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2020 Audi RS7 Sportback Review

There forever has been and, hopefully, will always be an inexplicable level of cool associated with a fast German saloon car. Perhaps it is that they are based cars on which are typically a little beige, boring and, more often than not, diesel barges that trundle down the autobahn minding their own business. Then the skunkworks departments at the likes of M, AMG and RS get to work and the results are snarling hulks that both look and feel like swollen hulks of the timid cars they once were.

Since the turn of the millennium, there have been a couple of personal highlights: the E60 BMW M5 saloon and estate which both featured derivatives of the Williams F1 V10 that howled like nothing else, and the Audi RS6 Avant that also featured a mighty large V10 taken from the Lamborghini Gallardo. The recently replaced Audi RS6 is also up there nestled amongst the best. The pressure is on for the new one to deliver, but the opportunity to drive the RS6 is a few months away. To whet the appetite, Audi asked if I would like to drive the RS7, a car that seems to have been somewhat overshadowed by the mass hankering the market had for the RS6, despite both cars sharing the same mechanicals underpinnings. Could the latest iteration steal the hearts of many as the RS6s of the past had? To find out, I flew to Frankfurt.

Let’s get the numbers bit out of the way: at the heart of the package sits a 4.0-litre V8 engine producing 600 hp and 800 Nm of torque. 100 km/h is dispatched in just 3.6 seconds with a 250 km/h top speed. The Dynamic package removes the limiter, pushing this up to 305 km/h.

A 48-volt system runs a belt alternator starter with car recover 12 kW of power for use between 55 and 160 km/h. The system is meant to provide instantaneous power to the drive while offering the ability to coast on electrical energy with the engine switched off. The cylinder on demand technology further aids fuel consumption. Power is fed to a Quattro permanent all-wheel-drive system through an eight-speed tiptronic transmission. The RS7 gets a launch control function with torque control provided through a sport differential, part of the optional Dynamic and Dynamic plus packages.

That’s that, what does this all feel like off the paper and on the tarmac? Well, that depends on one decision that owners will have to make, it makes a rather considerable difference: suspension. The RS7 can be optioned with either the standard, more comfortable, RS adaptive air suspension or an optional sport suspension with Dynamic Ride Control, that is the one you want. Why? The optional DRC set up is harder and, yes, it is touch harsher on the road. Make no mistake, it is still comfortable when you’re cruising, but when you get a hustle on, the body control and the limit before understeer and tyre squeal become a factor, is far higher.

I am no track day magician, but I was finding the handling limits of the car in the air suspension fitted cars remarkably easily. The conventionally sprung car felt far more up for a good time, and as a result, I feel it is worth the comfort trade-off. All cars tested rode on massive 22 inch wheels all around.

What about the performance? My first thoughts on the autobahn were ‘oh, it’s not THAT quick’, I then looked down and noticed I had hit the top speed. In gear acceleration in first, second and third in particular, is astonishing. It feels every bit 592bhp quick. At speed, the sensation of power is somewhat stymied by the lack of a certain characteristic: sound. There is a huge 4.0-litre V8 under the hood, but you would have no idea judging by the sound in the cabin. It is a little depressing, but it is a sign of the times in a world muzzled by the legislative necessity for the awful OPF. Audi combated my comment stating that they wanted to keep the noise authentic and refused to pipe fake sounds into the cabin…if you listen carefully you can hear BMW M retreating into the bushes.

Back to the bends, there is a lack of something here too, steering weight and feedback. This is a gripe that I’ve had with Audis for years, the chances of this being remedied in the RS7 were slim, it is a little difficult to understand what the front tires are doing and where the limits of adhesion are when there is such an absence of palpable communication coming through the wheel. That being said, there is good news too. The car is savagely fast out of bends and the 48 volt antiroll system masks the weight as well as you could ask from a car that weighs in at 2,500 kilos. As previously mentioned, the DRC suspension is where the car is at its best. It must also be noted that the gearbox is fine on the way up, but hesitates on downshift – third to second, in particular, seems to take an age.

Inside there are a few niggles, but on the whole, the interior is a very pleasant place to be. There are lashings of leather, alcantara and plenty of room in the front and rear. There are also walls of screen. The dash is impressive and there and a multitude of configuration options to display as much data as I’ve seen in a machine this side of an F16. For me, the two stacked central touch screens are a little fiddly on the move and require more concentration than I would like to give them when pushing on or trying to focus on a twisty stretch of tarmac. This, I guess, is personal preference and others may love them as much as I loathe them. On the whole, I feel there could be more going on in the interior to set the RS apart from the series A7 to reflect the changes to the exterior. It lacks a special touch.

On the whole, the RS7 is a mighty fine piece of kit. If you’re in the market for an M5 to E63, the RS7 really is a viable alternative. It is a little softer and quieter than the aforementioned cars, but is by no means slower. It features all the tech you could ever need, is spacious and in plenty fast. Audi claim 0-100 in 3.6, I saw 3.2 time and time again with the deeply effective launch control activated. To answer my opening question, yes, I really think this car deserves adoring fans as there is plenty to love in this new RS7 as there has been in every RS6 to date. Now we need to see just how impressive the new RS6 is.

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2019 Cadillac XT4 AWD Sport Review

New to Cadillac’s lineup this year, the XT4 is Cadillac’s entry into the light SUV crossover segment. We had an initial look at it several months ago but wanted a little more experience with it. Cadillac was kind enough to loan us one for a few days.

It’s a smart looking SUV. Continuing Cadillac’s design theme of “art and science”, it’s lines are more square, more angular in shape than many of the other cars in it’s segment and it’s unique. Cadillac’s styling is almost architectural. It bears a passing resemblance to it’s older brother, the larger XT5 but distinguishes itself with little details. The wide, bold grille is all Cadillac. The creased sheetmetal lines on the hood break up the width and length of the otherwise flat hood, while adding an element of sportiness. The beltline curves break up the expanse of the XT4’s sides and the bold, angular c-pillars project a sense of strength. The XT4’s taillights adhere to the Cadillac tradition of skinny, tall lights. The red paint, knowns as Red Horizon Tintcoat, doesn’t hurt either.

Inside is a feast of soft leathers, high-quality plastics, and genuine carbon fiber. It’s not necessarily the materials themselves that impress, though they do, it’s how they’re utilized. Cadillac uses the materials in interesting ways to add a sense of sophistication. Look at how the leather curls over the door arm rests. There’s a feel of artisanal craftsmanship throughout. Amidst the sea of monochromatic black, the creme seats stand out like islands of refuge. Supremely comfortable, mildly-bolstered, both heated and ventilated, with built-in massagers, they are great on long drives. The dash curves out over the center console, providing reach-less access to the infotainment touchscreen. There’s decent legroom for backseat passengers of all sizes too. And under the rear hatch, even with the back seats up, there’s plenty of room for anything you could want to carry.

Under the hood lies a 2.0L turbocharged inline-four attached to a 9-speed automatic transmission. The engine makes 237 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Is that enough for a Cadillac? Nay, a Cadillac SUV? I initially had my doubts but it turns out that between the characteristics of the engine and a smart selection of gears, it is. Absolutely. While a little laggy off the line, the small blown mill propels the XT4 up the road with enthusiasm once the turbo has something to work with. It generates a lot of mid-range and upper-range power, offering plenty of power to pass and accelerate at highway speeds, and returns decent fuel economy in the process. With nine gears, you’re never caught out. The transmission shifts quickly and delivers the perfect gear every time. The engine note is better than most SUV’s it’s size – never droning or harsh.

2019 Cadillac XT4 Price

The engine puts down the power to the front wheels by default. It has a playful feel when in FWD, capably squealing the tires when you’re driving enthusiastically. Otherwise you’d never know. Activated by a button on the center console, there are two other drive modes that you can call up. One is AWD, and the other is AWD Sport. In AWD Sport, the XT4 corners much more confidently and controllably. We did find it odd that the car required the driver to manually select AWD instead of the car automatically engaging it as conditions necessitated, like many of the other SUV’s in it’s class. We suppose it’s down to fuel economy but it seems awkward and somewhat backwards that it requires the driver to decide instead of taking care of it for him/her. Perhaps the Luxury and Premium Luxury models are different.

It stops as well as it goes. The brakes feel solid, hauling it down from speed with ease, with excellent feedback as to what it’s doing. The brake pedal is firm, with no squishiness or grabbiness, allowing you to modulate brake pressure with precision. They inspire complete confidence.

The steering wheel is moderately thick and steering effort is light. If there’s one area that could benefit from a little attention, it’s steering feel. The electric variable power assist rack and pinion steering feels fairly numb and as a consequence feels fairly darty. I didn’t mind the light steering feel so much, it’s the lack of feedback and the numbness that I disliked.

2019 Cadillac XT4 Interior

The suspension consists of MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link setup in back. It provides a firm but supple ride and never felt harsh, even over bad pavement. It corners well, especially in AWD mode, and seemed fairly responsive. Though our model was the AWD Sport model, our car didn’t come with the sport suspension package with the continuous damping control. We were a little disappointed about that but the XT4 performed just fine for us.

As with most Cadillacs, there’s an almost overwhelming selection of electronic gew-gaws to keep you safe and keep you entertained while traveling. Our car came with the “Comfort & Technology” package, which included ventilated seats, masssagers built into the front seats, a hands-free liftgate, an air ionizer, wireless device charger, and one of the most versatile heads-up displays I’ve ever experienced. It also came with the “Cold Weather” package (heated seats both front and rear and a heated steering wheel) and the “Driver Awareness” package, which helped with blind spot monitoring, lane keeping, auto headlight brights, and auto-braking when it sensed vehicles or pedestrians ahead. One other nice feature it had was headlights that illuminated whatever was in the direction you were turning. Having that area lit up a bit was comforting and reassuring.

2019 Cadillac XT4 Rear

We averaged between 18-21 mpg while we drove it. That’s less than the EPA estimated 28 highway, 23 city, but with my lead foot, that’s not bad. Cadillac recommends using premium unleaded fuel.

The XT4 AWD Sport starts at under $42,000. Ours, with all the packages we had, came in at $51,500, which seems reasonable for a capable and loaded SUV.

We enjoyed our time with the XT4. While it wasn’t so much a “driver’s car” as it was a “general purpose car,” it did quite well. It felt solid and dependable. Perhaps just as importantly it kept us comfortable and safe and we enjoyed it’s many marvelous design elements. It looked good everywhere it went and as a result, so did we.

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2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature Edition Review

Normally, a car like the CX-5 wouldn’t make the cut for a review on GT Spirit, but after spending a few days with the Signature AWD version, we felt inclined to share it with you. Despite it’s comparatively mediocre stats to many of the SUVs on GT Spirit’s site, it turns out that it’s much more than the sum of it’s parts and specs don’t tell the whole story. It’s probably the least expensive SUV we’ve ever reviewed as well, but then Mazda is more known for building inexpensive cars that tickle the pure driver in each of us. Their engineers and designers seem to be driving enthusiasts too.

The CX-5 is a sharp looking little SUV. The design isn’t particularly complex but it has a certain “flow’ to it, as if the designers set out to capture the flow of the slipstream while in motion. Most people I discussed the design with really liked it. About the only dislike was the size of the enormous grille but most felt it didn’t detract from the design. The wheels are sharp looking and add to the design, and the chrome tying the front headlights together and the rear tail lights together are a nice touch too. The Soul Red paint was complimented repeatedly. “That shade of red…..” Yes, that shade of red really is magnificent.

Inside, deep red leather and chrome brightwork set the scene. The leather is soft and comfortable. The majority of the design lines inside are straight or angled, offsetting the natural flow feeling of the exterior. All the controls are well laid out and easy to understand and use. Radio and SatNav controls are found on the digital screen jutting up from the dashboard. Controls for navigating it are found on the center console and are easy to use. HVAC controls are low in the center stack ahead of the shifter and are also simple to use. The steering wheel is wrapped in a nice soft leather and has radio, cruise controls, and other driver information toggles on it. It’s got a nice thickness to it, without being excessive. The front seats are electrically adjustable and on the Signature model all four seats are heated while the front ones are ventilated as well.

