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A brief round-up of a few cars, products and news
that have come our way over recent months.
We also nominate our Prime Choice from the models
driven during the launch test appraisal.

Our main contributor is Stuart Bladon.

Lexus IS 300h Premier
What is the point of a hybrid? that is the question many may ask. Well, you could not do better than drive the Lexus IS 300 which immediately shows the benefits that accrue, of which a chief one is the quietness. When ready to move off you simply press the ‘Power’ button and move the selector control to the D position. Release the parking brake by pressing it with the left foot, and the car moves away in complete silence. After a little while the petrol engine may cut in and again it is extremely quiet and unobtrusive. But the advantages of hybrid don’t stop there; it is also extremely powerful and very economical. We didn’t see the claimed 60.1 mpg, but consumption was always on the right side of 40, averaging 43.6 mpg for our full test. CO2 emissions figure is 101 g/km, bringing annual car tax down to £20.

We didn’t see the claimed 60.1 mpg, but consumption was always on the right side of 40, averaging 43.6 mpg for our full test. CO2 emissions is 101 g/km, bringing annual car tax down to £20.

   In the 300h there is a new 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine with very high compression and power output of 178 bhp. The engine is mounted longitudinally, and in-line with the engine is an electric motor giving 141 bhp. The two together when working in full power mode give impressive acceleration, soaring up to 80 mph in just 13.7 seconds. The hybrid configuration brings a lot of simplification, revealed when you open the bonnet; there are no visible drive belts, no starter or alternator and no conventional 12-volt battery. The battery is a nickel metal hydride unit mounted under the boot floor, and power to the battery is taken by a charger unit running off the back of the engine. Also in line with the petrol engine is the electric motor, and drive is taken to the rear wheels through an electrically controlled CVT transmission with six speeds.

   A rotary control behind the transmission selector gives a choice of power modes, beginning with the ECO mode which we used most of the time, through sport position, and there is even a snow selection which controls power to the rear wheels to avoid wheelspin. Full electric power can also be selected, though after a while the petrol engine cuts in unobtrusively to prevent the battery strength from getting too depleted. Paddle switches beneath the steering wheel give transmission down-changes, on the left, and up on the right, and the display between the instruments shows what has been selected. Again, we found little need to use these controls because power response was always so good and immediate. The trip computer can be switched to show a power display, revealing whether the car is being driven electrically or by petrol, as well as showing the state of charge. On the over-run, and when braking, the car’s energy is fed back into the battery. There is no provision to plug the electric system in to the mains; it is entirely self-sufficient.

   As well as these ingenious refinements, the IS300h is luxuriously equipped. It has very precise steering, extremely responsive brakes with internally vented discs at all wheels, and suspension giving a refined ride in which bumps are heard rather than felt. Seats are upholstered in perforated leather with heating for all four, and there is electric adjustment for both front seats with three memory settings for the driver. When the power is switched off, the driving seat moves back slightly and the steering wheel is raised for easy access. The steering wheel position is electrically adjustable.

   A navigation system with large and clear map sensibly mounted at the top of the console is standard with the Premier model, and standard or optional on all other versions. It gives good guidance with clear instructions, but we thought an annoying feature is that every time the power is turned off, the map reverts to half screen display with the second half showing the audio selection. The audio system in the Premier model is exceptionally good.

   In addition to the 2.5-litre 300 series there is also the 200 with 2-litre engine but we feel the extra cost of the larger engine is worth it, and all 300 models have electrically-controlled CVT transmission. The range starts at £28,995 for the SE, a long way below the £36,750 of the Premier model as tested, but as a buyer we would be attracted by the Luxury model which comes with a wide range of options, so we name as Prime Choice the IS300h Luxury with 2.5-litre hybrid drive and CVT transmission, for £30,995.

Japanese firms did it first, with companies like Toyota launching an offshoot make called Lexus, and last year Citroën joined the move towards a separate branch of the make with the launch of DS5. The name DS evokes memories of the Citroën DS of 1955, which in its day was one of the most advanced new models with its futuristic styling and hydraulic suspension. There is nothing very unique or unusual in the new model called DS4, but there are some clever features such as the way in which the rear door handles of the five-door hatchback are concealed into the window frame, giving it more the appearance of a Coupé, and especially clever is the way in which the windscreen sweeps back into the roof giving a panoramic view, but is provided with pull-down extensions of the roof lining to cut out excess light in very bright conditions. These pull-down extensions also have sun visors attached, and they are individual, running in slides formed in the mounting for the interior mirror, so that one front occupant may have the extension down, while on the other side it is up, or of course, they can both be operated together.


    DS4 comes in two body styles with similar hatchback styling, while the slightly more adventurous one is called the Crossback. It has an under-plate at the rear giving a suggestion of suitability for off-road use but it is emphasised that DS4 does not have any pretensions to off-road motoring, and is not going to be offered in four-wheel drive form. It has front drive from a transversely-mounted engine, and all models have six speeds, whether manual or automatic. The Crossback also has longitudinal runners for mounting a roof rack. A wide range of engines is offered for the DS4 hatchback beginning with a 1,200 cc three-cylinder which starts the price range at £19,495. All other models have four-cylinder engines, mainly of 1.6-litre capacity in petrol and diesel, plus two versions with 2-litre diesels giving 147 bhp (manual) and 178 bhp (automatic).

     For the Crossback model there is only one petrol engine - the three-cylinder 1.2-litre as for the hatchback - and two diesels, a 1.6-litre 118 bhp unit and top of the range is the 2-litre diesel with 176 bhp output and available with automatic transmission only. Further choice of models is given by two trim levels for the hatchback called Elegance and Prestige. The Crossback comes only with standard trim, called Pure Tech, and Blue HDi equating to the dearer Prestige level in the hatchback range.
   We started our test drives in the DS4 hatchback with 2-litre diesel engine, automatic transmission and Prestige trim, priced at £25,495. It impressed straight away with the quietness of its engine, giving reasonably lively performance, but fuel consumption was a bit disappointing at 39.1 mpg and so was the ride which was very joggey and bouncy on poor roads. Instruments are unusual with the speedometer illuminated in blue around the periphery with just the red end of the pointer showing. It can be changed to a plain colour if preferred. The rev counter is an increasing circle of blocks, as is the fuel gauge on the right, but the rev counter tends to be hidden by the steering wheel. All models have keyless entry and engine start, as well as automatic stop/start at temporary halts.
   At £2,000 less, surprisingly, our next test drive was in the Crossback with 120 bhp 1.6-litre diesel engine and six-speed manual transmission.  Although rated at 60 bhp less, this version seemed every bit as lively as the 180 hatchback, and we found this model to be altogether more pleasing especially from the point of view of ride comfort. Perhaps it gains from the 40mm extra ride height compared with the DS4 Prestige model, although the suspension by transverse beam and coil springs is much the same. With trim level called Blue HDi, the Crossback 120 has most of the features of the hatchback plus some additional ones like the roof rack runners; we thought it a much more attractive bargain and so name as our Prime Choice the DS4 Crossback 1.6-litre 120 bhp diesel 6-speed manual at £23,495 or with automatic transmission at £1,200 extra.

