We’re in Scotland, so far north that it feels lawless. Any farther north and it becomes godless. We’ve been blessed with bright sunshine for three days straight, but fog is hiding the scenery this morning and photography is off the agenda. Thankfully visibility is good at road level, which means we can at least drive.
They share many a component, but the difference between the 570S and GT is all in the detail
Despite this being the first time I’ve driven a 570GT, I’ve got an uncanny sense of deja-vu. Ever since I first sat in a car, I have like most people assimilated through hands, feet, backside, nose and inner ear all sorts of sensations relating to different cars.And right now my brain is slowly going through the filing system, checking the microfiche, looking for a match. It doesn’t take long.
Just like the P1 and the mighty F1 long before it, the 540C breaks new ground for McLaren. Far from being the fastest or most expensive car to come from Woking, though, the 540C is actually the slowest. And the cheapest. It’s also the least powerful, and the first to have a sub-200mph (322km/h) top speed.
It’s going to take a while for us to get used to this new breed of AMG-lite. We’ve come to expect that cars from Affalterbach will be slightly unhinged, wild, tyre-smoking hooligans.
Hardly been a year for forgone conclusions, has it? Brexit… Trump… Kimye’s wedding vows holding fast longer than 20 minutes… you’d be a brave soul to call almost any head-to-head early these days.
Audi claims its latest TT RS is a serious contender, Porsche that its new four- cylinder 718 Cayman S is still the pick of its class, while BMW’s M2 has all the ingredients to be the best sports coupe of all. So which wins the fight?
Does anyone still want an estate car? The inexorable, illogical rise of the SUV and its crossover cousin might have displaced it as the default family car, but in a year bookended by rude shocks – the death of David Bowie, the ascension of Donald Trump – there’s something reassuring about the humble station wagon. They’re so stable that even when decorated with a death metal band, they’re not phased.
Volkswagen is planning a squeaky clean future.. luckily Honda still knows how to make them mean
Well, it hardly takes a professor of automotive semiotics to decipher what’s going on here. The signs are clear. There’s something of the night about the Honda. Wearing brushed-black paint, it gesticulates with razor-edged aerodynamic aids and shouts with open-gob air intakes.
Strange specs here?
Mini Clubman: The Mini comes as a Cooper S, which means a petrol engine. But this one also has All4, the first non-Countryman Mini to get the 4WD option. That makes it a rival for an A3 quattro. We’ve gone for the manual.
Infiniti Q30: The Infiniti is also AWD, also 2.0-litre petrol. It has a 7spd DCT ’box as standard. Drivetrain and platform are adapted Merc A-Class gear. The Q30 starts out dearer than the Mini but it does have more kit.
The hot hatch market has never been so competitive, and with the arrival of VW’s Golf GTI Clubsport S, the competition has a real fight on its hands
Just as there has to be a winner, there must also be a loser. The hot hatch sector has never been stronger than it is right now, but that point is actually better demonstrated by the car that loses this group test rather than the one that wins it. The machine that comes home in fourth position will be rampantly fast; hugely exciting to drive on road and track, and perfectly useable every day, too. But it will also be presented with the wooden spoon. The winner, by extension, will be a car of such radiant quality that it deserves to be recognised alongside the best performance cars of the moment at any price point.
Our search for the world’s greatest hot hatch will take us to the spectacular and revealing moorland roads of the Yorkshire Dales, to Brunting thorpe’s 3200m runway and to the Bedford Autodrome’s West Circuit. Over three days, we’ll learn which is the most enjoyable hot hatch on the road, which is the fastest in a straight line, and which is the quickest on circuit.
After all of that, the victor will still have much to prove. The Renaultsport Mégane 275 Trophy-R is the most thrilling car of its type of the last few years – of all time, perhaps – and the winner of this test will square up against it in a meeting of giants. Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets, please.
Few real-world performance cars have ever garnered more column inches and YouTube minutes than the new Ford Focus RS. It has been described by some as the best car on the planet, full stop, and by others as a let-down. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, but at least on one point we can reach a consensus: the RS is a more intriguing car for driving all four wheels. With a centre diff and a rear drive unit that juggles torque between the rear wheels via a pair of clutch packs, the RS has the sophisticated all-wheel-drive system Blue Oval devotees have been crying out for.
The Ford’s 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine develops 257kW, with 470Nm from 2000rpm, making it comfortably the most powerful car in this line-up. At $50,990 it looks like strong value in this company, too.
The recently updated SEAT Leon Cupra 290, along with this generation Honda Civic Type R, isn’t available in Australia, but in the UK undercuts the Focus by around $4K. Its 2-litre engine is good for 213kW and 3S0Nm – the latter from just 1700rpm. In our experience, however, these Leon Cupras always feel stronger than their claimed power and torque figures suggest. It’s also the only car here that can be specified with two pedals, though today we have the full complement.