Under the hood lies Mazda’s direct-injected and turbocharged 2.5L four cylinder engine. It provides 227 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque, which is enough to propel the smallish CX-5 along a good clip. There’s a 6-speed automatic hooked to it, but no paddle shifters attached to the steering wheel unfortunately. The drive system is Mazda’s i-Active AWD system which works invisibly in the background directing power to whichever wheels need it most. The engine note is a little on the droning side, but it’s not unpleasant – just not inspiring either.

2019 Mazda CX5 Steering

The brakes are a basic rotor and caliper setup both front and back. There’s nothing special about them but they do a great job of stopping the car quickly and efficiently with great control and modulation. The brake pedal feels solid, without any sponginess or grabbiness.

The suspension is a four-wheel independent setup. It feels soft and absorbing initially but firms up quickly in a turn giving a good sense of confidence when cornering. It provides a pleasant ride – a nice balance between sporting and coddling.

The ride is quiet and the cabin isolated from most wind and wheel noise. Rough pavement comes through as dull thumping but the cabin does an excellent job of keeping most of the tire and wind noise outside the car where it belongs. In fact, we found the interior to be quieter than most Lexus models we’ve driven as of late.

As you can see from the specs, it’s nothing to write home about and you could be forgiven for overlooking it. It’ll run from 0-60 mph in about 5 seconds flat. You won’t set any records at the drag strip. And you won’t impress many people at the track either. But after spending a few days running errands all over town on city streets and freeways, I found that the way Mazda has tuned the powertrain and suspension invests it with remarkable driving characteristics and I found that I was really having a great time flinging it through corners and prodding it down the freeway. Had this been a 15-minute test drive at a Mazda dealer, I probably would have said, “Yeah, nice little SUV,” but I probably wouldn’t have noticed how good it really is. But running all over town, experiencing just about every conceivable traffic situation, really brought out the car’s abilities.

2019 Mazda CX5 Side View

Frankly, it just loves to be pushed. Drive it hard and it not only does what you ask but it encourages you to push harder. The engine makes most of its power in the mid- and upper-rev range so as long as you’re moving along already, the power is thick and available. Passing slower cars is a snap. Dive into a freeway off-ramp and the brakes slow the car down immediately with excellent control, the suspension carries the car around the cloverleaf in an elegant glide, then nail the throttle and it rockets off the cloverleaf out into faster traffic with ease.

Stay on the throttle and take advantage of openings in freeway traffic. Slip into the empty right lane, pass several slower cars, then dive back into the left lane to get around a slow semi. This is where the CX-5 excels. It carves through traffic with ease, encouraging you to enjoy the driving. Forget about work and deadlines and bills and just focus on driving for a few minutes. And you bond with it. You learn you can trust it to see you through, even when you may have carried too much speed into a corner. It’s cool – the CX-5 has you. It’ll make sure you come out of it okay and live to fight another day. I found myself surprised and delighted by it.

What would make it better? Frankly, paddle shifters behind the steering wheel might have been fun. Maybe not. I certainly enjoyed it without them but wonder what more fun could be had with more control over the transmission. Any other suggestions would just be my subconscious trying to turn it into a Miata so I’ll stop. It’s a pretty great little SUV.

The CX-5 Signature Edition, which is essentially the nicest CX-5 available, starts at nearly $37,000. As tested, our test car added up to nearly $39,500. Not unreasonable for all the nice interior appointments in this day and age. There are certainly faster, more luxurious, and more impressive SUV’s on the market but that’s the delight of the CX-5: it’s not prohibitively expensive but it provides a wonderfully competent and engaging driving experience.

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2020 VUHL 05 Review

It has been 4 years since we first tested the VUHL 05 Mexican supercar. Now during our first day at Monterey Car Week 2019 the brothers Iker and Guillermo Echeverria presented us with an opportunity to test drive their updated 2020 VUHL 05. It comes with a more powerful engine and several other improvements over the first generation cars.

Since the world premiere of the VUHL 05 in 2013 over 50 VUHLs have been produced and sold. Recently the line-up was extended with an even more hardcore high performance version called the VUHL 05 RR. This RR comes with a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine from Ford. The 2020 VUHL 05 comes now also with this new engine versus the 2.0-liter engine in the predecessor. The 2.3-liter Ford EcoBoost engine is paired with a Sadev six-speed sequential gearbox.

The performance takes a big leap forward; gaining 75hp bringing the total to 360hp and 485Nm of torque (+65Nm). The sprint from 0-100 km/h takes 3.7 seconds and the top speed is limited to 250 km/h. The most impressive figure however is the weight; dry the 2020 VUHL 05 only weighs 695 kilograms.

The low weight is thanks to VUHL’s unique X-Vario platform constructed from 6061-T6 aluminium extrusions and aluminium honeycomb. Its extreme torsional stiffness allows the suspension to be finely tuned.

For me it is the first time to drive the VUHL 05 and I was worried for a bit that I would struggle to fit as I’m 1.90m tall. But after taking the steering wheel off I managed to slide right into the carbon fibre bucket seats. The seats are pretty tight but with the harness keep you in place like nothing else. And believe me you will want to be bolted in as the G-forces you can achieve are breathtaking.

Once you are set lift up the cover of the master switch and flip the switch up as if you are firing a torpedo and press the start button to bring the engine to live. Being a small series supercar built in Mexico the 2020 VUHL 05 has none of this European noise regulation bullshit that castrated most new sports cars recently. Instead it is loud and sounds like one of the best sounding four-cylinders I have ever driven.

Put the throttle into gear, lift the clutch and off we go. The turbo hisses and whooshes as we make our way through the gears on the treelined Californian roads. There is no brake booster so applying the brakes requires a proper punch but it is not disturbing.

The bright orange car turns heads and raises thumbs where-ever we go. Even during Monterey Car Week with dozens of Paganis and Bugattis taking over the streets of Pebble Beach the VUHL 05 is an absolute attention magnet.

However one man is not particular pleased to see us. To one of the local officers of the law the VUHL works like a red muleta to a bull. Apparently the aggressive appearance of the VUHL 05 is so intimidating that while taking a few photos roadside I must be bullied into submission. My photographer Philipp is shock frozen by the verbal tirade and forgets to capture the with hindsight hilarious moment on film. A few minutes into the monologue a Bentley flies by and we are no longer worthy of attention as the Sheriff sets off in pursuit.

With the VUHL 05 and the road back to ourselves we continue our test drive; the suspension consists of 2-way adjustable Bilstein dampers and high-rate Eibach springs and provide the VUHL 05 with handling like a race car. The light weight, optimized aerodynamics and cup tires allow you to corner like nothing else. The low ground clearance is a bit of an issue on some occasions but the VUHL 05 is not intended as a daily driver but as the ultimate track toy.

I’m surprised by the quality of the finishing. The hybrid carbon – aluminum monocoque can be finished with exposed carbon inside and out giving the VUHL 05 a very high-end look and feel. All the switchgear is elegant, simple and well executed. The digital driver display shows all key driving elements and more. There is no aircon, no radio and no navigation but who needs that on track anyway.

The VUHL 05 is so much fun to drive I don’t want to give it back and consider stealing it so I can really drive it like I stole it. But the thought of crossing paths again with my new friend at the local law makes me slowly reconsider and long after dark I return the car to our friends at VUHL. I can’t wait to have a rendezvous with this incredible machine on a race track.

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2019 Volvo S60 AWD R-Design Review

Now in it’s third generation, the S60 continues to evolve and improve and the 2019 version shows that Volvo is working hard to make great cars and successfully compete in the world market. We recently drove an AWD R-Design version to assess the state of Volvo’s popular sedan. The R-Design model provides a little extra level of design flair over the standard S60.

Outside, the R-Design has the same overall shape as the standard S60 but has some unique details to distinguish it. Black window trim instead of chrome. Black upper and lower grilles instead of chrome. Special tailpipes and different 18” wheels round out the exterior differences. These changes give the car a more sporting look than the base model.

Inside, the R-design has unique Nappa leather and upholstery on the seats. The R-Design also gets a unique leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear selector. The seats are 10-way electrically adjustable, and electric seat pad extensions are part of the package and are very comfortable and well bolstered.

A charcoal headliner is standard, and cool metal mesh deco aluminum inlays spiff up the interior. An updated nav system, a Harmon Kardon sound system, and a raft of electronic safety instruments complete the package. You get a lot for your $6100 R-Package option investment. Our car also came with heated rear seats and steering wheel, an advanced technology package, an improved Bowers & Wilkens sound system, and an upgrade to 19” R-Design wheels.

2019 Volvo S6 Interior

Under the hood is Volvo’s T6 engine that we’ve become quite fond of. It’s a dual-charged (super- and turbo-charged) 2.0L four-cylinder engine that makes 316hp and 295 ft-lbs of torque. No slouch, it rarely feels caught out, providing a nice flat torque curve to ride through the rev range. This time around however, it felt a little slower than normal. Perhaps the AWD added some extra weight or perhaps the fact that we’d just stepped out of a Maserati Levante Trofeo with a twin-turbo Ferrari-built V8 under the hood, but the T6 in this car felt a little taxed moving the car up the road. Not slow, mind you; but slower than we recall. This isn’t something we’ve experienced in other Volvo applications so we think it was more our perception than actual performance.

The 8-speed automatic does an excellent job of making subtle but quick shifts as it directs power to the AWD system. The car has shifters behind the steering wheel but they’re slower to respond that we’d like and they didn’t get much use because of that.

The ride has a firm, sporty feel that we enjoyed. It’s not rough or harsh in any way. It corners well with a little lean, but not enough to unsettle you. It’s performance is confidence-inspiring and it’s a delight to fling into a set of S-bends. The automatic transmission is quick to kick down and provide good power coming out of curves without upsetting the balance of the chassis. There is a drive mode controller on the console that allows you to select “Dynamic” and that makes the car’s responses much quicker and sporting. We actually preferred the car in Dynamic mode, although it didn’t quicken the steering wheel shifters like we hoped it would.

2019 Volvo S60 Rear View

The brakes do an amazing job of stopping the car. You can control the degree of braking intensity with ease. They’re disk and calipers at all four corners with an electric parking brake. We never pushed them hard enough to see if they fade but they were still confidence inspiring.

The controls are well laid out. We’re quite fond of Volvo’s operating system. The navigation system that shows up in the gauge cluster is brilliant. The large screen above the center console is easy to see and use. The heads up display is nice when driving in heavy traffic so you don’t have to take your eyes off the road. The seats are very comfortable.

Large bolsters keep you in place nicely but don’t complicate ingress and egress. We were really hoping for seat massagers like we experienced in the V90 last year but no such luck, although the electrically extendable seat pads were nice for drivers with longer legs; It offered a bit more support on long trips. Another nice feature that the S60 had was a button to fold down the rear seats. Push it and the headrests flopped down against the seat backs and then the seat backs would lower flat, making it easy to prepare to load the rear cargo area with several dozen boxes when your friends asks you to help him move.

2019 Volvo S60 Front

All in all, the S60 is a very competent car. Sure-footed, safe, comfortable, with a lively engine to boot. Mileage is rated at 32 on the freeway and 21 in the city and that’s about what we saw.

Our favorite thing about the car was the engine’s easygoing power-band and the interior. One of the biggest reasons we enjoyed driving the car was because of the sense of stylish refinement and the logical layout of the controls. All the controls felt right and worked well. We enjoyed the interaction with the car. Our least favorite thing was the slowness of the operating system (nav, entertainment, etc) to boot up and the slow response from the paddle shifters. While other car’s systems come up instantly, it takes Volvo’s operating system between 30 – 45 seconds to come up and become responsive. And while we appreciate the option of shifting with the paddles, they were really too unresponsive to ever add to the driving experience. If anything, they detracted from it. But these are little things and as annoying to us as they were, we still enjoyed the S60 a lot.

