most famous rally stage in the 126.

Firing up the engine gives you a shock – it is unbelievably loud. Mounted in the rear, of course, there isn’t much between it and the cockpit. It’s a two-cylinder, 650cc unit, balanced and blueprinted, with works pistons and cams and a very serious exhaust system.

The engine is rated at between 48 and 54bhp depending on spec – that doesn’t sound like much, but the car only weighs 550kg, remember, and 54bhp from 600cc is an exceptional power output. We donned ear defenders and hit the road.

It’s a crazy machine to drive. Nothing much happens under 4,000rpm, but keep it above that and the 126 zips along briskly – Group 2 engineer Michal Kumiega told us to keep it below 5,500, but the tiny twin revs so keenly, it was hard not to let it creep toward the 7,000rpm peak-power point.

Neither Charlie nor I are small people, but we fit inside the 126 without drama. The racing bucket seats in this car are too narrow for my frame, with the side bolsters causing discomfort if I didn’t slide forward, but that’s easily fixed – more importantly, the driving stance is surprisingly natural given the car’s diminutive proportions, with a classic long-arm, short-leg Italian driving position, and the co-pilot sat lower and behind the driver. There’s plenty of headroom, too.

The stage near Walim is fabulous, a tight snake across steep forested hills, and the 126 tackled it with élan. This kind of hairpin-infested road is what the 126 is made for, especially with the optional short-ratio gearbox fitted to our test car – its 18kph per thousand revs in top (fourth) didn’t really make much sense on fast A-roads, but here it was perfect.

The trick is to keep your momentum up at all costs, and keep the revs up with it. That’s a lot of fun, because the 126 turns in with great precision and holds its line with proper determination – the 165/55 Yokohama 12-inch tyres don’t want to let go, and you can adjust the tail with a little lift when the car is at the limit of adhesion.

Held tight by the racing seats, dialling in the lock with the Monte Carlo steering wheel and keeping the revs high with constant use of the quick, easy-shifting ‘box, it’s not hard to imagine master drivers like Andrzej embarrassing those pesky Alpines.

I’d like to say we drove the 126 all the way to Berlin, our overnight stop, in a marathon endurance run, but that would be a bare-faced lie. The short-ratio ‘box meant that 60mph equalled 5,500rpm and it wasn’t fair on the car. We slid the little Fiat into a truck.

Heading through Berlin the next morning, we blasted pedestrians and other motorists with deafening engine blips before parking the 126 at the Brandenburg Gate for a photo. Surely no car in the world has such a massive sound-to-size ratio, and judging by the reaction of everyone who set eyes on it, there can’t be many more attractive cars in existence, either.

We did a long stint on a mostly derestricted autobahn, sitting at 60mph and dicing with trucks. As big Mercs and Audis piled past, the 126 rocked on its little wheels and I quietly dreamt of leaving the execmobiles behind on a switchback road. If you’re thinking of tackling longer journeys, I’d recommend the longer-ratio ‘box option, where a top speed of 90mph makes a lot more sense.

‘Sense’ isn’t a word you’d normally associate with a rally replica, but maybe the guys at Group 2 are onto something here – this is a car that works brilliantly in the world we find ourselves in.

Tiny, nimble, charismatic, inexpensive to buy and run, and above all, a gigantic dollop of unmitigated fun – you can sit in it and flick the bird at the world. Then, when you step out, you’ll turn to look at it and it feels like the first time. Every time. I have to have one. Have to.

from 09|2010

Snowdonia looks like Middle Earth. From our mountainside car-park base close to Capel Curig – officially the wettest place in Wales, which is no mean feat – we watch as great tracts of cloud roll in off the Irish sea. We have no option but to take shelter as the weather gets unseasonably medieval on our asses.

Except that conditions like these really up the ante. In that same remote car park sits a Ferrari 458, a Lambo Gallardo Superleggera, a Porsche 911 GT3 RS, a Merc SLS AMG, and a Lexus LFA. (There’s also one of those hideous Hymer RVs with a German couple inside, but we’ll leave them out of this.) That’s some collection of cars, 2010’s finest. It’s also a total of 2,713bhp, a fair few thousand kilograms of aluminium, carbon fibre and expensively reinforced plastic, a combined top speed north of 1,000mph (they’ll all do 200mph or close to it), and near enough a million quid’s worth.

Here we go then. Time to pop the necessary brave pills and just get stuck in, evil weather or not. One road, instant impressions – sometimes it’s the best way. There are mountains, rocks, sheep and for all I know an army of vengeful orcs waiting to hurl flaming tar at me. This particular road, the A4086, is irresistible though. Freshly resurfaced, there’s definitely grip to be had out here. And even with the sheets of rain and the curlicues of spray, there’s enough forward visibility to plan ahead properly like police driving instructors insist we do. But even so.

