One day, 33 Car Manufacturers, 160 cars, Lots of Keys, Some Journo’s. Let the Testing Begin!

Each year, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) host several SMMT Test Day’s around the U.K., which gives car manufacturers the opportunity to showcase their newest models, and for journalists to drive them.

This is our first visit to an SMMT test day, and an early start sees us heading three hours down the road to the Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedford in the Chevrolet Cruze VDCi LTZ we have on test, for the main test day of the year. We pull up to a security guard in the car, and are directed to park on the Mile Straight. A tingle of excitement hits us as we round the banked bend and see the straight open up in front of us.

Alpine track at the Millbrook Proving Ground

It’s sooo tempting to floor that accelerator, as the petrol flowing in our veins is suddenly given an injection of mental nitrous stimulus. Must. Resist. Common sense dictates that 1. the marshals would not be happy with us flying up to the parked cars at 100 mph, and 2. We actually want to attend the day, not be sent home before we even start.

As a few of the later-arriving journ’s (like us) pile onto a minibus to ferry us to the event, the radio of the driver crackles into life with a marshal-to-marshal conversation; ‘Can you point your yellow flag at someone please. A guy has just come round the corner on two wheels. Point it right at him so he knows!’. The bus breaks into laughter, and the banter begins. The day just got off to a great start.

Kia and Nissan stands at the SMMT day

After a brief induction, we’re outside into glorious sunshine and scorching heat. Blue skies with the occasional fluffy cloud intervening mean we’re in for a good one. If you viewed the event from high up, the manufacturers areas are laid out in a lightbulb shape, with and outer ring and an inner ‘element’ and screw section.

 Bentley at the Millbrook proving ground

We’re here mainly to chat with the various PR guys we’ve either already met, or been in contact with already and to meet some for the first time. It’s all about the contacts in this line of work, and it’s great to get insight into each of the manufacturers future plans and current range highlights. But hey, it would be an absolute crime not to drive at least a few models, especially when the PR personnel are pressing the keys into your palm.

SMMT MAY 2013 AUDI IMGP1685

Millbrook is essentially a huge area dedicated to the testing of cars in various ways, from handling and suspension to tyres, fuel economy and more. There’s also filming done here too with programmes such Top Gear and Fifth Gear using the site, and even cooler, the famous Aston Martin crash in James Bond; Casino Royale was filmed at Millbrook.

Routes we’d be able to take the cars on would be the off-road sections, high speed circuit, hill route and city course. We missed out playing on the off-road routes due to time constraints – there’s always next time though.

There’s not a chance we’re going to do full reviews of the cars after just a 15 minute drive. It’s a quick taster for us, so we’ll give you the same, dear readers. First off, we hopped in a new Honda Jazz. There was one of my car hero’s there  – the Honda NSX – but pah, who needs that when you’ve got a 1.4 VTEC Jazz sat waiting. A few I know own the previous model of Jazz, and they genuinely are a good little car. Stacks of leg and head room in the front and back, and a ridiculous amount of loading space due to the rear ‘magic seats’. A true ‘Tardis’ car if ever there was one.

Yellow Datsun 270Z

The majority of buyers of the Jazz, are erm… the older generation, let’s be honest. But, for those in the know these are a great buy if you want room, fuel economy and an engine as reliable as the sun. Honda must know their buyers age, as plainly the interior has been designed around that fact. The centre console has huge buttons and dials, and everything is easy to use and see.

Driving, the little 1.4 VTEC is sweet and nippy enough. We took it on the city course, which consists of dozens of tight turns and short straights and the steering was actually heavier than I thought it would be, and I’d have preferred it a little lighter. The suspension and chassis is decent enough and the car has tight enough handling to have a bit of fun.

Next it was onto Nissan’s stand, and I’d already spotted something I’d wanted to go in for a while. The Nissan Juke Nismo. In case you’ve never played Gran Turismo here’s a bit of information about Nismo. In summary they are a specialist Japanese motorsport and tuning company, who’ve worked closely with Nissan for years – most memorably for GT gamers, on the previous generations of Skyline’s.

