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By on November 14, 2001

 The Jaguar XK8 is a classic. Six years after its debut, the design is still fresh, bold and dramatic. It's one of those cars that somehow looks fast standing still. Okay, viewed from the side, the boot is about two feet too long- thanks to US regulations requiring all expensive cars to accommodate two golf bags. Even so, the Jag rules. Freshened Porsches, Mercs, Beemers and Lexi still can't compete with the XK's svelte aggression. Slinking into the club's parking lot, the Jag proclaims, 'Look out boys, this cat has claws!'

Except it doesn't. Yes, the XK is fast. The standard 4.0 litre car zooms from zero to sixty in 6.6 seconds. The supercharged XKR makes the same dash in 5.1. But anyone who loves life (or hates insurance forms) shouldn't try to carry that speed into a corner. The heavyweight XK8 is a cleverly disguised boulevard cruiser. Ask it to change directions quickly and, well, hippo-type wallowing ensues. It doesn't matter if you try to counter the XK's 'hard-a-starboard' body roll with brakes, acceleration, opposite lock or prayer. Bad things happen. Owners quickly learn to restrict their fun to straight-line blasts or slow motion posing.

 In some ways, the XKR is worse. Although it has more power, wider tires, stiffer suspension and slightly better brakes, it lacks the XK's early warning system. A standard car lets you know you're dicing with the limits of adhesion and chassis control before you crap out. The XKR gives you little advance notice of impending chaos, and no quarter when it arrives. It's Blitzkrieg motoring: one second all's right with the world, the next you're upside down in a ditch with the Germans laughing at you.

Luckily for enthusiasts everywhere, a small tuning company called Paramount can give the XK the sporting performance it deserves. And I do mean small; Paramount is to small what Ford is to big. We're talking one mechanic stashed away in the back of the owner's commercial plant nursery, working on one car at a time. Simon Dyer, Paramount's Sales Manager, claims his company breathes its magic on some 150 XKs a year. Maybe. One thing is for sure: a 'normal' XK would take one look at a Paramount XKR 450 Grand Prix and say, 'That's what I want to be when I grow up!'

 Hunkering down on lowered suspension, sporting 19' shoes, breathing through a grey mesh grille set in an all-business carbon fibre fairing, Paramount's silver demonstrator bristles with serious intent. The engine provides a suitable soundtrack for the visual assault. A 'normal' XK or XKR sounds like an ant farting in the next room. The Grand Prix is equipped with Paramount's patented 'Tiger Cat' exhaust system. When Simon fired it up, the damn thing growled at me. Given my previous experience, barely catching a tail-happy XKR on a long sweeping bend, I couldn't decide if the newly vocal V8 was issuing a warning or a promise.

Simon took the wheel first. Ignoring hand-drawn signs warning visitors to amble by the greenhouses, Simon left base camp in a Sweeney style spray of gravel. When gravel turned into tarmac, he floored it. The exhaust howled. The supercharger whined. The tyres gripped. We surfed on an endless wave of torque, heading straight for triple digits – and a speed bump. Full anchors yanked us back to a crawl in a bit less than four seconds. It's hard to imagine a salesman from an authorised Jaguar dealer performing that particular party trick. Of course, he wouldn't have the wheels for the job…

We joined the M40 and loped along just under the ton. As I settled into the reworked cabin, I was more than a little put-off by my surroundings. Paramount had replaced all the car's wooden panels with carbon fibre, killing the XK's 'gentlemen's club' serenity. Combined with black leather, the effect was both tasteless and claustrophobic. Paramount's craftsmen would have been far better employed finding a sporting alternative to the standard car's ugly and unsupportive seats.

Simon sang the praises of the basic XK: build quality, reliability and ergonomics. He rattled off the modified car's technical specifications: AP racing brakes and callipers (£3,300), upgraded springs and shocks (£2,800), switchable steering weight (£500), improved air induction system (£370), revised engine management control (£455), etc. Meanwhile, I wondered why Paramount's chief test pilot was demonstrating a sports car on a four-lane motorway.

Ignoring my hints that there's no substitute for personal experience ('My turn! My turn!'), Simon explained that Paramount sends most of its performance parts to the US for dealer fitting. The hairy-chested stuff, like the 450bhp engine upgrade (£6,300), must be installed by Paramount. Guiding him back onto my track I agreed: 'Okay, that's the 'what', Now show me the 'why'.'

We finally made the switch at a lay-by. When I pushed the drilled aluminium accelerator into the black carpet, the car's automatic gearbox was as confused as a sherry-addled pensioner. The box changed down, then down some more, then up a bit, then gave up and stuck us back in top gear. Simon switched on the Grand Prix' sequential gearbox. Unlike the Alfa or Porsche systems, Paramount's wheel-mounted buttons delivered swift, crisp changes, both up and down the ratios. As long as you forget about first gear (the car will pull from standstill in second without a grumble), it's the path to predictable power.

As we crossed the Thames, I recognized one of my favourite hill climbs. Finally, the big cat could stretch her legs. My XKR phobia receded with each corner. Paramount's mods had transformed a squidgy luxury car into a true sports car. Its road manners were impeccable: no body roll, astounding grip and a thoroughly composed and communicative chassis. The Grand Prix just went where she was pointed. Switch off the traction and stability controls, and she still went where she was pointed. Late braking, hard cornering and savage stabs at the go pedal had little effect on the car's poise.

Personally, I told Simon, I think I'd prefer a modified XK, rather than an XKR. I just can't get on with the supercharger's incessant whine. I'd gladly sacrifice 140 horsepower to hear the full glory of an unadulterated V8. Simon says: 'go faster!'

Armed with an assurance that the Jag's portly backside would eventually slide in a predictable and controllable way, I pressed on. Nothing. At speeds that would have thrown a normal XKR at a tree, the Paramount car just got on with the business of cornering. Maybe I could put up with that whine after all. With a more skilled hand at the helm, the 450 Grand Prix would give many an Italian supercar a decent run for its money.

Fans of the legendary Jaguar marque will sit up and take notice at that statement. A Jag that can take on Italian exotics, and still cosset the driver in traditional British luxury? After driving Paramount's XKR, one wonders why Jaguar hasn't heard the news. Surely, Ford's Premium Automotive Group must realise that a 'sporting' XK would find a whole new, non-golfing audience. Besides, why should they leave it to an obscure specialist outfit to show the world that Jaguar's sporting heritage hasn't been lost in Luxury Land?

Simon Dyer suggests Ford may not want Jaguars to outperform their toweringly expensive cousins over at Aston Martin. Or perhaps the marketing boys are holding fire until they can unveil their Boxster-bashing F-type. I suppose it's a question of priorities. Jaguar covets the golf-club set, and thinks the best XK for them is a laid-back cruiser. A small percentage of XK owners disagree. They've decided that classic looks and a smooth ride are crucial, but high performance is Paramount.

By on November 15, 2001

 Are you a poser or a purist? Be honest. Provided you don't crash into a parked car while clocking yourself in a shop window, there's nothing wrong with buying a sports car to flatter your ego. But if you're more concerned about perception than performance, the RUF 3400S is not for you. It's a Porsche Boxster. Yes, RUF have modified this particular version to blast from zero to sixty in well under six seconds and out-corner a Ferrari, but it's still a hairdresser's car. Compared to the fearsome 911, the Boxster has about as much street cred as a dark blue M&S suit.

Ah, but if you are a purist, get ready for a treat. You'll already know the Boxster has one-up on its 911 stable mate: a mid-engine layout. (For the blissfully ignorant, the 911's engine sits behind the rear wheels. During heavy cornering, the car must use clever tricks to stop the rear end from saying, 'Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I'm the leader.') What purists can't know- at least until they drive the 3400S- is the Boxster's true magnificence. The official Porsche product just doesn't have enough power to exploit the Boxster's dynamic capabilities. In other words, it's too damn slow.

 It's true. Even the latest 3.2 litre Boxster S engine isn't powerful enough to completely liberate the car's talents. Porsche must figure that the 'entry level' Boxster must be slower than the 911 to justify the huge price difference. Luckily, Alois Ruf and his team of super-tuners don't work for Porsche. Ruf felt free to even the score, by shoehorning a water-cooled 3.4 litre 911 engine into the Boxster. The resulting machine is the most exciting car Porsche has never made.