Three different approaches to the rear-drive coupe concept. With around $70,000 in your back pocket, which is the one to have?
Wherever you care to look, the automotive industry seems to be converging on the same technical solutions. Hypercars must have some form of hybridisation, hot hatches are powered by four-cylinder turbo engines, supersedans run twin-turbo V8s. Variety and novelty are being wrung out of almost every sector, but in the case of the $60,000-80,000 four-seat performance coupe the picture could hardly be more different.
Just a few months ago the sector more or less didn’t exist – only BMW would sell you a proper, performance-orientated two-door with four seats in this price bracket – but with the arrival of the Ford Mustang 5.0 V8 GT there is now at least a little more choice. Does the Lexus RC200t F Sport also qualify as a proper, performance-oriented coupe? We’re about to find out.
The BMW M235i, with us since 2014, uses a turbocharged six-cylinder, its body is small and compact and you can choose to have three pedals or two (we’ve got the former here). Despite sharing so much with the new Mustang on paper the two cars are actually profoundly different in execution. The Ford has a normally aspirated engine with eight cylinders displacing five litres, and at more than a foot longer than the BMW, its dimensions belong to another league. Like the BMW, it offers a choice of transmissions. The Lexus, meanwhile, splits the two for size and uses a four-cylinder turbo engine driving through an automatic transmission only. In engineering terms these three cars differ massively, then, but it’s actually the differences in their characters and in the way they drive that separates them even more.
The M235i is no stranger to these pages and for very good reason: it’s an entertaining little coupe with masses of performance at an accessible price. Along with its M135i relative and the VW Golf R, the M235i has established itself as one of the real-world heroes of the last few years. It’s a car we’re rather fond of, but it’s far from perfect.
The turbo straight-six displaces 2979cc and develops 240kW and 450Nm. Fitted with the six-speed manual gearbox – which has a slightly notchy and rubbery shift – it’ll reach 100km/h in five seconds, topping out at a limited 250km/h. It starts at $77,215 and is due to be superseded by the more powerful M240i.
The exterior shape is pert and quite handsome but it has started to look a little anaemic since the arrival of the athletic, pumped-up M2. All of a sudden it’s the bookish, bedroom-bound sibling. The cabin is still attractive and the quality is pretty good, too, but while there is space in the rear for adults, they’re unlikely to thank you for the lift.
Anyone for a cocktail on the Côte d’Azur? Conti GT, S63 and DB11 cross France in search of the perfect aperitif
The glass must be too thick. Or maybe French péage booths are intelligent enough to detect three blokes trying to act all suave in their M&S shirts and Burton Menswear shoes and decide to take us down a peg or three. The télépéage readers aren’t working. Hazards flashing, we’re reversing out. Again. Humiliation. Stress. And on two separate occasions, a sizeable amount of angry arm-waving. I think we’re at Dijon before I twig that if I hold the useless plastic lozenge out of the window, the booth decides I’m already making enough of an arse of myself to raise the barrier grudgingly upwards.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This was meant to be an effortless sweep down through France, a convivial conquest of the Champagne region, then down to Saint-Tropez for a leisurely evening cocktail in a delightful seafront bistro, Charles Aznavour crooning in the background, boats bobbing in the harbour, mohair jumpers draped round the shoulders.
This is the journey we dream of, isn’t it? There is nothing more appropriate to do with this class of car, so the quest for the best Grand Tourer is to be decided by Touring Grandly in them. But France is big, isn’t it? And there are laws that mean any notion of outpacing TGVs in a back-to-front recreation of Bentley versus Blue Train would likely result in a contest of frightened TopGear journalist versus shouty, armed gendarmes. Instead it turns out that modern-day Grand Touring is actually Grandly Tiring.
Things had started out buoyantly enough. Yes, we’d all had starts at something-beginning-with-a-three from various points about 150 miles from Folkestone, but as we nose down the ramp onto the Eurotunnel, a plump sun peeks up from somewhere over Samphire Hoe and beams orangely at our little convoy. It feels like a blessing.
The Aston Martin DB11 costs $206,000, and its twin-turbo V12 has 600bhp. Inside are two stunning seats, a couple of sculpted niches for children and some preened leather. There are some recognisable DB9 tropes: the gearchange buttons, the low seating position, the cramped centre console, the cheap electric seat controls, but the overall impression is delightful.
Soft dawn sun does wonders for the Mercedes-AMG S63. The matt paint diffuses the light, intensifying the surfacing. It’s another twin-turbo powerhouse – 577bhp propelling four proper seats, pillarless windows and enough tech to keep a 12-year old quiet. Over $21,000 cheaper than the Aston, and way, way better kitted out. Honestly, I think Aston ought to have a word with Merc about this whole partnership deal they’ve got going on.