The S60 starts at about $40,000. Our stickered at $55,000 but a big chunk of that was the R-Design package and the Bowers and Wilkens sound system upgrade.

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2019 Lexus ES 350 F Sport Review

Lexus has a reputation for exacting quality standards and while the ES 350 may be as near to an entry-level car as Lexus has, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. We spent some time with an ES 350 F Sport recently and came away surprised. We didn’t have the highest hopes for the FWD sedan, no matter the F Sport designation. How can a FWD car have any honest street cred as a sporting model?

A quick walk-around shows the ES to be an attractive but somewhat inconspicuous car. The Ultrasonic Blue Mica paint attracts plenty of attention. We even received a few compliments on it. The styling is pure Lexus, from the cheese grater grill popping through the front body work to the chrome window surrounds, to the beautifully sculpted taillights.

The best design work, however, can be found inside. Amidst the sea of monochromatic black, it quickly became clear that this is the easiest set of Lexus controls to navigate. Everything was intuitive and easy to figure out. The touchscreen can be utilized by either touch, the control knob, or the Lexus touchpad on the center console.

2019 Lexus ES 350 Steering Wheel

The dash wraps around into the doors nicely and there are other lines wrapping through the dash and center console that keep things interesting. The seats are decently bolstered and both heated and ventilated. The shifter for the 8-speed automatic transmission is a simple lever that you pull back to select a gear. There’s nothing complicated for the sake of being different. There’s a set of shifter flaps behind the steering wheel but they’re really not effective enough to select over the automatic transmission.

The 3.5L V6 engine, rated at 302 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque, effectively moves the car down the road. While quiet, it makes decent noises when you step on it and the thrust pushes you back into your seat. The engine is smooth and vibration-free. The transmission shifts smoothly and softly, almost behind the scenes. Very seamless.

Our car had the F Sport package that adds some sporting touches. Besides the special 19” wheels, it comes with unique sportier bodywork touches that signify it as an F Sport ES. It also comes with an adaptive variable sport suspension that is comfortably firm but with the twist of a knob, firms up and gets even more sporting. Another twist of the knob electronically quickens the responses of the engine, the transmission, and the steering, providing a platform that feels a little more fun to drive than the base ES 350.

How is it to drive? It’s very comfortable to drive. The ride is silky smooth, like most Lexus models. I’m not sure how Lexus does it but the car just absorbs bumps and road imperfections so that you end up with a glasslike smoothness. The brakes hiding behind the 19” wheels are strong and haul the car down from speed with no fade. In F Sport mode, things feel sportier, but we found ourselves just enjoying the soft, comfortable ride. For a FWD car, it handled corners better than expected and when launching the car from a standstill, there wasn’t nearly as much FWD body movement as we expected to find. It’s no IS or RC, but for the money it does a pretty decent job of imparting a sense of sportiness.

2019 Lexus ES 350 F Sport Price

The only disappointment we had was one to nearly all Lexus cars: road noise from the tires is much louder than in many of its competitors. In fact, we’ve found that even many entry-level cars have better insulation from road noise. It happens to be extra noticeable in a car that takes such pains to be so good at other things with a price tag like it has.
The ES 350 F Sport is a pleasant car to drive and look at. While it’s not really a performance car, it works hard to be playful. Where it succeeds most is in the smooth ride and the creature comforts. The 2019 model starts at $44,000. Our test model came in at nearly $55,000. Given Lexus reliability and resale values, that price seems reasonable.

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2020 Mercedes-AMG A45 S Review

The Mercedes-AMG 45S is the “Super-sportscar” of the compact class and ranging topping offering from Mercedes-Benz.
With the previous third generation Mercedes-Benz A class getting it’s first taste of the AMG treatment over six-years ago, it was time for the team in Affalterbach to give the now fourth generation A Class a new incarnation. For this we headed to Circuito del Jarama on the outskirts of Madrid, Spain.

Now at Circuito del Jarama we get our first look round the new A45S which is now fitted with the worlds most powerful turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the M139. Producing an impressive 384hp as a “standrard” A45, the A45S manages to output an outstanding 421hp! This is an improvement of 40hp over the previous M133 DE20 LA engine found in the facelift third generation Mercedes A45 AMG, and gives the M139 a output of 211hp per litre which places it on-par with engines you’d expect to find in high class ranges. As with all AMG produced engines, the powerplants found in the A45 are from Affalterbach and adhere to the “One Man, One Engine” principle. The A45S will reach 100 km/h in just 3.9 seconds and will continue on to a top speed of 270 km/h, whilst the standard A45 is 0.1 seconds slower to 100 km/h (4.0) and is electronically limited to 250 km/h, though this can be raised to 270 km/h with the optional AMG Drivers package.
The new engine has been rotated around its vertical axis 180°, meaning the turbocharger and exhaust manifold are now positioned to the rear of the engine bay, allowing for a more aerodynamically and the flattest possible front section of the car. Inside the engine, Mercedes has coated the cylinders with their patented NANOSLIDE technology that is also found in their Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 engines.
Both variants of the M139 are coupled to the eight speed AMG SPEEDSHIFT DCT-8G dual clutch transmission, which provides shifts in mere milliseconds, and comes equipped with the AMG Performance 4MATIC+ all-wheel drive. Also new for this generation of A45, is Drift mode, which comes as standard with the S and is included in the optional AMG DYNAMIC Plus package on the standard A45. Drift mode is called up when in “RACE” mode when the ESP is turned off and the transmission is in manual mode, allowing for powerslides on any road condition.

Twisting the wheel-mounted driving mode dial round to “Race” and you feel the car tighten up, the exhaust valves open and in general become more aggressive. Opening up the throttle and the power is almost instantaneous, the gearshifts are smooth and lightening quick with a little crackle and pop on every one, or when you lift of the throttle. The steering is light and responsive in conjunction with the Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S tyres, giving you feedback as you go through the corners and making you feel comfortable pushing harder into each upcoming corner.
The AMG Torque Control differential helps to bring the car back around on occasions when you find you’ve pushed a little too hard into a corner, with the font tighten up and the rear being pull round in a “powersliding” style.

Now back in the paddock area we have a better chance to look at the exterior changes on the new A45S. The most striking feature across both variants is the addition of the AMG specific grille on the A Class for the first time. The flared wheel arches and front winglets add to the aggressive look that the contoured headlamps and aerodynamic styled hood give the A45S. This continues round to the side of the car, where the AMG side skirts give the A45S a more road hugging stance, whist the wing mirrors are mounted in a similar fashion to those found on the larger coupes and sportscars. At the rear of the A45S, the thinner rear light clusters help to emphasise a wider rear, with the twin 90mm round exhaust pipes sticking out on both sides of the rear diffuser.
One optional extra that helps that were a big fan of is the AMG Aerodynamic package, which with its modified font splitter, winglets, additional diffuser blade and rear wing help to not only improve that handling abilities of the A45S through improved downforce, but also finish of the aggressive styling of the car. Other options include a range of 19-Inch alloy wheels, the AMG night package or a Silver Chrome package.

Inside the A45S the driver and passenger are seated in sports seats that have a firm lateral support and are covered in black ARTICO man-made leather and DINAMICA microfibre is timeless, and creates typical AMG highlights with double topstitching in yellow. The steering wheel comes in nappa leather/DINAMICA microfibre, with either red, yellow or black stitching, galvanised gearshift paddles nestled just behind it and an adjustable button that allows the driver to set the AMG driving mode without the need to remove their hands from the wheel. As always, the centre console is present in a gloss black finish with a touchpad that is surrounded by additional switches that control the ESP, transmission mode and exhaust mode to name a few.

The MBUX infotainment system has three AMG styles, “Classic”, “Sport” and “Supersport”. When Supersport is selected you get a striking central, round rev countrer and with the other information being moved to the side in a bar form. Mercedes have also added the AMG Track Pace as standard to the A45S, meaning the virtual race engine is fully available through the MBUX infotainment system. By measuring more than 80 different vehicle-specific data channels, the drivers are then able to analyse and improve their driving skills. Another feature of the AMG Track Pace is the ability to record your own circuits into the memory, be it major race tracks famous across the world, or you nearest club circuit, and have the ideal racing line stored and displayed.

Out on the road the ride quality is very good for a “super-sports” compact car, and it’s only when you move into Sport+ and Race that you start to feel more of the road below, it handles the highways with ease and comfort. On the more winding mountainous roads that lead up the Sierra de Guadarrama, the A45S hugs the round, staying planted in the corners with the power coming back smoothly and quickly when you punch the accelerator on the exit.

With their completely re-designed A45 models, Mercedes-AMG has showcased their competence in developing an already class-leading compact into a ground breaking “Super-sportscar” both equally comfortable at highway cruising as it is at windy country roads and race tracks.
Overall the new Mercedes-AMG 45S is a cooling looking, extremely well equipped and punchy compact class car, that has definitely raised the bar in the “Super-sportscar”, compact class market!

GTSPIRIT NEWSLETTER

Special Report: Purity and Driving Pleasure In The Caterham 310R

A few weeks ago Caterham invited me to spend a few days with a Caterham 620R – these were some of the most thrilling and scary motoring days I have ever lived. The 620R can only be compared to well lubricated roller-skate that has been strapped onto a hulking great firework that would be the centre piece of any new years display. To say the power to weight ratio of the 620R (508bhp/ton) will test even the most skilled driver, is an understatement – applying throttle mid corner is something you have to be very brave to do. Caterham called me again a few days ago, this time to try a 310R (281bhp/ton) to see if less power and a conventional manual gearbox, not a savage race car derived sequential, would make the driving experience less intimidating and more usable.

Most Caterhams looks fairly similar, it is the details and badges that set the various models apart from one another – the stark anomaly being the 620R I had. There was no windscreen or roof, the interior was sparse and dominated by carbon fibre and switches that had no function. The 310R I am collecting is, in comparison, tame. There is a roof, windows and an interior with dials that you would find in any conventional car. It still looks like a go kart, just one that looks a lot more accommodating and welcoming.

Would these characteristics continue through into the driving experience? In short, yes. Unsurprisingly, having half (152bhp) of the 310bhp the 620R packs, makes a profound difference. The 1.6 litre Ford engine is more than powerful enough to fire the 540kg car down the road. 0-60mph is completed in a respectable 4.9 seconds, but that is not what this car is built to do, nor where it is at its best.

In the corners the 310R is an utter joy to pilot. The gearshift is so beautifully weighted, a pleasure to use and the power is so usable that you can use all of it most of the time. It just grips and goes and you’ll thread apexes together with unparalleled satisfaction being able to see the wheels running exactly where you imagined they would. The tiny steering wheel and the weight transfer make the 310R feel like a real life, street legal go kart. You’ll try and pin the throttle and steer the car in through corners carrying more and more speed. There is a rhythm that comes courtesy of having a modest power figure and a gorgeously light body that is just not available in modern day cars. It is spectacular and addictive. This is a car that feels alive being driven hard, it pushes you to test the levels of grip. It even makes a great noise – let the revs fall to 2,500 and the exhaust pops and rubles as if someone emptied a packet of popcorn seeds into it.

With the roof stowed in the back and the wind running through the cabin, the 310R is at one with the elements. You’ll occasionally lose yourself in the thrill of the road, it feels like you’re well into triple digit speeds and then you look down and notice you are going half as fast as you thought you were. You do not need to be flying along at illegal, dangerous speeds to make the most of it, and that is reassuring and refreshing. It is guilt free, uncorrupted glee and, as a result, it is the most fun I’ve had in a car in a long time. Caterham have banged home a point I am a strong advocate of – power isn’t everything. It is also incredible value for the experience it delivers at £27,900, but it feels and looks extraordinary. It catches attention and starts conversations with pedestrians and fellow motorists alike.