You wouldn't know it by looking at it. Approaching the 3400S, you're confronted by a huge, turbo-look nose. It's about as appropriate to the delicately proportioned Boxster as boxing gloves on a ballerina. Inside the cabin, bat-eared chairs dwarf the cockpit and evoke a John McEnroe-type response: you cannot be serious! Thankfully, the rest of the car is standard-issue Boxster, with tasteful RUF badging in the usual Porsche places.

 Fire-up the 3400S and the sports seats suddenly seem less ridiculous. The re-worked exhaust resurrects the raspy, aggressive bark cherished by devotees of the air-cooled 911. The sound is both nostalgic and addictive. It's a little strange to be blipping the drive-by-wire throttle of a Boxster- a car continually criticised for not being 'a real Porsche'- hearing noises that make standard Carreras sound like automotive castrati.

Snick the Boxster's six-speed into first, press the loud pedal, release the clutch and things get even stranger. The 3400S rockets forward with unrestrained zeal. When the 310hp engine hits its sweet spot, at around 3500rpms, it pulls with supercar ferocity. At that point, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Peter Wheeler had a hand in this somewhere. The surround-sound wail hardens, and the thing just gets up and goes. Trucks lumbering down Germany's billiard table roads are reeled-in like dynamite stunned marlin.

 The numbers tell the tale. Zero to sixty in 5.1 seconds. Rest to 100 mph in 12.4. Compared to the Boxster S- itself no slouch- the 3400S is almost a full second faster to sixty, and 2.2 seconds quicker to the ton. The RUF car finally runs out of steam at an astounding 171mph.

In fact, the RUF 3400S and the Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet offer virtually identical performance. It's the way the RUF car delivers that performance that sets the two cars apart. On a winding road, at any speed, the 3400S is spirited, involving and technically flawless. Unlike the 911, its talents are always entertaining, accessible and benign (unless you are determined to die). Brake hard mid-corner and… go round. Hit a big bump and… go round. The RUF Boxster changes direction as effortlessly as a wind vane, yet cruises without the slightest stress. In short, it serves up lashings of that old-fashioned sports car virtue known as 'fun'. And it's all yours for around £55,000.

Wait a second. That means RUF's modified Boxster costs roughly ten grand less than a new Porsche C2 Cab! Add a bit of specification to the 3400S (a more suitable GT3 front end and 19' wheels are a logical starting point), and the price difference disappears. Who in their right mind would pay Carrera money for a Boxster?

Again, a purist. The 3400S' power and melodious exhaust create what the Boxster promised from the start: the pure, undiluted, roadster experience. RUF's steroidal Boxster is more fun at slower speed than a standard Carrera, and almost as accomplished at higher ones. The 3400S drives with all the eagerness and verve Porsche's lost in its quest to make the 'tricky' 911 both faster and safer.

In the final analysis, the 3400S surrenders two things to the basic 911: back seats and street cred. The former isn't an enormous issue with most Porsche buyers. The latter is insoluble. No matter what body kit you graft onto the Boxster, no matter how fast or agile the car becomes, it can never have the 911's macho appeal. So, Porsche fans, it's make up your mind time. Are you a driver or a poser? Answers in an envelope to Doctor Alois Ruf.

By on December 9, 2001

Simple Darwinism could reduce the number of America's fashion-conscious tree huggers.

Speed matters. So does size. A Lamborghini Murcielago can crest 200mph on an autobahn, but it’s slower than a pair of roller skates down a busy city street. Enter Mercedes’ chic new SMART car. It’s tiny– small enough to dart through any gap wider than an NFL lineman. It’s quick– well, “nippy”. It uses less fuel than a John Deere lawn mower. In fact, the SMART should be an urban driver’s dream come true. It isn’t.

Oh, but don’t you wish it was? It’s so cute! The SMART has all the charm of a baby animal: tiny body, big head and huge, doleful eyes. Awwww. Look! The radiator is smiling at you! Unlike the much-hyped MINI, the SMART’s Pokemon-morphed-with-a-golf-cart design both startles and captivates. You don’t want to buy the SMART so much as take it home and cook it a hot meal.

Zero to sixty in over 16 seconds!  (I was jogging next to the car when I took the picture.)Inside, the SMART is even more endearing. The car offers a range of “big car” toys: central locking, air conditioning, sunroof, sat nav, CD player and more. All the details—from the pizza slice door handles to the cup holder/ashtray— are fresh without being pretentious. Like a “real” Merc, all the controls work, and work well. The wipers wipe. The ventilation ventilates. The more time you spend in the car, the more you understand why SMART means both stylish and intelligent.

Funky touches like the twin periscopes surfacing from the dash (clock and rev counter) will get all the press, but the ergonomics deserve the real attention. The cabin is mounted above the engine (where else could they put it?), placing you virtually level with SUV drivers. This lofty driving position combined with an epic windscreen and large side windows delivers a panoramic view. Sitting behind the wheel, nestling into the heated seats, you’d swear you were driving an MPV.

If you value style, comfort and political correctness above all, stop here. Note that Daimler-Chrysler plans to import the SMART into the US sometime in the next year or so, and head for the brand’s suitably trendy website. Now, for those of you who value driving pleasure more than PC bragging rights, hold on. It’s gonna get rough.

To thrive in its natural environment, a city car needs quick and accurate steering, to boldly go where no SUV has gone before. Unfortunately, the SMART’s helm is severely under-assisted at lower speeds; changing direction from a standstill requires a manly “heave-ho”. Even worse, you have no idea how far you’ve turned the wheels until you set off– at which point you can easily find yourself heading towards the bumper of something large and unyielding. Once you get going, the steering is crisp and perfectly weighted. Which is just as well. Past 40mph, the slab-sided city car is more likely to be blown off course than a 17th century sailing ship.

   A great drive-- until you have to change gears, turn or face a cross windThe only thing more challenging than holding the SMART on a steady bearing is changing speed. Mercedes can rightly claim to build some of the world’s best automatic transmissions. Now they can claim to build the world’s worst. The SMART’s autobox doesn’t “slur” its changes. It stops, thinks about it, thinks about it some more, then gives you the next gear. It’s the perfect car for the Japanese; the sudden loss of momentum forces you to bow between gears.

Floor it– the usual method for rousing a Mercedes engine– and it’s not so much “kick down” as “cut out”. At the exact moment you ask for/need a little extra oomph, the handbag-sized engine goes into a second-long sulk. Switching off the auto leaves you with a sequential-style shift. The faux manual transmission option shortens the changing times, but only slightly. Personally engaging the gears accentuates the “light the fuse and wait” gear changes. A sporting driver will find the suspense… unbearable.

The SMART’s handling is also a lot less than excellent. While the SMART is not a sports car, even a bumper car is fast enough to challenge the gods of handling. In this case, the gods win. Mercedes modified the SMART’s suspension after the A-Class “elk test” debacle, eliminating any possibility of tipping over in a corner. At the same time, the SMART’s TRUST-PLUS stability system denies drivers the slightest chance of what we enthusiasts call “fun”. AND it’s hard riding.

The SMART could have had it all: style, comfort and speed. MB’s ‘ultimate city car’ is let down by lousy steering, an uncooperative gearbox, a dim-witted suspension and a zero-to-sixty time north of 15 seconds. Of course, this focus on the car’s dynamic abilities is beside the point. There’s an entire rainforest of eco warriors ready to remind me that the SMART is not about performance or driving pleasure. It’s about conserving our dwindling resources, 40+ miles per gallon and 85% recyclability. Ain’t THAT the truth.

By on December 18, 2001

 Blasting down an unrestricted section of autobahn at 125 miles per hour, the new Mercedes SL did something extraordinary: it kicked down. There I was, as nervous as a human cannonball aimed at a brick wall, and the SL just reaches down, grabs some more power, and slings me all the way to 155. All my doubts about Mercedes' range topper vanished. It's totally safe, faultlessly efficient and plenty damn fast. It is, in fact, the perfect car.

Oh, OK, the turn indicators sound cheap and nasty. The vanity mirrors are too small, and lack an indent for easy opening. The driver's visor is too tightly sprung; try to find a shallow angle and it just might snap your fingers off. And, um, that's it. It's perfect.

 But a perfect what? One thing the SL is definitely not is a sports car. First, there's a problem with the manual gear change: it doesn't have one. Yes, the SL's slick-shifter is the best automatic gearbox in the world, ever. It's so smooth, seamless and responsive, it's damn near telepathic. But even its ability to kick down a little or a lot depending on your mood doesn't overcome the fact that all that creamy V8 power is delivered by emotionally remote, fly-by-wire control.

