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Milestones Archives

A brief round-up of a few cars, products and news
that have been features in the past.

Contributors include Stuart Bladon and Graham Macbeth.

Suzuki Splash
It’s an unusual but at least distinctive name for Suzuki’s new small car, and the company clearly hopes that its new small five-door five-seater mini-MPV will make a big impact in the low-cost end of the market. It is built in Hungary and will be followed later by a Vauxhall Agila version. There is choice of 1.2 petrol or 1.3 diesel engine and five-speed gearbox, plus an automatic option to come later for the petrol version.

The shape is unusual and practical, with high build and deep windows, while a very short tail overhang behind the rear wheels helps for stability as well as making the car very compact to take advantage of small parking spaces.

Splash is pleasant to drive or travel in, and there is quite generous luggage space behind the folding rear seats. Under the rear load floor is a lift-out tray which would be a handy receptacle for wet items such as boots or coats, but although a space-saver spare wheel was fitted in the examples tried in the south of France, it is understood that the British versions will have just a repair kit and air pump.

Equipment levels are good, with ESP (electronic stability programme) and six airbags including two full length curtain air bags fitted as standard on all models. In fact, the equipment packaging is fairly straightforward, with just two levels (GLS or GLS+) for the 1.2 petrol, and DDiS for the 1.3-litre diesel.

Interior layout is well-finished, with a comprehensive console and a large speedometer seen through the top of the steering wheel. A separate rev counter is mounted in a pod. Not so good is the very dark trip mileometer and computer read-out in the bottom of the speedometer, with a small column of blobs to the right, also difficult to see, indicating fuel level.

As often the way in these day when roll-over safety dictates the fitting of enormously thick screen pillars, the driver needs to move the head around a bit at tight corners or junctions.

An on-board computer shows fuel consumption, and on the left-hand drive model tested the read-out was in litres per 100km for the petrol version, and unusually in km/litre for the diesel. Figures noted worked out at 40.4 mpg for the petrol version and 49.2 for the diesel - not very high but these were in very demanding conditions. Claimed consumption is much more encouraging at 51.4 mpg for the petrol model and 62.8 for the diesel.

Not a lot is added to the already comprehensive equipment specification to justify the extra cost of £500 to go for the GLS+ trim instead of standard GLS, and although we thought the 1.3-litre diesel engine to be outstandingly smooth and quiet, our recommendation for prime choice of this new model is the
Suzuki Splash 1.2-litre petrol five-speed manual at £8,999.

Honda Legend
It's not often that one can say a car is near-perfect! Well, we can, in respect of Honda's Legend which, we feel, is one of the best executive cars around, as well as being one of the safest in its class with its host of innovative safety features to protect occupants and pedestrians alike.

Apart from the many airbags, ABS, etc., we feel the most important new feature (to help prevent the common phenomenon of unintentional lane drift) is the Lane Keeping Assist System designed to correct the steering should the car begin to wander from one lane to another. There is also a Collision Mitigation Braking System that can predict a collision and apply the brakes to lessen the impact; adaptive cruise control; an active front lighting system and other innovative features..

With comfort, quality, trim and specifications to rival the strongest competitors in the E-sector - pitted against the likes of the Lexus GS300 - the Legend immediately displays a strong personality with sleek, yet distinctive, styling; particularly attractive (in our eyes) is the steeply-sloping bonnet, with its bold raised section, leading down to the front bumper.

Inside the car epitomises its position in the prestigious luxury market with a sumptuous interior and host of advanced technical features. Immediately noticeable and stretching across the wrap-round style dashboard is a wood-effect section, while in the centre sits the console housing the controls for the BOSE 10-speaker audio system, air conditioning and the satellite navigation switches. The eight-way adjustable seats are covered in soft leather and both front ones incorporate heating.

On the road, the car more than holds its own in terms of performance, ride and handling, ably assisted by Honda's active torque system which distributes power between front and rear, and left and right rear wheels, to give optimum grip

It is also surprisingly economical for such a large-engined car pushing out some 295 bhp via its lightweight all-aluminium 24-valve VTEC power unit. Prices start at around £36k for the 3.5i V6 EX.

Vauxhall Astra
The sweeping wedge-shape silhouette of the latest generation Astra has become a familiar sight on our roads. We feel it is particularly stylish in three-door hatch guise where such features as the nicely sculptured tailgate sits neatly between 'teardrop' shaped rear lights to blend almost perfectly with the door-free rear flanks.

That said, the five-door model we drove is also pleasing to the eye. Astra's clean lines are influenced by the contours of its wheel arches and flared door sills, resulting in a somewhat athletic - some would say aggressive - stance; all good for sales when pitted against rivals such as the Ford Focus and Citroen's C4.

With probably the longest wheelbase in its class combined with comparatively wide tracking, capable road handling is assured and this was certainly the case with our car. A nicely balanced feel to the steering came via an electro-hydraulic unit.

Inside we found the fit and feel of the trim, seats, switches and such like to be first class with instrumentation and dials neat and easy to read. Personally, I found the driving position a little cramped for my large 6 foot 3 inch frame, but rear seat passengers had stacks of legroom. Boot space is plentiful at 350 litres (1265 litres seats folded), although access for wide articles may be a little restricted due to the shape of the rear hatch door.

The photograph above shows a Sport Hatch model, but standard features on the 5-door 1.6 VVT Design derivative we drove included air conditioning, 16 inch alloys, stereo radio/CD player with MP3 capability and such safety features as curtain air bags, rain sensitive wipers, front fog lights and automatic light control; the latter being priced at around £15,400 on-the-road.

Vauxhall's Astra has enjoyed a dominant presence since the launch of the first cars in the UK in 1980. Now, some 27 years later, the fifth generation line-up continues to feature high in its segment offering more than half-a-dozen different model names and at least as many engine options again, plus a comprehensive trim choice. On-the-road prices start at £13,930 for the 1.4 Sport Hatch.

VW Polo BlueMotion
Showing what can be achieved in the bid to reduce fuel consumption and CO2 output, Volkswagen’s Polo called BlueMotion - we would have thought Greenmotion might have been more appropriate - comes out with an official mpg figure of 74.3. Its CO2 emissions come to 99 g/km, so it is in Band A for annual tax assessment, with nothing to pay. There’s a better-equipped version called BlueMotion 2 but it’s more expensive at £12,845 instead of £11,995, and its slightly higher CO2 figure of 104 g/km means that it is in Band B for annual taxation at £35.

