Reviews

2017 Volvo V90 D5

Quick Review | Volvo V90 D5 PowerPulse AWD R-Design

Yes, it’s a huge diesel estate on EngageSportMode. It’s also one of the best cars we’ve driven this year, and we’re not ashamed to admit it.

2017 Volvo V90 D5

When we recently wrote about Volvo’s new electrification strategy, we mentioned how we’d been somewhat seduced by an experience with their product range. This particular V90 is the one which lured us in, and we’re still pining for it now to be honest.

2017 Volvo V90 D5

But why? Well, the way it looks for a start. For a giant station wagon, the V90 is a genuinely beautiful thing. Volvo’s new corporate style certainly helps, with distinctive grille and headlights much of the appeal. R-Design specification adds a different front-end, with a unique bumper featuring integrated fog lights but, to be honest, the V90 actually works best in standard trim. The pointed estate rear is far more successful than the truncated S90 saloon, and also creates a distinctive side profile.

2017 Volvo V90 D5

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Quick Review | MINI John Cooper Works Challenge

Can a MINI priced at £32,000 ever really be worthwhile? Well, yeah actually, based on our brief experience at the 2017 SMMT Test Day.

2017 MINI John Cooper Works Challenge

On the face of it paying the same amount as a Volkswagen Golf R, or a Ford Focus RS, for any MINI may seem hopelessly decadent, or even foolish. But stick with us on this, because the John Cooper Works (JCW) Challenge manages to back up the big price tag.

We were a little undecided on the regular JCW hatch when we drove it at the 2015 SMMT Test Day, with the automatic gearbox fitted to that particular car seeming intent on spoiling the fun. Thankfully a six-speed manual is the only option for the JCW Challenge – phew – and it fits perfectly with the hardcore ethos the car is meant to embody, being based on the Challenge race car.

2017 MINI John Cooper Works Challenge

This is, essentially, a parts bin special with a host of bolt-on goodies from aftermarket performance suppliers. Were this the early 2000s, the ‘shopping list’ decals on the doors would be very long indeed. Brembo supplies the four-pot brake calipers, whilst Mintex provides the pads. Michelin is responsible for the grippy Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, which wrap around lightweight 17” Team Dynamics alloy wheels. Finally, the two most important items are the adjustable coilover suspension from Nitron, and the Quaife limited-slip differential.

2017 MINI John Cooper Works Challenge

The latter two have a substantial impact on how the JCW Challenge drives. The Quaife automatic torque biasing diff is seriously aggressive, but allows the JCW’s 228hp and 236lb-ft to be transferred to the road with zero fuss. Add in the almost instantaneous turn-in response from the steering, to a rock-hard suspension setup, and the feeling really is like driving a giant go-kart. (more…)

Short Review | 2016 BMW M240i Convertible

The M235i might be gone, but the replacement has even more performance. We took a short, topless, drive, to see if the M240i stacks up as a cut-price M2 alternative.2016 BMW M240i Convertible

Full disclosure. The M240i does not have a 4.0-litre engine. BMW nomenclature has paid little attention to engine capacity for years, so don’t be fooled. No, under the bonnet is a 3.0-litre straight-six TwinPower turbo engine, that has gained more horsepower and torque. Peak power has increased to 335hp – a rise of 14hp – whilst twist is up to 369lb-ft. That last figure is significant for two reasons: it’s the same torque as found in the E39 M5 but, more importantly, it’s the exact same amount as the M2 Coupé.

2016 BMW M240i Convertible

Performance is improved over the M235i, with 0-62mph taking just 4.7 seconds in the M240i when fitted with the optional eight-speed Sport Automatic gearbox. The six-speed manual car needs 4.9 seconds to do the same sprint, with both topping out at an electronically limited 155mph top speed. We didn’t experience the three pedal car, so can’t comment on how it compares, but the automatic ‘box is supremely efficient and effective at banging through the ratios. Eight gears are probably overkill, especially with so much torque on offer, but they contribute to respectable sounding CO2 and mpg figures.2016 BMW M240i Convertible

The automatic transmission also suits the slightly more laid-back, cruiser, image of the Convertible version. (more…)

Twin Test Review | VW Polo GTI vs SEAT Ibiza Cupra Black

On paper these two VAG family cousins share many similarities but, peel back the surface, and you’ll discover that things aren’t quite so homogenous. Which Spanish-built supermini wins out though?