Rear view of the Nissan Juke Nismo

The Juke Nismo in question was painted white pearl, with a few red lines integrated into back trim here and there, plus a set of black and silver 18″ rims. The Nismo aero package which includes flared arches, splayed sills and a roof spoiler amongst other modifications is not some silly kit to make the Juke look beefier – this is all real stuff designed by the aerodynamic team at Nismo. It also gives the car a real sporty edge – a definite Japanese racer in the making.

Interior view of the Nissan Juke Nismo

The interior is a good place to be. Highlights are the Nismo suede bucket seats which are comfortable and look the part, while the thick, chunky alcantara steering wheel is grippy and nice to hold. Onto the track, and we chose the high speed circuit. As journo’s, we were only allowed to get up to 100 mph, so we obliged and did exactly that. The Juke Nismo got up to the ton surprisingly quickly, turbo whistle getting stronger while the centre console’s digital boost gauge flared brightly. We’d jumped into the Juke without any details, and found out after we got back that the engine is only a 1.6 litre. It’s obviously been fettled with by the guys at Nismo, and the turbo’d unit produces 200 hp and 250 Nm (184 lb ft) of torque. Still. All that from a 1.6! Amazing.

3 photos of the Nissan Juke Nismo

The steering is sharp and precise, and the suspension is taut. As we only took the Juke on the banked oval, so we can’t comment overly much on how the suspension feels in normal conditions. We’ll report on that when Nissan loan us the Juke Nismo in the next few months.

A quick chat with the Seat PR team led to us getting the Seat Leon FR 2.0 TDI 150 PS.  A few years ago, the Leon Cupra – now FR – quickly established itself as a decent handling, quick front-wheel-drive car at a lower price than its VW and Audi counterparts, and there’s now a ton of modified versions on the road.

SEAT Leon Rear View

A quick glance over the exterior of the 2013 FR shows a sharp, modern design with simplicity at its core. It’s not showy or overblown, but has an air of class about it too. The interior could be described in much the same way as it too, as it is unpretentiously laid-out – but definitely not in a bad way – whilst it is also driver-orientated, as any controls are easy to use and spot while driving. The alcantara seats are deep and pleasant to sit in, while the thick bolsters hold you in place well.

SEAT Leon interior

The Leon FR’s 2.0 diesel TDi puts out 150 PS (147 hp) and 236 lb ft (320 Nm) of torque, so it’s no slow-poke. 0 – 60 mph comes up in a respectable-enough 8.4 seconds for both the manual and DSG ‘box’s.  We again opted for the high speed circuit, and pulling off the slip road onto the main banked section, I gave the Leon FR’s accelerator the boot. It obliged with a good turn of speed, a strong wave of torque taking us up to the one hundred miles-per-hour mark quickly, and smoothly. From what I could gather from the quick drive, the handling and steering felt tight and precise. Overall, a nice car.

A break for lunch – and from the intense sun and heat – saw us refreshed and ready for more test drives. Heading over to Jaguar’s stand, we opted for a go in the 2013 Jaguar XJ. Presented with a choice of the 3.0 litre V6 supercharged or the 3.0 litre V6 turbo diesel, we went for the diesel. I know you’re talking to the device you’re reading this on and asking ‘why would you go for that over the petrol you weirdo‘, but it’s simply because we’ve already tested the Jaguar XF with the V6 S/C petrol engine, and wanted something different.

The beautiful Jaguar XJ at the SMMT day

Y’know what, I’m glad we went for it, as it’s an absolute beaut of a power plant. Before we set off though, we had a good look around the XJ’s interior. The XF Portfolio we tested was highly luxurious, but the XJ somehow manages to be even nicer. It class-on-class right the way through the cabin, with sumptuous leather seats in the front and rear, and in this model they were multi-way powered in the back too. The centre console is beautiful too, with gloss black and hints of thick chrome in absolute keeping with the air of the XJ as a car. I could go on for ages about the interior, but as we’re getting one to test we’ll keep this as an overview.