To achieve these results, Volkswagen has smoothened the contours of the body to improve air flow including plastic underbody trim, and weight has been reduced without compromising the high level of impact safety achieved by the Polo. The 1.4-litre diesel engine has only three cylinders and develops 79 bhp. The five-speed gearbox is modified to give higher gearing for third, fourth and fifth. One is aware of a certain amount of engine roughness at the lower revs, but it becomes unobtrusive and pulls well provided the gears are used freely. Comfort is good, and there is no cheese-paring over the specification which includes radio with CD player, alloy wheels and a trip computer.

The main assets of moving up to BlueMotion 2 are semi-auto air conditioning and remote locking with alarm. Some leather trim is provided for the steering wheel, gear knob and handbrake. Rain sensing wipers are also specified.

With its galvanised body, the Polo gets a 12-year anti-corrosion warranty, and the general quality of construction inside and out is to Volkswagen’s renowned high standards. In cheapest form the car has three doors, but five-door versions with electric rear window lifts are available for 1 and 2 models at £600 extra.

This is a very attractive car for those who want economical and reliable transport with benefit from the various tax concessions, so our choice would be the Polo BlueMotion 1 with five-speed manual gearbox at £11,995.

Streetcar - for the part-time motorist
Many people need a car only occasionally - perhaps at weekends or the occasional day off - and the rest of the time it sits on the drive or parked at the kerb. For such people there is an interesting alternative system called Streetcar. Instead of ownership, it operates as a form of car sharing club. Launched in London in 2004, it now operates also in Brighton, Cambridge, Guildford and Southampton and has some 20,000 members.

Annual membership costs only £49.50, and a car can be booked in advance, by phone or on-line, even as little as 30 seconds before it is needed - but obviously at busy times the risk is that the later the booking is made the greater the risk that all cars may be reserved. The member then pays £3.95 per hour, covering the first 30 miles. After that there is a charge of 19p per mile. The charge for a weekday’s hire is £35, or £49.50 per day at the weekend. There are no petrol charges to pay - fuel is covered by the standard 19p mileage rate, nor are there any parking charges. Cars are kept in dedicated bays.

The only slight problems envisaged are the need to anticipate the time at which you will return the car, but bookings can be extended by phoning at least 15 minutes before the reserved time is due to end. The membership card when held by the sensor on the windscreen opens the central locking, and then the conventional key can be withdrawn from the container in the facia compartment. If a thief breaks in he can get hold of the key, of course, but without the proper booking formality it will not operate the car.

The club has teamed up exclusively with Volkswagen, headed by the new Polo BlueMotion, and has 600 cars across 400 locations in London and the other cities mentioned above.

The limitation of the scheme is the availability of a convenient location for the cars, but obviously it is intended to appeal most to those wanting a car in urban areas.

Chrysler PT Cruiser Cabrio
Regular readers of this magazine will know that we have always raved about the PT Cruiser; now the retro-looking hatchback has been joined by a head-turning soft-top derivative.

Whatever you think of the basic PT Cruiser design, the new variant certainly drew a lot of attention - especially with the roof folded down. Available in two-door guise only, access to the rear seating (often a problem with a cabriolet) is eased by using extra-long front doors than those of its hatch sibling. In most other aspects, however, apart from sitting slightly lower on its suspension and, of course, its stylish convertible design features, the cabrio shares much of its shape and dimensions with its hatchback stable mate.

A genuine four-seater, it is arguably one of the quietest soft-tops around with a body shell that feels unusually solid for a car of this type. Stability, ride and handling are all good, combining to make it a refined and very comfortable motor.

The folding roof can be raised and lowered in a trice from a switch conveniently positioned on the cabin's central stack. The soft-top fit is excellent, with minimal noise level in either the up or down position at normal road speeds; a tonneau cover is supplied as standard. The interior is more-or-less identical to the latest PT Cruiser hatch and is nicely rounded off with a circular clock in true retro 1950s style.

In the UK, the convertible is powered by a 2.4-litre petrol engine producing some 141 bhp. It is available as a Touring model, with a five-speed manual gearbox, or with four-speed auto transmission in the Limited version. Prices start at £16,680 for the manual gearbox cabrio and £17,575 for the automatic.

Classic Meet
On the first Monday of each month something special happens in the grounds of the Cock & Bottle Inn at Morden (a few miles north of Wareham) as from about 7pm onwards owners of dozens of classic cars and motorcycles gather to view the old conveyances and chat about motoring in general.

This gathering of like minded enthusiasts is not of a particular motoring club or grouping, but more a cross-section of clubs and owners with no particular badge affiliation on this occasion - just a like-minded interest in wheeled transport from yesteryear.


My visit coincided with a balmy summer evening. With pint in hand I thoroughly enjoyed wandering up and down the ranks of cars chatting to owners and generally reminiscing about vehicles and motoring from days of yore. Old motors on display ranged from AC to Rover, and included Lagonda, Lee Francis, Riley, Triumph, Jaguar, Morris, to name but a few; in fact, representatives from most long-gone British marques as well as from the continent and further afield. A good selection of motorcycles were also on display.

Everything is very informal, so just turn up. If you want further details give the organiser a ring on 01929 459238.

Peugeot 207 GT
Into Peugeot’s popular little 207 three-door model goes a new petrol engine jointly developed by PSA (Peugeot-Citroën group) and BMW, and it’s a delightful new power unit. Capacity is only 1,598 cc, yet it has high pressure turbocharging and gives superb response, making it a most rewarding car to drive. Direct fuel injection into the cylinders is coupled with a twin-scroll turbocharger and a compression ratio of 10.5-to-1, which is exceptionally high for a turbo engine. The result of all this is that response is pretty well immediate with vigorous low-speed torque. There’s no great need to keep changing down and using high revs, but when you do, this little Peugeot really flies along. It will just make 80 mph in third, and the acceleration time from rest to 80 through the gears is an impressive 13.9 seconds. Changing up a little earlier helped to make this even quicker, at 13.5 seconds.

