COMMENT: Buoyant SMMT opens toy shop for a day
One way to spend a decent lotto win: Rolls-Royce Wraith harks back to coachbuilt coupe of more than a half century ago
An invitation to SMMT Test Day is keenly sought after by automotive journalists here in the UK. And little wonder.
Where else does the umbrella organisation for the entire auto biz in a country - SMMT is shorthand for Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders - gather virtually every automaker, each with up to six cars, at one of the world's best proving grounds, provide breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea - and wi-fi - and let the 'muttering rotters' loose - on hill route, city route, road route, off-road route or high-speed bowl - to try as many models as possible?
This year, as usual, the SMMT CEO set the stage with an upbeat welcome address. Mike Hawes, well known to just-auto from his time as a top PR man at Toyota Europe, Volkswagen and Bentley, highlighted that the automotive industry was "fundamental to the UK economy". It's currently making 1.5-1.6m cars a year, 2.5m engines, 100,000 commercial vehicles and - most important - employs 750,000 people from R&D to dealers.
Thirty brands make and sell 70 models in the UK, there are 13 R&D centres, 80% of what is made is exported.
Hawes made an impassioned plea to the media to encourage job hunters to consider a motor industry career. "We want more young people in the industry," he said.
It certainly looks like opportunity will be there. SMMT is forecasting record output for the country in 2016 or 2017 - beating benchmarks set as far back as 1972, when the UK auto industry was a very different animal. There's 2,500 supplier companies operating here and the government, which had long turned its back on 'metal bashing' in favour of 'high tech', is now helpful, lending its support to the Automotive Council which provides assistance for everything including technical, supply chain and the business environment.
"The cross-government and cross-party support for the auto industry environment has changed significantly," Hawes said.
On Europe, Hawes reckoned the recovery there was being driven by business customers.
And, lastly, a new SMMT statistic. Cars sold in the UK today are 35.9% more efficient than in 2004.
And so to the cars. Journalists use the day in many different ways. Some, already well familiar with most makes and their models, view the gathering of PRs from (almost) every automaker in one place a great networking opportunity and just talk their way from stand to stand. Many of the bloggers/videographers/magazine writers salivate at the chance of filming/photographing/writing up additional makes or models they just don't get a chance to drive the rest of the year. Me, I like to catch up with interesting new models and, especially, any new technology going.
Highlights this year: another drive in a Rolls-Royce Phantom and a first crack at the gorgeous Wraith which pays homage to the coachbuilt Mulliner and Park Ward coupes the company made a half century or more ago. And tooling around in the rain in a Bentley V8 S convertible with the windows cracked open, the better to hear the enhanced burble of that wonderful bent-eight. Sorting a go in the Mercedes S-class, long that automaker's technology pioneer, and in the more affordable, and very practical, GLA crossover.
Moving more into the real world, I was impressed with the tight body structure of GM Europe's new Vauxhall Cascada convertible which minimises the dreaded 'scuttle shake' of some roofless cars, and the smoothness and seamless power delivery of the new 1.6-litre petrol turbo, mated to a much more refined, and smoother shifting manual gearbox.
BMW's latest metal roof cabriolet/convertible, the 4-series, surprised for the amount of body flex I felt through the steering wheel, compared with the Cascada, but there's nothing wrong with the rest of the car, sampled in 420d form, and it's a proper four-seater, too.
As you'd expect these days, there were lots of electrics. I finally had a go at a Renault Zoe (very whiny drivetrain), the amazingly detailed BMW i3 in BEV (battery only) and REX (range extender) forms and, surprise, Ford Focus, with the new 2014 nose. This is a real competitor for Nissan's Leaf as it's also a well equipped, well trimmed, solidly built family hatchback that'll seat five and rides and handles as well as its fossil fuel range compatriots.
As ever, time ran out before the cars. I did manage to fit in diesel and plug-in hybrid Panameras and the new Macan (pronounce it Ma-kaan, Porsche PRs insist), Mitsubishi's intriguing new plug-in hybrid Outlander and a Renault Captur, if memory serves, but missed the retro Lancer and Japanese Jeep as well as a go in one of the numerous Maserati Ghibli saloons and evil looking McLarens that were in constant motion all day, despite the afternoon heavy rain and thunderstorms, the first time in a few years the weather gods have not smiled on this event.
Always a great day out. And there's always next year...