SEAT Ibiza Cupra vs VW Polo GTI

If you’ve read our review of the SEAT Ibiza Cupra you’ll know there is a lot to like about this condensed hot hatch. However, sharing a powertrain and platform with the Polo GTI, through Volkswagen’s tried and tested badge-engineering, opens up obvious comparisons. We’ve broken our review down into several key areas, and found that things aren’t quite as predictable as you might imagine. Let’s get down to it:

Styling

This is evidently a subjective area, and neither Cupra nor GTI could be considered unattractive designs. Whether you prefer the basic Polo or Ibiza shape is personal taste, so we concentrated on the actual effort made to transform regular supermini into a hot hatch.SEAT Ibiza Cupra vs VW Polo GTISo what sets the GTI apart is the fact it looks more bespoke compared to the rest of the Polo range. From the red trim running across the grille into the headlights, to the honeycomb mesh and the GTI branding, it feels more special. Yes, it might be a scaled-down pastiche of the Golf GTI, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

On the other hand, the Ibiza Cupra struggles to separate itself from the hundreds of FR-badged imitators. Where it does differ is often through fussy styling, like the trapezoidal centre-exit exhaust or fake vents in the rear bumper. It’s still a good-looking car, but doesn’t quite do enough to make things feel distinctive. (more…)

2016 SEAT Ibiza Cupra 1.8 TSI | Review

With the current SEAT Ibiza nearing the end of a lengthy lifecycle, the Cupra has been hotted-up for one final fling. Is this Ibiza still up for all-night rave, or is it now more last tango in Benidorm?2016 SEAT Ibiza Cupra BlackYou remember 2008, right? A time when George W. Bush was still President of the United States, ‘Rockstar’ by Nickelback was inescapable, and the world was facing a humongous financial catastrophe. Ring any bells? At the same time as all that, SEAT was unleashing the fourth-generation Ibiza on the public. Cutting to the chase, this Ibiza has been around the block a few times.

After eight years, the fourth-gen Ibiza looks remarkably similar to the original Luc Donckerwolke design, despite having had two facelifts. It’s still an attractive car and, with the evolution of hot hatch styling in that time, manages to actually be relatively subtle compared to its rivals. Aside from the extra cut outs below the front grille, and the bespoke rear bumper and diffuser, you’d be hard-pressed to tell it apart from a cooking FR model.2016-seat-ibiza-cupra-black-review-004This particular test car was ‘Cupra Black’ spec, which means it gains black alloy wheels along with red brake calipers. There’s also additional interior equipment differences, but we’ll cover that later. Unless you have a serious dislike of gloss black alloy wheels, it’s most probably £800 well spent to upgrade.

The biggest alteration to this latest Ibiza Cupra is beneath the bonnet. Gone is the weird twincharged 1.4-litre petrol engine – which suffered a reputation for guzzling engine oil – that could only be had with a DSG dual-clutch gearbox. In comes a 1.8-litre turbocharged petrol engine from the EA888 VAG family. It has already seen service in the current Polo GTI and, as ESM’s Editor can attest, isn’t shy when it comes to twist.2016 SEAT Ibiza Cupra BlackWith 189hp and 236lb-ft of torque, the Cupra gains 12hp and 52lb-ft over the old 1.4 unit. As a result of the extra power, 0-62mph drops by 0.2 of a second to 6.7 seconds, whilst the top speed increases to 146mph. In case you’re wondering, both performance figures are identical to the Polo GTI, and are also ahead of the ubiquitous Ford Fiesta ST. So rest assured – you’ll have the bragging rights in a Halfords car park. (more…)