This is a car for the drivers, people like me that enjoy back to basics purity. With no ABS, traction control or power-steering, you know and feel like you are in control. This is a car we need to celebrate – there are very few cars that can be compared.

GTSPIRIT NEWSLETTER

2019 Maserati Levante Trofeo Review

When Maserati introduced their Levante SUV a few years ago, I was immediately smitten. Not only was it a great looking SUV but the interior felt so exceptional – full of rich wonderful-smelling leathers, aluminum, carbon fiber, and artfully design – that I immediately began trying to arrange a loan so that we could review it. At the time, the Levante only came with a V6, which promised decent power along with it’s Q4 AWD. It didn’t seem particularly exciting, but it had a sportiness and refinement that appealed to me.

It turns out that while Maserati was offering the V6 Levante to the general public, it’s engineers were secretly working on a top secret skunk works-style after-hours project: building a V8 Levante. Why? Because some people are never satisfied with basic. Because the potential to be the best SUV was there. At some point they let management in on it. The execs must have been impressed because it received their blessing, was introduced in 2018, and went on sale in 2019.

In February of this year, in the middle of a particularly bad and prolonged ice storm, Maserati delivered a Levante GTS to us for a review. The GTS had a Ferrari-engineered and -built 3.8L bi-turbo V8 under the hood and a trick electronically-adjustable suspension that adapted to all possible conditions but also raised and lowered the vehicle to give more ground clearance or to provide better aerodynamics. After spending a week with it through an ice storm, through heavy snow, through heavy rain, and even a day of warm dry weather, we came away extremely impressed with the Levante GTS. In fact, we thought the Levante GTS was the ultimate SUV. It is an exceptional vehicle.

Recently Maserati offered us a few days with their new Levante Trofeo – their ultimate iteration of the Levante. Boasting an even more powerful Ferrari-engineered and -built bi-turbo V8 and a new “Corsa” suspension setting, the Trofeo is built track-capable and is just as wonderfully luxurious and technologically loaded as the GTS.

We accepted the invitation so fast we swear we heard a sonic boom. So on a hot, sticky summer day the Levante Trofeo was delivered for us to explore for a few days. It was still as gorgeous looking as we remembered it.

Visually, the Trofeo initially appears identical to the GTS. Only a sharp eye will discern the new 21” wheels, the carbon fiber accents on the rockers, the carbon fiber front splitter and fascia ducts for the brake cooling, and the chrome Trident Trofeo badges on the C-pillars. Even with these flashy accents, the purity of the Levante design shines through.

Maserati Levante Trofeo For Sale

The inside is identical to the GTS too – rich dark gray leather and glossy carbon fiber brightened by aluminum trim bits. The controls are laid out in a logical and intuitive arrangement. None of the controls require any head scratching to figure out. Everything is obvious and simple, as it should be. The front seats are well bolstered but easy to get into and out of. They’re both heated and ventilated for extra comfort. The rear seats are less bolstered but have plenty of legroom for adults, are heated, and fold flat for extra cargo capacity. The steering wheel is carbon fiber with leather inlays where you most often grab it. The molded carbon fiber paddles behind the steering wheel are simply a work of art that hint at what Maserati is capable of with carbon fiber.

Pop the hood and one of the most beautiful engines ever greets you. Underneath a narrow carbon fiber engine cover, emblazoned with a chrome Maserati Trident, sits a surprisingly narrow V8 with breathtakingly gorgeous blood-red crinkle-finish valve covers and an identical air plenum. GORGEOUS. It elicits low whistles and heavy breathing from everyone who sees it. The sounds it makes will literally make you weak in the knees. Ferrari’s influence is clear and perfectly suitable for this Maserati.

Maserati Levante Trofeo Ferrari Engine

This engine has 40 more horsepower than the Levante GTS – a total of 590 hp – making it the most powerful Maserati ever buiilt with the exception of the legendary MC12 Corsa. How’s THAT for impressive? In fact, it has the highest specific output of any Maserati (156hp/L). And 730Nm of torque. All that power is channeled through Maserati’s 8-speed transmission to the Q4 AWD system. Most of the power goes to the rear wheels, but up to 30% is sent to the front wheels when accelerating or rear wheel slippage is detected. The 8-speed transmission is remarkably smooth and shifts are split-second fast. Unlike a lot of paddle shift systems on the market today, the paddle actuated shifts are immediate; there’s zero hesitation between the click of the paddle and the transmission’s shift.

The Brembo brakes are some of the largest we’ve seen on an SUV. Thick ventilated 380mm disks fill out the 21” wheels and are straddled by enormous 6-piston Maserati blue calipers. They stop the Levante like a brick wall stops a scooter. Demonstrating them will literally hang your passengers up in their seatbelts. That you can stop such a large and heavy vehicle with as little drama as these do is amazing.

Maserati Levante Trofeo Side View

The suspension consists of classic unequal length wishbones up front and an advanced multilink system in back. Combined with magnetoheleogical shocks that firm up at the push of a button and height-adjustable airbags, it might be the most sophisticated suspension available. The basic ride is plush but confidence inspiring. Pushing the button on the center console with the shock absorber icon firms up the suspension and makes it more sensitive to changing road conditions.

Pressing the Sport button lowers the vehicle about an inch and makes the engine, transmission, and suspension more responsive. The ride firms up but is still comfortable. Holding the Sport button longer engages Corsa mode, which lowers the ride height about another inch and firms up the suspension even more and makes everything even more responsive. The I.C.E. (Increased Control & Efficiency) button retards the engine and makes the drive system more sensitive in lousy weather conditions. Off-Road raises the suspension nearly two inches for improved ground clearance and gives a near 50/50 front/rear power distribution. With so many options, the Levante Trofeo is nearly unstoppable and certainly exceedingly capable in all conditions and environments.

If that all sounds technologically impressive, it’s even more impressive to drive. Pressing the start button fires that glorious engine which rumbles quietly but authoritatively under the hood. Moving the shifter into R, the backup camera image shows you both what’s behind you and also what’s around you. Back out carefully, straighten the wheel, shift into D, and we’re off.

Maserati Levante Trofeo Interior

The engine note grows in intensity but remains muted unless you wind it out above 4000 rpms, at which point the exhaust valves open and the sound level rises with a roar. Acceleration is brutally fast – if you want it to be. Maserati gives it’s 0-60 time as 3.9 seconds and that’s about exactly what it feels like. Cornering is surprisingly sharp and body roll is controlled no matter your speed. As you progress from standard drive mode to Sport mode to Corsa mode, your performance levels, suspension firmness, and engine noise levels all increase.

I suspect it’d give even the gorgeous GranTurismo a run for it’s money. The Trofeo is also a great grand tourer. With the windows up and the a/c on, traveling down the freeway at 85 mph, the Trofeo is as quiet as a soundbooth inside. There’s minimal wind noise, minimal engine noise, and minimal suspension bumps coming through the chassis. This is the kind of vehicle you’d absolutely love on a cross-continent trip, then be tempted to take to the track and give a few Porsches a run for their money. It’s so capable you can easily forget it’s essentially an SUV though “SUV” doesn’t really do it justice. It’s more of a multipurpose machine – off-road adventurer, sports car, and executive luxury car – in the shape of an SUV.

But one of the most fun things about driving a Maserati is that everyone wants to experience it. “I’ve never been in a Maserati! Can I sit in it?” Most certainly. “I’ve never ridden in a Maserati before. Can I get a ride?” Absolutely! Let me demonstrate the Launch Control! And in reference to the Joe Walsh song “Life’s Been Good To Me (So Far)”, “Can it really do 185?” It can. Or so Maserati tells me. We didn’t try but having experienced how quickly it can rocket up into triple-digit speeds, we don’t doubt them. When you drive a Maserati, crazy things start to happen. People stop you and ask about it. Take it to an event and you find yourself taking four other guests on a quick demo drive. Enemies become friends. Police start following you. You find your wife sitting in it in the garage, reading through the owners manual.

Maserati Levante Trofeo Review

Frankly there’s everything to love and very little to dislike. In fact, the only complaint I had was that my right knee could have used some padding to protect it from the hard plastic on the center console. Small price to pay though when that engine is growling like a mad animal from under the hood and the scenery is stretching out and blending together like you’re making the jump to hyperspace.

I suppose I could also complain about the gas mileage but let’s be honest…I wan’t driving the Trofeo for fuel efficiency. More for effect. And there was plenty of effect.

The Trofeo – quite possibly the very pinnacle of the Maserati line – is priced at $173,000. That’s a lot of money, but given the amazing capability of the car and the amazing engine, we don’t really think it’s unreasonable. It certainly won’t be for Maserati’s well-heeled clients. We actually think it’s reasonable. And we want one in our garage.

GTSPIRIT NEWSLETTER

Audi SQ8 TDI Review

In the wake of the diesel-gate scandal, public scrutiny of Diesel engined passenger vehicles has been intense. It seemed that the diesel engine had been condemned. Both Porsche and Bentley have taken the decision to remove high-performance diesel engines from their ranges. Governments have also moved to make diesel ownership less attractive. It made us wonder whether there was a future for the diesel engine. Clearly, Audi thinks that there is with the announcement of the Audi SQ8 TDI!

Audi has re-geared its range in response to the changing markets. It now offers more petrol alternatives in segments traditionally dominated by diesel. The benefits of a diesel engine have always been superior economy and low-down torque. These qualities are being replicated in with a growing number of clever hybrid models. Using electronic motors, most manufacturers have been able to increase power and performance across the rev-range while also boosting efficiency.

Audi’s SQ8 TDI uses the best of both worlds; a twin-turbocharged, 4.0 litre V8 power unit with mild hybrid technology. The 48-volt system powers an electronic compressor which fills the turbo gap in the same way as Audi’s petrol units. Power is rated at 435 hp and a barnstorming 900 Nm of torque. All told, this makes the SQ8 a very quick machine. Power is routed through an eight-speed tiptronic gearbox. Audi quotes a 100 km/h sprint time of 4.8 seconds and a top speed limited to 250 km/h.

The technology does not take away from the fact that the SQ8 is still powered by diesel. After all, there are downsides. Despite Audi’s best intentions, the sound is industrial, not sonorous. Those quad-exhausts put out a consistent rumble, not a bad sound (and definitely indicative of the supreme pulling power) but it is unable to compete with similarly powered petrol engines. As a result, the SQ8 TDI lacks in the dramatics department. That said, the sound is subtle, something which might appeal to the type of buyers Audi hopes to attract.

The chassis is also helped technology. The SQ8 TDI is a near 2.5 tonne SUV. To control that weight and the new turn of pace, Audi has made air suspension standard all round. Options fitted to our test vehicle included all-wheel steering, the rear sport differential and electromechanical active roll stabilisation. The latter is particularly interesting, carried over from the Bentley Bentayga, the anti-roll bars actively decouple in a straight line to allow a more compliant ride. The combination of features makes for a well-controlled ride.

Audi SQ8 TDI Review

The Audi drive select system allows a variety of different settings from comfort through to dynamic modes. As with most setups these days, we found individual mode to be the best of all. Being able to isolate the characteristics, combining a comfort chassis setup with dynamic steering in traffic on a country road, gives the SQ8 an impressive range of skills. Our one criticism is that Audi’s drive select function can be a little difficult to navigate, buried in the central infotainment system. Switching between settings requires diverting your attention away from the road. At times, individual buttons might seem to provide greater accessibility.

No amount of chassis wizardry can help the SQ8 TDI escape the fact that it is a very heavy car, not much suited to narrow mountain roads. The combination of torque vectoring systems and all-wheel steering gives the SQ8 a fair run into the corners with little body roll. Grip is available but is limited by the laws of physics! Truth be told, most SQ8 TDI owners will use their vehicles on the highway or in the city. The majority won’t see this as a limitation.