Snug seats in a mixture of leather and cloth have pronounced side bolsters to hold occupants firmly in place when the crisp handling of the GT is being exploited. One usually expects the ride in a GT car to be pretty harsh and unforgiving, but in the 207 GT it is surprisingly comfortable, the only let-down being the high level of tyre roar on most surfaces.

A neatly laid-out console presents the map for the navigation aid sensibly high up, and the instruments are clear, being calibrated in black on a white background, but they are not so good when the lights are turned on, when the digits change to red.

At present, the 207 GT with 16-valve turbo engine comes only with the three-door body and has only a five-speed manual gearbox, but the equipment level is generous in relation to the £14,345 price tag.

Included in the above price is a large fixed glass roof, automatic action for the wipers and lights, and electric mirrors with foldaway action. A further £2,070 on the test cars had been expended on a package which includes the navigation system, a five-disc CD autochanger and a fragrance diffuser. Not for me, I think, nor would I run to the £250 extra for a rear parking aid in such a small car.

But would the GT be worth the extra when, by sacrificing 40 bhp (110 instead of the GT’s 150), one could have the 207 with SE trim and five-door body at £13,495? Yes, I think so, especially as the 207 GT with this delightful engine is claimed to give 40.3 mpg. My choice would be the Peugeot 207 GT at £14,345 with five-speed manual gearbox and no options.

Corsa Supermini
Wider, longer and more muscular looking than previous Corsas, many will feel Vauxhall's new supermini is better looking than its rivals, especially in three-door guise where its sleek, sporty appearance and coupe-style roofline combined with tapered rear window are most pronounced. The more practical five-door model retains a similar harmonious profile yet is dramatically different by being more family orientated with a far steeper angled rear window to give maximum interior and luggage space.

Although we recently tested a CDTi Club, build quality on other variants we have seen appear first class with similar excellent all-round performance and sure-footed handling (over a variety of road surfaces) expected as on our test car. Stowage is good with all the usual cubbyholes, plenty of head, leg and shoulder room, and the seats adjust well to suit most people; a decent audio system, MP3 compatible on our car, with CD player eases those long journeys. Safety is paramount and the new Corse boasting stacks of airbags, ABS, halogen 'swivel' lighting and a five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating, etc.

Power units available across the range include 1.0, 1.2 and 1.4-litre petrol engines, and 1.3 and 1.7-litre turbodiesel units with the former diesel being available in either 74 bhp or 89 bhp state of tune. The 1.3 common-rail oil burner fitted to our car in 74 bhp configuration performed well and very economical at just under 70 mpg overall.

Available in five trim levels - Expression, Life, Club, SXi and Design, prices start at £7,495 for the entry level 1.0-litre 3-door Expression, rising to £13,795 for the flagship 5-door Design 1.7 CDTi. We feel the new Vauxhall supermini will shake up the small car sector with its stylish looks and well equipped interior, and price wise should put many of its competitors to shame.

Chevrolet Kalos
It’s not often we have the opportunity to try a Chevy, so we didn't quite know what to expect when the Kalos arrived; however, we soon became acquainted with this neatly styled hatchback and over the next hundred miles or so became quite attached to it.

Value for money is the hallmark of this US brand and, true to form, the marque didn't let us down with the five-door 1.2S Kalos; but it is pitched against strong competitors in the supermini sector.

The spacious and well-built package, complete with a comprehensive equipment list, is available for substantially less than £8k. An even more cost effective deal is available with the 3-door 1.2S at just under £7,300 on-the-road.

Sporting a practical, hard wearing and neat interior, everything is well screwed together with all controls within easy reach. We did find the manual gear change a little notchy at times on our test car - it would be interesting to try the automatic transmission option available on the 1.4-litre models.

With a straightforward dash layout, standard equipment on our 1.2S included electric front windows, air con, Blaupunkt CD system, central locking, ISOFIX child seat mountings, tinted glass and body-coloured bumpers.

On the road the soft(ish), yet comfortable, ride absorbs bumps well; the downside being that some body roll is experienced when cornering. That said, the handling is perfectly satisfactory with no feeling of queasiness felt by passangers after a long run taking in mainly poorly surfaced roads.

Generally, a nice all-round car with an engine that performed well at all times under some trying road conditions and is economical with a claimed fuel figure approaching 55 mpg on the extra-urban-cycle, a figure we have no reason to doubt.

Nissan Qashqai
Well, there have certainly been some unusual names for new cars over the years, but Qashqai really takes the biscuit. Never mind about the name, though - just call it Cash-key - and the important thing is that it’s a completely new and very original design, to appeal to a wide cross-section of buyers. Nissan calls it a cross between a hatchback and a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV), but I thought it more of the latter and could never regard it as an ordinary hatchback - it’s too big for that. Driving the Qashqai in the dense traffic in Barcelona it seemed quite bulky, and it’s spacious inside with generous room for five and a lot of luggage. Instruments are clear, except for the fuel and temperature gauges which are rather lost in the dark gap between the speedo and rev counter.

The special attractions of Qashqai are its comfort and quietness, and the wide range of models and options, taking prices over a £10,000 span, all the way from the start model at £13,499 to £23,249. There are two petrol and two diesel engines (1.6 and 2-litre for the petrol versions, and the diesels are 1.5 and 2-litre). The interesting thing is that four-wheel drive is available at £1,600 extra for both the 2-litre models, petrol and diesel, turning this bullish-looking vehicle into the sort of off-roader 4x4 so popular with the mums for the school run! But the engines are efficient with CO2 emissions around the 200 mark keeping them out of the critical Group G tax bracket, and the 1.5-litre diesel is claimed to give a creditable 52.3 mpg. Six-speed gearbox is standard for all but the 1.6 petrol model; and automatic is available.

Unlike some of the clever features offered by rivals, such as removable seats and folding tables for children, there are no such refinements to be found in Qashqai though, of course, the rear seats can be folded down for extra luggage space.

Very attractive is the panoramic glass sunroof which makes for a very cheerful and bright interior. It’s not available for the cheapest trim package called Visia costing £13,499, but is a £700 option for the next trim level (Acenta at a shade under £15k, and standard on the top version, Tekna costing £16,499.