The 458 Italia is the latest so-called ‘small’ and ‘affordable’ Ferrari. It costs £169,000, so in reality it’s about as affordable as a Bahamian island. But it is still relatively small. It’s also still mid-engined, and having recently spent some time reacquainting myself with its mid-Nineties forebear the F355, I know that small, mid-engined Ferraris are utterly bewitching right up to the moment they stop being bewitching and try to do you in. Especially if it’s wet.

But the 458 might just be the cleverest car I’ve ever driven. The 458 kisses goodbye once and for all to the old-school, ‘organic’ Prancing Horse, to the lingering idea that when you buy a Ferrari you’re paying for the engine, for the toil of some Italian artisan, and the rest of it is a bonus.

Not here, it isn’t. This is a seriously high-technology car, a deliberately, unapologetically complicated bit of kit engineered by men with vast IQs. Its chassis electronics, aerodynamic refinements and incredible carbon-ceramic brakes will see you down a treacherous Welsh mountain road in a way that’ll pump the blood round your body faster than anything this side of base-jumping off a Shanghai skyscraper. Honestly.

It’s been said that the 458 Italia is the first truly digital supercar, and if, say, you still prefer vinyl records to CDs or MP3s, then that’s probably a bad thing. But when I overcook one particular corner, I can sense the electronic differential and traction control effortlessly compensate for my cack-handedness.

Really, I should be picking bits of orc tar and sheep out of my hair at this point. No question, Ferrari has absolutely nailed the network of electronics that keep things sweet, finding traction where there isn’t supposed to be any and juggling braking forces. The 458 is nothing less than a major step forward in the evolution of the car. Its lightning-fast, two turns lock-to-lock steering takes some getting used to though. It majors on accuracy rather than feel.

For the next hour or so, the other four get tested over exactly the same stretch. It’s one of the best and most illuminating hours of my life. My God, these cars are good. Amazing, in fact. And all very, very different in their approach to the common goal of going like the clappers.

The Porsche’s semi-slick Michelin Sport Pilots clearly aren’t, er, optimised for these sorts of conditions. But a soggy road like this doesn’t so much compromise the GT3 RS as bring into sharp focus what it can do: which is to connect you with what’s passing beneath those four bits of rubber more intimately than any of the others, filter the information in the most stupendously interactive way. Its steering is perfectly alive: exquisitely weighted, linear, communicative.

It’s also the only one with a conventional manual gearbox, perhaps the truest driver’s car of the quintet. Give me this sort of 911 any day over the arcade-game-slick PDK version. It’s classic 911 remastered, a defiantly analogue counterpoint to the Ferrari. But still highly evolved.

As Pat Devereux observes at one point, “it’s as hi-tech as any of the other cars, you just don’t always realise.” He’s right, but hook up a string of corners, maximising entry and exit speeds and getting your line just right, and you can feel the breath of genius on the back of your neck.

The Porsche is genuinely spine-tingling. Maybe because it’s the one you’d least want to make a mistake in. You have to concentrate pretty hard in the Porsche. This is a good thing for the soul.

The Lambo isn’t the same immediate fit. The Superleggera is awkward to sit in, awkward to see out of, and is starting to feel its age. But even in stripped-out form (it weighs an impressively lean 1,340kg), its stability and sense of purpose is incredible.

Without putting a stopwatch on it, it feels like the one that’s fastest and most sure-footed on this road, even if it lacks the Ferrari’s ferocious electronic intelligence. Its turn-in, and the amount of grip you can find in it, and the way it communicates its findings to you, is beyond exhilarating. The fastest, then, in a massively rapid bunch of cars, as well as the most reassuring. Not bad for a lightweight Lamborghini, of all things. This thing is the polar opposite of flakey.

The SLS feels like a muscle car; it’s loud, very firm, and doesn’t change direction with the immediacy of the others. It feels unrepentantly German, a big sausage alongside the more lip-smacking Italian salami.

There seems to be an awful lot of car in front of you, and not much behind, which makes it an interesting vehicle to place on the road. Right now, it feels like a heavier, blunter instrument. But it’s also more of a long-legged GT than the others, and this short blast, point-to-point exercise doesn’t show it in its best light. I suspect it’s the one for the long drive home. Perhaps even the best all-rounder, too.

The Lexus, on the other hand, is almost too sharp. It skitters about more than any of its rivals, needs a careful hand on the wheel and a quick brain on the job, even with its traction control switched firmly on. As I concluded when I drove it at the Nordschleife last autumn, the 560bhp, V10 LFA is probably the maddest car ever to come out of Japan, and definitely the craziest product to emerge from the company that brought us the Prius. I’m loving the Lexus.