The SQ8 TDI is instantly recognisable from the outside. Traditional Audi S-badge traits are present. These include a set of silver, brushed aluminium-effect wing mirrors, quad-exhaust pipes, larger wheels and a lower stance. The single-frame grille gets the same silver colouring applied to the frame. It is the traditional blend of subtle changes which are important to the overall feel of the car.

Interior comfort is typical of Audi. Very few changes have been made over the rest of the range. This is for good reason. The Audi interior works very well with comfortable seats incorporating air conditioning, heaters and massage functions. It has a head-up display and plenty of space in the rear. The only noticeable addition comes in the form of optional carbon fibre trim.

The Infotainment system is superb. The digital dashboard is clear with two views and information customised to preference. The traditional dual disks can be replaced at the touch of a button to reveal a full-sized sat nav screen. This frees the central display for something different.

Audi SQ8 TDI Review

The Audi SQ8 TDI will be available in Europe, Australia and Taiwan only. Demand dictates that Audi will not sell the SQ8 in other markets. German pricing starts from 102,900 euros and grows considerably, once you add some of the must-have options to the list (rear wheel steering, electromechanical active roll stabilisation).

Diesel is alive and kicking at Audi. The SQ8 TDI is proof of that. If you are after the fastest diesel-powered luxury SUV on the market then it is the best option.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS Review

The third generation of the Mercedes-Benz GLS flagship SUV celebrated its debut in New York. As a nearly all American affair we had the opportunity to test the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580 4Matic in Utah.

Nearly two thirds of all Mercedes-Benz GL and GLS models built since its first introduction in 2006 have been sold in the United States. I once dubbed it the ‘Beverly Hills Golf’ as the GLS is more common in Beverly Hills than a Volkswagen Golf in an average town in Germany.

The new Mercedes-Benz GLS will roll off the line in Tuscaloosa with four different engines. The entry-level 3.0 liter six cylinder diesel engine is tailored to the European market and meet the strict 6d emission standard. As a GLS 350d the engine delivers 286hp and 600Nm of torque. As a GLS 400d it delivers 330hp and 700Nm of torque. Outside of the Europe the new GLS is also available with a electrified petrol engine. This 3.0 liter six cylinder engine produces 367hp and 500Nm of torque. Thanks to 48V technology it can give extra 250Nm and 22hp of electric boost over short periods.

The main innovation and highlight of the new Mercedes-Benz GLS range however is the GLS 580 4Matic. As the world’s first electrified petrol V8 this 4.0 liter engine produces 489hp and 700Nm of torque with an additional 250Nm and 22hp boost available. 0-100 km/h is done in a respectable 5.3 seconds and the top speed is limited to 250 km/h. The 48V system with integrated starter generator allows for energy recuperation and powers things like the water pump and air-conditioning.

We had the opportunity to test and review the capabilities of the new GLS in Utah on the road as well as off-road. The first thing you will notice when you start the 4.0 V8 in the GLS 580 4Matic is that is significantly quieter than the 4.0 V8 found in the G500. Clearly the GLS 580 is trimmed for comfort rather than sportiness. Also in its power delivery it is quite linear and not as fierce as a non-electrified V8. I’m quite a turbo fan so I found characteristics a bit underwhelming. It is faster than it feels and it is easy to underestimate the speed at which you are traveling in the new GLS.

The last generation GLS was not worthy to be considered a SUV version of the S-Class as it lacked comfort and luxury. Mercedes-Benz changed that fundamentally with the new GLS. It is equipped with virtually every thing you can wish on the luxury front including individual rear seats with seat cooling and massage function. The new E-Active Body Control – which I hope they rename to something cool and easy to remember like Flying Carpet Suspension – is amazing and adds a whole new dimension to passenger comfort as well as driving dynamics. In comfort and eco driving modes it filters out nearly every bump and hole in the road. Switch to curve mode and the car leans into the corner as if you are on a jetski. But switch to Sport or Sport+ and the electronically controlled system reduces body roll of the massive SUV to a bare minimum.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 3rd Row Seats

Inside the GLS is available as 6- or 7-seater version with a lot of convenient options. The seats on the second and third row can be adjusted or folded electronically. The third row can have its own climate controls with air vents in the ceiling. The 6-seater setup with two individual rear seats is standard in the US and makes it a lot easier to access the third row.

In the front the cockpit is dominated by two large screens which provide all relevant driver information and infotainment. The design mimics that introduced on the GLE including the really annoying low position of the start / stop button at the spot where normally my right knee would be. That issue aside the rest of the ergonomics and usability are very good and leave little to be desired.

What so spec?

Planning to get a GLS and not sure what to spec? Here are a few things we would recommend!

– E-Active Body Control – The Airmatic air suspension is not bad but the e-active body control takes ride comfort and driving dynamics to a whole new level. An absolute must.
– Driver Assistance Package – Includes a range of driver assistance systems that make driving safer and more relaxing. Includes adaptive cruise control and lane assist with a range of advanced features like assistance in stop and go traffic, automatic adapting to the speed limit and active brake assist.
– Panoramic Sunroof – Normally I’m not a fan of the small hole in the roof that car manufacturers call a sunroof but the nearly all glass roof of the GLS adds a lot of light to the interior.

What about the competition?

Mercedes-Benz clearly set a new benchmark in the 7-seater SUV segment but in the ultra-luxury SUV market there are a few other contenders to be considered.

The Bentley Bentayga and Rolls-Royce Cullinan are both a lot more expensive than the top of the range SUV from Mercedes-Benz. For that extra buck they provide finer materials, more exclusivity and more personalization. However they cannot match the comfortable driving dynamics and the infotainment system of the GLS.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS

The two direct rivals include the Audi Q7, which feels a bit dated already, and the BMW X7 which launched last year. The X7 offers a very similar package to the GLS but cannot quite deliver the same level of innovation and luxury as the GLS.

Conclusion

The new Mercedes-Benz GLS sets a new benchmark in the segment. For the first time it is a true SUV version of the S-Class with all luxury possible. The E-Active Body Control is an incredible piece of engineering that takes comfort and driving dynamics to unexpected new levels. The new electrified 4.0 V8 in the GLS 560 on the other hand is not quite as sporty as I had hoped which leaves me with a strong craving for a GLS 63 AMG.

Special Report: Intoxicating Drives With The McLaren 600LT Spider

Saturday, 0800. It’s June just outside London, summer is taking its sweet time to make an appearance – instead it’s more of a hybrid of autumnal dull juxtaposed with greens of spring. I am on a road I’ve opened many stories, such as this one, on and I’ve got butterflies akin to those of a 15-year-old being alone with his high school crush for the first time. My senses are heightened – my ears are being hammered with abusive whip cracks on gearshifts, up and down, harsh V8 noises fill the gaps in between.

My eyes are focused on the ribbon of road ahead; I’m at the head of a needle ducking and diving, stitching apexes together. They are being bordered by boisterous lime green a-pillars, a racing horse with blinkers. The smells of the morning are concentrated and heavy, courtesy of the dense country damp – I can taste it. My palms and fingers are wrapped around the soft warmth of an alcantara steering wheel that is wriggling with feel and communication, a sixth sense. This is what the McLaren 600LT is about – sensory overload.

The 600LT is a car that caused quite an upset, and not just for its competitors. McLaren invited esteemed members of the press (including GTspirit) to experience the LT just a few weeks after they had driven the McLaren Senna – with the thrill and adrenaline of the Senna likely still coursing through their veins, wordsmiths such as Henry Catchpole and Chris Harris openly claimed that they would prefer to own a 600LT than the Senna hypercar that costs almost four time the price.

You would assume that this is because the Senna is so extreme, but they went further than that, saying that the 600LT is more engaging, playful and absorbing on the edge. Bold. Then came this, the 600LT Spider and rumour had it that the 600LT really took the levels of excitement and driving experience a step further with the removal of the roof, surely then this is the ultimate adrenaline hit on four wheels for a fan of topless motoring and track day speed. An un-compromised Spider based on what many claim is the most hair-raising McLaren since the F1.

To find out what was what, I called the friendly people at McLaren and a few weeks later the vivaciously specced car you see pictured here arrived. As statements of intent go, this car screamed street legal race car with lashings of exuberantly expensive carbon, alcantara and other exotic materials. For me personally, one element above everything is the real statement of intent – the seats.

It’s for this reason that I insisted on having a test car fitted with the extraordinary ‘Senna seats’. These hallow carbon sculptures blur the lines between race and street car saving an incredible 24.6 kilograms, a feat and one that contributes heavily (pardon the pun) to the 100 kilogram saving between 570S and 600LT. Not only are they light, they are comically impractical, but in the coolest way possible. The shoulder and thigh support bolsters are enormous and share a shape more welcome in something at Le Mans than your local high street. These shells are clad with seven sponges wrapped in alcantara. Being one piece, they are frozen and cannot be adjusted. The driver’s seat moves forwards and back on traditional rails, manually of course. The passenger seat cannot be moved – at all. As statements of intent go…

It’s not just the seats that hint at what you’re letting yourself in for. McLaren removed most of the carpeting from the inside saving a few kilos, the glovebox saves one more. You could remove the AC and speakers and save around 13 kilos – don’t. Elsewhere, the wheels and Trofeo R rubber combined save 21 kgs, wishbones and uprights 10.2, exhaust 12.6, wiring 3.3, thinner glass 2.1 and a host of body panels in carbon save a further 7.2 kilograms. That’s 100 – spec the Spider and you undo half of McLaren’s hard work and stuff 50 kilograms of roof motors back in, still 50 kilograms lighter than the 570S Coupe and believe me when I say it is worth every gram.

If you’ve read or watched any reviews of the LT Spider you’ll be aware of the hype and why everyone fell in love with it. As many before me have reported, there’s a hack – keep the roof up and the rear window down. Put the drivetrain in Sport, not track, and hit it. The sound from the V8 is not tuneful but its intense. The top mounted exhausts that are situated so close to the rear window and the lack of wind noise from having the roof up combine to concentrate the brutality into an angry, merciless cacophony of tyranny. It’s like nothing else. The gear shifts in sport are just as barbarous and put the infamous Aventador changes to shame, even with a dual clutch gearbox courtesy of Ignition cut.

Want to be fast and smooth? Engage track and the LT stops being a drama queen and becomes a speed freak. Ignition cut is traded for inertia push which harnesses the engine’s torque for a feeling of positive acceleration throughout the shift. It’s wizardry that makes the shifts feel supple, smooth and blooming quick. It’s a shame that the downshifts are not always available upon command as they are with Porsche’s PDK. The dramatic shifts in sport compensate and will have you laughing.

Another point of contention is turbo lag. McLarens are heavily turbocharged and you can feel it. There is a fatty wall of lag that melts away into tyre shredding torque in the midrange, but below 3,000rpm you feel it slugging away before the explosive turbos are spinning at their best. One element that few could ever criticise is the uncorrupted steering that features a traditional hydraulic rack. Like all McLarens it is a joy to flow through the bends being fed granular, accurate feel from the front tires.

Enough technical ‘torque’, what is it like drive? As my Saturday morning introduction highlighted, the 600LT is all you could ask for and so much more if you’re looking for a car that looks, feels and is special. It gets better the harder you push and you learn more about how to access that intoxicating speed the more you drive it. It gets under your skin, one of those cars you’ll empty the milk down the sink for so you can have an excuse to tell your partner you need to nip down to the shops. For me, that’s what these cars are for, not just to set lap times on track days, that’s where the Senna is in a class of one, but to test and goad you to learn their idiosyncrasies and make you a better driver – to bring a smile to your face and hit you with a sensory overload on the way. There may be 592 brake horsepower and 620 Nms, but you feel the LT is on your side.

It’s makes you feel alive and it’s why the 600LT Spider is correctly heralded as one of the greatest car that McLaren has built – it has soul and character. Know someone that says McLarens are cold and not engaging to drive? Put them in an LT Spider and watch them smirk at the antisocial sounds and struggle to articulate to sensation of speed.