We Say: Jumbo Maserati takes on more petite Jag for SUV supremacy
Odd, isn’t it, that we live in an age where manufacturers responsible for several of the most seductive sports cars of the last century, and heroic feats on the racetrack, are staking their future solvency on family-orientated, diesel-drinking SUVs. Nowadays, it seems, if a brand has allure we care little about where that magnetism stems from, so long as we can have a slice it for ourselves: sewn into a leather jacket, slapped across a theme park, or glued to the posterior of a pseudo off-roader. Which is how I find myself in the chocolate-box Cotswold town of Burford, adjudicating a bout between Jaguar and Maserati, but rather than upsetting the locals with our pulsating exhaust notes, we’re blending in to perfection.
First some housekeeping, because the Porsche Cayenne seem like the closer rival to the Maserati Levante in terms size, but we’ve brought along an F-Pace instead. That’s because while the Cayenne remains the dynamic benchmark in this class, we already know from driving the Levante in Italy earlier this year that it’s closer in philosophy and feel to the more easy-going Jag.
The Levante is 270mm longer, a few mm wider and taller, and weighs a not-insignificant 321kg more. However, the Jaguar’s 650-litre boot is 70 litres larger and sitting in the back both, and legroom feel virtually identical. Where the Levante squanders its extra dimensions, we’re not quite sure. Both have eight-speed autos, with paddles if the mood takes you, and 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesels – the Levante with 271 bhp, 0-62mph in 6.9 seconds and a claimed 39.2mpg, while the Jag counters with a sprightlier 296bhp, 0-62mph in 6.2 seconds and 47.1mpg.
It’s the Levante that steals the eye of more strangers, though. In fact, on its arrival at our office car park the frisson of excitement was enough for several members of staff to head down and take a look – you don’t get that, um, ever for a diesel SUV. Brandishing a jumbo trident badge, the grille is large and deep enough to imprison small children behind it, but somehow works on a car this size. Slim headlights and well-ironed creases in the bonnet are neat, too, but then from the A-pillar backwards the design team go for a break, leaving just a flat expanse of grey metal before a flick over the rear wheelarch and a fairly uneventful rear end. And despite our test car wearing 20-inchers, the wheels are swallowed by the arches. Seriously, look at the picture below – it looks like one of those silly fold-up bikes. If you can stretch to it without draining the kids’ university fund – there are 21s on the options list, yours for $4,500.
Parked nose-to-nose, the F-Pace is so much more satisfying to take in. It might lack the Levante’s jewellery, like those side gills and a quartet of gaping exhausts, but you can’t argue with perfect proportions… and 22in wheels. I know that some members of our team will blow a gasket when I recommend these full-size rims, for the detrimental effect they have on the ride, but for me they’re important if you want to do the design justice. As for the ride compromise, yes, the Jag has noticeably sharper rebounds than the Maserati on actual cracks and holes in the road, but everywhere else it’s just as smooth.
2016 has yielded a bumper crop of extra hot hatches. We take the long way to the Red Bull Ring in the RS16, GTI Clubsport S, Fiesta ST200 and Focus RS
Putting together a hot hatchback. Easy, right? Take something small and sensible, and an engine that’s a bit too big and powerful for it. One ginormous shoehorn later, you have a pent-up little performance car that’s able to bloody the noses of things rarer and more exotic on a tight piece of road.
At least that’s how it used to be, back when VW was first signing off the original Golf GTI in the Seventies. But things have changed, and each of the diverse bunch that’s qualified for Speed Week – three of which we’re driving down to Austria’s Red Bull Ring the elongated, 1,200-mile way – goes about its business quite differently. The fourth? We’ll get to that in a bit.
Our newest contender is a modern-day GTI. This Clubsport S is the hardest, fastest, most powerful factory Golf yet, which should help place it among the seven versions of fast Golf you can currently buy. Its 306bhp peak may be almost 90bhp more than a basic GTI’s, yet it’s still channelled through the front wheels only.
So far, so traditional, but VW hasn’t just given it a power boost. On top of tuned suspension and there’s been vast weight-saving (down to just 1,285kg), with the rear seats the most practical things to be thrown into the bins behind Wolfsburg HQ.
Each tweak has been in the name of securing a 7m49s Nürburgring lap time. That’s a record for FWD cars, and an achievement that’s helped sell all 150 of the UK’s intake almost immediately.
A couple of grand cheaper, is the Ford Focus RS, our most familiar, yet complex contender. Its 2.3-litre 4cyl engine seems especially oversized, and it sends 345bhp to all four wheels via a plethora of electronics that favour flinging power at the rear, especially when you’ve cycled through its increasingly yobbish driving modes. The antithesis to all of that is its near-1.6-tonne kerbweight and plush seating for five.