Back in the car park, the weather now seems to be going in reverse. A stern wind has dissipated the rain, and a little vortex of air is blowing a polystyrene cup around us repetitively like the plastic bag in that famous scene in American Beauty. It’s getting brighter rather than darker, too, but still, the Hymer couple must be reviewing next summer’s travel options. Death Valley, maybe.

At least they have what must surely be 2010’s five most compelling-looking cars to distract them. I’m still buzzing from my rapid-fire drive, but it’s time to get a proper handle on these things. Pat D dismisses the LFA as a mutant Supra, and the truth is that this is an eternally gestating motor-show concept car that nearly didn’t make it out of the starting blocks at all. But it’s also the number one crowd-stopper and though not all the people we speak to like it, everyone wants to know what it is. And then they all want to know how much it costs, and are naturally rather surprised to hear that it’s 340 big ones. Lexus will lose money on every carbon-bodied LFA it sells, which only underlines the madness at work here.

Its interior is also remarkable. It’s sensationally well made. It has easily the best door handles and indicator stalks I’ve ever used, and the dials in the instrument display are powered by tiny motors and so glide across the binnacle in the most gloriously pointless way. The LFA’s centre console is a wonderful aluminium slab, a gleaming, retro-futuristic edifice with a little joystick that moves a cursor round on a screen. This is brilliant fun but also utterly hopeless on the move, and the reason why I almost drive the car into a kerb while trying to find Ken Bruce’s Popmaster on Radio 2.

Thanks to its doors, the SLS runs the LFA a close second for crowd-pleasing. At least Mercedes has some moral right to gullwing doors, and over the course of our few days with it I never get bored just getting in and out. Although, as Jeremy says in his SLS feature, anyone who’s less than 6ft 2in might find the novelty less enduring unless they remember to pull the door shut after them as they get in. (And anyone who’s over 6ft 2in will need to grow an impact-absorbing Afro to avoid bumping their head on the bit of the door that eats into the headlining.) The rest of it is familiar high-end Merc product: resilient leather and plastics, simple interfaces, great to use but arguably a little soulless.

The Lambo is the least friendly to be in. The driving position isn’t very good, the view ahead letter-box slender, and the fixed carbon-shelled bucket seats are hard work at first. The carbon-skinned door clangs shut like a race car’s, and there’s thinner glass on the windscreen and side windows, and Perspex on the rear-quarter windows. Yes, it skims weight off, and it feels lean. But a bit mean too. And old. Why does this car suddenly feel old? Pat again: “About 80 per cent of the people who’d buy the Lambo would be doing it for other people’s benefit. With the Porsche, it’s probably the other way round.”

It says something that, despite the daft decals and the huge wing, the Porsche is practically invisible in this company. I love the fact that you can swap the enamel bonnet badge for a sticker, and you just know that no one goes about weight reduction like these guys. There’s a titanium silencer and a single-mass flywheel which has now been lightened to the point where it weighs almost nothing at all. (It rattles like a bag of old nails at idle, too, but we’ll let that go.) Yet the 911’s Michelins have tall enough sidewalls to make it surprisingly compliant.

Inside, the current RS diet means no aircon and no stereo – when I got into it at home before setting off, I spent 10 seconds searching for an iPod connection before I realised there was no bleeding stereo to connect it to. (I will eventually drive 630 miles in this car in three days. Personally, I’d have aircon and a stereo in my GT3 RS, and swallow the 0.007 of a second or however much those bits blunt the car’s performance by. After three days and 630 miles, boy did I miss Ken Bruce.)

Let’s get back to the Ferrari. The 458 is the most obviously pretty Ferrari since the F355 in 1994, and raids the best back catalogue in the business without looking remotely retro. There’s all sorts of aero work on the 458 – a big rear diffuser, flexible aero-elastic winglets upfront – without the need for showy spoilers like the Porsche’s and Lambo’s (the Lexus and AMG both have devices that hove into view at 70mph). This technically astonishing Ferrari also manages to be true to its maker’s reputation for beauty.

If the car’s dynamics have been taken to new levels by electronics, the 458’s cabin has been similarly re-imagined. Not quite as successfully, in my view. The quality inside is excellent, with beautiful leatherwork, and gorgeous snake-hipped seats. But though the interior ergonomics ape the multi-functionality of modern F1 cars, this might not be an entirely good thing.

I love the strip lights that mirror the engine revs along the top of the wheel, and there’s no arguing with the manettino or the engine start button. But the indicator switches are a literally on/off, hit-and-miss affair, and the wiper and light buttons – they’re all on the wheel somewhere – are confusing. As is the sheer volume of stuff that’s going on in the media and info pods either side of the steering column.

Still, the F430 was criticised for the paucity of interior content, so we shouldn’t kick its replacement for having too much (though charging £540 for an iPod connection is a bit rich. Indeed, a trawl through the Ferrari options book could reduce a grown man to tears. In fact, prepare yourself for pain if you go options shopping for any of them).