2019 Porsche 911 Speedster Review

It has been a strange, Porsche dominated few weeks – this is by no means a complaint. A few weeks ago, I was in Trump Land for the New York International Auto Show 2019 to see the Porsche 911 Speedster in its final form, finally unveiled for the first time. I say this having seen two design studies over the past few years. Upon my return to London I drove a 911 GT3 RS for a week before driving it to Zuffenhausen (the Porsche factory). Now I find myself in Sardinia, Italy to drive the Speedster. It is as if the 992 had not yet been released given the amount of 991 seat time I have had of late.

You would think Sardinia would be the ideal place to drive such a special car, one designed to be enjoyed in the Mediterranean heat with the sun beating down on hot sticky tarmac. I envisaged such a scene and eagerly anticipated my chance to drive one of just 1,948 Speedsters. Such opportunities are bonafide once in a life time blasts. I am sure then that you will share my sadness when I woke up, coincidently on my birthday, to find heaving grey clouds shrouding the Italian hill tops. The plan was to hit the road at 0900, the very hour the clouds were due to let loose. Skip the birthday breakfast, I was out at 0800. I would have a birthday every year, who knows when I could next be sat behind the wheel of a Speedster.

With the roof manually retracted, I shifted into first and onto the deserted Italian streets. I say that I shifted into first as there is no PDK option. As sublime as the dual clutch transmission is, the absence of a gearbox option is a statement of intent from Porsche – this is a car designed for the thrill of driving and not much else. Previous missions with similar design briefs include the 911R, GT3 Touring and Cayman GT4, cars that will be noted in history as some of the greatest modern Porsches ever built. The pressure is on for the Speedster to join such illustrious ranks.

This 991 Speedster is a departure from the models of past. Not only will it be produced in the thousands, not the tens or hundreds and is, for the first time, a GT department project. By mating a Carrera 4 Cabriolet rear end with the front end of a GT3 and using the GT3 engine, this is a step into the unknown for the Speedster series of swan songs. It also makes it one of the most exciting propositions yet.

Back into the driver’s seat. The 918 buckets are hugging me, I’m in that sublime seating position looking over the analogue dash which I prefer infinitely over the digitised 992 instrument cluster. Grab the stubby carbon fibre trimmed shifter and away I go. It must be said that the clutch pedal is remarkably long, the vast majority of the pedal movement has no impact on the clutch plates – you quickly become accustomed to the effective operating window and no longer flex further than required.

The gearshift throw is short and it is all very sedate crawling through town at less than 3,000rpm. Without a roof in place, it is apparent that this car sounds slightly different to the conventional GT3 or GT3 RS. Low down the sound is slightly flatter, the reason being the introduction of the particulate filter than has been known to rob precious exhaust sound. Boo, hiss. Porsche engineered a masterpiece of a solution to minimise the effect and actually save 10 kilograms in the process. The sound deadening in the exhaust was reduced and the filter used as a substitute. It’s a remarkable feat, but the sound is just a few decibels lesser than before.

Other mechanical changes include the introduction of another impressive engineering addition – individual throttle bodies, proper race car technology. The results of this tech, in conjunction with even higher-pressure direct injection, means that the 4-litre is more responsive and gains 10bhp – the total now a meaty 503bhp.

In reality I struggled to feel this improvement, the car still feels mighty quick to react to throttle inputs courtesy of a strong torque curve. I am under-qualified to critique such precise changes.

The 911 Speedster will do 0-100km/h in 4 seconds, but that is irrelevant. It’s how it makes you feel getting there – magnificent. Acceleration in second gear is ferocious, ever amplified by the build-up of the noise. I mentioned it sounded a bit flat. When deploying full throttle or anywhere above 4,000rpm the engine lets out a bellow that quickly contracts cheek muscles drawing an involuntary smile. Keep pushing to peak power at 8,500 and the noise is a cacophony of natural aspiration that puts engines with double the number of cylinders to shame. The 503bhp is working at 8,500 but you hang on till 9,000 just to relish and be dumbfounded by the wall of noise.

You can comfortably enjoy the upper echelons of the rev range too. The traction, as with all 911s, is staggering on the supreme Cup 2 Michelins. Approach a bend and the front end is, typically, a tad light but instils confidence, the steering proving just how great electronically power assisted steering has become. The rear wheel steer makes the car pivot and on the exit past the apex you can pile on the throttle and pull for another gear with implicit trust.

Things are no worse when downshifting either. The auto blip function matches the revs perfectly, the engine yelping as the revs spike. Slowing down is just as exciting as speeding up, the standard carbon ceramics making their presence known.

I just wanted to drive and drive until I ran out of road. Then came the rain. My time in the dry was all too brief and I hope to, once again, wake up and skip breakfast to be able to revel in the momentous driving experience that the Speedster offers those fortunate enough to own a set of keys. The rain began and I did what I suspect no Speedster owner will ever do. I carried on, not stopping to raise the roof but instead feeling for where the traction was scarce, listening not to the radio – this car had no infotainment system – but to the rain drops pounding the windscreen, the wide tires passing through puddles and feeling the precipitation on my skin. Rain or shine, the Speedster is special. This is Porsche at its best.

Caterham Seven 620R Review

I’ve just got out of a Porsche GT3 RS and into a Caterham 620R. This is one of those surreal moments where you think that things cannot possibly get more hardcore or extreme, and then they do. It must be said that the 620R is not a car for the faint hearted – any Caterham sits on the more driver focused end of the spectrum, the 620R takes the levels of hardcore to new heights. Let me explain why. There is no windscreen, none. There is no traction control, ABS or power steering. The Avon cut slicks cannot be used in the rain or anything colder than pizza oven hot tarmac. You’ll need your local plastic surgeon on standby for a skin graft if your leg wanders near the exhaust upon exit or entry and then there is the sequential gearbox. Oh my, this gearbox is not meant for rush hour traffic in London, nor anything less than 10/10ths driving at full throttle. The Caterham 620R is horrendous.

Then you get it out of the city and onto an open stretch of tarmac and it blows you away – literally. This car, sorry – rocket, makes the GT3 RS seem like child’s play. This bobsleigh weighs just over 600 kilograms and packs 310 supercharged horsepower. That is just offensive, such numbers belong on racecars – the results are frankly, unhinged and I am still struggling to fathom just how this is legal. The car may be legal, the speeds you achieve will not be. 0-100km/h is done in 2.8 seconds, a number that shames not only the GT3 RS, but also the Ferrari F12 tdf and 488 Pista, McLaren 720S and Lamborghini Aventador to name a few. How? Well for starters that silly power to weight ratio and then you notice that it will do the benchmark sprint in FIRST GEAR.

The 2.0-litre Ford Duratec engine has been heavily tuned and the whopping great supercharger makes it pull like nothing I’ve experienced before. The accompanying devilish whine is addictive and possesses you to chase the redline – only there isn’t one on the rev counter. That is there for some reason other than telling you when to shift up because it goes to 9,000rpm but the engine runs out of puff well before. The solution? Shift when you run out of bravery, or when the racecar shift lights flash so hard you feel an epileptic seizure coming on. Then we come to the shifts themselves.

The 620R has one of the tightest footwells I have ever experienced, there is barely room for both of my Pingu sized flippers – no chance of left foot braking – just as well seeing as I managed to lock up the front wheels using my right foot. The sequential box has a clutch pedal but you only need to deploy it when pulling away in first gear. This is not something easy to do. The clutch pedal itself is rather long; the actual operating window for it to have an effect on the clutch plates is as thin as my little finger. As a result, an idiot like me will stall four times in front of all the Caterham staff waving me goodbye having warned me never to apply throttle and steering angle at the same time. Yes, really.

Once you’re off and suitably red faced after the series of stalls, you simply push or pull the stubby sequential shifter to bang home another gear. I mean bang home, the entire car bucks and lurches with a gear shift, it is so hardcore that you’ll try to deploy the clutch just to ease the shifts and save yourself the physical assault. Anyone who has ever complained about an Aventador’s single clutch needs to man up.

Sunday morning, dry and quiet. Not for long. I’m on my favourite stretch of country road and it is empty enough for tumbleweeds to make an appearance. First gear engaged, release the clutch with no throttle (that is the trick) and mash the gas. The rear tires spin hard, the supercharger is whining and the shift lights are flashing so furiously Rudolph came out of hibernation. The cut slicks stop smoking and grab the tarmac, the acceleration is savage. Stay flat and pull for second – staying flat is when the gearbox makes sense, the shift is smooth and faster than almost anything I’ve felt before. So is the car.

I would love to tell you how fast I was going but there is no speedometer, just a tiny read out that would be more at home on an 80s Casio watch than a dashboard – for good measure it is also obstructed by the rev counter needle. The dashboard itself is rather amusing – it is spartan and half of the switches on the dash are for things the 620R does not have. These include windscreen wipers and heating. No matter, second is over in the blink of an eye and the wind is pounding my face. Into third I can feel my chubby cheeks flapping. There’s a corner approaching fast – with heat in the tyres and brakes the car slows tremendously quickly, the gearbox shifts down with a heavy fist and without hesitation. I think I’m carrying far too much speed but the mechanical grip is otherworldly. A poke of the throttle makes the rear end want to have a waggle. The tiny go kart like steering wheel responds remarkably to the counter steer and I feel like an absolute hero.

The sensations and involvement of this machine are unique to the Caterham 620R. The only thing I imagine could possibly be as quick as this is a BAC Mono and that is a single seat racer that is allergic to any real world driving. The Caterham is as hardcore as they come. It has a character that you learn. I honestly hated this car when I first drove it. It left me aching – something no other car has ever done. It’s only when you unleash it’s full potential in conditions that it has been built to relish that it comes into a league of its own. The Caterham 620R is a stripped out lunatic that you yearn to tame, when you do it becomes one of the best cars on the planet. Bravo Caterham, this is something special.

Special Report: Unfiltered Driving Pleasure and The Morgan 3 Wheeler

I am a rather odd 25 year old. I carry a pocket watch, read leather bound Charles Dickens novels, send wax sealed letters and spend my Sunday mornings in quiet coffee shops turning the pages of The Financial Times. I am repulsed by the notion that the youth of today meet on inelegant apps to fulfill their lower desires before waking up next to a stranger attempting to remember their consorts name whilst watching vacuous Love Island – take a bow Tinder.

Oh how I yearn to be from days past. That being said, I will always use the latest generation of iPhone, not to use aforementioned dating applications, but to revel and take advantage of the greatest things of this era. I am a sucker for social media, not to share selfies (or nudes) but to share a bisected smudge of a recent escapade overseas where details are left scarce and the best memories remain to be shared over dinners and re-run in the minds of those that inspired such journeys and whom I had the immeasurable pleasure of creating moments to cherish for my remaining days on earth. My social media channels are a dot-to-dot, the gaps between the black blots are not for news feeds, tweets or snapchats.

Old school thrills are what I want, but with the added comfort of modern tech to clean up the spills. I want to walk through a forest with my phone on airplane mode to free myself of the shackles to instant contact before getting peckish and switching my 4G on to location the nearest boutique Gelataria. It’s so easy to forget the best things are far removed from the comforts of technology and the bustle and noise of the rat race.

This brings me onto a machine like no other – the Morgan 3 Wheeler. I refer to it as a machine as I do not see it as a car, but a mode of transport that not only moves you from one place to another, but into a different era. Modern cities are choked by articulated lorries, buses and so many Prius Ubers that you would need an abacus to keep count. Cars these days are a commodity that are used not for pleasure, but for convenience.

The romance of the automobile is dead. Think back to the 1900s, specifically France – there were less than 3,000 cars in the entire country. Tyre manufacturer Michelin wanted to encourage the use of the motor car so created the infamous Michelin Guide. It was first published in 1900 and was designed to get people onto the roads and drive to restaurants and hotels. It was the introduction of driving pleasure in a bound book, and it was free until 1922.