Far simpler to process is its little brother, the Fiesta ST200. Effectively an end-of-line special, it sees the ST at its shaypest and most powerful, with its turbo four wound up to 197bhp (or 212bhp on overboost). With three doors, a full complement of seats and simple FWD, it appears to follow ye olde hot hatch recipe perfectly, until you find its engine, a peskily downsized 1.6-litre that’s lounging with room to spare.
The hills are alive with the sound of Porsche 911R and Honda NSX as we discover a little bit of paradise atop an Austrian alp
Of course we went over the Alps. Because if you have to drive a couple of sports cars from a factory in southern Germany to the Red Bull Ring in deepest Austria and fail to take in at least one Alpine pass, well, that’s a dereliction of duty. That two museums dedicated to one of those marques lie at either side of the Grossglockner Pass is nothing more than a happy coincidence.
Actually, when I say either side, what I actually mean is ‘Stuttgart” and “Gmund”. They’re 354 miles apart. I wouldn’t claim the Grossglockner is the quickest route between them, or the shortest, but having done it, I can categorically say it is the best. I measured the pleasure, so to speak. This is what we often forget to do, isn’t it? To spurn an hour here, sacrifice a gallon there, just to give ourselves better memories or a greater buzz. Or, because this is a magazine, a better story and pictures.
Ah yes, the story. Well this isn’t just an artful way of exploring the 911R’s retro-ism by following the timeline back from the modernist wonder that is the Stuttgart Museum to the marque’s birthplace in a wooden hut. Those geographical points simply give us neat places to start and finish before the track mayhem gets underway a few miles and pages further on.
No, first and foremost, my intention here, via the medium of the Porsche 911 R and Honda NSX, is to show how disparate the performance car has become in 2016, to demonstrate how broad the church is with just two cars involved, let alone the 16 extras Speed Week will eventually incorporate. Right now, they’re all homing in on the Red Bull Ring, some by delivery truck, but others demanded more. Which is why Stephen Dobie is currently 140 miles to my west on another alpine pass with a cracking quartet of hot hatches, while Jack’s eyes are probably on stalks as the F-Type SVR homes in on 200mph. I have the Grossglockner. Ergo, 1 win.
If you were to ignorantly jot down the raw facts of these two, you’d assume they were rivals – they’re similar money, have similar power and performance, carry similar amounts of people and luggage. But we know different. The NSX is a forward-looking supercar, it’s the brave new world of hybrid, an i8 with added oomph and fewer eco-tendencies – the electricity is here to improve driving, not economy. Plus it carries the badge that put the fear of God into Italy and Germany back in 1989. Which was a while back, admittedly.
What makes this SUV Sporty?
VWT: The all-new, second-gen VW Tiguan has a much broader range than the Edge. What you see here is its most assertive R-Line trim, which matches the Ford with lower, sharper suspension, nsubtle styling mods and 20in wheels. AWD is optional here.
FE: The Edge Sport is Ford’s large SUV in its topmost trim level, posh Vignale excluded, and brings with it sports suspension, a body kit and fat 20in alloys. Edges get four-wheel drive as standard, as well as torque-vectoring tech, apparently to aid handling prowess.
Like hot hatches on stilts, then?
VWT: With the VW group’s laser-honed MQB chassis beneath, this Tiguan handles like it’s half the size of the Edge. Which it almost is. The spin-off is ride quality that’s firm, though not fatally so.
FE: Not here. Ford used to imbue even its most sensible models with ride and handling verve, but the Edge proves nothing is sacred. Comfort is of far higher priority; the ‘Sport: badge on the boot is mere garnish.
What engines can I have?
VWT: There’s a mildly dizzying mix of petrol and diesel engines with manual, DSG, front and 4WD permutations. The skinniest 148bhp 2.0 TDI is more than strong enough, given the Tiguan’s size. It does considerably more with its power than the Edge manages with its stronger output.
FE: Just two 2.0-litre diesels. And you need the more powerful one. The basic 178bhp tune feels absurdly slow, particularly when you wish to overtake or merge safely from a slip road, and the six-speed manual’s ratios don’t help one bit. Spend $2,700 more and you get another 29bhp and an auto.
What about the utility stuff?
VWT: Doesn’t quite offer as much room for people and things, but it’ll still tow 2.5 tonnes, and it scores well on tech, with R-Lines boasting the natty Virtual Cockpit we admire so much in Audis, among other goodies.
FE: Plentiful room inside, but it’s a large thing to park and thread through traffic. Its American roots are plain to see, not least when it bongs at you. Noise-cancelling tech ensures life is pretty serene otherwise.
We say: There are difficult choices in life and then there’s this, the kind of dilemma we love to have
Serena beating Venus. A Toro Rossa overtaking a Red Bull. Pippa Middleton on the steps of Westminster Abbey. It’s awkward when the upstart young sibling sticks one over the establishment. So, by rights, the Fiat 124 Spider shouldn’t be a better sports car than the evergreen Mazda MX-5. But you know what? It just might be.