Tame Geek – 2016 Tesla Model S 90D Review

He’s been on the hunt for a while, but our good friend the Tame Geek has finally managed to track down a Tesla. Here’s his review which was first posted over on the Tame Geek ‘site.2016 Tesla Model S 90DA little of background if you don’t know why this car is important. In 2008 during the global financial apocalypse, it was more than the banks that took a hit – the American car industry was decimated too. During this time a chap called Elon Musk assumed control of a company he had invested in called Tesla. As CEO and product architect, he has been the most outspoken car company boss in recent memory. The thing is; he keeps his word. The product roadmap for Tesla brought the Roadster, the Model S, the recently launched Model X, and next years Model 3 to market and has spurred (scared) other manufacturers in to rushing forward with their electrification plans.

So with that background, you can see that this car is not only important in general, it’s important to me. I’ve been waiting to get behind the wheel of one of these for what feels like forever.

What is it?
The car as tested here is a Tesla Model S 90D. With Tesla we have new kinds of ‘engine’ designations to learn, so with this one, we have a car with dual-electric motors, hence the ‘D’. The 90 stands for the kWh (kilowatt-hours) of the battery. This number relates not just to power, but to range as well. So our Tesla is an all-wheel drive car, with a reported range of 346 miles per charge, and a 0-60 mph time of 4.2 seconds, with a sticker price of £81, 450 (excluding government incentives. Starting price of a Model S is £57,750 excluding incentives). Oh yeah and an equivalent 417bhp and 485ft-lb of torque, and a top speed of 155mph.2016 Tesla Model S 90D

What is it like as a car?
Like someone doing a really good impression of a celebrity. The Model S has borrowed some design cues from its Audi, Mazda and Jaguar competitors, which give it a distinctly European look and that is quite refreshing for an American car. At the crux of it, the Model S doesn’t feel like an American or a European car. It feels like a truly ‘World car’. A machine that would fit in anywhere and removes the bias of borders.
One of the nicest things about the Model S is the fact that some of the design details that are present are the kind of things you only see on concept cars and never in real production models. One of my weaknesses, frameless doors, are present, as are the door handles that slide in to the bodywork when the car is locked, or in motion. On the inside, we have a centre console area that would be filled with buttons in most cars but in the Model S is filled with high-definition display.
Said display is again filled with the kind of things the manufacturers have spent years talking about but never following though on to a great level.2016 Tesla Model S 90DFor instance, other cars have modems built-in, but the Model S uses it’s for access to Google Maps rather than a proprietary sat-nav and music streaming from a premium Spotify account (courtesy of Tesla). I thought that the big screen would have been more distracting, and a bit less useable than it was, but after many software updates it seems to be really quite practical. The design could use a little less skeuomorphism to be fair, but hell – this is one of the first cars in the world to have an upgradeable dash. (more…)

In-depth Launch Review – Updated 2016 Audi A3

As one of the key models in the Audi range, getting the refreshed A3 right is an important job. We drove all four body types, and various engines, to see if the A3 still has what it takes in a competitive market.2016 Audi A3 UK Launch

Backstory
In the same year England crashed out of Euro ’96, Audi launched an upmarket compact hatchback to the world. Suffice to say some things don’t change – not least when it comes to football and, two decades later, Audi has released a refreshed version of the third-generation A3. Accounting for over a quarter of all 166,708 Audi sales in the UK alone last year, the A3 is clearly a big deal for the marque.

Being such a big-seller, it’s perhaps understandable that Audi has taken a subtle evolutionary approach with this mid-lifecycle update. The original third generation A3 only went on sale in 2013, so this update comes quite soon in car terms. With a significant proportion of outgoing A3 models potentially still leveraged on personal finance or business lease deals, the last thing Audi needs is to be damaging residual values with radical restyling efforts. Plus, the A3 has always been the more mature hatchback in the VAG platform-sharing world.