And then there's the, um, 'weight problem'. Given the SL's supermodel curves, it may seem indelicate to mention the car's 1840kg. But there's no getting around the fact that the days when SL stood for 'Sports Light' are long gone. To their credit, Mercedes have explored the limits of science to disguise the fact. The latest power-assisted rack and pinion steering combines driving ease with remarkable feel. Deeply mysterious ABC (active body control) instantly adjusts the car's hydraulic suspension to keep body roll-the previous SL's nemesis- in check. ESP (Electronic Stability Program) and ASR (Automatic Skid Reduction) cut in gently yet effectively, as and when you forget to drive 'sensibly'.

 Still, one assault on a proper curve and you'll know that Porsches aren't the only porkers on the road. The SL may weigh less than its predecessor, but it's a full 400kgs heavier than a Carrera. Corner too fast in the Merc and the 17' tyres squeal like a stuck pig. Understeer slides you towards the scenery. You start thanking God (and Daimler Benz) that you're equipped with two-stage activation front and side airbags, a pop-up roll bar and a super-strong crumple zone.

Mercifully, there's real salvation in the SBC (Sensotronic Brake Control) and BAS (Brake Assist System) braking systems. Give the brakes a hard shove and they shove right back, right until the point where the driver's aids can introduce a measure of calm to the proceedings. Safe, sure, but no fun. Not like a sports car.

 So what about the SL as a perfect luxury two-seater? I've got one word for that proposition: 'boot space'. OK, so it's two words, but it's the same concept: not enough room for the job. Thanks to the flipping, turning, twisting, retracting Vario-roof- so balletic even the Russian judges give it 10 out of 10- the roof-down boot can only accommodate one serious case. Wealthy owners who like to shelter from life's rigours at country house hotels will not be well pleased.

The roof also detracts from the luxury experience by generating intrusive wind noise. Americans need not worry; the din begins at 87 miles per hour. But their transatlantic, transcontinental cousins will be forced to raise their voices significantly when communing with passengers at speed. Given the advanced years of many SL drivers, this is not likely to increase the sum of human happiness.

 I'm just quibbling right? For a car wearing the Mercedes star purporting to be the ultimate, er, something, I think not. If you put these objections to one side – and the SL has more than enough build quality to encourage you to do so – the car does a fine job of cocooning its occupants in 'Benz world'. That's the place where driving is no more demanding- or involving- than being transported to the planet surface by the Starship Enterprise. You get into the car, and then you get out. It's not the journey that counts; it's the calls you make on the way. (True sybarites will note that the personalised climate control system now extends to your butt.)

The SL has one more chance at filling a niche: cruising. In this genre, a car must be a convertible. It must also have brand credibility, effortless style, and endless, mindless ease. Drop-top Jags, Astons and Bentleys are far too pretentious and unreliable for the job. As good as it is, the Porsche Cabriolet is just too serious minded. The new SL has it all: a rock hard rep, movie star looks and Teutonic efficiency. It is the perfect cruiser. Expect every Monaco-residing Formula One driver to buy one, as well as the burghers of every major town in Europe, America, the Middle and Far East.

In fact, only production limitations will prevent Mercedes from shifting 100,000 SL500 cruisers this year. That, and sticker shock. At £68,500 for the base model, perfection still comes at a price.

By on December 20, 2001

 The snow falling from the leaden sky over Pffanhausen made me nervous. As did the fact that Natalie Campagna, Keeper of the Keys for RUF Automobile De, couldn't look me in the eye. And no wonder: Alois Ruf himself had just called to forbid the English journalist from driving the R-Turbo. On the face of it, it was an entirely sensible decision. Five hundred and twenty horsepower and drifting snow are not the ideal combination for a test drive- especially when the car in question belongs to a customer.

Plan B involved a ride in the passenger seat with a RUF technician at the helm, followed by a 'small spin behind the wheels.' As I helped push the immaculate R-Turbo out of the showroom, I hoped something had been lost in the translation. I took comfort in the fact that RUF's official press car- a yellow, rear-wheel-drive machine-was busy making sushi out of lesser cars in Japan. This silver car had four-wheel-drive and stability control. Oh, that's all right then… isn't it?

 In coupe form, the latest Carrera is easily Porsche's most elegant design. Ever. Despite the engineering complications involved, RUF's decision to shoehorn a turbo engine into a standard Carrera body is a stroke of minimalist genius. The narrow-bodied RUF car not only reduces drag, it also makes Porsche's wide-hipped machine look as tacky a diamond-encrusted Rolex. Of course, there are still a few subtle touches to alert the cognoscenti that something wicked this way cometh: quad exhausts, bespoke nose and tail, and triangular intakes carved into the car's haunches. But if you didn't know that the RUF R-Turbo is the world's fastest production car, you wouldn't.

And then Johann Kerler, RUF's Neuwagenchef, twists the key. If bystanders had any doubts that the visually restrained R-Turbo was anything other than monstrous, the car's huge raspy bark would provide an instant re-education. As would the idle, which sounds like nothing so much as the rumble of distant bombers. If you're not interested in how RUF achieves this result, look away now…

 Alois and his boys start with a stock 3.6 litre Porsche Turbo engine. They strip it down, replace the valve train, revise the camshafts, modify the VarioCam system and KKK turbochargers, install a by-pass valve exhaust system and re-map the Bosch engine management. They stuff the turbos, intercoolers and related plumbing into a svelte 996 body using Porsche GT3 engine mounts. The power plant is connected to the wheels with the GT2's hollow shaft transaxle, clutch and limited slip differential.

And there you have it: roughly 100 horses more than the official Porsche product, and various bits and pieces to make sure it doesn't break.

On the road, RUF's extreme engineering works seamlessly. Easing down [thankfully dry] sweeping bends, the R-Turbo maintains traditional Carrera virtues. It pulls cleanly from 1500rpms in any gear. The steering, suspension, 6-speed box and chassis work with perfect synergy. From the inside, the R-Turbo looks and feels like a car bought from an official Porsche dealer, sat nav and all. If you enjoy feeling welded to the tarmac, and don't mind commuting to work in GT3 racing seats, the R-Turbo is a thoroughly practical proposition.

Practical, but purposeful. Looking over at the RUF speedometer, I notice that the R-Turbo's gauge has only four increments: 50, 100, 150 and 200mph. Herr Kerler finds a bit of open road. He smiles knowingly, then demonstrates that dispatching the gaps between these numbers is simply a matter of flexing your right foot, waiting a few seconds and avoiding solid objects. The numbers are almost as impressive as the experience. Zero to sixty takes 3.6 seconds. Rest to 100 takes 7.9. Very few cars can create these G-force laden time distortions. None of them can do it with such ridiculous, sure-footed ease.

And then we hit the autobahn. Herr Kerler gingerly negotiates the absurd hairpin onramp, and we're away. Well away. Gone, gone, gone. A few laggards (driving at 100mph or so) impede our progress. Once they move over, it's top end time. As the speedo nudges 190 out of a potential 212mph, the air pressure wave pushes snowflakes out of our way. They fly over the roof, as if to underline the fact that when it comes to speed, nothing can touch this car.

Within minutes, we're 10 miles away. Kerler pulls off the autobahn for the changeover. My initial impressions are confirmed. The steering is direct, the suspension firm but compliant, and the engine tractable. When I give the go pedal a firm push, I'm astounded by the violence of the acceleration. Again. But what's even more impressive is that I'm not the slightest bit scared driving a car on a public highway at 175mph. And that's scary.

Back on the side roads, my confidence increases. With four-wheel-drive and PSM stability control to keep me out of trouble, I can tap into epic power anywhere, everywhere, anytime, all the time. When the revs crest 3500rpms, the turbos spin-up to add the word 'demented' to the pre-existing experience called 'ferocity'. Sure, the stock Porsche Turbo is quick, but the thrills are so linear you hardly notice. If the RUF car was a dance, it would be 'quick, quick, BLOODY HELL!' You get two cars in one: the basic thrust of the stock Turbo and the afterburner lunacy of RUF's conversion.

From a handling point of view, understeer or oversteer are a non-issue. Just point and go. Massive 19' wheels, Brembo brakes, four-piston callipers and a slightly modified Turbo suspension all do their part to keep you in control. At one point, pulling back onto the main road after a few photos, I manage to overcook it. The PSM stability control kicks in. The back end snaps back and forth like a freshly landed fish. In a fraction of a second, while I'm still in my lane, the car sorts itself out. For this, may The Gods of Liability Insurance make me truly grateful.