The new “Fiata” is, as you’re probably well aware, a convoluted Japanese import. Originally destined to be badged as an Alfa Romeo, built in Hiroshima, using turbocharged 1.4-litre engines shipped out from Turin to replace the Mazda’s 1.5- and 2.0-litre four-cylinders. It’s dressed in retro yet dowdier bodywork, stretched in length and width, resulting in a heavier, less shrink-wrapped car than the diminutive MX-5. Doesn’t sound like the most auspicious start in life.
The turbocharger is crucial to the Spider. It gives the Fiat an entirely different character to the Mazda, which thrives on revs, blips and momentum to keep the wind rustling off the header rail and ruffling your hair like an overly friendly Jimmy Kimmel. You can lope in the Spider – you’d never lope in the Mazda. It’d labour and vibrate and shudder like it was having an allergic reaction to such low revs, but stick the 124 in fifth or sixth through a village and it’ll chunter along in peace and haul out the other side meaningfully. So effectively, it’s a bit easier to drive. A nice trick for a roadster.
Obviously, it’s got more torque – 29lb ft more, deployable with half the revs the Mazda requires. And as a result, the beefed up gearbox doesn’t shift with the magnetic precision of the MX-5’s world-class action, requiring more force and rewarding with less tactility. You wouldn’t call it agricultural – it’s not as if Brunel would baulk at the effort required – but what I’m getting at is it’s just as well the Fiat doesn’t ask for such frenetic gearchanging and fastidiously rev-matched downshifts, because it’s more of a chore to execute.
The first match for the newly minted Audi TT RS is against Porsche’s slightly off-form 718 Cayman. Surely it will never have a better chance …
Hating turbocharged engines is kind of en vogue among purists these days. In 1979 when Saab introduced the blown 900 which destroyed chargers fester than front tyres, and when BMW launched the 2002 Turbo which created what felt like a ten-second throttle-lag, the world could not care less about artificial aspiration. Over 40 years later though, at the height of the turbo era and on the eve of affordable electroniobility, it’s not just hardcore carguys mourning the passing of old-school drivetrains. I consider myself part of this group, and I reluctantly admit that I wanted to hate Porsche’s new forced-induction four-cylinder boxer engine, which has replaced the free-breathing six in the Boxster and Cayman. Also for lack of thrill and enthusiasm, we have been critical of the current breed of let-me-do-this-for-you, mate, Audis. Androgynous, antiseptic and artificial are terms that come to mind when sampling these near-perfect but cold products from Ingolstadt. A case of personal preconceptions? Join us for a day of surprises, confirmations and new findings.
Anticlimax is the word that comes to mind when you twist the lozenge-shaped Porsche ignition key and start the engine the old-fashioned way. What disappoints is the noise generated behind our backs, a metallic jangle oddly reminiscent of an Oettinger-tuned Beetle from way back when: plenty of initial clatter and splutter, followed by a hoarse, uneven and atonal idle. We were hoping for a more extrovert performance, even though the tune does get catchier as you select a gear and add revs. There are 7500 revolutions to play with, plus that optional extra-loud exhaust system acting as mobile ghetto blaster, and yet your ears will primarily feast on a dense mix of high- decibel buzz and jarring rasp.
In the Audi the whiff of drama is more promising – they’ve adopted the racy steering-wheel with the big starter button from the R8. Hit that red dial, and feel the people who live in the same street hating you. If the explosive hard-rock intro is anything to go by, this synthesiser has all the marks of the world’s first external combustion engine. The initial firings could jerk a baby out of its pram, and that savage overture is followed by a lingering acoustic promise that can’t wait to be fulfilled. Like our 718, the TT RS is fitted with the optional hooligan exhaust which must have been certified by the Albanian branch of Deaf & Dumb Inc. When pushed through its paces, however, the unexpectedly melodic 2.5-litre alloy-block five-ender builds up goose pimples and smiles so fast that you instinctively clench your fist. Impressive and surprising – Audi does character.
Even before we take off, the Porsche has some catching up to do. To match the specification of the Audi, it is fitted with the seven-speed PDK transmission, not the six-speed manual. In the TT RS, all you can get is a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Next, please erase everything you remember about previous Caymans – because this one is different. High revs required to deliver the goods? Not anymore. At 1900rpm, the single-turbo 2497CC engine dishes up 310lb ft, and this rich torque menu is available all the way to 4500rpm. At the word go, the new four-cylinder boxer tears down the wall that used to separate cruise mode from instant grunt, which is no mean feat. The secret to this always-on-the-alert attitude is a variable-vane wastegate turbocharger. Even at part-throttle, it whips up enough boost pressure by synchronising wastegate aperture, ignition timing and thottle blade position. As a result, the 16-valver drops the hammer hard as soon as the driver puts the foot down.
