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SMMT Test Day 2018 at Millbrook

A few weeks ago we headed down to Millbrook proving ground for the annual SMMT (Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders) test day, an event where manufacturers bring their press fleet and let journalists loose with them. It was my first time at the event and Millbrook so I was excited to get behind the wheel of various cars. We started bright and early on the 7am flight to Luton, on arrival Mike made a b-line for the bus to the hire car area to try to beat the queue.

Expecting to find a Hyundai I10 or something similar, instead we got an Astra, not quite a VXR but it done the job. A short journey to Millbrook proceeded, just as we arrived at the gate a Rolls Royce Cullinan rolled past in the opposite direction we later saw about half a dozen of them.

Once we had eaten breakfast and watched the safety video we split into two teams; Mike and Kim, John and Myself. As it had been raining when we landed it made sense to take out some of the more sensible cars first. Starting with the Jaguar XE AWD 300ps.

I hopped into the passenger seat for a sighting lap or two with John, recognising areas of the alpine track from TV show such as Top Gear. It was then my turn in the hot seat. The Jag felt responsive and nimble for a family saloon, handling the undulating terrain impressively well.

Heading back to the steering pad we took a minute to look around at the huge array of manufacturers, all having various models available to take on track. Next we took the KIA Stinger GT-S for a blast up the hill, finished in a Gray similar to Nardo with plush red leather interior it certainly looked the part, once on track it made a lovely throaty noise from the 3.3 litre V6. One slight bugbare was the gearbox which kept defaulting back to automatic. After a quick read of the manual it seems that it does this after 5 seconds without using a paddle, annoyingly. Onto the hi-speed bowl, the Stinger handled this with ease straight up to 100mph without a flinch. Due to the wide 5 lane bowl however, it really didn’t feel like you were traveling as fast.

After a short walk we ended up at the Honda stand, one of the cars I was most looking forward to; the new Civic Type R. As a hot hatch owner and one which was a former Nurburgring record holder (Astra VXR) I was intrigued to find out how far the hot hatch has come in the 10 years I’ve owned mine.

When we first arrived at Millbrook we saw a Civic Type R chopped into a pickup truck, very unusual. On the stand it was parked next to our test car so we had a wee look around it before taking off. It was developed by a few engineers at Honda UK and had only just been finished the previous day, it even had a pair of Honda lawnmowers in the back, one mad machine, it was time to drive the normal Type R.

As soon as I sat in the driver’s seat I remembered one thing I loved from my test drive in the FN2 before I got the Astra; the seats, proper buckets hugging you in all the right places. Getting on the move the stiffness of the chassis was very apparent, rolling over a speed bump rattles your spine. Getting on the power the car took off, very little body roll in the corners too. Due to the turbo the engine doesn’t rev quite as high as before but you’ve now got the added bonus of a dump valve noise when letting off the throttle.

The usual 6-Speed manual is employed, with a very short throw and close gears, I was going into fourth instead of second initially, an auto blip feature is also in use. I did think I was getting good at heel and toe at first. The hot hatch game has moved quite far in the last 10 years it would seem, with the Civic feeling much faster and more planted than my car.

After the Civic we decided to take out our first (and only) V8 of the day; the Lexus LC500. The track was bone dry by this time so we’d be able to get the 471bhp down onto the tarmac. A very luxurious cabin clad in leather greeted us, the exterior wasn’t exactly subtle on the car we tested, with bright yellow paint and huge wheels. Getting on to the hill you couldn’t help yourself going up the gearbox just to come down it again, downshifts could be a little sluggish at times though but the bark from the V8 was addictive. The car felt big though, not the most poised but after taking it on the highspeed bowl it gets going effortlessly using all ten gears too, a brilliant GT car with a proper soundtrack should you want to have a blast. I received my first red flag of the day in the LC500 for following the car in front too close, a short speaking to from a marshal and we were off again.