Garmin nüviCam
Many drivers fear an accident or even a deliberate assault by another vehicle, resulting in damage that was not their fault, and as a safeguard fit a camera to the windscreen which will store evidence to prove that they were not to blame. But with a navigation aid on the screen as well, there is a risk of too much obstruction as well as possible distraction, so a clever move by Garmin is the introduction of camera and navigator in one unit. It’s the nüviCam, and we have been allowed a short one-week trial with a test unit.

   As far as the safety camera aspect is concerned we were very impressed, and on play-back after a journey the picture through the windscreen shows clearly the road and traffic situation while alongside half of the screen display shows a map with the progress of the vehicle on the road revealed by a marker, so any occurrence can be pinpointed showing exactly where the vehicle was at the time. In addition, the driver can press a button at the corner of the screen to take a picture recording any incident. Moving pictures are stored on a small memory card and can be transferred to a computer.

   It is also possible to set the unit to select what seem to be accident situations and record them automatically, but we found this rather distracting and preferred to turn it off. A good feature of the unit is that one can make one’s own choice as to what features to have on or off, such as the lane departure warning system, and the sound recording which retains conversations and even the verbal route instructions. One needs to bear in mind that the speed of your vehicle is being recorded on the line below the picture all the time the camera is switched on, so it might not be very helpful as evidence if it showed your own speed to have been above the limit. Speed shown is always correct, based on the GPS signal, regardless of the car’s speedometer.

   For navigation, the nüviCam produces a very clear map, and instructions are given in good time and easy to follow. There are two aspects which disappointed, compared with ordinary Garmin navigators. The first is that it tried to be too clever, and when putting in a post code, after the initial group of digits it tries to guess the rest and produces a list of digits for the remainder of the post code. If the one you want isn’t there, it’s quite a fiddly business to get back to keying in the numbers and letters. The other shortcoming is that although it shows the ETA (estimated time of arrival), it doesn't’t show the distance to destination. Only the distance to next instruction is shown.
   Inevitably the unit is large, and when fitted to the top of the windscreen of an Audi A3 it was quite obstructive requiring one to look beneath it much as one does when the sun visor is down on a bright day. Mounted at the bottom of the screen the blocked view could be potentially dangerous. There is also need for the power cable to trail down to the power socket, and for another wire to run across to the windscreen microphone. A clever feature is that the suction mount for the windscreen has a magnetic connection, so it is the work of a moment to remove it, leaving the mount and wiring in place, and equally quick to refix it.  Available from Halfords and other good retailers, the device costs £309.

No Speed Limit
A new book by our own contributor, Stuart Bladon, recently hit the bookshelves and is proving popular with motor clubs, if recent comments are anything to go by. Naturally, it would be remiss of this magazine to review it ourselves, so we have reprinted below a few comments from other motoring publications:

  “A flick through this new book may suggest that this is just another rather dry critique of the many cars that have passed through the author Stuart Bladon’s hands over the years, but it’s much more than that.”

   “The period covered is the half century following the Second World War and the consequences of his decision to follow the path of journalism with its opportunities to travel widely and sample so many vehicles.  More than 70 are featured in a range from pre-war small cars and early camper vans to the attractive sumptuousness of Rolls-Royces, mainly in the employment of the journal Autocar (where in 1970, he set what was for a long time that magazine’s fastest road test maximum speed, at 172mph) but latterly as a freelance writer.”

   “Stuart has chosen to use each car as a marker in painting a picture of the progress in automotive technology, the environment that has shaped it and the life of the journalist who reports it. Inevitably there is an element of autobiography in such an undertaking and what comes over is his abiding fascination with the car, its components and the way in which it influences the driver’s attitude to it.  There is a clear determination to achieve his objectives despite the efforts of officialdom and the elements.”

   “This reviewer found it difficult to put down.  Very much a book of which one says “I’ll just read one more chapter.  They’re only short.”

   Just in time for Dad’s stocking filler, the 271 page book retails for £14.99 and the publishers can be reached on or through any good bookshop.

Mitsubishi Outlander - PHEV and Diesel
Bristol was chosen for the launch of the latest versions of Mitsubishi’s Outlander, and with its fairly horrendous traffic problems it was a good choice to show off the advantages of an electric hybrid car. The test route starting right in the centre of the city took us through a maze of traffic lights and queues of vehicles which would have been frustrating in a more conventional car even with stop/start action at all the halts, but with the PHEV it was just a matter of touching the brake to stop, releasing it to inch forward, and occasionally giving a press of the accelerator on the rare occasions when a little burst of speed was possible. Ingeniously, the 19-mile course brought the charge indicator - which shows how much energy is left in the battery - down to the bottom of the scale but without firing up the petrol engine as would have happened soon afterwards to replenish the charge.

   The initials PHEV stand for Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle, and we reported on the impressive Mitsubishi Outlander in 2014. The justification for another look at it is the wide range of improvements introduced for the third generation, including revised exterior styling.

The new car is 40 mm longer (just over 1½ in) and has shallower headlamps, now with LED lighting and day running lamps. There are many changes to the interior styling and materials and the suspension has been made firmer, but ride is still comfortable.

   Paddle switches below the steering wheel allow the charge rate on the overrun to be increased in five stages so that when descending a steep hill, or to bring the speed down for a red traffic light or a roundabout, the energy is put back into the battery instead of using the brakes. Emissions and performance are slightly improved, and noise levels reduced.

