Road test heaven: Bentley Continental GT; BMW 1-series M Coupé; Merc CLS63 AMG; McLaren MP4-12C
22 December 2011

June was a particularly good month to be a road tester at Autocar. Not only were the Bentley Continental GT, BMW 1-series M Coupé and Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG all held under our test microscope, but McLaren also delivered its first self-penned road car since the F1.

The McLaren MP4-12C may not have received a name as nakedly purposeful as its predecessor’s – or proved as revelatory in its range of abilities – but it still revealed itself to be one of the most magnificent machines ever produced by a British firm. Unfortunately, as our earlier group test showed, the Italians still had the beating of the car thanks to the remarkable concoction of technology and soul that is the Ferrari 458 Italia.

While the supermodels fought each other for a place on the ultimate must-have podium, Porsche quietly launched what we succinctly described as the “greatest version of the greatest sports car ever built”. The raw-boned, track-motivated 911 GT3 RS 4.0 was the last gasp of the 997 generation of the 911, and its brilliance left us wondering how Stuttgart’s finest could possibly assemble a satisfying follow-up (something we’re only just beginning to discover now).

If that heady selection wasn’t sufficient to get your summer started, we also subjected Jaguar’s fastest car since the XJ220 to a ferocious examination at the hands of the Aston Martin V8 Vantage S, BMW M3 GTS and Porsche 911 GT3. Although it was epically quick, the XKR-S turned out not to be the car that provided the necessary surprise; that was left to Gaydon’s finest, which mounted an impressive challenge to the GT3’s stranglehold on road and track finesse.

Arguably of more relevance to the future habits of the buying public was our first extended look at Mazda’s ground-up rethink on how it produces cars. Focused on improving emissions and economy, the manufacturer’s SkyActiv project has yielded a new scaleable platform, suspension system, transmissions and engines via a revamped approach to traditional engineering methods. The results of this intriguing strategy are due next year with the official launch of the CX-5, but Mazda insiders also revealed that an ambitious 800kg next-generation MX-5 is on the drawing board.

At the opposite end of the fuel-saving scale were the show cars rolled out by the Volkswagen Group at the annual Wörthersee tuning festival in Austria. Some, including the suspiciously well finished Golf R cabriolet, are likely to be heading for production. Others, including our favourite, the frenzied 496bhp Audi A1 Clubsport, are definitely not.

Nowhere is that gap between automotive dream and manufacturing reality more fluid than at Lotus. By June, the practical consequences of its ambitious five-year, six-model plan had sunk in, and the scheme was modified to include the development of its own engines and to prolong the life of the Evora.

Lotus was also struggling to convince the government that it was worthy of a regional development loan to build a new factory at Hethel. No such handouts were required by Mini, though; owner BMW confirmed that it would be investing £500 million in its facility in Oxford with a view to building a new range of models from 2013.

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