Pressing the starter button, the phosphor blue virtual dials flick into life instantly, just before the diesel engine fires into life. The opposite of a piece of farmyard equipment, the XJ’s three-litre  turbo-diesel is quiet, and ultra-refined. Setting off, there’s very obviously a huge amount of torque on tap. A mere smidgen of foot movement sees another 10 mph added to whatever speed we were already doing – this thing is rapid. A drive around tight, twisting the hill route shows that although the XJ is a big car, it handles beautifully too, and it coped very well with the twisties.

interior of the Jaguar XJ at the SMMT day

On any straight section, a new BMW Z4 sDrive 18i – which was tailing us closely – was absolutely left for dead when one applied ones foot hard to the XJ’s go pedal, and a massive 600 Nm (433 lb ft) of torque kicked in. Power delivery is smooth yet a force to be reckoned with. Do not think that because this is a diesel it’s slow to accelerate away from the lights either. With a 0 -60 mph time of just 6 seconds, it’ll embarrass the majority of hot hatches and sporty cars, and leave their driver red-faced as your tail-lights disappear into the distance. The XJ in diesel form is an iron fist in a velvet glove, and I can’t wait to test it properly

Hopping over to the Hyundai line-up, a car in matte grey caught our attention, and apparently a lot of other people’s too, observing the amount of people’s heads whipping round as they walked past. It was the Veloster Turbo SE. Every person I’ve since showed photographs of this car to, agree it’s cool-looking. There are definite hints of Nissan GT-R and 370Z styling in the rear quarter panel and glass, while massively flared arches all-round, alongside jagged, overemphasised styling lines at the front and rear give the Veloster a muscular appearance.

SMMT MAY 2013 IMGP1707

Another point that makes it individual is that it has three doors. Nothing unusual there, you say. No, I mean three doors on the sides, not altogether. There are two doors on the passenger side and one on the driver’s. I actually missed that feature on the SMMT test day, as it really isn’t noticeable until you are told it’s there. I like that, as it means you’ve still got looks of a two-door coupé but with more practicality.

It’s certainly very different-looking to most cars on the road, and if you’re after unique styling then the Veloster Turbo SE is well worth a look. Inside, the Veloster does not disappoint, blending cool with a modern, sporty feel and as it’s part Kia, there’s loads of tech on the entertainment system too. The centre of the dash looks like a Transformer’s head – this is a good thing.

The seats in the front are comfortable while supportive on the sides for when you decide to give it the beans around some winding country lanes, while there are only two seats in the rear which are angled for comfort. Overall it’s a great interior.

Hyundai Veloster Turbo exhausts

It has a 1.6 litre petrol turbo engine, with 186 PS (183 hp) and 195 lb ft (265 Nm) of torque, so there’s fun to be had. It’s front-wheel-drive, but as there’s a good balance of power to take out a lot of the torque steer present in more powerful front-driven cars. Taking the Veloster Turbo on the city circuit, it wound around the super-tight corners with good precision and little body roll. A quick ten-minute drive will give you little to go by, but this is what we gleaned from it. We have the car coming for a test period later so you can see how it does there. Whatever the case, it looks great both outside and in.

Mid-afternoon, and the unseasonably hot day was taking it’s toll on us just coming through a drawn-out winter down of long, overcast and cold days. Citroën had hired a mobile crêpe van, so naturally we wandered over to their stand, casting a brief eye over the model line-up with more intention of downing delicious crêpe’s and refreshing drinks than testing a car right then. A quick conversation with the owners of the utterly pristine 1969 Citroën HY van serving the food about their beloved HY later, plus the aforementioned grub, and we were ready to get driving again.

Free food at the May SMMT day. Citroen's crepe van, BMW's popcorn stand and Vovlo's cupcakes.

Previously, I’ll admit I was not a great fan of French cars in general. My memories across the board are of hopeless build quality, bad reliability and poor interior finish. The Citroën DS3 Cabrio may have just made me do a U-turn on all that. A funky little car, I’ve liked the styling of the DS3 Cabrio since I first saw an ad for it. The styling is superb – a very desirable car to most people. Even in cabriolet form, the DS3 has a strong-enough design to avoid it being a girly car. Its taut lines and compact shape make for a good package, and it looks ready for a fun drive.

Citroen DS3 Cabriolet

The soft roof folds all the way to the top of the boot lid in a magnificent design feature, by lowing the rear window in the body of the car. The way the soft top sits is highly akin to the new Fiat 500C‘s actually, so it’s automatically cool. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the interior is nicely designed too. The front seats are huge, comfortable and are deeply bolstered for both the legs and side, wrapping around you snugly.

There are three rear seats, but leg and elbow room would be an issue if you wanted to transport five adults around. The trim in the centre console looks cool and funky, and will definitely appeal to a younger market, but we’ll have to wait and see about build quality when we test the DS3 Cabrio in a proper test period (which is soon).

