From Audi to Zenos, our road testing triumvirate looks back at 12 months behind the wheel of the hottest new models in motoring
23 December 2015

January-April, Matt Prior

We always discover something useful when we take a car to a test track, but when we brake-tested the Suzuki Celerio at the start of the year we found out rather more than even we expected.

The Celerio, in some markets, has a link attached to the brake pedal that’s meant to save your ankles in a front impact. It’s a piece of metal that detaches from its mounting if a significant force is applied through it – say, the bulkhead starting to deform. After it pings loose, the pedal drops to the floor and doesn’t trap your legs.

All fine, except that in our hands the link detached and the pedal fell to the floor after we pushed the pedal hard during a brake test. Harder than most people will press the brakes on the road, granted, but not harder than you might push during an emergency stop, at which point the Celerio lost all stopping power. Ah.

We pulled the car to a halt using the gears and handbrake and promptly told Suzuki, which sent us another Celerio to try, and the same thing happened again.

This was the day before the UK customer launch, and to Suzuki’s credit it did what it needed to do: it stopped customer deliveries, called cars back from dealerships and set about replicating the problem itself. Within 24 hours it had done so, realising the decoupling link was too weak and setting about designing a replacement. Just 10 days later we were back at Millbrook Proving Ground with an updated Celerio.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

Back to top

Suzuki’s engineers had redesigned the link and were making it ready for production, telling us they 
were “lucky” the problem had occurred in our hands rather than those of a customer. It was a problem they were quick to acknowledge and just as quick to rectify, and it’s an attitude towards corporate responsibility that looks all the more poignant at the end of the year.

Another group of Japanese engineers with whom it was easy to be impressed were those who presented us with the Mazda MX-5.

You suspect they could have spent several days telling us about what they’ve done to Mazda’s reborn roadster – 
how the headlights are so tiny that the front overhang can be the shortest of any production car and that, yes, bigger headlights could have been prettier, but that would have made the car heavier and, in 1.5-litre form, it weighs only 1000kg. That the gearshift drops home after a certain point to make it feel like it’s helping you change gear. That this is the purest MX-5 since the very first one.

Eventually they just told us to go and drive it and see what we thought. Little short of brilliant is how we found it, with a purity, agility and balance rarely found in a sports car these days.

You expect a certain standard from Mazda, but from a start-up company it’s harder to know what to expect. In March we tested the production Zenos E10, a Norfolk-built two-seater built by people with decades of experience in the specialist car business.

To give it a particularly hard time, we put it up against a Caterham and it acquitted itself admirably. Ultimately, dear reader, we report to you, not the car business, but as lovers of cars it’s gratifying to see someone get a small sports car right when so many don’t. Zenos is now on course to make 120 cars next year.

Actually, for some of the coldest months of the year, we tested rather a lot of sports cars during the early part of 2015. Lexus’s RC F wasn’t found too wanting against a BMW M4 and Audi RS5, we were fairly blown away by Radical’s RXC500 and, praise be, we got behind the wheel of the Cayman GT4, a car Porsche had long resisted making, not quite trusting the demand would be there. But demand there was, in spades, and that could tempt Porsche into other, similar projects. Let’s hope so.

Back to top

May-August, Matt Saunders

The diary went sports car mad as the spring months gave way to summer. It’s an annual phenomenon, and for understandable reasons. If you were a car boss launching something truly block-busting – with cut slicks, a roll cage and enough power to out-accelerate an Airbus A380 – you’d probably choose the drier, warmer months of the year in which to do it. And yet this year the sporting talent rolled in like Hollywood A-listers tumbling out of a Morris Minor clown car. 

The first four months of the year had already given us a handful of sporting first drives; the next four would bring us preliminary reviews on the Lamborghini Aventador SV, Ferrari 488 GTB, Porsche 911 GT3 RS, Audi R8, McLaren 675LT, Aston Martin Vantage GT12, Lotus Evora 400, Porsche Boxster Spyder and even the Koenigsegg One:1.

Muggins here was fortunate enough to be first behind the wheel of… well, none of them, now I think of it. But I did have the onerous task of spending two glorious days in the company of the 675LT and 911 GT3 RS, hammering between the Midlands and the spectacular North Yorkshire Moors in cars whose driver appeal was each equally distinct and spectacular.

If Luc Lacey’s dawn photograph of the pair on a slipway in Whitby isn’t among this year’s best snaps of the year, a steward’s enquiry is in order.

Deciding which of those stellar cars appealed the most was the hardest call I had to make this year – and I’m still not sure I got it right. On the day, for me, the Longtail edged it as the superior fast road car. But having since voted the GT3 RS as my favourite runner in our Handling Day field (in the absence of the McLaren, admittedly), I’m no more reassured now than I was then. Ask me to name the best driver’s car of the year today and I genuinely couldn’t choose between them.

Another big comparison hitting the shelves was our test of the Jaguar XE S and facelifted BMW 340i. This one had the flavour of a world exclusive about it, having been done in the same week that BMW launched the revised 3 Series.

It was a crucial verdict for both brands involved, as well as for thousands of UK drivers waiting on dependable confirmation of the Jaguar’s dynamic superiority – and it would reverberate for a while. And rather than being even remotely difficult, it was utterly plain. Care most about how your compact executive saloon handles? You’ll want the Jag. Simple.

Back to top

Among the cars going through the road test mill over the summer, the obvious five-star quality stands out; the Ariel Nomad and the GT3 RS got perfect scores, both being as near as damn it perfect on fitness for intended purpose. But beyond them, two cars stick in the memory.