   The main advantage of the PHEV is, of course, the ability to drive in electric-only mode up to about 20 miles (the official claim on a less demanding route is 32 miles), so for commuting work it could be possible to go for weeks without visiting a petrol station. But there are other advantages, one being that companies can claim 100 per cent write-down charge in the first year, and that the Benefit-in-kind (BIK) charge for company car users is based on only 5 per cent of the purchase cost. Another advantage is that the drive is to all four wheels by separate front and rear motors. The petrol engine cuts in for high speed running giving power to the front wheels, and is the vital back-up to charge the battery when mains electricity is not available. There is also no annual car tax to pay, and the vehicle is exempt from the London Congestion charge. The most important benefit, other than saving fuel costs, is the Government grant of £5,000 towards the purchase cost, which brings the price of the GX3h down from £34,249 to £29,249. Costing £1,000 more is the new version called GX3h+ which adds a pre-heater, ability to set heating or air conditioning remotely from an iPhone, and heated front seats. The top model, GX4h costs £3,650 more but brings a lot more luxury equipment.
   On a longer test route less beset by tedious traffic delays we were able to drive the new Outlander diesel which has the advantage over the PHEV that in GX3 form it has three rows of seats and can take seven in comfort. The third row seats are divided and fold into the floor, and the second row also folds and has sliding adjustment to give space for legs or luggage as required. There is just one diesel engine, with capacity of 2.2-litre and 150 PS output. Transmission is six-speed, either manual or automatic with ‘on demand’ four-wheel drive. Normal drive is to the front wheels, with rear drive coming in when wheelspin is detected, or permanent four-wheel drive can be selected for extreme conditions.
   Both versions of the Outlander have a five-year 62,500-mile warranty, and the battery powering the PHEV is covered for eight years. The price of the diesel GX3 automatic is the same as for the PHEV GX3h, £29,249, meaning that effectively the Government pays for the extra cost of the PHEV system. The six-speed manual version is £27,599.
   After our drive in the PHEV Outlander our fuel consumption was given as 1,412 mpg! I think we only invoked the petrol engine once, and that was on a rare occasion when there was a chance for full power to be used. With the diesel, at much higher speeds including a short section of M5, we returned 40.5 mpg. Having driven both cars we had an interesting discussion as to which one we would take away if offered the choice of an Outlander for a long term loan, and both agreed it would be the PHEV. So our Prime Choice emerges as the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV GX3h+ costing, after Government help, £30,249.

Kia Sportage 2.0 CRDI KX4 
It doesn’t seem long since the Kia Sportage was given a range of improvements and additional equipment in 2013, but already a newer version has appeared at the 2015 Frankfurt Show. For the British buyer there is much to feel content about in the shape of the present and now well-established model which has proved an immensely popular and successful sport utility vehicle (SUV) offering a wide choice of power units, transmissions and equipment.

   For this test we were able to try the most expensive model of the range. With a 2-litre diesel engine and automatic transmission, it gives 181 bhp and the KX4 designation reveals that it has permanent four-wheel drive. Transmission ratio changes are smooth and most of the time hardly noticeable, and the system changes down very quickly when extra power is needed. Up-down changes can be commanded by moving the selector to the right into Tiptronic mode. Surprisingly there is no engine stop/start provision during temporary halts, but we did appreciate the way in which the engine starts first time from cold after just a quick press on the start button.

   First impression was the quietness of the diesel power unit, as well as its smoothness and lusty performance, reaching 80 mph in 16.8 seconds with a top speed given as 121 mph. Not quite so pleasing was the fuel consumption which turned out to be under 30 mpg rather than the claimed 39.2, but the Sportage is a big and heavy vehicle. Seeing a fixed towbar at the back we were glad of the opportunity to test its towing ability with a 1,200 kg caravan coupled up.

   This is well within the car’s 1,600 kg towing limit, so it is not surprising that the Sportage made light work of the extra drag, and it proved so stable that only the sight of it in the mirrors reminded one that the caravan was there. It was good to find, also, that the 13-pin electric socket had been correctly wired including power to the caravan fridge and battery - something many firms find it convenient to overlook. The tow hitch supplied was not detachable except by unbolting. Inevitably the fuel consumption increased rapidly when towing, to 21.5 mpg in motorway work but improved to a more reasonable 23.6 at lower speeds on ordinary roads. The good stability owes much to the very short overhang of the Sportage body behind the rear wheels, and in addition there is a towing stability system to apply light braking force at the appropriate front wheels if any caravan snaking is detected.

   The suspension is firm, giving quite a lot of thump over bumps and tyre roar is the dominant noise. The steering is positive and light with a commendably tight turning circle. Audio controls are on the left of the steering wheel. Immediate response and progression are provided by the brakes, and the provision of a conventional pull-up handbrake is backed up by a hill-hold feature for starts on gradients.

   There are many pleasing features in the Sportage which make it easy to see why it is in strong demand, with large, clear instruments and a navigation system showing a detailed map but the figures of distance and time to destination are too small to be read from the driving seat. The car has keyless locking and engine control, and a pleasing detail at night is the way the interior lights come on when the driver approaches with key, even before triggering the unlock command by a touch on the door handle.

   Three engines are offered for the Sportage: 1.6 litre petrol with direct injection, or turbo diesels with 1.7 or 2-litre capacity. All 2-litre models have four-wheel drive and come with choice of manual or automatic transmission, both with six speeds. Prices begin at £17,465 for the 1.6-litre manual front drive, and from there it’s a big jump to the top of the range model as tested being £12,000 dearer. A good midway compromise, unless one wants the ‘Sat Nav’ feature, is the one we recommend as Prime choice, namely the Sportage 2.0 CRDI KX3 four-wheel drive six-speed manual diesel at £25,500 or automatic at £26,810.

Tesla S
We didn’t expect the day would come when we would be enthralled by an electric car, but the American-built Tesla has changed all that. Its assets are, primarily, very low running costs, even down to zero as will be explained later, quietness, comfort and stunning performance. Time and again we wondered if we could overtake but just pressed the accelerator down and rocketed safely past what ever was in the way. Its acceleration time from rest to 80 mph is 8.2 seconds, which puts it among the fastest cars tested here. What really makes it stand out from other electric cars is the range coupled with the speed of charging at selected Supercharger points, and the clear display showing exactly how far it will run before the charge is exhausted. Obviously one needs to know this, and to plan how far you will travel because you can’t just swan into the nearest garage and say “fill ’er up, please”.