And this is where the purists scoff. They see RUF's four-wheel-drive R-Turbo as a logical (if maniacal) extension of Porsche's excessive quest for user friendliness. For them, the yellow car, the machine without a safety net, is the one to have. They're wrong. Provided you're not a professional race driver, 520 horses and a curb weight of 3,241 lbs. say you need all the help you can get. Back at base, a relieved Natalie reveals that the majority of R-Turbo buyers agree.

I can only imagine the full glory of the R-Turbo on a dry road. At £117k, the thrills wouldn't be cheap, but they would be safe. Well, more or less. In other words, you don't have to drive the four-wheel-drive R-Turbo in a snowstorm to know it's the fastest yet most accessible uber Porsche ever made. But if you want to, you can.

By on February 1, 2002

 The new Range Rover is Top Gear's magazine's Car of the Year. Car? I'm sorry, but my definition of a 'car' doesn't include vehicles taller than six feet that weigh nearly two and a half tons. The Range Rover is, according to US environmental and safety regulations, a truck. Truck by name, truck by nature. No amount of ABS, traction control and terrain sensing suspension can alter The Laws of Physics: mountainous mass X V8 acceleration + slippery surface = endless understeer oblivion. As Top Gear's own writer put it, the Range Rover's quest for soft-road world domination will ultimately end 'in a ditch'.

Don't get me wrong; I'm sure the new Range Rover is a damn fine truck. Isn't it? I've yet to pilot the beast, but the few British journos who weren't busy singing 'Land Rover of Hope and Glory' at the truck's launch noticed a few 'glitches'. One version's adjustable air suspension got stuck in mid-air- a problem not unknown to owners of the previous model. One or two reviewers also didn't fail to notice the Ranger's prodigious thirst (12mpg), sloth (0 – 62 in 9.2 seconds) and square-rigged susceptibility to side winds. But hey, what do you expect? It's a truck. A truck that still hasn't released its Euro NCAP crash worthiness rating.

Aside from semantics, build quality, global warming, performance, handling and safety, my biggest problem with Top Gear's selection is that I can't understand their criteria. The magazine avoided the thorny issue of how a Range Rover is superior to a Lamborghini Murcielago (aside from the obvious fact that you can say 'Range Rover' without sounding effeminate) by simply leaving out the bit that explains how they made their choice. Well, TG does say the Range Rover has more 'all round excellence' than the luggage aversive Lambo. OK guys, but what makes the Range Rover more of an all-rounder than a BMW Five Series? The fact that it can drive to places where the rescue service arrives in a Toyota Landcruiser? I don't think so.

It's probably more a case of wishful thinking. TG's post-Empire unconscious must instinctively yearn for an English car that's a world-beater, even if it is a truck. Someone should tell TG that even nostalgia ain't what it used to be. I once took out a small village in a barely controllable, formerly all-conquering Jaguar XK120 (which may have been the car's intention, but not mine). Anyway, like the Royal family oneself, the Range Rover is a murky collection of British and German genetics. Even overlooking its BMW engine, I wonder if TG would have given Ford's latest truck the gong if it had been built in Detroit. Like, say, the similarly inoffensive Cadillac Escalade. Again, methinks not.

TG's editors should take the time to define excellence before they publicly announce it. Otherwise, they open themselves up to charges of misguided patriotism-or worse. (I once saw a vicious pub fight that started over the relative handling merits of a Nova vs. a Saxo. A Black Maria won.) If excellence equals technological innovation, anoraks will remind you that the new Range Rover's monocoque construction and air suspension predate the Defender. If excellence means drop-dead style, only a Multipla owner could deny that Mercedes' new SL is a more elegant evolution of a familiar form. And if excellence means bang for the buck, Scooby Doo, Landie don't.

To be fair, TG did a lot better in the semis. They recognized the Civic Type-R as an engineering masterpiece that costs only slightly more than the VAT on a Ferrari 456. They admitted that the Subaru Impreza Turbo is still the best- if most insect-like- driver's car ever unleashed on English roads. The plastic fantastic Renault Avantine earned a justifiable nod as the boldest new mainstream, um, thing. And who can [be bothered to] argue with their choice of the Nissan Primera as the best 'medium car'? They're all sane, safe choices for Best in Class. Porsche owners may howl with high-octane indignation at TG's conclusion that an Audi TT is better than a 911, but it's hard to share their outrage. After all, they have a 911 with which to console themselves.

I wish TG's final choice had been a little less NHS, and a lot more Pop Idol. A 'chalk or cheese?' people's poll would have been a far more equitable way to select an overall winner from such disparate machines. Perhaps it's a bit much to ask for democracy from a magazine spawned by a TV program on a channel funded by a mandatory tax on people's TV sets. So let's do it ourselves, through that newfangled thing called the Internet! Simply press the comment button below and nominate your own Pistonheads Car of The Year. Don't forget to include your justification. I'll start by nominating the BMW M5. It's the best car in Britain because I bought one. So there.

By on February 13, 2002

 This of course isn't MG's first badge engineering exercise. Although the Montego and Maestro only linger in our memories as beige nightmares, the MG badge did adorn the more tasty variants including the rather mental Tickford Turbo Maestro. Check them out here: MG Links

The UK ads for the MG-ZT promise 'fire breathing, full bodied, red blooded' pleasures. In a country where driving fast is as socially acceptable as puffing a Cuban cigar in a children's hospital, MG's message is welcome news for petrolheads. Still, let's not get carried away; it's only advertising. Or is it? Does the MG-ZT actually live up to the hype? Or is it an empty marketing exercise, shamelessly exploiting one of motor sport's most distinguished marques?

 The entire concept is a bit worrying. The ZT is based on the Rover 75, BMW's ode to corporate hubris. No shade of eyeball assaulting paint can disguise the ZT's humble origins as a mid-market luxury barge built for the blue rinse and flat cap brigade. If ever a car was voted 'least likely to thrill anyone ever', the Rover 75 is it. And yet…

MG sent the demure 75 off to the School of Hard Looks for a first-class degree in Restrained Aggression. The graduate's mesh front grills and a lowered stance betray its high-speed aspirations without resorting to Japanese-style flared arches or razor-sharp wings. Subtle detailing and perfectly proportioned curves give the machine what MG [re]designer Peter Steven calls 'outside lane credibility'. Max Power Muppets have a better word for it: 'wicked'.

 Inside, it's dull city. The ZT's interior is the automotive equivalent of those grey waterproof jackets favoured by England's elderly- totally practical and instantly forgettable. Someone in Rover's Marketing Department must have decided English retirees find oval shapes irresistibly soothing. Every single control is oval-shaped: air vents, gauges, horn, heater controls, door pulls, side mirrors, turning stalks, window buttons, the lot. There's plenty of space for luggage, but not enough rear legroom for a four-year-old.

The few attempts to inject a measure of sporting intent- the 'technical finish' fascia, the sports seats' lurid blue bolsters, the red on white dials – are less convincing than a coffee can exhaust on a Nova. Still, the doors clunk with Aryan solidity. There are no paint or glue drips, or nasty unfinished edges. Nothing broke, fell off, failed or rusted during my occupancy. The [thankfully] octagonal MG badge hasn't adorned anything this well built since, um, ever.

The ZT's racy gear knob may not overcome the interior's drabness, but it's connected to a five-speed Getrag gearbox that slots home like a rifle bolt. The slick shifter hooks you up to a 2.5 liter, 24-valve, transverse-mounted, quad cam, six-cylinder engine. Maximum power is 189bhp @ 6500rpms. As the torque figures indicate-181 ft. lbs. @ 4000rpms- the urge is evenly spread throughout the rev range.

For the non-technical, that's barely enough grunt for a lightweight roadster. Lest we forget, the ZT is a four-door saloon. Fifteen hundred kilos is an awful lot of weight for a small capacity six to schlep around. As a result, when it comes to speed, the ZT is only slightly more than merely adequate.

The 0 – 60 sprint takes 7.8 seconds. That's excellent compared to the Rover 75's 8.4 seconds, but laughable for a car that's supposed to brand you a hooligan. Standstill to the ton requires 22 seconds – a scant two seconds faster than a 2.5 litre Ford Mondeo. Hit the autobahn, stick the ZT in fifth, plant your foot and… you'll eventually achieve a hardly-worth-the-risk 141mph. Strangely enough, the gearing is biased towards cruising. When you leave the motorway and give it large, you'll be lucky to get 20mpg.