There are lots of goodies that can be added, and I was most impressed at the way the sat. nav. system operated, taking us through Barcelona’s complex road system with never a fault, and costing £1,350 to include a rear view closed circuit TV which comes on when reversing. The extra cost of £1,100 to have the 1.5-litre diesel instead of 1.6 petrol didn’t seem worth it, so I would recommend the slightly dearer £1,400 on-cost which turns the 1.6 into a 2-litre, both in petrol form, and the best trim package seems to be the middle one, but 4WD and 2-litre diesel upgrades are available for those who want them. Otherwise, the prime choice seems to be the Qashqai Acenta 2WD 2-litre petrol at £16,399.

Following the launch in Spain, Nissan provided an opportunity to drive Qashqai in England with the smaller 1.5 diesel and 1.6 petrol engines, and although the promised 52.3 mpg did not materialize, I was highly impressed at how well the small diesel propelled this large and roomy car. In tough give and take driving in the hands of a number of test drivers, the figure shown on the consumption meter was just over 40 mpg. In comparison, the 1.6 petrol version also performed well, and the engine is quiet and smooth but gets a little more fussy than the diesel at speed, because it is lower geared, having only a five-speed gearbox.

The 1.5 diesel gets a six-speed as standard. Of special importance is the fact that its emissions CO2 figure is a modest 145 g/km, putting it in Band C for annual car tax, at £115  following the Budget. The drawback of the smaller diesel is that it is not available - and will not be - with four-wheel drive, but if one wants Qashqai for its spaciousness, bullishness and practical features, and will be doing sufficient annual mileage to be able to value the improved economy, but is not intending to do any cross country work, the extra cost of £1,100 does seem worth it after all. So I recommend as prime choice of the less expensive model the Qashqai Acenta 1.5 dCi diesel at £16,099.

Audi TT Roadster
On a chill but sunny and dry day, driving the Audi TT Roadster provided the first great motoring memory of this year. It really is a delightful car to drive, with its responsive and very high torque engine and a wonderfully taut feel to the car as a whole. There’s not a trace of the tremor and scuttle shake that beset so many open cars, partly because the TT is so small and compact - it’s strictly a two-seater with not even space for a child in the back. It’s also built on a very strong steel and aluminium structure. The example provided for driving at the launch was the 3.2-litre V6 quattro which adds a lot of features to the specification including quattro four-wheel drive which is still not available for the 2-litre model, and Nappa leather upholstery. This big V6 engine is smooth and quiet and pulls well from low speeds so there is not a lot of need for gear changing, but after a run in the six-speed manual we tried the S tronic version. This is effectively a six-speed manual gearbox with two clutches, no clutch pedal, and fully automatic control enhanced by small ‘paddle’ switches beneath the steering wheel each side which allow sequential over-riding gear changes to be made just at a touch.

The action of the hood is very ingenious and takes little more than 10 seconds to put up or down including the time taken for the side windows to be activated. The hood is of padded soft material but with a glass rear window and steel and aluminium framework, and when it is folded the rigid front section comes down on top of the folded material, eliminating the need for a tonneau cover. A standard fitting is an electrically-operated mesh rear deflector. Just press the button and up it comes, greatly reducing the back draught when the car is being driven open. When putting the hood back up, it is not necessary to lower the mesh panel - you can still see through it for rear vision and it is not contacted by the hood.

The only thing that seemed to spoil the TT’s shapely appearance is the pair of roll-over hoops behind the seats. We imagine they are considered necessary for safety reasons.

That said, we feel it would take some pretty wild driving to put one of these fine handling cars upside down.

An ingenious feature of the new TT is the use of magnetism induced by electric current to alter the damping and make the ride firmer under command of the driver. A switch near the handbrake gives choice of Normal or Sport, but the setting is also varied automatically in response to road conditions and driving behaviour.

Unless one really has no desire for an open car, this Roadster version of the TT must be the one to go for; and as with the fixed head version, the attractions of the V6 engine with quattro drive make the extra £4,620 well worthwhile. We would also recommend the S tronic six-speed automatic transmission. Alas, nothing good in life is cheap is it? So Prime Choice is: Audi TT Roadster 3.2 quattro with six-speed S tronic gearbox for £32,935

Audi TT
Seven years have passed since the launch of the Audi TT, and the replacement offers more space, many advanced features, and the same appeal of superb performance and handling. But at launch the range was limited to just two models with the same Coupé (closed two-seater) body. A convertible will follow soon. The dilemma facing the buyer is whether to choose the 2.0T FSI with 2-litre16-valve turbocharged engine and direct fuel injection at £24,625, or pay an extra £4,660 for the 3.2-litre V6 version. The immediate question is ‘what extra do you get?’

In brief, not a lot, the main difference being that the V6 comes with quattro four-wheel drive which is not available (at present) for the 2.0T. It also brings special wheels, heated front seats, more lavish upholstery and an enhanced braking system. You can tell a V6 from the 2.0T by the fact that the former has separate exhaust tail pipes one each side. With the 2.0T, the tail pipes are paired on the left.

All the important matters of fuel consumption and exhaust emissions point to choice of the 2.0T which, on my test drive in France, gave 29.5 mpg, against only 21.2 with the V6. It was also surprising to find that the turbocharged 2-litre model was almost as quick on acceleration as the V6, reaching 80 mph from rest in 9.6 seconds against 9.5 with the V6 - a negligible difference.

In the equally important matter of driver enjoyment, however, I preferred the handling, response, engine sound and smoothness of the V6. This would be my illogical but preferred choice.

Whichever the buyer goes for, the TT will delight and thrill, and the excellent direct-shifting six-speed automatic gearbox is an absolute joy, well worth its £1,400 extra cost. Another extra to consider is magnetic suspension at £1,150 extra.

Magnetic? Yes, it uses the magnetic influence of an electric current to alter the firmness of the suspension dampers, and it certainly works very well indeed, giving a more comfortable and resilient ride, taut but without any harshness.

Some aspects of the TT are a little disappointing. I wouldn’t like to have to use the remote key fob or a switch hidden away in the driver’s door to release the tailgate every time, and the space in the load area is limited. The rear seats are mainly for children, and even then require the front seats to be set forward to provide legroom.