   On one typical journey we were diverted by a blocked motorway which meant a lengthy detour adding to the expected mileage, but we knew there was a Supercharger point near Winchester and the standard navigation system took us there without difficulty. On turning in to the Sainsbury’s supermarket filling station we saw the Tesla signs straight away and reversed into one of the charging bays. Press the button to open the charge flap, take the charging plug which is rather like a petrol dispenser, and press it into the car’s socket. Charging starts straight away - no fuss with credit cards, no checking to see what fuel was going in, and after starting at 3.48pm with range shown as 55 miles, it had increased to 200 miles by 4.25pm. We could have driven away then but waited until it showed ‘fully charged’ at 4.36 pm - that’s less than an hour to bring the battery up from 55 miles range to 217.

   After taking on energy for more than 200 miles, we asked: “Who pays for the electricity?” and were told: “We do.”  Incredible but true, and they say this will continue for at Supercharger points you get your fuel free. Move to Winchester or wherever there’s a Supercharger point nearby, and it could almost be worth it! The other important move is to have a charger installed at home. I have a Pod Point rapid charger but unfortunately its plug is not compatible with that on Tesla, so would need to be converted at cost of about £150. You can also charge from an ordinary domestic three-pin socket but it is slow this way and would need to be on all night. On getting into Tesla to drive away, with key in pocket, all you do is put a foot on the brake pedal, which brings the car to life, and move the column-mounted selector down, for Drive, or up for Reverse. Then it’s all controlled by the steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedal.

   Visibility is good except for the very thick screen pillars, and when reversing you get a large picture on the central screen, which can also be switched on to serve as a rear view mirror when driving forward instead of the conventional mirror.

   On arrival at your destination you simply press a button on the end of the drive selector, which engages Park. There’s no handbrake to be applied; that joins the list of traditional motoring things which are redundant with this amazing electric car, along with: ignition, gears, clutch, anti-freeze, radiators, engine oil, fuel tanks, oh and of course, all important, annual car tax. For company car owners the annual Benefit in Kind tax is only 5 per cent, and even for this luxury car the Government forks out £5,000 to help with the purchase cost. There are many options you may want to add, such as air suspension at £2,100, or range increased by up to 6 per cent for £380. There’s also a four-wheel drive version offering 275 miles range and 140 mph maximum speed, but our Prime Choice we would be very happy with the model tested, the Tesla S85 with Government grant bringing the price down from £64,000 to £59,000. Yes, it’s expensive, but Tesla claims overall savings of up to £55,000 in five years.

Audi TT Roadster 2.0 TDI
This looks like being the new ‘face’ of future Audi models, and very effective it is. The instrument panel is an all-electronic display, with speedometer and rev counter appearing as conventional instruments but with the important difference that they are pictorial. What appear to be red pointers travelling round the dials are created electronically and the two instruments are positioned either side of the navigation map. It’s an ideal location for the map, clearly seen at a glance with no more distraction than looking down through the top of the steering wheel to see how fast you are going.

   In the centre of the speedometer is a digital read-out showing speed, and alongside is the official speed limit for the road. In the rev counter at the left of the display is a number showing what gear is engaged and this changes to an arrow and another number, higher or lower, to suggest when a change of gear is recommended. At the touch of a button on the steering wheel the two instruments can be made much larger and easier to read, though this of course reduces the map area. Everything else one may need to know, such as engine temperature, fuel contents and range, etc., are displayed on the panel.

   All this clever technology was experienced on the latest version of Audi’s two-seater sports car, the TT, tried in 2-litre turbo diesel form, and the Roadster title denotes the convertible body in which the hood can be put up or down in 10 seconds as you drive along, provided speed is below 30 mph.

 A see-through screen can be raised or lowered electrically behind the seats to cut down back draught. The boot extends well forward below the hood compartment.

   Handling of the TT is superb, so that there is not much need to slow down for open corners, and stability at speed is also hairline with steering that is dead accurate and is electrically powered and controlled. One thing we definitely did not like was when suddenly the steering started to do odd things - pulling and snatching slightly, making us wonder what had gone wrong until it was realised that we had inadvertently switched on the ‘active lane assist’ feature, intended to remind the driver who is perhaps about to fall asleep that attention is wandering and the car beginning to drift out of lane. A very good safety device, but no thanks! We’ll save the £650 extra that this feature costs!

   Also something of a revolution is the 2-litre diesel engine which is exceptionally quiet on modest power, and gives soaring acceleration with a lusty roar when opened up, taking the TT from rest to 80 mph in the very quick time of 12.2 seconds. Fuel consumption was consistently better than 50 mpg, and the average for our extended test mileage was 52.4 mpg.

   Drawbacks of the TT are restricted space in which to put anything in the car with the need to slide the seat forward to place a coat or other small item behind the seats, and the very harsh ride which results from Sport suspension and low profile tyres on our test car. But if you want fun with your motoring, and speed combined with low running costs, the Audi TT provides an answer, and the way the convertible top folds is magic. It’s not often that a diesel is priced less than the petrol equivalent, but in this case it is £90 cheaper, and the official fuel consumption is nearly 20 mpg better. Having experienced how quiet and wonderfully responsive this diesel is, we have no hesitation in recommending as our Prime Choice the TT Roadster 2.0 TDI Ultra Sport 6-speed at £31,995.

JLR Driving Day
16 models from the ever-improving Jaguar and Land Rover ranges were recently made available for test driving, and it was a case of ‘early out’ to make sure of grabbing one of the new XE models before colleagues had booked them all. XE is Jaguar’s new sporting four-door saloon, of largely aluminium construction, claimed to be the driver’s car in the mid-size segment.