2016 Audi A3 UK Launch

One of these is not like the others

Update and refreshed
Keeping that maturity in mind; reprofiled front and rear bumpers, the new Audi corporate grille, and updated lighting are the biggest changes on the outside. Xenon headlights are now standard across the range, whilst higher-spec versions get fancy LED units. There’s new colours, including the ESM-pleasing Vegas Yellow, and different alloy wheel designs. In short, you’re most probably going to be a real Audi geek to be able to spot the differences. But whilst it might appear similar to the outgoing version, the technology underneath is where the biggest changes have occurred.2016 Audi A3 SportbackVirtual Cockpit, first seen in the TT and R8, is the most important news for the revised A3. It’s on the options list but, once sampled, it would be a tough call not to tick that box. Having a 12.3” screen instead of conventional instrument dials makes so much sense, with the ability to see all information right in front of you. It renders the standard 7″ MMI display on the centre console essentially redundant, to the point we drove with it retracted most of the time. Thankfully that centre screen can be dropped and raised at the press of a button. It’s a novelty – but we approved.

Remember when infotainment controllers like MMI were controversial? Yeah, we’d forgotten about that, too. The revised MMI system in the new A3 is simpler, with fewer buttons and optional touchpad atop the main controller. We’re fussy when it comes to infotainment systems, but this version of MMI is genuinely a joy to use. It’s logical, responsive and also pretty good to look at. Furthermore, it proves that touchscreens aren’t always the answer to everything.

Being 2016, online connectivity is also a big deal. With the optional Technology Pack, buyers can have an embedded SIM card fitted at the factory, allowing access to the Internets immediately. It’s worth it for the integration of Google Earth and Google Street View into the navigation system alone. In fact, our notes from the test day labelled it as “awesome” which is probably all you need to know.

Safety and assistance systems from models higher up the Audi food chain also make an, optional, appearance in the new A3. Along with adaptive cruise control there’s emergency brake assist, active lane assist, and traffic jam assist. The latter allows the A3 to keep itself in lane, brake, and accelerate on congested roads. Make no mistake – this is the onward march of autonomous driving.

Aside from new technology, the changes inside are limited to new air vents, new steering wheel designs and… that’s about it. However, it still looks suitably modern, although it should do when the previous version is less than three years old. The minimalistic style, thanks to a dashboard not dominated by an infotainment screen, makes for an attractive and well-built interior.

Revised petrol engine choices now range from a new 113hp 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo, to a 1.4 TFSI (featuring cylinder-on-demand tech) producing 148hp, and a 2.0-litre TFSI unit with 187hp topping the range. Diesels feature a 108hp 1.6-litre TDI, and 2.0-litre TDI units in 148hp and 181hp flavours.

All engines have the option of the S tronic dual-clutch gearbox, with the most powerful engine variants available with quattro all-wheel drive. A new S3 with 306hp is also coming soon, but not present at this launch event, and there’ll be an RS3 with even more power in due course. That excites us – a lot.

On the road

A3 Saloon 1.4 TFSI CoD [S tronic] S Line016 Audi A3 Saloon S LineSay what you will about badge snobbery, but the A3 saloon has seemingly succeeded where the Volkswagen Jetta has failed. The four-door A3 has become a desirable compact sedan, no doubt helped by strong lines and balanced proportions on the outside. (more…)

SMMT Test Day 2016 – Part Two

We’re continuing our twelve car odyssey through this year’s SMMT Test Day. Part one can be found here if you need to refresh yourself. Things get a little weird and a little crazy in part two. SMMT Test Day Header 02If our first selection of cars at SMMT were varied, although generally performance themed, the second sextet proved to be incredibly diverse. From the ridiculous to the sublime, and everything in between.

7. MG3 1.5 SportMG3 SportRemember the world before everything became turbocharged and you had to rev the nuts off a naturally-aspirated engine to make progress? Drive the MG3 and the 1.5-litre VTI petrol motor will take you back to those heady days. Let’s not kid ourselves here – the MG3 is undoubtedly a cheap car – but any real potential it has is hamstrung by an outdated engine. In a world of EcoBoosts and Boosterjets, having to pin the throttle to the floor constantly just to keep up with traffic becomes a chore.