The new Volvo XC90 was a welcome return to form for its maker, offering great design and innovative usability while giving SUV buyers a really credible alternative to the usual suspects. The Mazda CX-3, meanwhile, was a noteworthy disappointment. We road tested it in diesel form alongside a petrol-powered sister car, and I can’t remember another occasion when one version of a new car was so plainly inferior to drive than another.

Elsewhere in the summer months’ issues, we drove Lamborghini’s first ever GT3 race car, went drifting with Ken Block, celebrated Alpina’s 50th anniversary, drove an Aston Martin at the Britcar 24hr race and even drove a Land Rover Defender through the Atlantic (a bit).

We also crowned Wolfgang Hatz as Autocar’s Man of the Year – a man who would subsequently be suspended from his post as Volkswagen Group engine supremo in the wake of the emissions scandal. Having had a guiding hand in the development of BMW Motorsport’s E30 M3 racing and production engines, Quattro GmbH’s 4.2-litre V8 and 5.2-litre V12 and Porsche’s incredible 918 Spyder powerplant, Wolfgang will always be all right in our book.

September-December, Nic Cackett

The fallout created by the Volskwagen emissions scandal – to give it its tabloid name – has been 
so extensive that it hardly seems credible that events only began to unfold in September. Unseasonably warm weather went hand in hand with revelations that the firm had wilfully sought to manoeuvre much of its line-up around the trickier bits of the US Clean Air Act.

Don’t expect Wolfsburg to have tied a bow on the issue by Christmas – this year or next. As BP found in the Gulf of Mexico, the US is all too keen to make European firms pay for their mistakes, and the ultimate cost of affordably fettling its software code will be felt by VW for years.

Still, in a company as big as VW, there’s always good news to be found somewhere, and in our small corner of the world, that came in the shape of the Porsche Cayman GT4 – a car overburdened with expectation yet stuffed with more than enough talent to meet it head on.

Back to top

The thing was a revelation at MIRA, bewitching on the Fosse Way and about as richly deserving of five stars as any car before it. Surpassing it in build-up fuss was the new Mazda MX-5, a car teased in tortuous episodic phases before finally landing with a bang. It, too, was almost everything we wanted it to be: light, lithesome, affordable and seriously good fun.

It bestrode our Junior Handling Day shootout like a colossus, slower than a heap of hot hatches but their superior nevertheless. Its victory meant qualification for the Handling Day proper, a three-day extravaganza that took in both Snetterton and the Buttertubs Pass before we could pronounce a verdict.

It was a measure of the field’s quality that the Cayman GT4 – a pre-event favourite for victory – never even made it to the showdown in the Dales. Instead, it was the best of British, German and Italian on the final day for a three-way dust-up that lasted until the light died. If there was a better afternoon spent in 2015, I wasn’t there to see it.

A week later, things moved into outright fantasy with the premier of Spectre, James Bond’s latest outing. The memory of 007 slumming it in Z3s and Mondeos was put to bed with the Aston Martin DB10, a handcrafted hint at what the brand’s real-world models will in time look like. Spectacular, in a word, although it was the henchman who got to drive the Jaguar C-X75 (only about a year or so after Saunders had had a go in it, pointedly describing the still-not-to-be supercar as “brilliant”).

Back to top

As October passed, the fair weather went with it, meaning our last big group test of the year took place in appalling conditions. The new Audi R8 and McLaren’s epic 570S deserved better than the aftermath of a hurricane, but both stood out in Wales – one for being not quite as good as its predecessor, the other for being the best car Woking has turned out since, well, the 675LT a few months earlier.

If McLaren continues its run, 2016 should be some year. The outgoing 911 Turbo was also present – this being the final time the name signalled a technical difference from the Carrera range at large. The eventual death of the air-chewing flat six will be a cap-off moment when it comes; thank God I’ll always have the Peak District and the four hours I spent strapped to a blood orange masterpiece to remember it by.

Our ideal car in 2015

What would Autocar’s fantasy five-star car look like? Our testers pick their best bits.

Steering

Lotus Evora 400. Superbly tactile and communicative, wonderfully weighted, positive and balanced on lock. MS

Ariel Nomad. Only a lightly loaded, unassisted front end can feed feel back this purely. MP

Engine

Ferrari 488 GTB. Because Ferrari has managed, at a stroke, what McLaren has yet to quite perfect: outstanding response, huge torque, stirring noise and a building power delivery from a downsized turbocharged V8. NC

Driving environment

Porsche Cayman GT4: controls and instruments that matter precisely where you want them; everything perfectly readable, usable and proportioned just so; brilliant seats and no room for flim-flam. MS

Aero

Porsche 911 GT3 RS. Love the deformable splitter, the front wheel arch vents and the huge wing. MS

The Radical RXC500 might as well be a real racing car. It generates incredible levels of grip. MP

Back to top

Noise

Easy: the Lamborghini Aventador SV. Loud, raw, violent and unadulterated. Half V12, half angry chainsaw. MS

It’s the Ferrari F12tdf, whose naturally aspirated V12 sounds like a Formula 1 car ought to. MP

Brakes

Ariel Nomad. Not hugely powerful, not backed up by anti-lock. So what? They make you want to be a better driver. Pedal is brilliantly feelsome and exactly where it needs to be for heel-and-toe downshifts. The rest is up to you. MS

Suspension

The Ariel Nomad’s ability to brush aside surface imperfections is on another level to everything else we’ve driven this year. That it also has the ability to entertain like the best of supercars makes it a winner all day long in my book. MP

Transmission

Mazda MX-5: sublime manual shift quality, short and stubby of action and mechanically detailed with it. No excuses: if it’s really too hard or too expensive to engineer a great manual ’box in 2015, how come Mazda can do one on a £20k car? MS

Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week