When driving the automatic model, the ‘paddle’ control levers beneath the steering wheel are very convenient for changing up or down instead of leaving the control unit to its own devices, but in mountain-storming where the TT provides delightful motoring it is a nuisance that these levers go round with the steering. Often you lose track of where they are and have to use the floor-mounted control instead.

But these are small penalties for a car that demonstrates that motoring can still be fun. So I name as my ‘prime choice’ Audi TT 3.2 quattro at £29,285, plus £1,400, for S tronic auto transmission.

Only one example with the1.4-litre diesel engine was available for driving at the launch of the new Mazda2 in Scotland, and we were keen to make sure of trying this although it won’t become available here until later. The initial engine palette for the Mazda2 is a 1.3-litre petrol in two forms of power output (74 and 85 bhp), and a 1.5-litre 102 bhp petrol engine with Sport trim for the body.

The diesel impressed with its quite remarkable quietness, to such extent that one could hardly tell it was still running when the car stopped at a traffic halt. It’s also a vigorous performer, and could well be worth waiting for if one is buying the Mazda2 for high mileage motoring. The car was on German registration, and featured very ingenious and convenient automatic locking: simply pocket the key, and walk away, but regrettably this feature will not be available for UK buyers.

Next to try was the 1.3-litre available only in the more powerful format, with an easily remembered price: £10,000 all bar £1 change. This again has a very smooth engine emitting little noise with most sound coming from quite considerable tyre roar. The less powerful 1.3 I comes in at around £8,500.

All models have a five-speed gearbox with rather firm movement, but the lever is positioned high up in an extension of the console, within easy reach of the steering wheel.

The Mazda2 does everything well - ride comfort is good, steering and brakes excellent, and handling through fast corners very reassuring. Performance is also reasonably lively, with acceleration from rest to 80 mph taking 24.8 seconds.

There is no trip computer on the 1.3 versions so it was not possible to get a fuel consumption indication, the fuel gauge being only a diminishing row of black squares, but the claimed economy for both versions of the 1.3 is an impressive 52.3 mpg. The CO2 figure for both power versions of the 1.3 is also the same at 129 g/km, putting the model in Band C for annual tax at £115.

A rather bland interior is brightened by silvery strips across the console and on the doors, and there are four circular outlets with twin overlapping flap valves for cool air. A thoughtful feature is the two-stage compartment on the passenger side which provides an open slot for maps and other oddments, but also pulls forward to reveal a deeper cavity behind to take larger items such as magazines. Load space in this five-door hatchback is generous, helped by having a space-saver spare wheel.

For an extra £1,800 one can graduate to the Mazda2 Sport with 1.5-litre engine and gaining extra equipment including Dynamic Stability Control and Traction Control, but these are available for the 1.3 versions at £395 extra. It also gets air conditioning, and self-switching lights and wipers.

The trip computer, standard on the 1.5, gave a disappointing reading of 36.5 mpg after a fast main road run, a lot heavier than the claimed 47.9 mpg. It also has a lower final drive ratio which tended to make it more fussy and made second gear too low, while the lower profile tyres make the ride a little harsher. So our prime choice would be the Mazda2 TS2 1.3-litre 85 bhp (86 PS) with five-speed manual gearbox at £9,999.

VW Fox
Although a fairly rare sight on our roads, Volkswagen's Brazilian-built Fox is well up to European standards and is a bargain priced small car which has gained an enviable reputation for trouble-free motoring. The model was introduced into the UK in early 2006 to replace the popular Lupo.

Available as a three-door hatch in either standard or urban guise, it was developed primarily for unforgiving South American roads, so strength and durability gained over cutting edge style.

That said, it's a neat looking, practical and comfortable small car with a nice interior and good driving dynamics. It's very spacious (for its market segment) with excellent front seat space combining good head and shoulder room; the same applies in the rear. The urban trim version we used had central locking and electric windows, and the back seats move to give extra passenger space or to free up for more luggage capacity in the boot.

Two petrol engines are offered, but we drove the larger 1.4 unit which develops some 75 bhp from its four cylinders. Performance was good enough allowing the Fox to show a clean set of heels when required, with confident handling over the mixture of urban and rural roads we covered; it remained stable and unfussed at all times during a particularly wet and windy journey over an exposed moorland route in Devon where far rougher and undulations surfaces were encountered than is the norm.

This small Volkswagen feels larger than an elderly VW Polo we drove recently, and is certainly bigger than the Lupo it replaced. We would say Ford's Kia, or perhaps the Citroen C1 - and equivalent from Toyota and Peugeot - are main rivals, although the former is now a little dated and rather cramped, while the latter makes are arguable not as solidly put together as the Fox, nor are they as competitively priced and sport such a premium badge.

Ford Focus
After ten years of production in which it was consistently top seller, the Ford Focus came in for a major package of revisions in February 2008, and the new model is identified by its restyled frontal shape with upper and lower radiator grilles and swept-back lamp units.

Focus offers the buyer a huge choice, having three- and five-door hatchback bodies, a four-door saloon, and five-door estate, while the engine option comprises five petrol and three diesel engines, as well as further choice of power outputs.

There are also six trim packages, and the range extends from the 1.4 Studio three-door at £11,945 to the 2.5-litre ST-3, topping out above £20,000.

Improvements are wide-ranging, but particularly noticed at once are the very tidy and responsive handling and steering, much better ride comfort and road noise suppression, and a vastly better and more efficiently laid out interior. The extensive options list will even include adjustable pedal positions which some drivers of abnormal stature or build might appreciate.

At the launch it was only possible to try 1.8- and 2-litre diesel versions, both with the impressively comprehensive Titanium trim, but it was easy to be carried away and admire the inclusion of luxury features such as the electric seat adjustment without realising until later that this is an extra at £250, or that this option includes the very comfortable four-way adjustable (but not electric) passenger seat.

The stylists have been ‘at it’ and added unnecessary extensions to the needles of the temperature and fuel gauges, but the instrumentation generally is commendably clear, with large circular rev counter and speedometer. The navigation screen is not as high as it should be, and two versions were tried, one with separate controls and the other with touch-screen facility, but this one - with six-pack CD autochanger as well - runs out at £1,950 and is for the Titanium model only.