Jaguar XE
“Would you like a sweet?” asked my colleague. “Yes, thanks very much,” I replied, and then we found a first snag with the new Jaguar XE ‑ there’s no ashtray, not that anyone smokes in a car any more, but where do you put the sweet paper? Also missing, but perhaps excusable, there’s no spare wheel, and little stowage space is provided in the cabin.  Imagine a long touring holiday, with nowhere to put maps and papers, except in a very shallow door pocket where they would be at risk of falling out, or in a diminutive glove box that opens downward and falls on to your knees. Instead, the front passenger is confronted by a huge curved plastic-covered panel housing the airbag. It’s also a very low car, and you have to duck your head when getting in or risk bumping it, but this all contributes to the exceptionally low drag, which goes with the aluminium construction to make the XE a very light and efficient car.

   Impressions of the new Jaguar improve enormously once it is fired up with a touch on the start button and you drive away, relishing the wonderful quietness and superb response of the 2-litre turbocharged engine. There are four versions of the 2-litre engine, two diesel and two petrol, all turbocharged. Our test car had the most powerful of the four, giving 240 PS.

All models have an eight-speed auto transmission, with six-speed manual for the diesels. Top of the range is a 3-litre supercharged V6 giving 340 PS. Engines are mounted in-line driving the rear wheels.

   Superbly smooth and responsive, the automatic has paddle switches below the steering wheel if you want to override the automatic change points. Also brought to a fine art is the steering, now electrically powered, and giving hairline response combined with a tight turning circle for easy manoeuvring. When reversing, a very clear picture of what is behind comes up on the navigation screen. A head-up display on the windscreen shows the car’s speed and alongside is the current prescribed speed limit, and this display is easier to see than the instruments which are rather remote and not as clear as they might be. The seats are electrically adjustable and hold occupants snugly. Rear seats are also comfy and passengers are not short of legroom. Electric adjustment is also provided for the steering column, though the wheel doesn’t go back as far as we would have liked.

   After a fairly sedate cruise on the official test route which gave few opportunities for fast driving, the XE indicated consumption of 28.5 mpg, which is about in line with the claimed 37.7 combined figure. This more powerful version comes with a larger fuel tank, holding 63 litres (13.8 gallons). The economy model with 163 PS diesel engine holds only 47 litres, but is claimed to return a phenomenal 75 mpg.

   This necessarily short appraisal run left us full of admiration for the XE’s road behaviour, with brilliant handling, steering, brakes and ride, but needing a little more attention to the ergonomics of the interior. It had the intermediate trim level called Portfolio and was priced at £33,740, raised to £43,908 by the options including a sliding glass sunroof.

F-Type Coupé
A taste of the supercharged V6 3-litre engine came with a drive in the F-Type Coupé, experiencing again the lovely smoothness and quietness of this much more powerful engine, coupled with an angry roar and colossal response when the very sensitive throttle is tickled a little too much. The transmission was the standard six-speed manual with pleasantly short travel and easy action to its gear change, and smooth clutch take-up.

   Rather like the XE, it is a congested interior with not much space in which to put anything, and there is not even room behind the seats for anything more bulky than a light jacket. It’s essentially a car built for the purpose of very rapid travel, backed up by most reassuring handling and steering, plus fiercely responsive brakes.

The F-Type Coupé ran out at £51,260, plus ‘only’ £7,500 worth of extras. Owners of such a car will not be bothered much about fuel economy, but the 25.5 mpg returned on our test run seemed very reasonable.

   F-Type is available with four-wheel drive and choice of Coupé or convertible bodywork, and for those with plenty of bonus money a Type R Coupé is available at £91,660, which just neatly touched £100,000 when the extras were added.

Range Rover 16MY
As always on these test days one needs much longer to be able to assess all the cars available, but we did feel obliged to take out one of the seven Land Rovers available for testing, and the choice was well rewarded with a magnificent drive in the top Range Rover with Autobiography trim and V6 3-litre diesel engine. 

   How do they manage to make a diesel engine so quiet and smooth? But also the whole aura of luxury in this car was simply superb from the rich aroma of all that leather to the brilliant way in which the suspension flattens out our neglected roads.

   We might have wondered why anyone would pay out £91,550 for a large and rather bulky cross-country vehicle, but after driving the Range Rover one wonders no more. It is simply luxurious.

Jaguar XF
On display, but not available for driving, was a pre-production version of the revised XF model, incorporating a number of improvements and some styling revisions. This new XF is due out later this year.

Fiat 500C Twin Air
“How many cylinders did you say?”“Two” “I thought that was what you said. Goodness, it must be as rough as an old bear’s ----!” But it isn’t, and that’s the remarkable thing about the Fiat 500C: it’s so smooth and quiet that one would never know that it was only a two-cylinder, and the engine develops 105 bhp, enough to give this little car surprisingly zestful performance. 

It goes from rest to 80 mph in a quite respectable time of 21.1 seconds, and the top speed is claimed to be 117 mph. The secret to its performance is that it is turbocharged.

   Under the bonnet the engine is concealed by a huge air filter pan, so there’s nothing visually to indicate how small the unit is, with capacity of just 875 cc, and in most respects the whole specification is generous. The engine is mounted transversely and drives the front wheels through a six-speed gearbox with the change lever mounted high up and readily accessible. Steering is power assisted electrically and gives precise control with a tight turning circle.

   There’s a Sport button on the facia, but we have to confess to finding not much difference when Sport was selected, but the steering becomes a little more responsive. The gears are well spaced giving a good speed range in each, and the car trickles along smoothly in second through towns, but the driver soon learns that for best response it’s helpful to keep the revs up.

   The emissions figure is only 99 g/km, so there is no tax to pay under present legislation, but the claimed 67.3 mpg seemed rather optimistic. On a gentle run the highest seen was 51.4 mpg, and the overall for the total test mileage was 46.3. Owners can budget for the low 50s but we doubt whether the claimed 80.7 mpg extra-urban figure would be realised in everyday traffic conditions. We also had some difficulty with the location of the brake pedal, which is farther back than the accelerator and quite a long way from it. With familiarity there was no difficulty but at first we wondered if we would be able to hit the brake pedal quickly in an emergency. The brakes are by discs all round, vented at front, and give very good response. The handbrake is an effective pull-up lever between the seats, and there is a hill hold provision to prevent run-back on a hill start. The suspension is very taut, giving a rather lively ride.