Imagine reading about a spectacular hotel or Michelin starred restaurant, calling out to your spouse to get ready to go for a drive and just driving. I need not imagine, this is something I try to do as frequently as possible, as I said – I’m a rather bizarre 25 year old.

Back to that machine – the Morgan 3 Wheeler. When you have such a car you don’t think about taking the Morgan to nip into the office, or to drive to the local supermarket – it’s back to basics pared back approach leaves no space for groceries and the lack of a roof means this isn’t a car for your daily commute. No, the Morgan 3 Wheeler is the machine you reserve for those special escapes to the country to enjoy a drive to a picnic in a lavender field, ice cream by the seaside or an anniversary dinner in town. It is the ultimate mode of transport to whisk you to the weekend treat you indulge in for no purpose other than merriment.

I spent a week with the Mog and such a short amount of time meant that I did not have the luxury of being able to check out the weather forecast and pick and splendid day to enjoy the Mog in. I commuted to work in it for four consecutive days through rain, hail, lightning and sleet. I imagine I would receive fewer glances, requests for photos and questions if I wore a tutu and ballet pumps around central London than I did driving the 3 Wheeler around town in a hail storm. What’s bizarre is just how happy and friendly spectators are to the driver of such a thing. I’ve driven a plethora of supercars on the same commute and people look but never want you to notice that they’ve looked as if they feel you do not deserve the satisfaction. The stark opposite is experienced in the Morgan. There are thumbs up, smiles, approving nods and pedestrians jostle for the best selfie angle with the car at traffic lights.

The attention could only be akin to an a-list celebrity strutting to lunch during London Fashion Week. It really had people tripping over one another to catch a second glance.

Driving to work in changeable conditions was surprisingly pleasant, but as I mentioned, it is by no means the primary focus of such a toy. The weekend came and it was time to escape the big smoke for greener pastures and rolling hills of the country. I called up a couple of friends and told them we were going for a drive. Country roads are where you can really put the 3 Wheeler through its paces – unfortunately for me there is a lot of motorway driving to get to such exciting roads.

I’ll be lying if I said that the Morgan was in its element on a motorway cruise – it’s bone shakingly hard and the wind noise and chill above 60 miles per hour is enough to have to down with a cold for months to come. The harsh winds of the motorways care not for you layering attempts.

Mercifully, the motorway trundle with the two-cylinder S&S motorcycle blaring away at 3,500rpm ceased before tinnitus set in and all my fillings had rattled into the passenger footwell.

Empty ribbons of sweeping tarmac awaited. Before basting in at 100 miles per hour I took stock of the driving aids…or thereby lack of. Power steering, nope, traction control, absent, ABS, only the ones you earn in the gym. There really are no driver aids and you feel it in a raw and unfiltered driving experience. You quickly bond with the Morgan and learn that the steering inputs must be massive – there is a tiny turning circle, that you cannot take liberties on down shifts or the single rear wheel with lock up and scare the shit out of you. Don’t think about compensating for this by braking harder, you’ll lock up and see the giant bicycle tyres doing so in front of you. There’s a way to drive a three wheeler and it doesn’t take long to learn it.

You get into a flow, a rhythm and suddenly you forget about the frostbite you’re earning and that your girlfriend in the passenger seat is inevitably going to use this drive against you when she nexts suggests you visit her parents.

It is a magnificent experience and one that you’ll be able to access doing 40 miles an hour, not 100 as you need to be doing in a supercar on the same roads.

This isn’t a car you’ll buy with your logical adult mind. It’s a toy that your inner child will beg you have in the garage and take out on a sunny day for a sunrise blast on your favourite B road. You’ll also need a few other cars in the garage and I suspect the typical 3 Wheeler owner has a serious collection for the Morgan to join. It is a real enthusiasts dream – a machine with no real purpose other than putting a giant blinding smile on your face – there are few cars in production today that are as pure or demanding than the 3 Wheeler and for that we must applaud Morgan and celebrate this little gem.

2019 BMW M850i Cabriolet Review

The BMW 8 Series was a car of huge significance for the German titan. It represented a vast step up for its coupe game, the mildly opulent 6 Series became a full bodied GT car – well I thought so anyway. BMW are adamant, stubborn, nigh on hellbent on insisting that the 1955 kilogram, 4.8 meter long hunk is a ‘sports car’. In my mind, you say sports car and a 911 pops into my head, not the 992, but that is a story for another time.

The M850i Coupe is the only 8 Series I had driven until I landed in sun soaked Faro, Portugal – the other option being an 840d that many claim suits the cars character far better than the V8. BMW had lobbed the top off the coupe and I was here to put the M850i Cabriolet through its paces.

In my mind I was pleased that I would have the opportunity to drive the 8 Series as a Cabriolet, not because I like the wind passing over my balding scalp, but because I imagined it would feel even more like a GT and not a sports car.

So what are the headlines? Very similar to the coupe – there’s the same new 4.4-litre, twin turbocharged V8 pumping out 523bhp. As the name suggests, the M850i xDrive is all-wheel drive, so it will fire you from 0-100km/h in 3.7sec, identical to the coupe despite weighing 125kg more. 

 

Sounds sporty enough? What are you moaning about? On paper, yes – it is very sporty. Start it and you still get the same vibes courtesy of some V8 roar and artificial yet amusing pops. It has certain sporting elements, but they do not come together to make this something you want to fling around a mountain pass or even a wide racetrack. The sheer size and weight juxtapose the sport touches by making you feel a little nervous that, in Cabriolet form, the 2,105 kilogram mass will not make a corner or stop where you would like it to. Don’t get me wrong, it will, but it does not feel like that is what it was built to do. 

 

It contradicts itself and removing the roof only makes you want to cruise instead of attack a pretty sweeping road. So I found myself in Faro driving roads I had previously enjoyed in an M2 Competition just cruising and topping up my brown boy tan instead of attacking apexes and chasing the redline as I had done previously. 

 

For such a purpose it is fabulous. The V8 burbles away, the steering (void of almost any feedback) is light and the whole experience is very soothing, sedate – peaceful. They you find the spec and price list and things are not so peaceful anymore. It is a very expensive piece of kit – the M850i Cabriolet starts at £107,045 before you start adding options such as the Bowers & Wilkins HiFi that you will want and special paint options that make the sensual lines of the 8 Series look their best. 

One thing you get as standard is the the roof that retracts elegantly in just 15 seconds whilst driving up to 50 km/h. The roof is also well put together, BMW claims that the Cabrio is just 2% less stiff than the Coupe, a the weight increase being a fair price to pay. 

It all comes together to make the M850i Cabriolet something that is indeed special as it feels like a premium product the cossets and makes you feel comfortable cruising whilst basking in the suns warmth.

I maintain that it is a fantastic cruiser and not a sports car. It is premium, but cannot be likened to a Bentley Continental GT C or Aston Martin DB11 Volante. Those cars warrant such price tags as they are super GT cars that sit in different leagues to the 8 Series Cabriolet. I imagine the M8 and its variants to be the bonafide sports cars that will wear an even more inflated price tag, and for good reasons. Until then, the M850i Cabriolet is there to be enjoyed as a Cabriolet to saunter to the coast or a nice dinner in.

2019 Mercedes-AMG GT R PRO Review

The AMG GT family is a well established gaggle of sports cars that arrived on the scene and quickly proved that they were worthy of competing with the mighty Porsche 911 with their caricature like proportions and preposterously charming V8s. Every model from the base GT, to the Beyoncé hipped GT C and batshit GT R brute – there is a GT model for everyone.

The latest addition has clearly been targeted at the fiend that eats blue steak for breakfast, small children for lunch and lion flesh for dinner – a little unhinged. Meet the Mercedes-AMG GT R PRO. This is the new poster boy for Mercedes-AMG until the Black Series arrives and scares us all half to death. It is no more powerful than the GT R, but that isn’t the point of the PRO. The PRO is for the track…pro that is set on shaving milliseconds off their Nordschleife PB lap time.

Ahh yes, the Green Hell. The GT R was broke built to, and broke, the production car lap record and was branded ‘The Beast of The Green Hell’. It has since been beaten by the GT2 RS and Huracán Performante – the PRO is six and a bit seconds quicker than the boggo GT R, an impressive feat given that the powertrain is identical. This highlights just how significant the changes to the rest of the car are.

So there is still 577bhp and 516lb, how is it so much quicker and how much does this PRO cost? Well, it costs £188,345, some £40,000 more than the GT R. You must consider that the Track Pack (4 point harnesses, roll cage and fire extinguisher), Carbon Ceramic Brakes and Carbon Aero Kit are all included in the base price of the PRO where they are options on the GT R. What else does the price hike include? Well, there is some serious race tech borrowed from the GT4 car that is based on the AMG GT. There are adjustable dampers, a plethora of weight reduced parts including carbon fibre antiroll bar at the front, carbon fibre shear panel on the rear underfloor to stiffen the structure and the fixed lightweight carbon buckets. However, it does not make the GT R PRO a straw weight fighter like the Porsche GT3 RS as it has only burnt off 25 kilograms (1,575kg dry).

The aero is where you start to see your moneys worth – there is a chunk more aero action over the front half of the car bringing the PRO closer to the 50/50 aero balance that race cars aim to achieve. There is an additional 99kg of downforce at 250km/h, a lot of which is working on the front half of the car – AMG did not divulge exactly how much but it can be felt through the steering and overall balance in the high speed sections.

Sounds like you had a go at testing the high speed stability? Well, yes. I was only allowed to drive the car on track – Hockenheim, an ideal venue with its scary fast bends that require you to push hard to make the most of. It is on the circuit when pushing hard that the quality of the dampers over kerbs and under hard braking that the changes are felt. Cup 2 tires are flattering out of the slower corners with immense traction firing you onto the next straight.

The long sweeping left hand bend sees speeds of 250km/h on the speedo and the car feels supremely stable – still sounds fabulous too. It inspires confidence and trust and that is perhaps what lacked in the standard GT R. The aero and suspension have cut the floating feeling that the GT R often unnerved me with on track last year.

Sounds like the dream package? Better than an GT3 RS? Well, the GT R PRO is still based on the AMG GT. This means that it is BIG and there is a lot of car ahead of you. I wish it was a little smaller and a tad more nimble. In some of the slower corners there is a smudge of front end push that the magicians at Porsche have eliminated – perhaps it is a weight issue that the Black Series will manage to address. The Porsche is still a sizeable 10 or so seconds quicker around the benchmark ‘Ring time that we all pine about – AMG are quick to say that the PRO lap time was not set in optimal conditions.

What I could deduce from my quick stint at Hockenheim is that the GT R PRO is just as much of a laugh as the rest of the AMG GT family – it is up for having a bit of a fun. Set the ESP to Sport or OFF and pick a level of traction control using the stubby yellow knob and the GT R PRO will still have you laughing out loud. A GT3 RS might be more pointy and focused, but the GTR PRO is still a worthy of being held in equally high regard as a track day weapon. The GT R stops and goes hard, the PRO takes the on track abilities to another level.

2019 BMW 750Li Review

Since I was a small boy (still am) I’ve always been envious of the person driving me around – I am forever curious about how it feels to drive the car in which in sat in, whatever it is. There have, however, been a handful of exceptions – I’m sure the reasons speak for themselves. These anomalies include a Rolls-Royce Phantom, Bentley Mulsanne, Mercedes-Maybach S600 and the BMW 7 Series.

These are cars that, in my mind, are meant to be enjoyed not from behind the wheel, but from behind the front seats. The rear seats are lounges, spaces that are designed to take you away from the reality of being stuck in the horrendous LA traffic or the ugly concrete clad surroundings of the M25 in London.

Chances are that if you find yourself in the rear cocoons of the aforementioned limousines you have a few more cars that you drive for pleasure or to flex at the golf club. The limousine is for the Micky Mouse gloved driver, not the owner, to put miles on.