A chore that damages fuel economy and C02 figures compared to rivals. It also makes for unrefined progress, matched by the slightly bouncy ride quality. Handling is, however, pretty neat and although the interior is built to a price it’s relatively well-equipped. There’s the potential for an acceptable bargain supermini in the MG3; it just desperately needs a modern small-capacity turbo engine.

ESM Rating: 5.5/10
Stats: £9,899, 1.5-litre I4, 105hp/101lb-ft, 0-60mph 10.4 seconds, 108mph top speed.

8. Subaru Forester 2.0i XT LineartronicSubaru Forester XTThe Subaru Forester is a product which appeals to a certain niche population in the car market. Typically farming folk who want something reliable and usable. This particular car, being the performance turbo petrol XT version, manages to be even more specialist in its appeal. Rural people who want to get to the market in a hurry. It’s the quickest horse in the Forester stable, although we only tried it off-road, so can’t really comment if 238hp turns this into a high-riding performance SUV like the RS Q3. The boxer engine was noticeably quiet – no iconic flat-four burbling here – and overall refinement was strong for something many might label as mildly agricultural.

Hitting the dirt tracks of Millbrook’s ‘brown route’ showed off the genuine ability the Forester has in the rough. It was more than capable with steep inclines, juggling torque to the wheel with most grip quickly and efficiently. The hill-descent control system was brilliantly easy to use, with a simple tap of the brakes to set the speed you want, and the Forester handling the rest on the way down. It’s intuitive, doesn’t require messing about with extra buttons, and is very effective. Overall the Forester has a lot of charm and, whilst it might make more sense in diesel specification, you can’t doubt the capabilities of this XT version.

ESM Rating: 8/10 (off-road only)
Stats: £30,995, 2.0-litre flat-four turbo, 0-62mph 7.5 seconds, 137mph top speed

9. 1988 Nissan Micra 1.0 Automatic ‘K10’

Nissan Micra K10

Bluebird was off-limits, sadly.

Nissan was keen to celebrate three decades of production at the NMMUK Sunderland factory, so wheeled out three heritage models. Which includes this original Mk1 Micra – resplendent with three-speed automatic gearbox and unassisted steering. If anything, it serves as a reminder to just how far automotive technology has come in the past 30 years, and how we should be grateful for that progress! (more…)

SMMT Test Day 2016 – Part One

Returning to the SMMT Test Day after the extravagant ‘twelve cars in one day‘ affair of last year, ESM promised to try to be more selective over driving choices this year. The result was certainly a varied motoring experience, to say the least.

SMMT Test Day 2016It’s the potentially the biggest day of the year for anyone who writes about cars, bringing manufacturers and media together in one place. The problem comes from being faced with well over 100 cars from almost 40 different manufacturers – there’s almost too much choice of what to drive. But there’s also the challenge of getting to drive the most popular stuff. The Ford Focus RS, Ford Mustang, Audi R8 and BMW M2 were big attractions, so ESM decided to take a slightly more left field approach this year.

Despite the promise to avoid the ‘drive everything that moves’ scenario, we still finished the day having tried a dozen of cars. Perhaps that is just our default setting at SMMT? Either way, here’s the lowdown on what we got behind the wheel of. Due to the sheer number of cars driven, we’ve split our day into two parts.

1. SEAT Ibiza Cupra2016 SEAT Ibiza CupraWhen is a VW Polo GTI not a Polo GTI? When it’s draped in the Spanish body of a SEAT Ibiza, that’s when. Having just literally climbed out of our Polo GTI, getting back in to the Ibiza Cupra felt instantly familiar. Everything fell into place rather quickly, which meant no delay in getting up to speed in testing it out. Interestingly, the doors rattle the same as the GTI where the body meets the seal. 2016 SEAT Ibiza CupraThere are some differences, however. The exhaust note warbles a bit more than the Polo, the gearshift throw is minutely shorter, and the suspension didn’t feel quite so rock-hard in sport mode. Quite possibly we’d need to spend more than just a few short minutes with the Ibiza Cupra to draw out the individual nuances. But it’s good, and if you pick this over a Polo GTI you’re not making a bad decision. Also, tip of the hat to SEAT’s press office for emailing details of the car being driven immediately. That’s impressive service.