In its defense, the somewhat leisurely MG-ZT feels faster than the numbers suggest. The power delivery is smooth and satisfying, right up to the red line. Okay, the engine note is about as raucous as a night out with a Rover driver, but you're never left waiting for something to happen. Extracting maximum power is as simple as 'stamp, go, change; stamp, go, change'. The ZT's steering also helps maintain the momentum, providing just the right amount of feel and feedback.

MG's engineers have made the now familiar pilgrimage to the Nurburgring to fettle the ZT's suspension for ride quality and control. It was worth the trip; the Z-axle (rear) and McPherson struts (front) keeps things flat and happy through the twisties yet provide adequate comfort for the long haul. The car's ventilated discs are equally well sorted; you can scrub off speed like burnt egg off Teflon. The 18' wheels generate significant tyre roar, but it's a minor price to pay for such astounding levels of poise, grip and control.

The MG-ZT's systems all work harmoniously. A performance-minded driver will find it easy to extract maximum pleasure from the ZT's surprisingly tame power plant. In short, the MG-ZT is a well-built, mechanically sophisticated car, but not the rabid TVR-wannabe its advertising suggests. Not to put too fine a point on it, the MG-ZT is the perfect four-door for British enthusiasts with £20k to spend- as long as they forget the words 'Subaru Impreza Turbo'.

By on February 17, 2002

 Would you buy a Land Rover sports car? What about a Porsche off-roader? Now think carefully. Sure, the Porsche Cayenne will be the worlds fastest and best handling 4X4. So what? The Sultans of Stuttgart will have answered a question no one asked: how do I get a truck to lap the Nurburgring faster than a Nissan Skyline GT-R? Here in the real world, the biggest question vexing MPV drivers is this: what time does Janie's football practice end? Considering the cataclysmic damage these lumbering behemoths inflict on lesser vehicles at a walking pace, the average MPV driver needs less speed, not more. Put Mum in a Porsche off-roader and it's only a matter of time before the entire soccer team is goading her to blow off the jerk in the Merc.

Safety aside (as always), the Cayenne will sell. Plenty of posh Porsche posers will love seeing their Cayenne and Carrera snuggling together in a darkened garage. I find the concept incestuous and redundant. Stick snow tires on a Carrera 4 and you've got a four-passenger car that makes normal sedans seem like Ice Capades rejects. The Cayenne adds elevation to the equation, but it also introduces mass. Drivers will be able to see into next week, but they'll constantly be out-handled by smaller, lighter machines. Still, as a capitalist cheerleader who once owned a TVR, I can hardly begrudge buyers a car they need like they need satellite-controlled headlights that swivel to follow the road. I'm more concerned about the Cayenne's effect on Porsche.

 The Cayenne is a sign that Porsche is making too much money: £5385 per car. This phenomenal, seemingly unstoppable success has given Porsche Hitlerian hubris. OK, we've done Europe. Let's invade Russia! OK, we've done sports cars. Let's take on GM, Ford, Chrysler, Land Rover, Mercedes, BMW, Toyota and Mitsubishi! The fact that Porsche can't make enough Boxsters and Carreras to satisfy demand seems to have escaped the notice of their Bored of Directors. Lest they forget, the upcoming, V10-powered GT will put the company toe-to-toe with Ferrari's F60. With the Cayenne, Porsche doesn't blink so much as sneeze. Is this really the same company that agonised for years about making a four-door 928? It's as if they decided to apply their motor sport heritage to designing brief cases. Oh wait, they have.

The process of applying brand values to increasingly disparate products is called brand extension. Like hair extensions, you think you're getting something better. You're not. Mercedes, once proud producer of bank vaults on wheels, slaps its star on downmarket tat. The next thing you know they're making cars so nasty they're called Chryslers. And BMW's product range may lead the casual observer to believe that a carmaker can do it all, but I doubt they've ever tried to corner a Z3 on a greasy roundabout. Mercedes, BMW and Porsche will all learn that extending a brand damages your roots. Sooner or later, they'll all have the economic equivalent of a bad hair day.

 A successful carmaker must have Focus. Just ask Ford. All their cars are sold on value for money. Maintaining this single-mindedness imposes natural limits on a brand's potential. Ford will never beat Bentley; value for money is not exactly the luxury car buyer's first concern. Similarly, you'll never see a fifty-acre field filled with pre-registered Bentleys. So what's the point of the Cayenne? It may add a zero Porsche's balance in the short term, but it's an evolutionary dead end. In the 4X4 market, Land Rover owns the high ground, where people still care whether a car can climb a tree (or at least looks as if it can). Ford and Chrysler own the low-road, where middle-class Moms have better things to spend their money on than an off-roader than can hurtle her brood down a highway at 155 miles per hour. The Cayenne will be smack bang in the middle, scrabbling for purchase in a tiny niche, forever fighting off Mercedes' ML and BMW X5.

Meanwhile, carmakers that focus all their efforts on creating machines that go like Hell will continue to thrive. As long as Peter Wheeler shovels massive grunt into lightweight bodies, there will be a TVR hovering around at the bottom of the J D Power survey. As long as Lotus makes cars that corner like roller coasters, TVR will have suitable company on that list. There will always be a hard core of wealthy enthusiasts who believe that driving "off-road" means one thing: they've lost control of their sports car. Every man-hour Porsche spends on the Cayenne—designing, marketing, servicing, etc.— is one man-hour less for maintaining and extending their dominance in the sports car market. In other words, the Cayenne is a waste of time.

At the end of the fiscal year, the best thing a world-class sports car maker like Porsche can make is… wait for it… sports cars! Porsche ignores common sense at its peril. Which reminds me; didn't Lamborghini once build a four-wheel drive thingy? Oh yes, now I remember: the LM02. It was an awesome beast, powered by a 420bhp V12. That was 1986, just before Lamborghini lost their independence. Again.

By on February 25, 2002

 The first time the lorry locked-up its wheels, I was entering the 'u' in 'Weston Super Mare' into the satellite navigation system. The second time, I was trying to switch the suspension from 'comfort' to 'sports' mode. The last time, I was splitting my attention between the 'Entertainment' screen and the road ahead. So I was free to watch the eighteen-wheeler's back end swing gracefully into the opposite lane- where it missed the front of an oncoming car by inches. God knows what would have happened if I'd been driving.

I probably would have survived. If you have to rear end an articulated lorry, you couldn't ask for a better car for the job than the new BMW 7-Series. As you'd expect, it's a bloody great vault, with enough deformable steel and high-speed airbags to protect its occupants from anything short of a SAM missile strike. But not from yourself. Thanks to its revolutionary iDrive controller and centrally mounted colour information screen, BMW's top-of-the-line motor encourages you to take your eyes off the road long enough to plough into a solid object.

 The iDrive controller's intended mission was to let 7-Series' owners adjust over 700 functions. How many? Quick! Name all the things you want a car to do: accelerate, brake, turn, play the radio, play a CD, raise and lower windows, maintain a comfortable temperature, lock the doors, um, tell you how to get somewhere, tell you when the next service is due, um, um, wipe the windows and turn on the lights. That's a dozen. Which leaves 688 things you never knew you needed to do while driving that you can now do in a Seven Series by twisting and pushing the iDrive controller.

How about assigning a function-air re-circulation, satellite navigation or automatic handbrake- to a steering wheel-mounted button? Or firming up the dampers and steering? Or finding the nearest curry house in Milton Keynes? Impressive stuff. Yet common sense suggests that anything that distracts a driver from monitoring the outside environment is a bad thing. A device that requires you to take one hand off the wheel while distracting you from the road ahead is positively Darwinian. BMW's previous 'comms pack' was dangerous enough: challenging you to enter 'Cwmavon' into the sat nav on the trot. The iDrive is in a different league: challenging you to check your tyre pressure in the middle of a skid.

 It seems unlikely that the Seven's target market- slightly older than middle-aged plutocrats- will be bothered about using iDrive. They're the kind of successful, techno-wary people who pay someone else to do their email. They'll just get in, curse themselves for forgetting to put their foot on the brake when pressing the start button, fiddle with the stalk mounted gearshift for a bit, curse themselves some more for not pressing the button that releases the parking brake and, finally, drive off. And that's it.

BMW knows this. They have so much faith in the iDrive system that you can operate all the car's major functions without touching the controller. Traditional rotary knobs regulate airflow and temperature. All the usual buttons operate the windows, seats, central locking, defrost, etc. If BMW believed that iDrive was the intuitive future of driver control, why did they equip the new Seven with two CD players? Maybe it's because the dash-mounted single CD can be operated manually, while the six-stack system requires iDrive.

