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The annual Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) test day at the former Vauxhall (and, later, Lotus) proving ground – known universally here in the UK simply as ‘Millbrook’ – was the highlight this week for just-auto’s editorial team and numerous correspondents.

We understand this long-standing event – I recall going to one at Castle Donington in the late ’80s – is unique to the UK and the SMMT. Essentially, virtually every auto manufacturer selling cars in the UK takes along a selection of its latest models, a sizeable contingent of PR/media relations people and, if we’re lucky, facilities to ply us with bacon butties (thanks, Peugeot, for the welcome breakfast), coffee, juices, ice creams, etc, etc. It’s like being let loose in a giant toy shop (you maybe know the old saying about boys; the only thing changing, as we age, being the price of the toys).

The event attracts such a good turn-out of invitation only motor-noters, I think, because it offers something for everyone. I go primarily to drive new cars and catch up with all the new engines, gearboxes and cabin gadgetry but many people I know go simply to network and drive but a few autos – it’s the one day of the year most of the key industry PRs are lined up in one place, relaxed away from the office, and happy to chat at length about anything (well, almost).

And the lunch (and afternoon tea) the SMMT arranges is another good draw, too…

Editor Dave Leggett enjoyed his Jaguar XF V8 drive immensely (scroll down several blog entries) while yours truly sampled the superb twin-turbo 2.7-litre diesel V6. Some, possibly jaded, consumer writers have dissed the pop-up gear selection knob and air vents that rotate open when you press the start-stop button, but what ‘surprise and delight’ features with which to impress the neighbours, huh?

Other ‘honourable mentions’ from yesterday go to Fiat’s 500 (fun, well made, great value) and Bravo 1.4 turbo (two-litre go from a 1.4; VW Golf-rivalling cabin quality); Chrysler UK PR Nikki Joyce’s knowledgeable demo of every, and I mean every, feature of the new Grand Voyager 2.8 diesel auto minivan; Mazda’s CX-7 minivan/MPV which performs extremely well with the 3’s MPS direct-injection 2.3-litre petrol turbo engine and handles far better than it should on Millbrook’s demanding hill route (they really must have re-done the suspension settings for Europe, eh?); the lovely vrmmm-thrap-thrap-thrap exhaust notes of the Mercedes CL AMG and new limited edition Alfa Romeo Brera V6 fettled by Prodrive (both simply exhilarating to drive, too); and the cabin, build and gearshift quality of Audi’s new A3 convertible with the latest twin-clutch automatic transmission, now called ‘S-tronic’.

Back in the real world, we learned late last night that, at long last, the long-running American Axle strike affecting General Motors has been settled. This has cost GM at least $US800m – and counting – but did at least allow the bloated inventory of large trucks and SUVs, whose sales have been clobbered by rising petrol prices (averaging about US$3.71 there now, NBC News said earlier this week) to be whittled down to more manageable levels. Every cloud has a silver lining…

We’re all familiar now with polycarbonate headlamp lenses but what about the rest of the glazing? Researcher Matthew Beacham has been looking into developments and you might find his report, published today, of interest.

Hybrids were again a top topic this week. Honda let slip a few more details of their latest, suggesting it has painted a target around rival Toyota (the new car will be a five-door hatchback like the Prius; Honda has only made hybrid sedans and a coupe so far) while General Motors’ Australian arm Holden all but confirmed the 2010 arrival of a hybrid powertrain along with E85 compatibility, a diesel and a revived I4. The Commodore is a popular model Down Under while variants are sold as Chevrolets in the Middle East and Brazil, and are about to reach the US as the sporty Pontiac G8. Meanwhile, Toyota and Nissan confirmed JVs for hybrid-destined lithium-ion batteries.

And, from Italy, Dave Leggett reported that Fiat is eyeing the US market again, possibly via a Smart-like JV with an established local distributor/retailer, and Volvo looks like it’s on the block again.

Enjoy your weekend (a three-day ‘Bank Holiday’ one here in the UK),

Graeme Roberts
Deputy Editor