Wetherby SMMT test day

Five years after attending my first Society of Motor Manufacturer’s and Trader’s test day at Millbrook proving ground, I’m still as excitable¬†amounting to¬†sleeplessness the night before.¬†This year, I tried a different tact to encourage slumber and avoided researching forthcoming vehicles to remain open-minded and non-judgemental which is a challenge as you get older for anyone, let alone car reviewers!


Wetherby warmly welcomed with sunshine and clear skies, in transportation¬†of Kia Picanto¬†with¬†its three door¬†brother¬†now on sale¬†with the new Rio. Proportionally, Picanto doors look too wide,¬†looming over tiny wheels that beg to be¬†replaced by the bad boys in the ghetto. The front driver’s seat doesn’t return to its original position after getting in and out of the rear¬†and the steering stills feel ambiguous. There’s a two hundred pound difference in price between three and five door for the two basic grades of Picanto that are competitively priced and the recent EuroNCAP results invites further investigation as they state that; “electronic stability control is available as an option on the Picanto”; true in Germany but not in the UK. The elder sibling Rio, is¬†in a¬†higher class¬†to its predecessor that I own and there are design influences of Vauxhall Astra door frames and Audi A3 C-pillars, not unfamiliar to Mr. Schreyer, Kia’s Design Chief although I think aircraft-style toggle switches wouldn’t make any difference to the Rio’s starting procedure! From ten and a half thousand pounds, the 1.25 four cylinder petrol unit from the Picanto is inserted or a 1.4 petrol¬†and diesel unit; I predict the latter would provide¬†more mass over the front axle with the former having too much front suspension ‘give’ on wallowy A-roads. Technologically, the 1.1 three cylinder diesel¬†is a talking point with a reputed 88 mpg! Kia’s new model range features European styling yet the Rio’s gently sloping screens do¬†impede headroom for six foot four inches and over as the roofline curves to meet the glass and roof lining is concave so that there is a lip towards the doors requiring more dexterity when entrancing or exiting. Furthermore, the Audiesque C-pillar may hit your head when leaving the backseat and pedals are offset relative to the driver’s seat. Kia¬†is rapidly advancing, similar to Skoda’s metamorphosis when bought by Volkswagen but overstylising the cars should not¬†impede practicality which is the case¬†with the Rio and more money should be spent on rear seats that provide enough base support for adults¬† in Picanto, Rio and Sportage – cars that I have tested!


Volkswagen’s Golf Cabriolet came out from hiding after nine years,¬†in 1.6 Bluemotion diesel guise that interestingly has exactly the same brake horsepower as the hardy 1.9 diesel that I drove in¬†a Passat six years ago showing the steep¬†learning curve in diesel technology. 1.2 and 1.4¬†TSI petrol units are also available from launch with 1.4 and 2.0 TSI petrol with 2.0 TDI diesel offered later in the year. Quality assured that is Volkswagen build-quality ensures there are no apparent flaws although gas cylinders don’t¬†provide enough pressure to¬†open the boot so you have to give it a nudge or two; I think¬† a basic spring system would work better here. The electrically-powered fabric roof lowers in under ten seconds and does not affect boot space with two full size rear seats also being worthy of¬† mention. On the road, the Golf feels very stable at speed even with roof down and the 1.6 diesel feels refined with enough torque to appear spritely yet undramatic,¬†like its styling. A bottle opener that slides over their holders provides a continental feel for Perrier mineral water but looks like an anomaly here in the UK when most metal topped bottles¬†contain alcohol.


Jaguar brought their ‘halo product’, the five litre V8 XFR-S supercharged to 550PS despite its ageing design. An aluminium monocoque chassis reduces mass although on acceleration, the brute lifts its nose dramatically as you are reminded of your religious denomination with snarling exhausts that burbling on idle. A carbon-fibre spoiler and diffuser gives it a look to appeal to poseurs and awe-struck public yet there is more style over substance despite its power because it doesn’t have enough litheness through bends to become¬†the ultimate¬†performance coupe. It was memorable though, as I nervously handed the keys back to Jaguar’s press officer, mumbling, “that woke me up!”


Less research¬†before test days¬†also enables you to become more attentive when hands-on and another useful technique is to drive cars of a similar category consecutively so that after the XKR-S had to come the 911 GTS-4 Carrera, the first four-wheel-drive Porsche since 1989. Sitting lower than the Jaguar, the flat 6 cylinder Porsche¬†also has¬†less power and drama¬†despite a button to amplify exhaust sound which we had to press! It’s a track orientated car that will suit the purists with stiffer harsher suspension¬†which Pete, the cameraman didn’t like and undercuts the Jag by ¬£1500.

Its four door saloon relative, the Panamera turbo, costing ¬£112,000 looks similar¬†from the rear wing through the driver’s mirror but that price doesn’t buy you front parking sensors that surely would be more cost effective than repairing a scraped bumper. I first drove the Panamera¬†in May 2010 at Millbrook hill circuit¬† demonstrating the speed of the PDK semi-automatic gearbox although felt that the car was too heavy to be enjoyable.¬†Interestingly,¬†PDK gearboxes first appeared on track in 1983 according to Mike, our “Porsche¬†driving consultant” as my¬†judgement began to be dispelled around the A roads of Yorkshire. ‘Overtaking manoeuvres’ needs to be rephrased as the rev counter needle reacts to¬†700Nms of¬†maximum torque, changing down a cog when sensors detect a sudden pedal to metal reaction. Four stalks sprout from around the steering wheel which obscures the starter barrel and a vertebrae of switches¬†separates driver from passenger and that rear¬†tailgate (surely Porsche call it¬†something else) opens at such an acute angle that it¬†seems like a cruise missile might be launched from it!¬† A bat wing spoiler splits and retracts below 40mph, its intention punctuated to emphasise¬†its seriousness. A definitive long distance luxury cruiser is my definition of this car with¬†its 100 litre tank, moreover with¬†a newly launched diesel.


Did I sleep well the day before the Wetherby test? Yes, but it was the evening after when still on a high, I got up in the early hours to write notes on the observations floating around my head Рit was well worth it. 


Words are copyright of Sotiris Vassiliou

Film is copyright of Sotiris Vassiliou and Peter Kemball

November 2011

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