The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders’ Test Day continues to move on from its original premise.
Originally conceived as an opportunity for motoring journalists to get their hands on all manner of obscure and exotic machinery, it also allowed them to become familiar with cars that had somehow passed them by over the preceding twelve months, in a convenient day-long package.
Millbrook hired and brimmed with cars, hoards of motoring scribblers from the length and breadth of the nation would congregate in Bedfordshire and put their selections through their paces, before reporting their findings back through their paymasters’ pages.
As more bloggers and online-only writers have joined the motoring writing fraternity, the event itself is also serving a social function as well as a practical opportunity to sample cars that simply prove difficult to get hold of during the course of the year.
For manufacturers too, making pioneering steps into a world beginning to be drawn ever deeper into a world of online reviews and opinion, the SMMT Test Day has become a convenient opportunity to put faces to names and Twitter avatars that have been at the other end of typed out conversations over the year.
Significant personal satisfaction was derived from everyone I met knowing who I was – in a motoring microclimate where building positive relationships is key, that felt good.
Millbrook is an expansive facility with a variety of driving routes on offer within its high fences, designed to keep the snooping long lenses of spy shot photographers at bay.
A tight and twisty city driving course is in complete contrast with the high speed two mile bowl and whilst the undulating rollercoaster of the hill route was the most popular, the off-road courses were equally worthy of sampling.
Within the region of 100 cars on offer to 300 invited guests time with each selection was limited; subsequently every moment behind the wheel had to be maximised to glean as many initial impressions about each car.
Then upon each meeting of someone known from the Twittersphere, sharing impressions of the cars we’d ticked off our lists, confirmed with clichéd hand gestures indicating slip angles and steering wheel inputs.
Nineteen cars were crammed in to the eight hours of track time – here are those brief, first drive impressions in order of sampling.
Dacia Duster Access 1.6 16V 105 4×2 – £8,995
- Extra-ordinary amount of new car for the money.
- Spacious and well-constructed.
- Entry-level Access model looks great in UN specification white with steel wheels.
- Entry-level is exactly that with few creature comforts.
Citroen DS3 Cabrio DSport THP 155 – £19,680
- Smooth, brisk powertrain.
- DS3’s styling remains intact.
- Feels surprisingly open despite it not being a ‘proper’ convertible.
- Don’t expect a hot hatch – this is definitely a boulevard cruiser.
SEAT Leon FR 2.0 TDI 150PS – £21,385
- Looks great with bold creases and sharp-edged styling elements.
- Spacious cabin and SEAT’s best interior to date.
- Punchy and economical turbo diesel engine.
- Not as sporty to drive as its looks would have you believe.
Kia pro_cee’d 1.6 CRDi SE – £20,595
- Great-looking three-door hatch, with plenty of differentiation from the regular cee’d.
- Well-built with a standard equipment list as long as the Great North Road.
- Refined diesel powertrain provides a decent balance of economy and pace.
- Didn’t feel appreciably sportier than the five-door cee’d.
smart fortwo edition iceshine (84bhp) – £11,000
- Packaging and engineering concept still impresses.
- iceshine special edition comprehensively equipped.
- Decent acceleration from the turbocharged 1.0-litre petrol engine.
- Twitchy driving experience an acquired taste; definitely city-centric.
Nissan Juke 1.6 Turbo Nismo 4WD CVT – £22,600
- Impressive performance makeover with enjoyable speed and noise.
- Handles well; ride isn’t too firm and 4WD provides plenty of grip.
- Bodywork and interior modifications are tasteful and look great.
- CVT gearbox not the best ally to the rorty engine; stick with manual.
Volkswagen Beetle Cabriolet 70s Edition 1.4 TSI – £25,455
- One of a trio of ‘decade’ special editions with clever use of ‘period’ detailing.
- Refined drivetrain is smooth and offers a decent turn of speed.
- Cabriolet’s appeal is now much less polarising.
- High price and limited practicality quell the appeal somewhat.
Renault Zoe Dynamique Zen Z.E. – £19,393
- Effortlessly simple to drive with smooth, electric propulsion.