I have no doubt that BMW will 'rectify' iDrive- if only because an army of shysters stands ready to enrich the relatives of Americans who iDrive themselves straight into a tree. BMW has already announced it will offer yet another way to control the techno feast that is the Seven Series: voice activation. Disenabling the screen when the car's in gear would have been the easier solution: iNotinDrive. A simplified 'heads-up' windscreen display would have been the better answer. But I guess BMW doesn't want to play second fiddle to a Chevrolet Corvette.

Like the customers who will eventually use it, iDrive will either adapt or die. As my review of the Seven will reveal, the actual car-the bit that all this trickery is designed to control-is a superb work of automotive engineering. By adding an uber gizmo, The Boys From Bavaria have revealed a bizarre lack of confidence in and focus on their core values. The company that builds 'The Ultimate Driving Machine' is the one company that should know an over-complicated and dangerous distraction when it sees one. The iDrive is not, as BMW claims, 'A New Way to Drive'. It is, in fact, a new way to die.

By on March 1, 2002

 As I lowered myself into the new BMW 7-Series' micro-perforated, climate-controlled, buttock massaging passenger seat, I noticed that my diminutive driver seemed a bit, well, lethargic. He had the half-lidded laid-back look of the seriously pampered. Not what you'd expect from a professional race driver about to hurl 1945kg's of somebody else's luxury car around a racetrack. One chicane later and I shared his complacency. The new 7-Series can be driven at maximum velocity with no more drama than an episode of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Which is to say none at all, then a bit, then not at all. Hell, you could phone it in.

Or perhaps not. That depends on whether or not you know how to remove the sim card from your mobile phone. To use the 7's on-board telephony, you have to extract your sim card, open the phone drawer, take out a tiny plastic holder, fit your sim card into the holder and insert the holder into a small slot. Then, and only then, you can you use BMW's detachable 'portable' phone, or the new iDrive controller, or wheel-mounted buttons, or a separate (and miniscule) keypad, to phone a friend. I don't think the police would call the process 'hands free'.

 Never mind the safety implications. Is this something you'd want to do every time you get into your £56k+ luxury car? In the world of expensive cars, the word 'luxury' is synonymous with 'ease'. The best examples are so effortless that drivers arrive at their destination with no more memory of the journey than a drugged lion transported across the Serengeti. As the phone-a-thon reveals, there's nothing easy about the new 7-Series. Just to start the thing, you have to insert the key, keep your foot on the brake, hit a poorly positioned starter button and jiggle a small, stalk-mounted transmission controller. Oh yes, don't forget to switch off the parking brake with the dashboard button.

Which raises an interesting question: what's wrong with a standard auto box? Nothing. BMW needed the space for their wacky iDrive knob/dial/thingy. Close observation of some brand-loyal plutocrats confirms my suspicions: they treated the iDrive with more disdain than a Vauxhall driver and used the 'backup' manual controls.

Well, if the target market can ignore iDrive, so can we. Let's get back to the big Bimmer's underlying strengths: speed, handling and charisma.

Concentrate on such mundane matters as driving, you'll be well pleased. BMW's power brokers have been generous. The new 7 features an all-new alloy engine with adjustable intakes and exhaust camshafts, fully adjustable intake valve lift, continuously variable induction, six speed electronic gearbox, and the rest. Translation: it's one seriously swift motor. The entry-level 735i wafts to 60 in under 7.5 seconds. The new 745i makes the same trip in 6.7 seconds. That's faster than the old five litre 12-cylinder car. The significantly increased shove is accompanied by improved MPG, and handling that verges on the miraculous.

As my track stint proved, the new 7 corners with mind-numbing ease. A raft of driver's acronyms- I'm sorry- 'aids' obliterates the big car's bulk. The DTC (Dynamic Traction Control) offers three settings: Nanny, Supportive Friend and You're On Your Own Mate. Choose the middle setting from the steering wheel, use the iDrive to switch the adjustable EDC (Electronic Damper Control) from 'Comfort' to 'Sport' (not forgetting to buy that particular option), and the beast is more agile than Fantasia's dancing hippos. And if you have to stop, by God you will. Provided you don't intentionally aim at anything solid, rapid progress is assured.

No wonder BMW touts the new 7 as the ultimate 'Ultimate Driving Machine'. Sure, but how many 7 owners do any Ultimate Driving? They're more likely to be found sedately motoring in The Bermuda Shorts Triangle (home, office and golf club). For that role, the new 7 is perfectly suited. It's a refined cruiser with all the space, comfort and refrigerated glove boxes you'll ever need (one). And it looks the business: as sharply tailored as an Armani suit. The shape says you've arrived- and it didn't take you long to get there.

If you look beneath the new 7's technological over-kill, you'll find a car-a BIG car- with an immense range of talents. It can thrash, cruise and pose with equal aplomb. Which makes BMW's biggest car an automotive oxymoron: the least user-friendly luxury car ever made. But that doesn't stop it from being the best.

By on March 2, 2002

 David Icke believes that blood-drinking lizards from the fourth dimension secretly rule the world. Owners of the Subaru Impreza Turbo believe their car is attractive. Uh sorry, but no on both counts. Still, there's no arguing with some people. Once they get an idea about their car's physical appeal stuck in their head, even a steroid-crazed Marine drill sergeant couldn't brainwash it out. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but some beholders are as mad as the government's nominal transport policy.

Why else would anyone buy a Fiat Multipla? Search the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and you'll find a picture of a Multipla owner under the heading "automotive dysmorphia". As in someone who can't see that the Multipla is so ugly that if it was a dog, you should shave its ass and make it walk backwards. Except that the only thing uglier than the front end of a Fiat Multipla is the rear. So, if the Multipla was a dog, I reckon you should just go ahead and shoot it.

 The Multipla is only the latest in an ignoble tradition of ugly cars. Henry Ford's Model T was no catwalk babe. Anyone heard of the 1935 Tempo? For the sake of your breakfast, I hope not. What about all those post-war, three-wheeled "bubble cars"? They look like nothing more than insects in need of a good smack with a rolled-up newspaper. And anyone who is nostalgic for the 70's should consider the hideous Nissan 300 ZX and the monumentally bizarre Aston Martin Bulldog. Both cars are so angular that their toy versions make ideal (and strangely satisfying) doorstops.

Evolving technology is responsible for a lot of today's automotive eye pollution. Headlights used to be big and round, to throw huge light beams down the road. Gas discharge lamps now do an infinitely better job with an aperture no bigger than an Escort exhaust pipe. But just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. Check out the front end of the new Volkswagen Microbus. Two sets of tiny bi-xenon headlights have transformed the friendliest face in motoring history into an empty robotic grimace. Alfa Romeo's designers also exploited the modern lighting technology when they drilled four small holes in their Spider's bonnet and called it good. I call it the "ecstasy look": the world's first car with drug-dilated eyes.

New technology— in the form of advanced aerodynamics— has created a whole new genre of ugly: blandmobiles. Pop any car into a wind tunnel and shave off the bits that stop the wind from slipping past the metal. No matter what you shape start with, you'll eventually end up with the same thing. Download the Porsche screensaver (, and you'll see the classic 911 shape slowly evolve into a suppository. It's no surprise that today's Carrera shares a virtually identical front end with the Honda NSX and Ferrari 360. Ask the same question—how do we get this damn thing to go faster? — and you get the same answer: make it look like a bullet. Bullets are fast, but they're better at piercing hearts than capturing them.

This aero-blandification has all but destroyed the venerable design tradition known as the English "flying brick". The best examples of this style, the agricultural Land Rover and the aristocratic Rolls Royce, have both surrendered their distinctive battering ram front ends for something altogether more slippery— and about as exciting as dry white toast. Only the Welsh or the culturally ignorant would deny that this ongoing process of "modernisation" has robbed the cars of valuable "British-ness". Unfortunately, the trend is just as pervasive in the mainstream. The MondeoC5LagunaS60KiaA4 look is a direct result of engineers messing about with giant hair-dryers. While the finished product is undeniably fuel efficient, it's the automotive equivalent of elevator music.