The HR-V has a broad repertoire of skills to charm even the most jaded commuter
he HR-V is a nameplate we first encountered way back in the late’90s as the shoe of Voltes V. Today’s HR-V is a slick piece of work, and arguably the best-looking Honda of the lot.
The Japanese carmaker knows how to humanize its cars, and this model is one of the most charismatic products it has rolled out since the first Jazz came out. Sharing its platform with the Jazz, the HR-V has much of the practicality of that little econobox,but it amps up the style factor. The raffish curves, the sweeping roofline, the futuristic cockpit—it’s hard not to like this crossover. Especially when you remember how chunky and nerdy its predecessor was. You don’t remember it? Good. It really was a sad sack compared to the CR-V.
This time around, the HR-V boasts heaps of style to go with the trademark driving fun that Honda is known for.
While it’s only available with front-wheel drive, this won’t hinder drivers too much as the only off-road this will ever likely encounter might be grassy parking areas.
Thel.8-liter SOHC doesn’thave the verve of the XV’s flat-four given that it’s down by 9hp vs. The Subaru powerplant, so you won’t really want to go racing in this Honda even if it has paddle shifters and sharp handling chops. The Eco mode encourages thrifty driving, and netted us8-8.5km/L in urban madness.
The engine is whisper-quiet and silky-smooth, paired with a CVT that minimizes the oozing sensation during hard runs. The steering is laser-precise, and the suspension is up to the task of frisky driving if you’re so inclined.
The seats here are firmer than the Subaru’s, though, and while both are comfortable for long drives, it will come down to what your buttocks prefer: hard or cushy. The HR-V cedes some utility to the XV in the cargo department as the roofline curves toward the back, reducing usable space if you retain the rear seat bottoms.
LIFE ON THE INSIDE
- The wheel looks high-tech and is a perfect frame for the high-contrast instrument gauges.
- Touchscreen panels for multi-media, navigation and A/C raise the HR-Vs elitist appeal.
- Cool-looking vents. Your shotgun rider might ask to turnup the temp in the cooler months.
- The dashboard’s curves and textures are a pleasure to behold and touch.
- The over/under style of the center console provides a wrap-around effect for the cockpit.
That said, the HR-Vhas the famous ULT seats we first fell in love with in the Jazz. Fold the seat bottoms forward and fold the seatbacks down—and voila, now you have a big box behind the front seats. Total rated cargo volume thus configured is 1,665L.
Other little touches conspire to make you fall in love with the HR-V, like the touchscreen displays for the multimedia and climate controls; the over/under design of the center console that raises the height of the shifter so your hand is perfectly placed on it when your arm is on the armrest; the seeming bazillion of A/G vents up front; and even those little moodlights around the instrument bezels and front speakers. You don’t really need them for the everyday commute, but if your daily drive tends to suck the life out of you, well, a little entertainment and whimsy is much appreciated.
Honda HR-V 1.8 EL
Engine: 1.8 liter SOHC I4
Capacity (cc): 1,799
Maximum output: 139hp @ 6,500rpm
Maximum torque: 172Nm @ 4,300rpm
Transmission: continuously variable
Brakes (front/rear): vented disc/disc
Front suspension: Mac Pherson strut
Rear suspension: Axle type
Wheels: 18in alloy (Mugen)
Tires(front/rear): 225/45 R18
Dimensions L/W/H (mm): 4,294/1,772/1,605
Wheelbase (mm): 2,610
Curb weight (kg): 1,256
Power to weight ratio (hp/ton): 110.668
Fuel-tank capacity (liters): 50
Honda Civic Sport
Model tested: Honda Civic 1.4 Sport
Price: £18,360 Engine: 1.4-litre 4cyl, 98bhp
The new Honda Civic Sport aims to inject some much-needed showroom appeal into the soon-to-be-replaced family hatchback. It’s essentially an entry-level model, bur thanks to a host of cosmetic upgrades and some additional equipment, it looks and feels anything but. There’s also a new engine option in the form of the brand’s tried-and-tested 1.4-litre, and it’s this unit that we test here.
It‘s been around for five years now, but the ninth-generation Civic has lost none of its visual presence. The British-built hatch stands out from the crowd with its aggressive nose treatment, double-decked tailgate and hidden rear door handles. It’s not as handsome or well proportioned as the sleek Mazda but there’s no denying it makes an impact.
The Sport model is given an extra dose of visual appeal courtesy of some design flourishes that are influenced by the Type R hot hatch. At the front is a racy mesh grille, while there’s a subtle tailgate spoiler at the rear. The makeover is completed by a set of black-painted 17-inch alloy wheels.
Honda has attempted to be equally bold with the Civic’s interior, although the results are something of a mixed bag. The wraparound dashboard has a futuristic look, but there’s a bit of a scatter-gun approach to the layout.