- Styling inside and out walks a fine line between modern and futuristic.
- As practical as any supermini – an electric car with few compromises.
- Not everyone will ‘get’ the milk-float-on-steroids driving soundtrack.
Peugeot 208 GTI THP 200 – £18,895
- A smile-inducing chuckable pocket rocket.
- Smooth powertrain doesn’t feel too peaky meaning performance is accessible.
- Doesn’t feel overly sanitised.
- Interior doesn’t feel suitably different from lesser 208s.
Audi S7 Sportback 4.0 TFSI quattro – £62,330
- Proof that Audi still knows how to make beautiful and distinctive cars.
- Power and refinement from the turbocharged V8 is intoxicating.
- Luxurious technofest of an interior.
- BMW’s 6 Gran Coupe, Mercedes’ CLS and Jaguar’s XFR are hard to ignore.
MINI Cooper SD ALL4 Paceman – £24,290
- Less awkward to look at than the Countryman on which it’s based.
- Agile handling and sporty setup ensure it feels like a larger, more mature MINI hatch.
- Usefully more practical and easier for small families to live with.
- Is another MINI this size stretching the brand too far? After all, shouldn’t MINIs be, well, mini?
Fiat 500L 1.6 MultiJet Lounge – £18,890
- Bodywork and interior filled with lots of interesting 500esque detailing.
- Spacious and practical too; sensibly larger than a Panda.
- Refined diesel engine offers a decent amount of go without being thirsty.
- Styling’s too contrived – it lacks the real 500’s charm.
Ford Focus ST-3 2.0T estate – £26,595
- Rapid, well-built, well-specced family estate.
- Styling modifications are on the right side of subtle.
- Extra rear end weight makes it feel even more balanced than the ST hatchback.
- Torque steer when driven hard could alarm the unwary.
Vauxhall Cascada Elite 2.0CDTi 16v (165PS) Start/Stop – £27,600
- Refined, well-built and draught-free convertible.
- Comfortable long-distance cruiser rather than a sports car wannabe.
- Little evidence of chassis flexing or excessive weight.
- Certainly more than just a drop-top Astra but it will it really persuade people away from an Audi A5?
Mitsubishi Outlander 2.2 DI-D GX5 automatic – £33,999
- Huge leap forward in almost every respect over the outgoing Outlander.
- Quality, seven-seater cabin is packed with equipment on the flagship GX5 trim.
- Smooth diesel automatic driveline provides effortless progression.
- Concept car styling has somehow translated into an anonymous looking crossover.
Renault Captur Dynamique S dCi 90 Stop & Start – £17,895
- Spacious, tall and distinctive small crossover.
- Interesting detailing abounds with intriguing features inside and out.
- Economical diesel engine and relatively low price broaden the Captur’s appeal.
- For some potential buyers the bold styling will be enough to rule the Captur out.
Skoda Octavia Elegance 2.0 TDI CR DSG – £23,240
- Sharp new suit and high quality interior will win the Octavia new fans.
- Acres of space inside and a colossal boot too – makes the Golf look a size smaller.
- 2.0-litre diesel engine is the pick of the range (until the vRS appears).
- Buyers new to Skoda hoping for a sporty drive will be left feeling flat.
BMW 320d Modern Gran Turismo – £33,835
- Much more than a 3 Series hatchback; roomier interior and a huge boot.
- Dynamically impressive, with fine RWD balance and steering feedback that outshines rivals.
- Combination of performance and economy from the engine and 8-speed gearbox is astonishing.
- Will the GT badge spark 3 Series buyers’ imaginations or remain a curio like the 5 Gran Turismo?
Chevrolet Camaro convertible – £41,820
- Throbbing burble of 6.2-litres of V8 under that hood – forward motion is suitably smile inducing.
- Shakes its ass when provoked, albeit sometimes a bit too snappily.
- Retro detailing inside not overly done.
- Chevy parts bin and low grade plastics interior might keep the price low but it doesn’t feel special enough.