It just so happened that I recently drove an S600 Maybach, Phantom and Mulsanne and I found them to be remarkable to drive, not just to be driven in. When the invitation to pilot the new BMW 7 Series popped into the inbox my childish curiosity had me hitting accept.

A couple of weeks later I found myself in the back of the BMW 750Li and it was a phenomenal place to be sat. Just a week before I was in the back seats of the Mulsanne and the BMW felt as plush, equally special and even more technologically advanced. The loungers were sublime, the cabin whisper quiet and the fit and finish something that would not be out of place in the Sultan of Brunei’s living room. Once again, I found myself enjoying the opulence of soft leathers, massage seats and near silence – I almost fell asleep.

Then my driver pulled over, chucked me the keys and disappeared. I would be lying if I said it was not a little intimidating, the 7 Series is, I think it is fair to say, an utter enormous car. Let’s get one thing out of the way from the outset – those ginormous grilles. The kidneys have over the years evolved into a plethora of shapes and sizes – on the X2 they appear to be fitted the wrong way up, on the X7…well let’s skip past that, but on the 7 Series face lift they are big enough to swallow small children and other cars alike.

Confession time – I did not like them before, I hated them when I saw them on a M760Li at Geneva and I still do not like them on the M Sport trimmed cars. However, on the Design Pure Elegance package cars, the swooping lower section of the bumper combined with the slender laser lights and that imposing pair of grilles looks mighty impressive to my eyes, something akin to a majestic and proud cruise ship.

The rear continues the design language I first saw on the 3er and Z4 with the L shaped lights, this time presented with the horizontal connecting light beam that you can find on most Porsches…and the Bugatti Chiron. Unless you are reading this is China, your opinion in the styling is somewhat irrelevant as that is where 40% of 7 Series cars are delivered and the new status promoting styling is very much catered to the Chinese market…and me apparently.

Back to my driving experience – I’m behind the wheel and the space upfront is impressive, the width of the car continues to make itself known in a good way. The view from the side mirrors accentuates the the length. Into drive and away I…sail. It is just as quite up here, you would never know that the engine under the hood is a hefty great V8. The 750Li xDrive I am piloting packs a supercar worthy 530 bhp and a twisting 750 Nm of torque. Considering that it weighs the same as a small cottage it is impressive that it will shift to 100km/h in 4 seconds.

As I pull out of the hotel onto the baked Spanish tarmac my eyes are drawn to something in the aforementioned wing mirrors. I stop turn the wheel and discover that it is the rear wheel steer system the I can physically see turning the rear wheels. It helps explain why I only had to apply a marginal amount of steering lock to navigate the 90 degree turn. The steering was so light that it could have been done with a single finger. Innovations like this are only the start of the list of things that make driving the car as much of a breeze as it is to be the VIP passenger in the back of it.

All of the controls are light – yes, this translates to a total absence of feel in a number of aspects, but this is not exactly a car you drive to the Nordschleife on a Sunday. As with the steering input, everything is effortless, simple and does not require much concentration. The gigantic length and width of 7 Series soon becomes less frightening and, as is the passenger experience, it is very soothing.

The raft of tech aids such as active cruise control and lane assist means that the 7 Series is essentially able to drive itself on the highway and the rest of the technologies packed into the cabin further sooth the driving experience. The new iDrive system still proves itself to be the best in the business, gesture controls are far more useful than I first imagines and there is still a lovely, tactile wheel to use to control the screen in addition to the touch screen feature (take note every other manufacture in the world. #SaveTheControlWheel).

All in all it is very easy to summarise the BMW 750Li xDrive. The car is an incredible place to be sat, whether it be in the front seat or the rear. It is a calming, enjoyable place to be and one that I think challenges and proves itself to be worthy of the best in the segment. I am sure you will be seeing those imposing grilles in a capital city near you very often indeed.

2019 Porsche 992 911 Carrera Cabriolet Review

It is March in London, the pathetic fallacy of Brexit is reflected in the rainy scenes I can see from my equally dreary office desk. I’ve spent so much time indoors hiding from precipitation, I’ve started to lack vitamin D (insert lack of D joke). The doctor has prescribed sunshine and less stress. Before I have time to scurry over to the Pharmacy, Porsche call with a cure of their own – the 992 Cabriolet and a flight to Greece. Just what the doctor ordered…

A couple of days later I find myself in Attica, a short drive south of the history festooned city of Athens with the keys to a 992 Cabriolet. My expectations are high, fuelled by the logic that the Cabriolet will be just as good as the Coupe that I drove in January. Porsche engineers have a habit of sprinkling magic and witchcraft on everything they touch as of late, the 992 Coupe was a prime example of this – the Carrera S & 4S represent the bulk of sales and as a result, they’ve made them both so bloody good that it’s difficult to imagine just how magnificent the GTS and other future models are going to be.

Back to the present and the Cabriolet – the car I’m filling with my bags, and bananas, is a 4S – I saw this car yesterday evening and laughed at it’s gold wheels and the idea that there was a German with a sense of humour in the PR department that specced this Indian Red 911 with wheels that would look more at home on a Ferrari or classic Lotus. The very jester that configured the car reciprocated my jibe by making sure it was the car I would be driving for the rest of the trip…touché.

Enough clowning around, what is this 4S packing? Well, as you would imagine, this is essentially the same as the coupe just with the roof lobbed off. That means in S & 4S guises, the only currently available, there is a 3.0-litre twin-turbo flat six pushing out 444bhp and 391lb ft. 444bhp doesn’t sound huge, but the numbers are eye opening.

0-100 is abolished in 3.7, or 3.6 if you check the Sport Chrono box (this takes off a tenth and adds the essential driver mode rotary dial on the steering wheel and the iconic stopwatch/clock). Three point six. That is supercar quick.

Traction in this 4S is mind bending and altered my driving style. You can enter corners with speed that is frankly ridiculous and there isn’t any understeer. You have to be an utter Neanderthal and completely misjudge a slow speed corner to make the front axle push away from the apex. Like I said, magic. The handling is spot on, as is the driving position, steering and brakes.

One criticism is the PDK gearbox – yes, it is lightning fast and handles multiple shifts with ease, but when it is in sport mode and auto, you merely brush the throttle pedal it fires in a couple of downshifts with a spike in the revs. It’s is a little nervous and makes you weary. Drive it in manual and you start to fathom why it has been calibrated with such a nervous disposition – turbo lag. Yes, this really is knit picking, but when you choose which gear you want and you pick one that leaves the analogue rev counter below 2,500 rpm, you start to feel the lag. Again, this is me trying to find fault and the gearbox will almost instantly fire the revs above this laggy layer when left in auto or if you drive it as it should be driven in manual.

Would I have the Cabriolet or the Coupe? This is a tough call and one I suspect will come down to personal preferences. Where the Pista Spider, Huracan Performante Spyder and new AMG GT R Roadster are topless track hardened supercars that make no sense to me given structural rigidity loss and added weight (take a bow McLaren with your carbon tubs), having a Carrera Cabriolet is far more understandable. Carreras are not cars for setting lap times in. The appeal of cruising and enjoying the drive is infinitely more alluring. The added wright in strengthening is far less relevant.

The interior is sublime as it is in the coupe, my gripes with the infotainment and lack of buttons and reliance on the touch screen still stand firm. It still feels alien and difficult to navigate a touchscreen whilst driving. Whether this will be alleviated over time and experience with the system is yet to be seen.

With the roof down the cabin is still comfortable and well shielded from the elements. The innovative wind deflector puts cars like the Bentley Continental GTC to shame as there is no manual labour required, just the touch of a button. The roof can be lowered or raised on the move up to 50 km/h in just 12 seconds. You can also enjoy the turbocharged whooshes and whistles far more clearly.

If I was in the market for a convertible sports car that had large luggage space and rear seats, tiny ones at that, there is only one car for the job – the 992 Porsche Carrera Cabriolet.

2020 Bentley Continental GTC Review

‘We don’t believe that the Continental GTC has any competitors, it is completely unique in this space’ responded Bentley Chairman and Chief Executive, Anthony Hallmark. My question was not one to probe or test Mr Hallmark, but one that I asked to learn and understand more about the 2019 Bentley Continental GTC before jumping in and making my own judgements. Then again, my 25 year old judgements were somewhat irrelevant to the illustrious British brand – Bentley are the first to point out that the typical Bentley owner is typically in their 50s or 60s, China being an outstanding anomaly with 80% of buyers being under the age of 45…yikes, how’s that for a diverse demographic?

I had been shipped out to the Marbella Club to put the Bentley Continental GTC through its paces (tough gig) on what turned out to be a rather special days driving in Bentleys latest topless offering. The previous generation GT and GTC proved to be roaring successes, the introduction of the new Conti GT took the dynamics and breadth of ability of the luxury GT car to new levels.

As you would imagine, the GT and GTC are very similar. Both share the same 6.0-litre, W12 engine that churns out 626bhp and 664lb ft that will launch the GTC to 100km/h just a tenth of a second slower that the coupe – 3.8 seconds (expect a V8 and hybrid options soon). Also shared are the four wheel drive system, eight-speed dual-clutch transmission and 48-volt body control system that can be found in the Porsche Cayenne, Panamera and Bentley Bentayga, although Bentley say the calibration had been fiddled with to make sure your sexy topless Bentley feels a little different from a diesel Cayenne. The chief of Continental engineering went on to tell me about the painstaking hours that went into the gearbox calibration and how this is not just a simple copy of the PDK DSG transmission.

So what is the GTC like on the road? To find out, I embarked on a 400 kilometre day trip over a variety of roads and surfaces to see what puts the G and T into the GTC. Allow me to start off with that engine. I’ve driven the W12 Bentayga and can vouch for just how good it is in the SUV – the effortless character of the engine suits the truck well. In the GTC, however, it left me wanting a little more.

The Bentley looks fabulous, I felt that it needed an attention drawing engine tone to match the eye catching angles and do those giant oval exhausts some justice. Then you put your foot down and the sheer force of the torque punting the car towards the horizon reminds you why this huge great engine is still being used. It is remarkable, even more so when you consider the GTC weighs in at heaving great 2,414kg with the W12 pounding away until you’re doing 207mph/333kmh.

So the engine can deal with the weight when it comes to blisteringly fast straight line pace, but what happens when your grand tour takes you over a mountain pass? Remember that 48v system? It works astonishingly well and essentially counteracts any body roll using motors that prop the side of the car that would roll back up. Working in conjunction with the 3 chamber air suspension, the ride is sublime and the gargantuan weight is masked like a Donald Trump ‘grabbing’ episode.

When you start to increase speeds into some tighter, more twisty sections, things get a little less refined. As good as the systems are, hiding such hefty mass is undone by Newtons laws of physics and the Bentley starts to struggle – the brakes show themselves as being a major weak point. I cannot blame the poor things, regardless of how massive they are. Carbon ceramics are not an option…best take it easy and enjoy the breeze in your toupee after retracting the Z-fold roof in 19 seconds.

Speaking of enjoyment, when you are cruising and taking in the surroundings, as you should be, the GTC really does come into its own league of refinement and comfort. The interior is a masterpiece. Yes, you’ll recognise elements of the infotainment from other VAG products, but the physical switches, materials and all round ergonomics are second to none.

The finish on the woods, metal switchgear and quality of leathers are worth drinking in for hours. Set the heads up display to show you all you need, engage lane assist and active cruise control, prod the air scarf button to maximum and you’ll be glad that you were not sat in any other car on that stretch of road. It is a soothing experience, a memorable one. A Bentley moment.

Going back to the opening of this review, there are a couple of competitors that sprung to mind on the flight home – think Aston Martin DB11 Volante, Ferrari Portofino and perhaps Mercedes-Benz S Class. These could arguably all be considered competitors, but after spending a long day behind the wheel, it is safe to say that all of the aforementioned cars sit towards the sharper end of the sport vs comfort spectrum with the Bentley being the car with the wider breadth of ability. At €192,000 pre tax and options, it is a much more expensive purchase too. It really is in a category of its own.