For instance, the rev counter sits ahead of the driver and is flanked by temperature and fuel gauges, while the digital speedo sits in a deeply recessed binnacle above these dials. To the left of this is a large trip computer screen. It’s packed with information, but it’s fiddly to use and hobbled by low-resolution graphics. The same criticism can be levelled at the centrally mounted infotainment system, which also suffers from an aftermarket look and feel.
Still, the interior appears solidly screwed together from decent-quality materials, including the soft leather that‘s used for the steering wheel. There are some hard plastics used lower down in the cabin, but it doesn’t detract from the overall feeling of quality. There’s loads of standard kit, too.
It lacks the Mazda’s sat-nav, but in all other respects, the Civic is much more lavishly appointed. Climate and cruise control are included, as are a reversing camera and parking sensors. You can also specify some neat personalisation options, such as a racy £495 Rally Red Pack that adds red accents to the door mirrors, front grille and rear bumper.
The sporty upgrades mean the Honda looks the part, but at the track, the newcomer struggles to impress.
While its 98bhp l.4-litre four-cylinder engine matches the Mazda’s slightly larger unit for power, its 127Nm torque figure is 23Nm down on its rival’s. Plus, the Honda’s maximum muscle is delivered at 4,800rpm, which is 800rpm higher up the rev range.
As a result, the Civic trailed the 3 in almost all of our performance assessments. It completed the 0–60 mph sprint in a time of 11.4 seconds, which was a full second slower than the Mazda.
Only in sixth was the Civic able to turn the tables, thanks largely to a much shorter top gear that sees the engine spinning at 3,20orpm at 70mph. Yet away from the track, the Honda doesn’t feel quite as sluggish as the figures suggest. It revs willingly and relatively smoothly, only sounding a little strained as it closes in on the 6,500rpm red line.
Accessing the Sport’s limited performance potential is made easier by the slick and precise six-speed gearbox, which is matched to a light and progressive clutch. Yet head down a back road and it’s immediately obvious that the Honda isn’t as much fun to drive as its rival here. There’s decent grip and body movements are well controlled, but the steering is slower and lacks feedback. Overall, it’s safe and composed; it’s just missing the involvement of the 3.
On the plus side, according to our noise meter figures, the Civic is quieter than the Mazda, while the suspension is reasonably supple. Potholes send a shudder through the car, but in most other respects the ride is well cushioned.
You can be reasonably confident of a good customer service experience as a Civic owner, with the firm’s garages finishing eighth out of 31 in a dealer poll.
The Honda scores well for safety, with all models getting six airbags, stability control and autonomous emergency braking. Also included are a speed limiter and emergency stop signalling, which automatically flashes the hazard lights under heavy braking.
Running costs 4.1/5
It’s clear that Honda is sending the Civic out on a value-for-money high. At £18.360, our 1.4 Sport costs £700 more than the Mazda, but you get a lot more standard equipment. In fact, to match the Honda’s impressive kit tally you’ll have to trade up to an SE-L Nav-spec 3, which means a larger 2.0-litre engine and a heftier £19,495 price tag.
Private buyers will be heartened by the Civic’s strong residuals, too, with our experts calculating 47.0 per cent residuals after three years. We also recorded a decent 36.8mpg return at the pumps.
It’s not all good news, though. The Honda’s relatively high C02 emissions of 131g/km mean annual tax will set you back £130, which is £100 more than Mazda owners will spend. Business users will also be out of pocket, with lower-rate earners paying around £150 more in Benefit in Kind over a year.
This generation of Civic has always scored strongly in the practicality stakes, and our Sport model is no exception. Like all examples, it gets a vast and well shaped 477-litre boot, which benefits from a wide opening and low load lip. There’s also a deep underfloor storage compartment, while folding the rear seats flat liberates 1378 litres of capacity.
The Civic features the brand’s Magic Seat arrangement, too. This set-up allows you to fold the seatbases up, leaving a large load through space that’s perfect for items such as bicycles. Elsewhere, the Honda serves up generous head and legroom in the rear, while there’s loads of handy storage, including a large glovebox and decent door bins.
Kia Optima Sportswagon
Model tested: Kia Optima Sportswagon GT-Line S 1.7 CRDi DCT
Price: £30,595 Engine: 1.7-litre 4cyl turbodiesel, 139bhp
There’s only one engine available in the Optima Sportswagon, with the firm’s 1.7-litre CRDi diesel fitted to 2, 3 and GT-Line S models. It’s the latter we test here, which gets Kia’s DCT dual-clutch automatic gearbox as standard. However, at £30,595, and with less power than its rivals, the Optima SW needs to be on top form to succeed.
Like its saloon sibling, the Optima Sportswagon’s lines give it an elegant look. The design remains faithful to the Sportspace concept seen at the Geneva Motor Show in 2015, so the wide grille with Kia’s trademark dip in the middle links the car’s headlights.