With such a wide choice available and no opportunity to do more than sample a couple of them so far, it is difficult to make any recommendations, but we were taken with the eager performance and outstanding quietness of the 1.8-litre diesel, so our initial advice for prime choice would be the Ford Focus 1.8 TDCi Duratorq 115PS with Zetec trim and five-speed manual at £16,795.

Renault Laguna
Just before Christmas 2007 Renault launched in Britain the new versions of the Laguna which were unveiled at the Frankfurt Show in September. It’s available in two body styles - Hatch, and the estate car version called Sport Tourer, and for each there is a choice of four trim levels, starting with Expression and moving up through Dynamique, Dynamique S, and Initiale. One can’t give Renault many marks for originality of the names used for their cars, but certainly the new Laguna is a most impressive vehicle offering great comfort, spaciousness, and a host of clever features.


There are also five engines from which to choose - three diesels and a 2-litre petrol unit with or without turbocharging. In total it makes a bewildering range from which everyone should be able to find the ideal mix for their needs, but in the short time available at the launch it was only possible to try two versions. We started with a touch of luxury in the Sport Tourer with 2-litre 150 bhp diesel engine and automatic transmission. It is a very relaxing and comfortable car to drive and feels very manageable on the road in spite of its considerable size, while the ride comfort is exceptionally good. The auto transmission is smooth and responsive and has six speeds with availability of Tiptronic control for the more sporty driver who believes in changing down for corners or in anticipation of overtaking.

Under a deep cover there’s a good map display for the navigation system, but this is part of the huge range of options on Laguna which need careful study by the buyer to decide what to add and what is not needed. The Sport Tourer Dynamique which we drove first was listed as £20,850 on the road, but options increased the cost of the test car to £25,695.

This estate car is very cleverly planned and will prove extremely convenient as a family car. For example, just work a switch either side to tumble down the back seats to extend the load platform without any need to fight off the headrests, and to roll away the luggage cover it is again only necessary to press it down at the back end. Also, the roller blind for covering luggage can be lifted out and folds neatly away into the floor at the extreme rear of the load platform when not needed - though the side locker lid must be removed for a moment to give the extra width necessary for it to slide into place. Remember that if the spaciousness and versatility of the estate car version are not needed, the rather crudely named Hatch models are also very roomy and appealing.

Economy with this model was a little disappointing, showing only 25.6 mpg on the computer - the being latter a standard feature of all models - but the weather was bad, the test route rather demanding with few opportunities for easy cruising, and the test car had covered only 250 miles from new. We would expect an improvement on this figure under normal circumstances.

The next example tried gave a much more typical 41.3 mpg, and this was the Sport Tourer with the cheapest trim level, Expression, powered by the 1.5 dCi diesel engine, and with OTR price of £17,300, swollen to £20,495 with the options on the test car. An engine of only 1.5-litre capacity didn’t seem much for a car of this size, and we were quite astonished to find how well it performed. It is just a little slow to respond at the lower revs, but then it really gets going as its full 110 bhp output comes to play. It is also very smooth running and extremely quiet when cruising. So we have no hesitation as nominating as our Prime Choice the Sport Tourer dCi 110 with five-speed manual gearbox at £17,300, but if more luxury can be afforded then go for the Laguna Sport Tourer dCi 150 automatic at £20,850.

Kia Picanto
Non-essentials such as electric mirrors are not to be found in the Kia Picanto, except on the most expensive of the new extended range, but most owners will be happy to use the easily-reached interior adjuster knobs and will be more concerned about the good value offered in a small car. which is pleasantly easy to drive, adequately roomy, and potentially very cheap to run.

Refreshed for 2008, Picanto is available in a four-model line-up, with the addition of the Ice version as well as Picanto 2 and Picanto 3, again with choice of two engines - a 1-litre 61 bhp unit which starts the range at £5,995, and in the three other models a 1.1-litre giving 64 bhp. Why call the new mid-range model the Ice? It has a heater, and a very good one, too.

Top of the range is Picanto 3 offering extra equipment - yes, electrically adjustable mirrors on this one - and a rather high price of £7,995. Warranty is for three years with unlimited mileage.Two of the range offer automatic transmission at £600 extra.

Important feature of the base 1-litre Picanto is that its exhaust emissions at 117 gm/km put it in Band B with car tax of only £40 to pay per year. In the new 2008 form, the 1-litre is a four-seater.

All other Picantos have five seats, and the whole range is a five-door hatchback with quite good luggage space, but this is achieved by eliminating the spare wheel; instead, there’s a repair kit and inflator.At the launch only the new 1.1 Ice version was available, with the advantages of seat height adjustment and air conditioning.

This Picanto went on sale at the beginning of November, with others going on the market early in 2008. Inevitably the little engine struggles a little on steep hills, but is well able to keep up with the pack on the level. The suspension is a little bouncy on poor roads, and doesn’t take kindly to speed humps. There’s a fair amount of whine and noise from tyres and transmission, though the engine remains impressively quiet even when working hard.

Claimed fuel consumption for the 1.1-litre is 53.3 mpg - only 4 mpg below that of the 1-litre, and its better equipment and more powerful engine justify the extra cost which is exactly £1,000 more than the £5,995 of the 1-litre base model. Therefore we would recommend as prime choice the Picanto 1.1 Ice with five-speed manual gearbox, priced at £6,995

Kia Sportage
At the launch of the new Kia Picanto we were able to drive the latest version of the same company’s very successful Sportage model on quite a demanding off-road route, which it took with contemptuous ease. But how many owners really want to go mud-plugging, or do they really just value the big space, high seating position and impressive presence that comes with a car like the Sportage? So this thinking has led Kia to introduce for the first time front-drive additions to the range, and also there’s availability of the diesel engine with automatic transmission.

This has enabled them to start the range at a very competitive £13,995 for the 2-litre petrol engine version giving 140 bhp with drive only to the front wheels. At the same time, detailed changes have been made to the external styling throughout the range.

The new diesel automatic giving 138 bhp - almost the same as the petrol model - is £2,000 dearer, at £15,995. Note that with the 2-litre petrol model you have only a five-speed gearbox; all other versions with manual transmission have six-speed gearboxes.

