The annual Society of Motor Manufacturer’s and Trader’s invitation to Millbrook Proving Ground is a privilege to attend despite the travel and accommodation logistics with even Bedford’s weather surprisingly unusual for May – it was warmer ‘oop north. Here is a automotive industry synopsis:
Contrary to the trend of falling carbon dioxide levels over the last decade, the fleet average for newly registered cars rose by 0.8% in 2017 attributable in part to a fall in diesel sales by 17.1% reducing its market share to 42%. Alternatively-fuelled vehicles only accounted for 4.7% of new car registrations in 2017 with zero-emission battery electric vehicles and fuel cell electric vehicle taking 0.5% so further incentives are needed to increase sales.
Avoiding the predictable beeline to Aston Martin’s marquee, I strode to BMW’s for the outgoing M3 model. On Millbrook’s hill circuit, nobody can hear you scream – except a marshall. Memories of a Citroen DS3 and Honda NSX came to me, casualties of driver inexperience – that NSX took an age to repair including a trip to the USA to rectify and even Honda couldn’t tell me the final bill. The DS3 was a limited edition, its front wheels splayed out at different angles. To my credit though, I wore soft shoes to feel the M3’s pedal and didn’t push it on the damp track. A nappa leather topped steering wheel provided a reassuring touch and I never felt unsafe at speed despite a jolt from the adaptive suspension at a change in camber at the end of the hill circuit. After revealing the 2979cc six cylinder engine for this photo, I struggled to shut the bonnet although was helped by one BMW staff member who placed both palms symmetrically either side of the BMW badge – the M3 still does demand respect.
MG, owned by Shanghai Automotive doesn’t finish cars at Longbridge anymore, its usage being limited as a design centre. Despite this, the new ZS has a seven year warranty, limited to 80,000 miles and hopes to piggyback on to the lucrative crossover market. Excuse my scepticism of Chinese cars as past crash tests highlighted their poor safety records but I admit though,that I was pleasantly surprised by the fusion of the three cylinder 1.0 turbocharged powertrain with six speed automatic transmission that was responsive. Manual gearboxes are married to 1.5 petrol units with diesel engines now obsolete – last used in the MG 6. My only gripe was a blind spot in the C-pillar interspersed by a small triangular window. Unfortunately, carbon dioxide emissions of 144 g/km are high for a 999cc unit, only 54g/km short of the M3 previously driven that highlights the disparity between European and Chinese emissions equating to a first year tax rate of £205 for the MG driven.
I know every turn and camber of the hill circuit – and where the ‘OVERTAKING PERMITTED’ sign in particular is, although too many successive drives can leave you as sick as a chip. I remember one hack who got lift-off on the blind crest in a Saab convertible then was promptly threatened with a swift exit out of Millbrook. Time for some off-roading then? I’d been before in a Range Rover and Skoda Octavia Scout – the latter had a mudline waist deep after being encouraged by the instructor, and people laughed when we returned to the steering pad which is where the cars are brought back or collected from. You don’t get much jolting from Range Rovers when off-road because of their air suspension and computers that damp every rut. Conversely, the Mercedes G Wagon (G 350 4Matic D Auto to be precise) relies on pure mechanics to get us through the ‘Black Route’ which is Millbrook’s most difficult offroad route which I duly chose. Three toggle switches engage three differentials at equidistance points along the prop shafts at front middle and back and no matter how hard I and the instructor tried, we couldn’t get it to cock its rear wheel up in the air. Feet off the pedals after peaking at another blind crest, not as much blind as sky and the Merc slid and slithered down sandy ruts. Superceded by the G class now that still resembles our Wagon but is technologically superior than its utilitarian predecessor, I am sure the G class will not be as reliable as the Wagon as computers are not as robust as mechanics, don’t you agree?
Then followed drives in the new Seat Ibiza, VW T-Roc and Arteon. The latter reminded me of the ill-fated Phaeton although felt a fraction of its mass. Volkswagen Audi Group has launched new colour schemes as well as futuristic product names that are predictably good to drive but you have to pay relatively high prices. I marvelled at the Peugeot 308 GTI ‘Power, Boost and Torque’ bar charts that alter according to throttle application although remember having as much fun in the 1.2 Puretech engine three years ago. Alfa’s Veloce, pronounced Velo-chey is an alternative to the multitudes of platform-sharing but residuals are the Italian’s worst enemy.
A polar opposite experience to repairing older cars which is what I mainly do now but enjoy.
Words and photos are copyright of Sotiris Vassiliou