The design details have been toned down slightly for the Optima Sportswagon, but the basic shape is similar, A narrow, wide air intake sits beneath the main grille, accentuating the car’s width, while two upright vents at the corners of the front bumper incorporate some silver strakes to differentiate it from the rest of the range, breaking up the bodywork.
The Optima Sportswagon’s wheelarches and shoulder line aren’t as chiseled as the concept’s, but for a production car the creases running back from the headlights and down its flanks are a nice design detail thar give it a solid look.This line rises gently to the tail-lamps, while the window line kicks up and in towards the D-pillar, providing the Kia with strong shoulders and elegant, elongated proportions.
A diffuser-style insert in a contrasting colour to the body houses two oval tailpipes and breaks up the rear bumper and tailgate, while the bright silver roof rails are yet another styling touch that means the Kia cuts an attractive figure on the road.
Inside, the styling is a little more subdued. It’s reminiscent of the saloon, so the centre stack features an eight-inch touchscreen above the primary infotainment controls on this GT-Line S model, while the ventilation buttons sit underneath – with the silver accents around the edges of these sections, it looks very similar to a BMW 3 Series.
Material and build quality are solid, while the plastics that cover the dashboard and centre console are soft to touch. However, elsewhere in the cabin the design and plastics aren’t a match for its rivals. But as you’d expect from the top trim level, you get a fair amount of kit for your £30,595.
Sat-nav, all-round parking sensors, Bluetooth with voice recognition and Kia’s connected services that work in conjunction with the sat-nav and climate control are standard across the range. GT-Line S also gets a Harman/Kardon stereo, park assist, wireless mobile phone charging, electrically adjustable heated and ventilated leather seats, adaptive cruise and keyless go. In fact, the only option is metallic paint – as on our test car – which costs £545.
Kia’s 1.7-litre diesel is down on power compared with the 2.0-litre engine fitted to both the Skoda and VW. And while the 139bhp unit delivers an identical 340Nm torque output to its rivals at the same 1,750rpm, you have to rev it harder to match the other cars’ acceleration due to the Optima’s heavier 1,635kg kerbweight.
At the track the Kia served up respectable performance, but when you’re not on full throttle its competitors feel faster. The DCT box manages shifts smoothly, even if it’s not as quick as the VW Group dual-clutch transmission in the Superb and Passat, and helped the Optima cover 0–60mph in a respectable 10.2 seconds given it’s 9bhp down on its rivals, and nearly 200kg heavier than the Skoda. Yet it loses clear ground to its rivals in terms of ride quality. The Kia’s suspension set-up doesn’t feel as calm or collected as the Superb’s, even on smooth surfaces.
Over bumpy, rippled tarmac the difference is even more noticeable, as the Optima’s body gets jiggled about as the dampers struggle to isolate the movement of the wheels. On motorways the ride is better, but the overly light steering feels at odds with the firmer set-up. Plus, the weight doesn’t change as you enter a corner, so while there’s plenty of grip, it’s not relayed to the driver through the steering.
You can still drive the Kia quickly in plenty of safety, but under normal conditions, if you’ve got passengers on board, they might not be as comfortable as in the Skoda or Volkswagen.
Six airbags are standard, and while the SW hasn’t been tested by Euro NCAP, the Optima saloon was awarded a hill five-star crash safety rating. Along with a host of other systems, autonomous emergency braking is standard.
With Kia’s seven-year/100,000-mile warranty, there’s peace of mind if you intend to keep the car for more than the usual three years, too, while as the coverage package is transferable, it’ll sweeten the deal if you sell the car before the warranty is up.
Running costs 3.3/5
Large estates like these make up a significant part of the company car market, so despite competitive C02 emissions of 120g/km, the purchase price counts against the Kia. As a result the Optima will actually be the most expensive car to run for business users, with higher-rate taxpayers having to cough up £2,932 eveiyyear. This is £231 and£343 more than those choosing the Skoda and VW respectively, with the latter’s lower emissions helping keep costs down.
Kia’s £329 three-year servicing pack is well priced. Its rivals only offer two-service/two-year deals, so the price per check-up on the Optima works out at £110. It might only be a small margin, but the Skoda and WV come out at £140 and £144 respectively.
Estate cars have to offer practicality, which tends to come from a cavernous boot. While the Optima’s 552-litre load bay will be sufficient for day-to-day use, it might not be for a family holiday. It’s down on the Superb’s 660-litre offering, while the 650-litre Passat also serves up more space.
The SW’s cabin is spacious/but this practical side means it earns its spurs as an estate, with big door bins, two large trays in the ccnrre console, a lidded cubby and divided compartments under the boot floor. A sliding panoramic sunroof makes the cabin feel airy.
Details including levers to fold the rear seats remotely make the Optima easy to live with, but its rivals also pack plenty of neat convenience features.