Fire the Citroën DS3 Cabrio into life, and you’re provided with power from a 1.6 litre four-cylinder turbo-charged petrol unit. This is yet another example of manufacturers moving towards more power from smaller engines, as the 1.6 petrol puts out 155 hp and 177 lb ft (240 Nm) of torque. Roof down, and pulling out of the main SMMT section at Millbrook, we headed for the high speed ring. Accelerating down the slip-road onto the circuit, the DS3 Cabrio responded really well. The engine is reacts nicely to your input on the accelerator, and  it’s quick – more than you’ll think until you drive one actually. 0 – 60 comes up in a respectable 8.2 seconds!

Citroen DS3 on the proving track oval at Millbrook proving ground

Foot planted and going through the 6-speed gearbox, the little Citroën hit 80 mph with no problems. Photographer Jason decided – unwisely – to stick his arms above the windscreen line to take a shot, and nearly had his camera ripped from his hands. Clearly, we now know the wind-buffeting is kept well down inside the DS3 Cabrio, thanks to Jason’s willingness to see how well his camera would do hitting concrete at eighty. Only travelling on high the speed circuit meant I didn’t find much out about the handling, but it felt planted with little lean. I’m looking forward to testing the Citroën DS3 Cabrio in the near future, so we’ll see then how it does out in the real world, eh.

Time was a-pressin’ by now, and with a stack more manufacturers to schmooze with and only time for one more test drive, we chose a bread van. Kind of. Actually, it was the new Mini Cooper D Clubvan with faux baker signage on the sides. It looks really cool in this form, and if you owned a little patisserie or some other similar shop with a delivery service, this’d be a superb van to do the job as it’s way neater and more stylish than a conventional van, even if it can carry way less than bigger ones.

Mini Clubvan

Inside, the load area isn’t massive at 860 litres, but you’re getting the same quality interior and switchgear as the normal Mini, which is comfortable and well laid-out, with a smattering of attractive toggle switches, plus the worlds biggest-ever speedometer dominating the centre of the dash in a very unconventional way indeed. We liked.

Taking it onto, yet again, the high speed circuit, the Clubvan’s 1.6 litre turbo-diesel engine performed smoothly and efficiently. 100 mph was no problem and it got there with no drama or hardship. Reading the blurb on the spec sheet later, the Clubvan’s engine is low on emissions at 103 g/km but good on fuel with a 65 – 78 mpg return if you drive it gently. We didn’t.

 

Another quick positive note was that the Clubvan is really quiet on the road, even at high speed. We guessed that Mini had left all the soundproofing in from the normal car to keep more refined than a usual van, and we were right according to Mini’s PR guys. Essentially, this is a Clubman with metal where where the rear side windows would normally be, and the back seats replaced with a load liner. A good little car/van, and that fuel economy and low CO2 emissions would be highly attractive to a shop owner.

Overtaking the McClaren on the track at the SMMT day

We absolutely wish the SMMT Test Day was over the course of a couple of days. There are so many manufacturers to talk to and cars to test that you can’t fit it all into just one day. There were luxury cars we simply (and unfortunately) didn’t have time to test, like the beautiful ones on the Bentley and Rolls-Royce stands, then there were the super-quick monsters like the Audi R8 V10, McLaren MP5-12C and the Mercedes-Benz E 63 AMG estate, a bright-yellow beast of a Unimog U300 (or 400/500) you could take off-road and then everything else such as pick-up’s, 4×4’s and SUV’s, electric, hybrid, sports-cars, compact cars and so many more types.

Peugeot RCZ at the SMMT day

All-in-all, a wholly superb day made possible by the guys at the SMMT, and the outstanding co-operation of around 33 of the world’s car manufacturers. The national SMMT Test Day at Millbrook gives journalists both fresh to the industry and established the chance to chat to PR guys and drives vehicles in the ultimate test setting.

Audi R8

SMMT MAY 2013 blue Porsche 911 IMGP1799

What car would you have liked to test on the day? Let us know by using the comments box below!

Words: Chris Davies | Road Testers: Chris Davies, Jason Fanthorpe | Photography: Jason Fanthorpe, Matthew Davies

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