   The test car was the S convertible model, which has an electrically operated folding canvas top which opens in three stages.  By pressing the switch a third time, the roof folds right back behind the rear seat, where it overlaps the boot. Go to open the boot with its concealed electric switch and the hood immediately motors up to the intermediate position, allowing the boot lid to open. Luggage space is unexpectedly generous, and a space-saver spare wheel is provided below the boot floor.

   A large circular dial in front of the driver provides all the information, starting with a big digital speedo, and flanked by rev counter on the left and fuel gauge on the right. There are also two trip computers, and all other details such as time, date, outside temp, and an eco indicator, though we didn’t understand its reading and the handbook was no help.

   Well-equipped with electric windows and mirrors, remote central locking, alloy wheels and a very good radio/CD player, the 500C proved a jolly little fun car as well as being practical for long journeys and nippy for short ones. The only slight disappointment was to see the price at £16,740, for the 2014 model tested, rising to £17,020 for the 2015 version. But we can trim this a little by recommending as Prime Choice instead of the S model, the 500C Pop Star 0.9 Twin Air 105 bhp six-speed, for £15,995. There is a vast range of models from which to choose.

Toyota Prius T Spirit Hybrid
Is it viable - that’s the question to consider when looking at the possibility of investing in a hybrid electric car like the Toyota Prius, and much depends on the kind of motoring you do. If there’s to be a lot of short journey work then the Prius makes excellent sense. You could go for weeks without buying any petrol, and when the time comes to need it for a long journey the hybrid formula comes into its own.

Prius has been around for a long time, but only recently has it been available as a ‘plug-in’ car, able to have its battery recharged from the mains, and this is the big difference, making it a practicable choice.

   We found that it would run happily all the way through the New Forest from the south coast, before the petrol engine started to cut in after 12 miles, and we became used to the routine of plugging the charger in every time on arrival home. We have a high output charger which brings the battery back to full charge in about an hour and a half, and a display on the panel shows how long it will take to recover. When fully charged it switches off automatically, and when we arrived at a relative’s home with no rapid charger it was just left plugged in to the mains overnight. The charging arrangements are well thought out with a little light coming on automatically when the flap is opened so that you can see where to plug in, and a little tell-tale to show that connection is OK.

   Advantages of the hybrid electric are, of course the impressive quietness, with no sound to be heard from the motor, instant performance without any warm-up delay, and added power for acceleration with the 98 bhp of the 1.8-litre petrol engine boosted by 81 bhp from the electric motor. It took 20.3 seconds to go from rest to 80 mph, and the top speed is 112 mph. The petrol engine is also very quiet and smooth, and the transition point when it cuts in to boost the power output of the electric is imperceptible, revealed only by the red lines on the power display panel. At all times, any relaxation of the throttle pedal, for slowing down or going downhill introduces power recovery with the energy going back into the battery.

   The disadvantage is some loss of space in the luggage area where there is only a small compartment beneath the floor to stow the charging cables, and no spare wheel - just a repair kit and inflator. The other disadvantage, of course is the price, which is hefty at £33,395, but made viable while the Government grant of £5,000 continues, bringing the net price down to £28,890 including £495 for metallic paint; and there is no tax to pay since the CO2 emissions are only 49 g/km.

   Driving the Prius is exceptionally easy although it’s a pity that the parking brake is foot-operated, and has to be pressed again to release it, while a foot must also be on the main brake pedal when the power button is pressed. A ‘ready’ light then comes on and the automatic shift lever is simply moved to forward or reverse position and one can then drive off in the usual way, enjoying very smooth response to the accelerator. Fuel consumption is obviously much influenced by the proportion of electric running, and on two long journeys of 110 miles each we saw 59 and 60 mpg, and the overall average in a week’s mixed motoring was 63 mpg.

   A slight drawback of the very aerodynamic shape of Prius, with its swept back windscreen, is that the information display is a long way from the driver’s eyes and may be hard to read for some drivers. Also, the nearer panel which serves as power display or navigation screen is not shaded and becomes almost impossible to read in bright sunlight. In other respects the Prius serves as a comfortable five-door five-seater with the promise of very low running costs. We noted that even when connected to our rapid power charger, the consumption of electricity was less than the amount being developed by our solar panels on the roof on a sunny day. The only thing we really don’t like about it is the horrid name ‘plug-in’. Can we not suggest something better, such as ‘charger’ or ‘twin-power’? But we are happy to name as Prime Choice the plug-in version of this hybrid, as Toyota Prius hybrid T Spirit 1.8 at net Government-subsidised price of £28,395.

Vauxhall Meriva
Entrenched firmly in the supermini Multi-Purpose Vehicle sector, the Meriva is pitted against rivals such as Kia’s Venga, Ford B-MAX, Hyundai ix20 and the Nissan Note. Certainly an illustrious bunch to compete against, but with its stylish looks, enviable build quality and practical aspects, including high roofline, this attractive small MPV will surely have the wherewithal to hold its own against the competition. Read on to find out.

   Packed with family-friendly features, the attractive styling is vaguely reminiscent of the Insignia, and shares many components with the Astra and Corsa, but differs when it comes to its innovative rear-hinged back doors which permits easier access for a less mobile passenger or, perhaps, to fix a child seat, etc., in position.

As far as we know, this arrangement has not been used in any British built volume produced cars for many years, but it certainly brings back memories of my long-departed 1938 Austin 10 saloon.

   Practicality was a major consideration by the designers of the Meriva, but agility, excellent all-round visibility and comfort are also evident. Fit and finish is good with the use of quality materials throughout, and plenty of storage spaces have been incorporated. Exact specifications depend on model, but common to all is the flexibility of the seating to whatever purpose required, whether alternative seating or a bulky load. Due to the design of modern tyres, road noise is particularly difficult to suppress with any car nowadays, so this does make itself heard, but not excessively so. Wind noise can be a little irritating at speed.

   On winding undulating roads in rural Dorset, we found handling sure-footed and grip was never lost due, we feel, to the nicely balanced suspension, even when pushed hard over rough surfaces; steering is well weighted too, although some might find it a little on the heavy side when parking. With sickly passengers and young children in mind motion sickness shouldn’t be a problem in this car. 