Not that the baubles matter. Because what unites all five of these cars is the astonishing completeness of their engineering. Their engines alone are worth the price of admission. Work your way through the 458’s sublime dual-clutch gearbox – instant, seamless shifts with just enough mechanical grit built into it to keep the analogue purist happy – and even changing up early is a satisfyingly meaty process. The exhaust makes that brilliant Ferrari ‘bwap’ noise. But hunt for the redline in second, third and fourth and keep an eye on that wheel strip light, and the 4.5-litre V8’s appetite for revs is unbelievably addictive.

Personally, the 430 Scuderia’s harder, more F1-influenced character still has the edge for me, but the 458 is thrillingly close and it’ll flip into cruise-home mode in an instant. In fact, it’s so torquey it’ll pull in seventh gear from under 40mph. It’s a devastatingly good car even at 70mph on a busy motorway, yet almost as fast as an Enzo everywhere else, with an even more sophisticated chassis. Ferrari’s current rate of technological progress is off-the-scale.

The 458 is just so complete, which is an unusual thing to conclude about a Ferrari. But then, the SLS – with its wonderfully savage 6.2-litre, hand-built AMG V8 and eye-popping looks – is a hugely charismatic car to be around. The Porsche has the authenticity, a soaring race-car character and a beautiful, gutsy, free-flowing engine. The Lamborghini corners the hardest of all, is massively confident, and gigantically, hilariously fast. The Lexus is mad as a brush, but its 4.8-litre V10 runs the Ferrari’s V8 very close indeed for high-revving thunder. Yes, you read that right: a Lexus engine that’s close to Ferrari good.

That’s the class of 2010. Seriously, the best ever. The best ever.

Clarkson on the M600

Posted: September 17, 2010 in Articles
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Remember Noble? It’s back with a new car, a modest effort with 650bhp, maxing out at 225mph and costing £200,000. Jeremy takes it for a blast around the TopGear test track.

For years, Leicester’s contribution to the world amounted to little more than Walker’s crisps and Gary Lineker. Then a few years ago, Leicester came up with something more interesting. It was called the Noble M400 and, despite being assembled in a shed, it was one of the best handling cars we’ve ever had on our track. As a result we were keen to know what its inventor, Lee Noble, would do next. Unfortunately, what he did next was leave the company he’d founded. Plainly this was a worry. Then the M600 came along.

You might assume that a £200k supercar with a Volvo engine and no ABS would be a laughing stock, a reason why Leicester should stick to making things with salt ‘n’ vinegar written on the outside. In fact, the M600 is extraordinary.

Yes, if you call up all that power it can be as scary as finding an alligator in your pants, but the really amazing thing is that on its gentler setting it is incredibly easy to drive. It even rides well, and that’s always the mark of a well-sorted sports car.

I know it doesn’t have a fashionable badge, and I know that it’ll quickly be worth as much as yesterday’s newspapers, but for sheer, visceral speed there’s little to touch it. Which should give Leicester something to be proud of, apart from snack food and a jug-eared footballist.

James on the Ferrari 458

Posted: September 15, 2010 in Articles
Tags: , , , , ,

from 09|2010

It really is, absolutely, unbelievably, mesmerisingly, brilliant.” (J Clarkson, 2010)

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Ferrari 458 Italia. You may remember it from such recent hits as “Ferrari 458 on fire”, or “Ferrari 458 Italia crashed”. All of these, we hasten to add, a result of “excited new owner” error.

The Ferrari 458 is a bit like high-definition television. It’s a phenomenon with which we are completely familiar – a mid-engined Ferrari – but much clearer and brighter.

Take the gearbox. Like my old F430, it has paddles behind the wheel, but where my car moves from one gear to the next, this one is simply in one and then instantly in the other. It is, literally, quantum mechanics, in the sense that the space in between ratios is never actually occupied.

The engine is more powerful, and the exhaust note is crisper, sharper and better defined. There is a greater sense of immediacy to everything that happens in the 458. The steering on the F430 has never been described as bad, but the steering on this car is simply less fuzzy. The suspension is a bit more accommodating, the brake pedal a bit more positive, and the glove box appears to be slightly bigger. Even the styling seems to have been rendered with slightly sharper edges.

See what I mean? It’s the same stuff, rendered in more detail. It’s as if a lens has been wiped clean, or a layer of sponge removed from the ends of your fingers. The world of driving a Ferrari remains familiar, but is now in sharper focus.

Obviously, high-def television can come with its own downside, just as most technological advances do. Richard Hammond’s hair or Jeremy Clarkson’s face in greater detail is not something that society ever regretted not having, but this car only benefits from the transformation. There is no penalty that I can detect. It is, in fact, a better car than mine in every single way.

It’s really bloody annoying.