Luckily, manufacturers occasionally manage to answer the demands of engineering whilst delighting aesthetic sensibilities. I'm sure that the TVR Griffith will someday be displayed in London's Design Museum. OK, so a Griffith's answer to the "demands of engineering" is "huh?" But the fact that TVR or Aston Martin or Lotus sells any cars at all shows that good design is ultimately more important than silly little things like reliability and economy. Perhaps other carmakers will learn this lesson, and refuse to sacrifice visual thrills on the altar of new technology. Meanwhile, we have to put up with some very odd, terrifically ugly cars. I mean, has anyone else noticed that "new" cars like the Mondeo and Previa look increasingly reptilian? Maybe David Icke wasn't so wrong after all… But I still ain't buying an Impreza.

By on March 3, 2002

 Cocaine is God's way of saying you're making too much money. "Niche" cars serve the same divine purpose for automobile manufacturers. Porsche's foray into the SUV market is only the most topical example. Volkswagen, renowned makers of the "people's car", are preparing to pit their £60k Phaeton against Mercedes' S-Class. On the other end of the scale, once exclusive BMW will soon offer runabouts to badge-aspiring plebs (1 Series). Audi is messing about with bullshit, I mean, Lamborghini. And Ford is still fiddling with Wilton-clad off-roaders (Range Rover).

You know things are getting out of control when The Big Boys start dabbling in the manufacturing equivalent of freebasing: reviving an old marque. Bringing back the old sub-brands may look like a noble attempt to recapture lost heritage, but it's actually a reflection of boardroom boredom, designed to give bored boffins and their marketing chums a challenge. Bugatti: can a passenger car have as much horsepower as a Spitfire? MG: can a staid Rover sedan be tuned to Fast and the Furious standards? MINI: how do you get new money for old engines, Brazilian style?

As the [Not So] SMART [Mr. Bond] demonstrates, Mercedes has been snorting niche for a while now. A visit to any major motor show confirms that Mercedes is on a real bender, making more and varied examples of cars that no one asked for, and even fewer understand. How about the world's fastest crossover thingy, blending estate, sedan and MPV? Or a SUV with 450bhp? Oh wait, that's the Cayenne. You might have thought that merging with Chrysler— a company with more debt than a Latin American dictatorship— would have curbed Mercedes' appetite for bizarre brand experiments. But no, they've gone and built the Maybach.

Given the Maybach's stupendous length (5.77 metres long), it's surprising MB didn't launch the limo in a dry dock, smashing its snout with a Magnum of Moet. In these post 911 times, the idea of creating a gi-normous luxury barge for Gulfstream plutocrats indicates nothing less than impending niche overdose. How many of the world's movers and shakers are stupid enough to be driven around in a machine that instantly identifies its occupants as suitable candidates for kidnapping or assassination? The Maybach is a dubiously profitable car that's no less an example of wretched excess than a stretch Lincoln Town Car with a Jacuzzi full of strippers.

When manufacturers indulge in such obvious niche busting, it's usually explained away as "image building". In that sense, Mercedes' SLR makes some kind of sense. It's an SL on steroids, a recognizable extension of an existing Mercedes theme. But the Maybach? There's only one connection with Mercedes' corporate identity, and it ain't pretty: Nazi staff cars. Like the Maybach, they were enormous chariots built to flatter egomaniacal owners, impress gullible underlings, and intimidate everyone. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Maybach is the wrong car at the wrong time, for the wrong people. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that Mercedes built it simply because the head of the world's largest car company wanted one.

As Melanie sang just before the Poseidon went belly up, there's got to be a morning after. I have no doubt manufacturers will return to their core values, once a few of their bold experiments in off-message engineering end up languishing on the showroom floor. On the upside, their niche-busting hangover will soon be your performance or luxury bargain. Have you seen the prices for a used BMW Z8 lately? Exactly. How fast do you reckon a £250,000 (base price) Maybach will depreciate? So sit back, enjoy the show and get ready to exploit corporate niche abuse. Me, I'm keeping my eye on that mid-engined VW W12. Vee-Dub rocks!

By on March 10, 2002

 Driving a go-kart is something of an acquired taste. You sit on a dinner tray, a few inches off the ground. You get a steering wheel, an engine, four tiny tyres, rudimentary suspension and . . . that’s it. At speed, the forces of acceleration, de-acceleration and lateral G’s are unfiltered, and vicious. Nannies have been jailed for shaking babies less violently. But if you love to drive, a go-kart unleashes a flood of adrenalin-crazed endorphins that makes it hurt so good. After haring around in a go-kart, driving a ‘normal’ car feels like, um, nothing.

I’m sorry, did I say go-kart? I meant to say ‘Lotus Elise.’ Read the above paragraph again, substituting the word ‘Elise’ for ‘go-kart.’ The differences between the two are both obvious and unimportant: size, doors, roof, gearbox and top end. The similarities are startling. Ride height low enough to scare a limbo dancer. A tiny engine with a narrow but brutally effective power band. Steering and suspension so direct you wonder where the machine ends and your nervous system begins. Put it all together and you’ve got a road car that you can drive like a go-kart, using your entire body to aim the machine with zero-delay, laser-guided precision.

 Cornering is its forte. One sharp corner in an Elise and you’re hooked. A serious speed merchant can exploit the Elise’s sublime, sweet-handling chassis and slide the car around a bend with one finger. Mere mortals can enjoy the car’s talents just as much by keeping everything smooth and steady. Fast in, fast out. Shake it all about. Get into a rhythm down your favourite road, and you’ll believe a man can fly. If you enjoy driving fast for the sheer bloody hell of it, the Elise is just about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.

There are only a few mechanical shortcomings that interfere with your pleasure. The engine note lacks charisma. A car this sensual deserves some kind of signature howl, to remind drivers and their audience that Major Fun is in the house. The brakes need more bite and feel; they’re effective rather than impressive. And the suspension crashes over potholes with so much force I checked the rear mirror for missing pieces. All that is nothing compared to the Elise’s feedback, poise and death grip on the tarmac. Even an MPV-driving school-run-Mommy could extract maximum pleasure from every one of the Elise’s 120 horses.

 Wait! Don’t laugh. I know that’s less horsepower than an entry level Honda Accord. But the fibreglass Elise is a featherweight: only 750 kgs. Provided you don’t have a large lunch, the Lotus’ superb power-to-weight ratio means you can mix it with the big boys. The sprint from zero to sixty takes 5.8 seconds—less than half a second behind a Porsche Carrera. Besides, when your butt’s two feet off the ground, anything more than a walking pace feels fast. Sixty feels like 100. One hundred feels like . . . you’d be lucky, mate. The Elise tops out at 118. And very nice it is too.

Anyway, you get the point: the Lotus Elise is the finest road-legal driver’s car ever made. Now let’s look at the practical side . . .

 There isn’t any. The Elise is a sports car from The Old School; the one with drafty classrooms, rock hard chairs and no AV equipment. In the relentless pursuit of weight reduction (and profit margins), Lotus has equipped the Elise with bugger all. There’s a decent heater . . . and that’s it. The radio is a small, fiddly thing that can’t compete with the engine at full chat or the wind at cruising speed. Carpets? Central locking? No chance. Boot space? What kind of handbag does the lady carry? Fuel or temperature gauges? We don’t need no stinking gauges! Where other manufacturers woo buyers with creature comforts and hi-tech toys, Lotus offers you a Zen rock garden and dares you to complain.

Purists wouldn’t. Why would they? But there’s no getting around the fact that the Elise is too damn small. In fact, unless you’re supple, there’s simply no getting into the Elise. Period. I’m serious. Anyone who can’t do the Yoga position known as ‘the bow’ should not attempt to post themselves into the four foot slot between the Elise’s roof and doorsill without their chiropractor’s number teed-up for speed dial. Middle-aged extraction is equally perilous and inelegant. You don’t sit in the thing as much as wear it.

There’s only one solution: put the roof in the boot and stand on the seats. Much has been written about the difficulty of convincing the Elise to go topless, and all of it’s wrong. Once you slip the canvas tabs off the end of the flying buttresses, removing the canvas and rubber and metal and mesh thingy is easy. Replacing it is the bitch. A teenager losing his virginity would have an easier time figuring out which bit goes where, and what you’re supposed to to do with it when its in place. But even that (the Elise’s roof) gets easier after a little practice—and a phone call or two to Lotus’ PR department.

By far greatest sacrifice demanded by the Elise’s design is the driver’s proximity to the pavement. It’s like sitting in the second row in a cinema. If there’s a car in front of you, there’s a LOT of car in front of you. A proper truck appears no less epic than Moby Dick. Combined with a cramped cabin, it’s enough to make you feel like a five-year-old. Die-hard drivers who suffer from even mild claustrophobia will not be well pleased.