ESM Rating: 8.5/10
Stats: £18,900, 1.8-litre I4 turbo, 189hp/236lb-ft, 0-62mph 6.7 seconds, 146mph top speed

2. Audi RS Q3 Performance2016 Audi RS Q3 PerformanceA quattro all-wheel-drive system connected to a five-cylinder turbocharged engine sounds like a recipe for a retro rally car, rather than a fast crossover. But that’s exactly what the RS Q3 packs underneath, and it makes for a fairly entertaining creation which lets you live out your Group B rally fantasies with the whole family. (more…)

2016 Mercedes-AMG A45 4MATIC | Review

According to William H. Land, the most important thing about power is making sure you don’t have to use it. But when there is so much of it on offer, can you really resist? We spent a week with the Mercedes-AMG A45 to test our resolve.

Mercedes-AMG A45Question. What’s bright red, has 376hp and does 0-62mph in 4.2 seconds? If your answer was a Ferrari F355, you’d be wrong, as the Maranello machine actually takes 4.7 seconds to hit 62mph. Yes, welcome to 2016, where you can buy a family hatchback with greater performance than a 1990s mid-engined supercar. But one with the benefits of better fuel economy, lower emissions, and far greater practicality – such is the pace of development in the past two decades. The A45 is the apex predator in the evolutionary process, as the most well-endowed mega hatch on sale at present.2016 Mercedes-AMG A45 ReviewThat adds a big chunk of gravitas, and expectation, that the A45 needs to live up to. For Mercedes this needs to be the gateway drug to AMG ownership – it’s selling a lifestyle choice just as much as it’s selling a car here. The first part of that sales pitch is making it look distinctive and, despite the number of AMG-kitted lesser A-Class models on the road, the A45 manages to look genuinely tough.

In Jupiter Red, adorned with the optional AMG Aerodynamic Package, our test car was anything but subtle. It also had the aural bark to match the visual bite, courtesy of the performance exhaust system. It’s loud – properly loud – and perhaps not an option to pick if you’re slightly more self-conscious. Clearly you don’t have to spec your A45 this way. Choose a subtle colour, ignore the exhaust and aero kit, and it could make for a relatively stealthy way to travel fast. But, being ESM, we’re all for dramatic entrances and the specification of this test car is very close to what we would pick ourselves.2016 Mercedes-AMG A45 ReviewOn the road, and especially on the motorway, you do have to be prepared for the fact seemingly everyone will want to race you. Be it a diesel Audi A4 estate, or Honda Civic Type-R, there’ll be no shortage of drivers trying to bait the AMG hatch. But we didn’t bite, as there’s something wonderfully cathartic from the knowledge that you could leave 90% of other road users in your wake. The A45 has nothing to prove, and that translates into the way in which you drive it. Such power is on offer when you want it on your terms and nobody else’s.

You may find yourself dictating those terms to yourself quite frequently, however. This car is absurdly fast, and you’ll find that you need several acceleration runs to try to process just what happens when you give it full throttle. Such is the tractability of the 2.0-litre turbo engine that most times only 25-50% of throttle pedal travel is needed to make good progress. But give it the complete 100% and, after a slight pause for turbo lag, the A45 pulls like all the best motoring clichés going.2016 Mercedes-AMG A45 ReviewLike any good AMG car, the motor is very much the star of the show. Also, just like a V8 or V12 engine from Affalterbach, each one is hand-built by an individual master engineer. Stefan, who built the one in our test car, is clearly a talented guy for wrestling all 376 horses into that 2.0-litre block. The resulting output is an unrelenting, ferociously rabid, stream of acceleration that allows the A45 to cover distance cross-country with ease.

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