   It was a 1.6 diesel engined model that we drove, although a wide range of power units are available with this fuel including a 1.3, the one mentioned above and a 1.7-litre; only one petrol engine of 1.4-litre capacity is specified and this is available in 99, 118 or 138 bhp guise. Which one to go for is down to taste: only the 1.6-litre diesel unit is eligible for zero road tax and it’s this one that appears to be the most efficient with the best economy; but we would opt for the excellent mid-range 118 bhp petrol unit solely because we prefer the latter as in our opinion petrol is cleaner than the mixture of soot and gases, etc., emitted from any diesel engines, regardless of make.  

   All variants are well equipped, but there is, however, a stumbling block and that is price as, apart from the Ford B-MAX, it is generally more expensive than rivals mentioned earlier, although you may be able to negotiate a discount. But to be honest, there isn’t much else to say except it’s a damn good car with prices starting from around £12,600 topping out at just over £22.000 for the top of the range automatic version. Our Prime Choice is a 1.4 petrol engined Meriva with air conditioning.  

A first impression on driving all versions of the new Mazda2 is the impressive quietness of the engines, even including the diesel. They are all 1.5-litre four-cylinder units varying in power outputs from 75 to 115 PS, and all are to the latest SkyActiv design. But although power and response are good, giving lively acceleration, the engines are a little lacking in low-speed torque and for this reason we were glad to have laid hands on one of the few versions available with automatic transmission It’s a very good automatic, responding well to calls for extra power by giving a prompt change down, in addition to which there are paddle switches below the steering wheel enabling the driver to prompt changes down or up if required, though we found the transmission so responsive that there was little need to use them. There is also the usual facility to move the floor-mounted selector to the right, and then to and fro action gives sequential changes in the automatic.

   With the launch based in Devon there was no test track opportunity to time acceleration to 80 mph, but the more commonly quoted 0-60 mph figures are given as 9.4 seconds for the manual and 12.0 for the automatic, both with 90 PS, and 10.1 seconds for the diesel. There is no automatic option for the diesel engine. 90PS models have a five-speed gearbox, but six speeds come with the automatic, the 115 PS Sport and the diesel. Brakes are vented discs at the front and drums at rear on all models.

   The new Mazda2 is a five-door hatchback like its predecessor although with sleeker styling, more space inside and considerably higher levels of equipment, plus many new safety features. Luggage space is good, though there is no spare wheel - just a repair kit under the floor at the back. Basically there are three levels of trim, designated SE, SE-L and Sport, with further choice provided by Nav editions which effectively add £400 to the prices. There is also a Sports Launch edition with the 90PS engine, but £600 extra seemed a lot more to pay for the benefit of automatic switching of lights and wipers, plus rear parking sensors.

   We would need more time to familiarise ourselves with the navigation system, and it took a while to set the map north up instead of heading up with the map revolving round on every corner. Also annoying was that when bad weather automatically switched the lights on the nav screen became almost totally black. The screen itself is well located at the top of the console and in daylight mode the map is clear although not very detailed. Instrumentation presents a very clear back-lit speedometer, but the rev counter has blocks round the circumference in place of a pointer.

   After our pleasant drive in the automatic with 90 PS engine, we tried the diesel version with 105 PS and the lowest CO2 emissions figure of 89 g/km putting it in the zero tax bracket. This was again an impressively smooth engine but needed to be kept revving fairly well. One slight up gradiant on the motorway called for a change down to third to get adequate response, but the benefit came with a figure of 51.5 mpg, fully 10 mpg better than the figure returned by the 90PS petrol models which both gave just over 41 mpg whether with manual or automatic. All versions proved comfortable and relaxing to drive, helped by the low noise levels, but some may regret the lack of reach adjustment for the steering, which can only be altered in the vertical plane.

   The range starts with a 75 PS version of the engine at £11,995, and it’s quite a big jump of £3,200 to go to the automatic with 90 PS engine, but this also brings SE-L trim adding alloy wheels, front fog lamps and heated door mirrors with electric folding action, while inside it gets the seven inch colour display with touch screen action for radio, heating and navigation if one runs to the extra £400 for this. It also features audio and Bluetooth controls on the steering wheel which also has a leather rim, so the extra cost seems worthwhile, leading us to recommend for our Prime Choice the Mazda2 SkyActiv petrol 90PS automatic SE-L at £15,195.

Honda Jazz
The Jazz still looks good on paper and appears even better in the metal; maybe it’s getting a bit long in the tooth against such rivals as the Ford Fiesta and Nissan Note, but where there is no disagreement is that this compact, yet specious and practical, family car is a good all-rounder and arguable one of the most dependable motors around as shown by consistently topping customer satisfaction surveys for reliability.
   The versatility of the cabin is what makes the Jazz one of the strongest contenders in the supermini class. Capable of seating five adults in comfort, there is an incredible feeling of inside room (and light) due to clever design with lots of glass, including front and rear quarter lights. Additionally, a large panoramic sunroof can be specified to add further to the overall sense of space.  All models have an arrangement to create extra cargo room, or alternatively, you can fold the rear seat down for the fullest possible loading area; some models also benefit from an extra under floor storage area.


   Only ever available in five-door configuration, over the years the Jazz has undergone many tweaked to offer greater versatility and open the market to a more image-conscious motorist, while remaining faithful to its core customers. Equipped with either a 1.2 or 1.4-litre petrol engine, the former is allied to a five-speed manual gearbox only, while the latter power unit can be specified with either manual or an automatic CVT transmission. Unlike rivals, there’s no diesel engined variant, the manufacturer generally preferring a hybrid route using well-tested components from the Insight model, but we haven’t had the opportunity to review the electro/mechanical Jazz.

   The whole range is comfortable and easy to drive with very good all round visibility. We found the 1.4 engine smooth and peppy around town and it certainly offered a decent turn of performance on the open road, and was sure-footed in all circumstances we encountered. However, a fair amount of wind and road noise was audible when pushed hard.

   Entry specification starts with the S through numerous configurations finally topping out with the EXL, the only model in which you get leather heated front seats, front fogs and other goodies. The manufacturer offers a Technology Pack on all models comprising satellite navigation and Bluetooth phone connection for around an extra £1,000. A Hybrid version (using the 1.3-litre petrol engine and allied to an electric motor) is available, but this model is only available with an automatic transmission.
   All variants get a decent amount of safety equipment with six airbags as standard and stability control on all but the entry-level S. It has a five-star Euro NCAP crash-test rating and insurance grouping (depending on model) is in the range 13 to 16. On-the-road price starts at around £11,700 and peaks at £19,290, but we opt as our Prime Choice the Jazz 1.4 i-VTEC EXL with a manual gearbox for £17,195 in early 2015.