The rest will. The Elise is a genuine classic that does both Lotus and its discerning (if rabid) owners proud. The car’s ergonomic limitations mean the Elise is really only viable daily transport for slim-line twenty or thirty somethings in a hurry. The rest of us can and should view the Elise as a weekend or track day toy. As such, it’s the best car money can buy. Despite the obvious styling cues—a pastiche of every supercar cliché ever made—the Lotus Elise is not a miniature Ferrari. Oh, no. It’s a lot better than that.

By on March 10, 2002

 On one hand, we have the Lotus Elise. It goes like stink, stops on a 5p piece, corners like a roller coaster, sits lower than your shins, rides harder than a tea tray surfing down a mountain of medium-sized rocks, and is harder to get into than a Latin textbook. It's the automotive equivalent of tequila slammers. On the other hand, we have the Lexus SC400. J D Power's poster child is more car-coon than car— cosseting its occupants in so much luxury that discussing "handling" and "braking" seems churlish. It's a vodka martini, stirred, not shaken.

So, is that our lot? Must we choose between performance cars that punish us for our passion, and luxury cars where passion mandates indecent exposure?

Hopefully not. Hopefully, evolving technology (epitomised by the switchable sports mode) will provide a world without compromise, where all my people may arrive refreshed and relaxed after screaming around the Welsh borders. Meanwhile, luxury car makers are getting better and better at making their cars handle, while sports car makers continue to violate the Geneva Convention.

Take TVR. The Blackpool Bodgers make a car with so much personality it should have its own chat show. Yet the creature comforts are so appalling that Catholics consider driving one in London traffic adequate penance for anything up to and including raping a nun. Thanks to a clutch almost as heavy as the engine itself, TVR drivers are easily identified by the fact that their left thigh is twice as big as their right.

TVR is not alone in torturing you for buying their car. Ferrari, Maserati, Lotus, Morgan, Noble, Lotus— they're all ergonomic disasters. In a "who can clear a fogged windscreen faster" contest, continental drift wins. In a "which one would you like to drive for 700 miles" contest, National Express wins. I know: "real" drivers embrace their sports car's "quirks". Which is like saying that "real" MP's love being whipped. Which, of course, they do. Yes, well, anyway, inadequate driver comfort is more than an enjoyable exercise in motoring masochism. It actually makes sports cars slower.

We all know this much: to make a fast car you need a great engine, superb brakes and fantastic chassis. But to actually drive the thing quickly you also need…

Visibility. In most real world situations, a BMW X5 is faster than a Ferrari 360M. In Beemer's behemoth, the visibility is so good you can almost see your destination. You can certainly see far enough to determine how fast you can go to get there. In a low-slung Ferrari, on a wet day, you might as well study Zen and wear a blindfold. If people had as many blind spots as the average supercar, they wouldn't be allowed to leave the house unaccompanied. Sports car drivers who cannot see the road are condemned to leave it.

Ventilation. Even Paul Ripley might agree that fresh air is a high priority when operating a motor vehicle at high speeds. I'm not saying that most high performance cars have less ventilation than a vacuum-sealed jar of coffee, but I have heard that NASA use a Noble M12 to study the effects of oxygen deprivation on hand-eye coordination. If a Mercedes can get cold enough to hang meat in the time it takes to find the handbrake release, why are so many sports cars still stagnant saunas?

Seats. Michael Schumacher may have won his last four Grand Prix after having his spine removed, but I doubt it. It's more likely that Mikka's Merc comes with a titanium version of the S Class Butt Massager. Serious miles require serious seating. Most sports cars still use knobs, bars, latches and largely immovable steering columns to place the prospect of a comfortable sitting position forever out of reach.

Good acoustics. Everyone knows you can drive more quickly, more safely, listening to your favourite music. Everyone except the Ferrari salesman who answered my complaint about the pathetic radio in his £100,000 car by saying "Ferrari drivers listen to the music of the engine." Sure, but when you're through thrashing, you want your sports car to shut up for a bit. Like fellatio, you can only take so much aural excitement.

And there you have it, my recipe for the perfect sports car: combine the raw ingredients from the world of performance with the creature comforts from our luxury cousins. Obviously, it's a constant struggle to cook up the right combination. Porsche makes the Carrera faster, safer and more civilised, and its core market accuses it of going soft. BMW makes a luxury barge handle, and its core market buys it and enjoys it. The point is this: you CAN have the best of both worlds— just as soon as they make a Fercedes or a Murrari. Roll on the Mercedes SLR!

By on March 20, 2002

 Someone at BMW decided to put ABS braking on a motorcycle. How better to showcase the capabilities of the then new Automatic Braking System? Luckily, The Boys From Bavaria had just the bike for the job: the K100, or, as it was fondly called by the biking fraternity, 'the flying brick'. One of my mates got one. At a meet, he delighted all assembled by doing full-lock stops on gravel. Wow! Later, after the machine was serviced, he discovered that the ABS hadn't been working.

Don't read that the wrong way. My friend's "all-hands-on-deck" gravel stops were a testimony to his riding ability, rather than the stupidity of ABS. It shows what a rider with real skill can do with a road machine— no matter how basic the technology. UK Petrolheads may diss their American cousins for the foul-handling beasts they call muscle cars, but there is a real skill in driving one of these ancient behemoths over 30 miles per hour. Or around a corner. It ain't pretty, but it IS impressive. In fact, many drivers actually prefer this untainted "man vs. machine" driving experience. Which brings us to the question of the day: how much electronic help does a 'true' enthusiast need?

As you're no doubt aware, no road review of a modern car would be complete without the tester switching off the drivers' aid(s) and seeing what happens at the limit. Casual references to 'a whiff of opposite lock bringing things under control' lead performance-oriented readers to think it's more than OK to switch off the car's central nervous system. It's a badge of honour! REAL men don't need DSC, PSM or ESP! When I drive down the Welsh roads favoured by UK car reviewers, I half expect to encounter a road sign showing the letters ABS in a red circle with a line crossed through it.

This is dangerous machismo. Today's driver's aids are an absolute godsend for the non-professional. They should never be switched off outside of a racetrack. Granted, early versions were passion killers. The previous shape 500 SL was one of the first cars equipped with Mercedes' ESP (Electronic Stability Program). It reacted to a potential spin by completely shutting down the engine room—at the precise moment when you needed more power. Modern driving aids are far less intrusive. The best do nothing more than stop you from killing yourself. So you can do what you love best: push hard. I challenge any amateur to drive a BMW M5 at speed without its Bavarian brain bailing them out of serious trouble.

Of course, there are limits to how much 'assistance' any driver needs, or wants. FIFA's Max Mosley's fascist fantasy of satellite controlled speed limiters is the logical endpoint of one line of thinking. His vision of the Electronic Nanny State would be about as welcome an intrusion into a car as the man himself. But there's still a lot of debate about the utility of more subtle systems. EBA (Emergency Brakes Assist) decides whether you want to stop, REALLY stop or OH MY GOD WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE! Stop. The computer applies additional braking as and when it thinks you're not putting in enough effort into the job. Understandably, the idea rankles sporting drivers. Then saves their life.

As new ways are invented to get your sports car to do what you want it to do, despite the fact that your desire violates the laws of physics, manufacturers struggle to decide exactly when and how 'emergency' assistance is deployed. It is true that an enthusiast wants to drive on the edge the envelope, while the average punter doesn't know how to send a postcard. That's why Ferrari's system is a lot more tolerant than anything Ford's legal department would allow. Porsche Stability Management is also notable by its absence. Someday soon, fuzzy logic systems will assess your driving ability and road conditions to establish if, when and how you should be helped (and no Max, they shouldn't be programmed to call the police). Meanwhile, we have the on/off switch.

I'm a Darwinian. If people are stupid enough to kill themselves, I'm all for it. So I can't very well argue that such switches should be removed, even though I firmly believe that disenabling them on a public road makes you an automotive kamikaze. But in the interests of maintaining a viable pool of performance car buyers, and second-hand sports cars, I suggest Porsche et al should link their PSM/DSC/ESP buttons to a telephone. The car could call your insurance company when you send the nanny packing. "Do you REALLY want to do that sir?" they'd ask, adjusting your premium accordingly. Err, maybe not. Perhaps the future lies in more variable driver's aids like BMW's new 7-Series, which allows three levels of electronic assistance. Well, it works for dildos doesn't it?

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