After a quick spot of lunch it was time to add another two cylinder into the equation, in the form of the R8 RWS (Rear Wheel Series). Quite a subtle spec, black on black, but as soon as you press the start button that subtlety goes out the window. The 5.2 V10 makes a huge racket, I could listen to it all day. Taking it up the hill it pins you into the seat, I’m sure people could hear us coming from a mile away too. My theory came true as we approached the top of the hill another red flag was waiting for us.

Throwing the car into corners it was stuck to the road. You’d really need a proper track to test cars like this to their absolute limit. There’s plenty of power to enjoy the hill circuit, gearshifts are instant with the twin clutch gearbox. One thing I would change however; larger paddles, I kept going for the indicators when downshifting, probably a paddle shift rookie mistake on my part though.

Taking the RWS onto the high-speed bowl, getting up to the 100mph speed limit happened in the blink of an eye. While on the bowl we saw a car sitting at the side, the closer we got to it we realized it was a McLaren Senna. We continued for another few laps to try catch the Senna in action. On the third lap we approached as it started rolling, it headed straight to the fast lane and disappeared. That was one of those pinch yourself moments for me, thinking “is this really happening?”, chasing a McLaren Senna while driving an R8 RWS on a high-speed bowl.

Photo courtesy of John Steele

How to top the R8? Chop the roof off? Straight into the V10 Spyder when we arrived back. It seems even louder with no roof as you’d expect, still as fun too. 4WD this time, although I don’t think I had enough time with each of them to really notice the difference, not pushing them to the limits either.

Driving both R8s I can see how you could daily drive one, it’s quick, effortless, and sounds incredible, it doesn’t feel overly wide either. I think I’d factor in a trip through the Clyde tunnel to any journey if I owned one.

The R8’s wee brother next; the TT RS Roadster. Equipped with a 2.5 five cylinder turbo charged engine, it makes a distinctive noise not dissimilar to the V10, just not quite as loud. Another seamless gearbox, it pulls along with ease. Our car was fitted with an alcantara steering wheel, the first car I’ve driven with one, definitely gives better grip and looks good too. The TT was the perfect size for the the hill circuit, light and nimble in the corners and enough power to get out of the corners quickly.

The M3 CS is the latest iteration of the M car, with 460bhp it’s also the most powerful M3 to be produced. I loved the interior, alcantara everywhere including the chunky steering wheel and the CS logo in the dashboard. Sticking the foot down gives you a kick in the back, it feels properly powerful. Coming out of the corners the traction control system was intervening, turning it off would definitely make the car quite lively. The M3 completed our hat-trick of red flags, it was John this time though.

Already an aggressive looking car the CS adds a bit more. With a new carbon lip spoiler, motorsport derived wheels and satin dark blue paint, it adds up to makes the car very striking to look at.

Hyundai’s first foray into the hot hatch market with the I30N. Two variants were available; the standard I30N with 250bhp and the I30N Performance with an extra 25bhp. We tested the standard car, still with a whopping 250bhp through the front wheels.

Onto the hill circuit the little Hyundai had plenty of up and go. Throwing it into the corners and it would take it in it’s stride. A burble in the exhaust note follows this car along with plenty of pops and bangs too. An impressive first hot hatch from the guys at Hyundai.

It was fast approaching 5pm when the event was due to finish, we had time for one more run, back to BMW for a quick shot of the i8. The only car of the day with “mad doors” as I put it. We started off in full electric mode on our way over to the hill, a strange experience with just a slight buzzing noise from the electric motor. Pressing the loud pedal a bit heavier engaged the 3 cylinder petrol engine, which actually makes a decent sound. The car handled well on the hill, plenty of grip, when the wheels were on the ground anyway.

It’s a very futuristic looking car with complex styling, I’m looking forward to seeing how BMWs look in the future.

Straight back to Luton for our flight home and a bit of time to take in the amazing day. My first experience of SMMT and Millbrook couldn’t have been any better, having the opportunity to drive the cars was brilliant. My highlights were, R8s, M3 CS and Civic Type R, each very different but all put a massive smile on your face, I’d love to take any of them up north for a play on some of our roads. Until next time…

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