An important gain for Sportage buyers is that the new model benefits from the same impressive warranty terms as introduced for the smaller Cee’d model: it covers up to seven years and 100,000 miles. This is an important consideration for buyers toying between Sportage and one of the many competitors.

The thought of being caught out with this kind of vehicle in snow or a muddy car park and having only two-wheel drive is a bit daunting, and in the same way I feel that the extra cost of the very smooth and beefy diesel engine is worth the extra. We’re talking £2,200 more than the petrol 2x4, but there would be significant fuel economy benefits to come. At the top of the range, for those not too concerned about first cost, you can have the Sportage with 2.7-litre V6 petrol engine and auto transmission as well as luxury Titan trim.

But coming back to reality our prime choice would seem to be the Kia Sportage 2-litre petrol 2WD at £13,995 if you’re not too worried about traction, otherwise the better buy seems to be the Sportage 2-litre diesel 4WD at £16,195.

Mazda CX-7
The CX-7, although a large and rugged five-door is not your typical “gas-guzzler”. Currently, there is just one version, powered by a lusty, turbo-charged 2.3-litre, 16-valve, direct injection four-cylinder petrol engine, developing up to 260 bhp smoothly and quietly with excellent flexibility, aided by an easy-acting six-speed manual gearbox transmitting the ample power through all four wheels.

However, Mazda make no special claims for off-road abilities on this model. Rather they are following the Audi philosophy that four-wheel-drive promotes safety and performance. In particular, new Bridgestone tyres, specially designed for the CX-7, have a very “normal” tread pattern owing nothing to “mud-plugging” requirements.

On some demanding (but relatively minor) Highland roads with steep inclines and many sharp bends, as well as on the new and well-engineered smooth and flowing main roads which are now typical of that region, the CX-7 proved to be a very roomy, rapid, comfortable, quiet and well-equipped five-door estate car rather than a burly SUV.

The character of the CX-7 varies according to how you drive it. If you’re in a relaxed mood, the “comfortable estate car” side of its nature prevails. If you’re feeling busy, it becomes a purposeful and rapid five-seater sports car

With good handling, the manufacturer claims a top speed of 130 mph and 0-60 mph acceleration of under eight seconds. Mazda give a 27.7 miles per gallon figure for the “combined cycle” fuel consumption figure.

The sophisticated transmission features what is claimed to be a unique “Active Torque-Split” system, ensuring its torque (“pulling power” of up to 280 lb.ft.) is applied to maximum effect by monitoring the steering angle, yaw rate, wheel speed, lateral G-force and throttle valve position to optimise road holding. It does this by distributing the power from extremes of 100/0 per cent to 50/50 per cent between the front and rear axles.

Bearing in mind its good build-quality, spaciousness, performance and high level of standard equipment (the only quoted “extra” is £875 for leather upholstery) it looks to be competitively priced at £23,960.

At the moment, the CX-7 is available only with the 2.3-litre turbo petrol engine. At the car’s Press launch, it was suggested that a diesel motor might well be offered in the not-too-distant future. The Ford family (of which Mazda is part) has some very good diesels, not least the French-designed and Dagenham-built 2.7-litre V6 as used in the Jaguar S-type, which produces 205 horsepower and an amazing 302 lb/ft of torque. Now there’s an interesting thought!

Nissan X-Trail
It didn’t take long in the new Nissan X-Trail to be tremendously impressed by this vehicle and to feel that we would be very happy to live with one of these. The new range has much in common with the oddly-named Qashqai, with the result that it’s a bit larger and longer by 175 mm than its predecessor.

It’s a most pleasing car to drive, without any of the slightly lumbering nature that tends to make many off-roaders seem rather cumbersome and bulky, and it shows that you can have a car which treats road humps with contempt, provides very comfortable travel over our neglected roads, yet also gives precise and reassuring handling through fast corners.

The new X-Trail comes with a choice of four engines, three of which are new to the model. We drove first the 2-litre diesel in 149 bhp form which provided very lively, quiet and responsive performance combined with noise levels impressively low for a diesel.

It’s claimed to give nearly 40 mpg, with an emissions figure of 190 gm/km (Band F, tax £205 per annum). Later we tried the 171 bhp version of the same engine, fitted with an intercooler to give added power, but surprisingly it’s not quite so economical and the emissions figure is a little higher. It also proved slightly more noisy.

At the launch in Shropshire, Nissan provided quite a demanding off-road course all to be tackled in the dark - something we have never done before. It proved quite exciting, and we are pleased to report that we didn’t hit any trees, and it was all made considerably easier by tackling it in a version fitted with automatic transmission. It took all the rough stuff and extremely steep climbs without the slightest problems, and when it came to very steep descents it was only necessary to press a button to introduce the hill-descent feature which allows one to go creeping down under complete control with foot off the brake pedal, giving great confidence.

The less powerful (149 bhp) diesel and 2.5 petrol engines get a CVT automatic transmission, but this diesel can also be specified with a conventional six-speed automatic. Normal drive is to the front wheels, but a switch is turned to bring in four-wheel drive when needed, or for very tricky terrain four-wheel drive with locked differential can be selected by a further turn of the control switch.

X-trail buyers will need to settle down with the price list and brochures to decide which model to go for, since there is a bewildering choice of models with unlikely names such as the Sport eXpedition, and the Aventura eXplorer eXtreme to be considered, as well as the selection from four engines - 2-litre petrol, two 2-litre diesels, and a 2.5-litre petrol - all having four cylinders and (except for automatics) six-speed manual gearboxes.

We did like the huge panoramic glass sunroof which also opens, and we think this feature plus the many additions justifies the extra cost, so as Prime Choice we would nominate the X-trail 2.0dCi Sport Expedition with 149 bhp diesel engine at £23,195.

Hyundai i30
It’s perhaps not the most inspiring of car names, but this is how the Hyundai range will be identified in future: the small letter ‘i’ followed by the number ranging from 10 to 50, so the new mid-range model is launched as the i30.

In a strategic move for the Korean manufacturer, the newcomer was designed and developed in Europe, specifically for the European market, so we find ESP (electronic stability programme) as standard on all models, and the indicators stalk, normally always on the right in Korean cars, is on the left as is familiar for British cars. Hyundai pitches the i30 into what is known as the C-Segment of the market, where it is claimed to compete with cars such as the Ford Focus and Peugeot 307.

