Blog: Dave LeggettDrive day

Dave Leggett | 18 May 2005

Interesting day yesterday at Millbrook driving cars around the various circuits and the speed bowl. There were also plenty of people to bump into and catch up with as well as a few new people to meet, PRs and journalists to chew the cud with. Time well spent for a managing editor, honest.

I don’t pretend to be an automotive product expert, but it is uniquely valuable to climb into a large number of cars in such a short period of time. The sample may be, statistically speaking at least, unscientific, but you do get an instant perspective that is interesting, if subjective and impressionistic. While the business of this publication is automotive industry reporting and analysis in a pretty broad sense, a little familiarity with end-product is no bad thing. 

Some cars surprise you, others disappoint.

Here’s a brief roll call on some of the more unusual ones that stick out in my mind this morning:

  • Ford Mustang GT convertible: one of the few, ‘gotta try that so that I can say I did’ jobs. The 4.6L V8 made a nice throaty noise and the car was steady and quick on the speed bowl, making effortless progress to 90mph. Solid build, nice looks. Great value car in the US too but I had the feeling that it would seem just a little out of context on narrow and congested English roads. I was starting to fantasise: big American roads, a long road trip, wide open vistas, reliably warm sunshine, ice cold can of root beer in one hand…
  • Daihatsu Copen: the diminutive roadster with Audi TT curves delivers you immediately – once you have squeezed into the driver’s seat – to a pint-sized world of easy fun. Daihatsu could surely sell more of these in export markets if it wanted to. The turbocharged 4-cylinder 660cc engine (develops some 64bhp but the car weighs only 1,850lb; claimed top speed is 100mph) seems able to cope with the workload, but this is a car primarily for tootling around and having a bit of fun in. The problem with Japanese 660cc midget cars (kei class) is that the margins tend to be small and serving the domestic market comes first. But the £13,000 list price – expensive for what it is perhaps - must create a decent margin (on approx 1,000 units pa in UK market, no problem shifting them I was told – and I would believe that) and suggests big potential for upward movement on the volume side. Late-thirties/early-forties professional women are big customers apparently, no doubt wooed by the cutesy looks.
  • Porsche Cayenne S: drove it on the ‘severe off-road circuit’ and was mightily impressed with what it can do, especially ‘hill stop’ (just take your foot of the accelerator on an incline and it stops, brakes applied automatically. Foot back on the throttle and it, magically, moves forward again.) In a world of constant stressing, I guess it just removes a little bit more. One less thing to think about, one less pedal to press and you can forget all about the handbrake. Engineering on the Cayenne is very impressive, naturally. Probably a bit over-engineered for most customers, but it is a Porsche! Maybe you could indeed put a Porsche badge on almost anything and Americans would still queue up to buy it in droves. But Porsche has pulled off something quite clever with the Cayenne, in spite of the scepticism which greeted the car when it was introduced. It’s a performance off-roader that has not damaged the Porsche brand and, arguably, has strengthened it. But what of the Porsche fourth model line? That would also have to be something very special.
  • Fiat Panda 4x4: a quarter the price of the Cayenne S and really is excellent value for money. Pretty capable and a lot of fun on the regular off-road circuit at Millbrook. More than once, I wondered if the deep ruts in the mud would do for it. Took 'em in its stride. Very good considering that it is based on a small on-road car. A reminder of what Fiat is good at.
  • BMW Mini Cabrio: very good overall package - I like the Mini interior (not everyone does) and the cabrio version would be a very easy to live with soft-top, if not a cutting edge performer.
  • Smart forfour: perhaps the 1.5L diesel wasn’t the best powertrain choice, but this car just had me asking, why? Some of the materials chosen for parts of the interior had a slightly gimmicky feel (who wants a furry-feel dashboard top?). External appearance is nothing to write home about either. It felt overall like a bog-standard hatch that had maybe been the subject of some design student's project or dissertation: how can we tart up a conventional Mitsubishi small hatchback? With its steep pricing, I'm not surprised forfour sales are undershooting targets.
  • Golf GTi with DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox): semi-automatic gear changes are very smooth and quick; it has had good reviews and I must say, I really enjoyed the drive on Millbrook’s hill circuit for all the reasons that you will be reading about in your consumer/enthusiast mags. Great execution by VW.
  • Chevrolet brand (nee Daewoo) outside North America. Okay, I drove the Kalos small hatch and it was nothing special. But that is actually, perhaps, a good thing - at least it did not scream ‘cheap’n’nasty’ the way small Daewoos used to. There will continue to be some who will say that GM is bonkers to dump the Daewoo brand in Britain, but there is some strong business sense in the change to the Chevrolet name as GM’s value driven entry brand. Chevrolet keeps the value attributes that Daewoo had, something that keeps the old customer base on board. Econoboxes with long warranty, are cheap to run and deliver only ‘limited driving pleasure’? There’s a big market for that. But a whole new brand name also offers the possibility to reach out to new customers who may have been turned off by that Daewoo name and its cheap as chips connotations. And the new crop of models designed in Italy have classy lines. There was plenty of praise for the Lacetti yesterday from other journalists I spoke to. And it will get more interesting in the future as yet more models are added to the brand. Might even be some ticklish overlap/differentiation issues with other GM volume brands in Europe…
  • Audi A8. Big and luxurious but doesn’t have the lumbering feel that some cars in its class have. If I had a few bob spare, I’d have one. Latest A3 is a nice job.
  • Jeep Wrangler: scary. I’m a novice when it comes to off-roaders and maybe this is a vehicle for purists, but I didn’t feel comfortable or confident. Had to virtually stand on the brakes. Few concessions to modern comforts, but I guess Wrangler customers won’t be bothered by that.
  • Chrysler 300C. Liked the interior (best dashboard clock by a country mile!) and the chunky Rover P5-like retro styling has a certain appeal. I took a turn in the passenger seat and the driver enjoyed himself immensely, throwing it around corners in a manner that, alas, I just don’t have the bottle for. Kept thinking about the car’s considerable mass and remembering the Top Gear review on TV and the slightly disparaging remarks about its braking capabilities. White knuckles.  Yes, I am a bit of a wuss at times. I suspect that the 300C’s main appeal will be overwhelmingly in the North American market. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. 


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