At the launch in Hertfordshire we drove first the 1.4-litre which starts the range attractively priced at £10,995, and impressed very well with the quietness and smoothness of its petrol engine; but it is a little lacking in punch and calls for quite a lot of gear changing and the use of fairly high revs. The diesel version tried later is a whole lot more responsive, but it’s also considerably more money because the i30 1.4 has no direct equivalent in the diesel line-up. Instead, it has a 1.6-litre engine, and the added cost is £2,000. Is it worth the extra? Certainly yes for the high mileage driver who will benefit from the better economy (the i30 petrol 1.4 gave 42.2 mpg on the test drive, which improved to 52.3 with the diesel 1.6), but not if the i30 is to serve as a second car and not be exposed to long, fast journeys.

The i30 has a roomy five-door body and well planned features such as the lidded compartments at top and bottom of the console, and a computer giving read-outs of mpg, mph and fuel range. Alloy wheels are standard, there’s a full-size spare wheel under the boot floor.

The car features air conditioning and repeater controls for the audio unit on the steering wheel. A disappointing feature is the darkness of the instruments making them difficult to read in many light conditions; they would be much better back lit. There is ratchet height adjustment for the driving seat.

Behaviour on the road is reassuring, with precise steering and tidy handling. The suspension gives a comfortable ride with good suppression of tyre roar and wheel thump. The ventilation and air conditioning work well.

Three trim levels are available, starting with Comfort, but not a lot is added by the next stage up, called Style. The top trim is Premium which brings leather seats with heating, and such features as rain-sensing wipers, and at the top of the range there is a 2-litre diesel engine. An estate car will join the range soon. The special attraction, as with all of the Hyundai range, is the standard provision of an unlimited mileage five-year warranty.

The importers expect roughly a 50/50 split between petrol and diesel sales. Inevitably as one moves up through the range, the competitive price edge diminishes, with the 2-litre CRDi diesel with Premium trim running out at £16,595, and the best value seems to be at the bottom of the range. So we would nominate two models as Prime Choices, namely the Hyundai i30 1.4 Comfort for £10,995 and for £2k more the Hyundai i30 1.6 CRDi Comfort.

Renault Megane Diesel
It’s usually the way that when the same model is offered in two versions, one more sporty and beefed up than the other, the more basic one often proves to be the more sensible choice, especially when account is taken of pricing and value.

That said, on this occasion we preferred the special and more sporty version of the new Renault Megane dCi 175, given the unusual name Cup. We enjoyed the Megane with the new diesel engine, which surely raises the benchmark for four-cylinder diesel excellence. It’s a 2-litre with 16 valves, meeting Euro 4 emissions, and produces an exceptionally high power output of 175 bhp, and impressed not only with its high torque response and performance, but also with the superb smoothness and quietness. Only the rev counter with its usual diesel limitation to under 5,000 rpm reminds one that it is a diesel. But then we graduated to the Cup version, and liked it even better.

Power and performance are the same for both engines, the differences arising from stiffer springs and dampers, and the fitting of Recaro high-back seats. It was also tried as a three-door, whereas standard Renaultsport dCi 175 had five-doors.

Adjusting the backrest with the Recaro seats involves opening the door to get access to the handwheel adjuster, but once set they are very snug and hold one firmly when exploiting the very lively handling and acceleration of this new Renault oil burner. Acceleration from rest to 80 mph takes only 14.6 seconds, and exhaust emissions are 172 g/km. Only 36.2 mpg was recorded on the test route, but this was in very demanding mountainous terrain, and the official claimed figure is 43.5 mpg which is more realistic

Two things which we didn’t like about this new sporty diesel Megane are the pronounced blind spot on corners caused by the very thick windscreen pillars, and the shiny aluminium pedals with studs. But all else combines to make this one of the most satisfying 2-litre diesels we have driven. As the Cup version is not yet available and has not been priced, we reckon the extras added by the Lux trim for an additional £1,400 are sufficient to justify the extra cost, so Prime Choice is the Megane Renaultsport dCi 175 Lux at £20,350

Renault Clio F1
Renault’s launch programme for the new sport models included four laps of the Baga circuit in the new Clio F1 Team R27 which is just becoming available in a limited edition of only 500 cars, mainly for competition work at £17,250.

With its 2-litre atmo (non-turbo) engine revving to 7,250 rpm and producing a fabulous 197 bhp it proved most exciting to drive, yet also very controllable on the circuit, bounding up to 108 mph on the quite short straight. Lots of fun but not for the realistic buyer!

Toyota Auris
It can be said that the introduction of the Auris to replace the ever-popular and widely selling Corolla was a gamble by Toyota. However, after driving a diesel engined variant of this new European-designed hatchback, and covering in excess of 250 miles over some demanding road surfaces, we feel that any risk by the manufacturer has paid off handsomely in favour of the sleek newcomer.

Boasting greater interior space and fresher exterior styling than its illustrious predecessor, yet retaining Toyota's traditional quality, the all-new car displayed excellent driving dynamics and handled superbly in all conditions encountered; perhaps another recipe for global success to mirror its legendary forebearer!

Our car's 2.0-litre diesel engine, allied to a slick six-speed gearbox, proved to be an effective all-round performer; other diesels are of 1.4 and 2.2-litre capacity. For petrol devotees, 1.4 and 1.6-litre units are available.

An optional automatic/sequential transmission is also specified, as is a five-speed manual gearbox on the petrol engined cars and the 1.4 D-4D. Fuel consumption was excellent returning in excess of 50 mpg overall. A comprehensive range of up-to-the-minute safety features are incorporated, as is air conditioning and many other modern day goodies.

Auris's practicality and solid build quality should deliver traditional Toyota reliability and high residues, assets to be appreciated when pitched against the likes of the Ford Focus, Honda's Civic and VW Golf. Maybe it has one or two minor niggles - we aren't too keen on keyless devises for entry and starting the engine - but this is entirely personal and do not distract from the attractive overall package.

With a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating for adult occupant protection, prices start at just over £12k on-the-road. We wish it luck in continuing the massive worldwide sales of its predecessor.



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