A busy start to 2015 sees Mazda launching revised versions of the Mazda6 model, available as saloon and estate car (Tourer), to be followed by a completely new Mazda2 to appear in the middle of March. There are some subtle styling changes to the latest 6, but the main advances are much more comprehensive standard equipment on all models, and a wide range of improvements mainly concerned with safety. We particularly liked the head-up display which projects the car’s digital speed reading onto a small screen above the steering column, and when the navigation system is in use, turn directions are also shown there. The speedometer is also particularly large and clear, so the driver is never in any doubt as to how fast the car is going.

With a choice of saloon or estate, and 2-litre petrol or 2.2-litre diesel engine, there is a total of 28 variants with prices ranging from £19,795 to £28,795, but 18 of these are simply variations including a navigation system.

   The map for the navigation is well placed at the top of the console, but the map itself is rather featureless and the navigation instructions not particularly good, so we would advise skipping these models and thereby saving the £700 price difference. Buy instead the latest screen-attaching Garmin for about £100 and pocket the £600 difference. However, the Sport Nav model as tried brings leather upholstery, and heated front seats with electric adjustment and memory. There are also eight models distinguished by having automatic transmission instead of the six-speed manual gearbox, so that further simplifies the choice.
   The safety features added to the Mazda6 include LED headlamps, warning systems to help the driver keep in-lane and to be aware when attention is beginning to wander, blind spot monitoring, and automatic application of the brakes when reversing if the system detects that an impact is about to occur. All models now have an electric parking brake and DAB radio with station selection shown on the seven-inch colour screen.

   We drove only the 2-litre petrol model which has a pleasantly quiet and eager engine, giving acceleration from rest to 80 mph in 17.9 seconds with a top speed of 134 mph, and returned 35.3 mpg on the test route. The steering is by rack and pinion with electric assistance, and there was a disconcerting tendency for the steering to wander slightly. This was the Sport model, top of the range, and the only one of the petrol versions giving 165 PS. Most of them offer 145 PS, and the diesels give 150 PS, increased to the highest level, 175 PS, for the diesel Sport. The three trim levels are SE, SE-L and Sport, and as often the way, the cheapest seems to offer the best value. There is not a lot of additional equipment to justify the extra £1,000 if you go to the SE-L package, so we would advise as a well-built, quiet and comfortable car the base model with CO2 rating at 135 g/km. Therefore we name as our Prime Choice the Mazda6 2-litre petrol with SE trim for £19,740.

Suzuki Celerio
It doesn’t often happen that a new model is launched and then subjected to a recall even before we have had time to write about it, but this was the situation with Suzuki’s new Celerio. It has now been explained that the problem was due to a fault in the brake pedal release mechanism. Modified brake components have been issued to the dealer network, and customers’ cars are being modified free of charge, taking about 30 minutes. As usual with Suzuki products - cars and motor cycles - it is beautifully engineered and built. It has a neat five-door body with adequate load space and comfortable seats.

   A three-cylinder engine of only 998 cc powers the Celerio through a five-speed gearbox, and it is remarkable for its quietness and smoothness. At traffic halts one could well think that the engine has stopped, but there is no stop/start provision as increasingly popular these days, and it is just that it becomes completely silent while ticking over. On the down side, though, the 68 bhp power output is rather marginal, and we were surprised to find how often we were on full throttle. An indicator on the instrument panel encourages one to change up very early, but we found it better to ignore this and hang on to the indirect gears to higher revs. Not available for testing at the launch is a new version of the engine with variable valve timing and higher compression ratio. It doesn't’t give any more power but offers slightly more torque, and the big gain is in improved efficiency. The standard engine, called K10B, is claimed to give combined consumption of 65.7 mpg on the misleading official test cycle, which is improved to 78.4 with the K10C power unit. Our test runs were carried out on a day of rotten weather with high winds, so it is not surprising that we didn’t get near these claimed figures, with a best of 48.5 mpg. CO2 emissions of only 99 g/km ensure there is no annual tax to pay.

   Although so very quiet at idling speeds or when cruising, the Celerio produces a purposeful snarl when worked hard. The ride is comfortable within the constraints of a small car with short wheelbase, and the rear suspension by transverse torsion beam absorbs bumps well without too much thump and thud over poor surfaces. It’s a very easy car to drive, with light power-assisted steering and easy clutch action. To demonstrate its manoeuvrability a simple test slotting in and out of ‘garages’ marked by cones was arranged, and it certainly proved easy to nip in and out with the Celerio.

   At the same time as the new K10C engine arrives (April 2015), an automatic transmission option will become available using electro-hydraulic control for the clutch and gear shift, but prices for this option and the new engine are not yet available. In standard form as the SZ3, the Celerio costs (almost) £8,000, but another £1,000 has to be added for the SZ4, which is the trim package required for the automatic (auto gear shift) option. Equipment is generous, with air conditioning, six airbags, alloy wheels, remote central locking, and a DAB radio with CD player and USB connection. The SZ4 package doesn’t add a lot more - mainly it brings fog lamps and electrically adjustable door mirrors, so unless the AGS option is wanted, we recommend as Prime Choice the Suzuki SZ3 five-speed manual for £7,999.

Mazda3 2.0 SE-L
One expects, these days, that a petrol engine will be reasonably quiet, but even against these expectations the new 2-litre engine, designated ‘Skyactive’ in the Mazda3, is impressively quiet to the extent of being inaudible at tickover. Not that you catch it ticking over for long, because the very effective stop/start system cuts in as soon as the car comes to rest with the gear in neutral. It is also an extremely smooth power unit, but doesn’t produce a lot of torque below about 2,000 rpm, so it’s necessary to use the very positive and easy action six-speed gear change fairly freely, and performance is then lively, with 80 mph reached from rest in only 16.4 seconds. The top speed is not as high as one might expect for a 2-litre petrol car, at 121 mph, but the cruising pace at around 80 mph is relaxed and again very quiet with the engine turning at not much over 2,500 rpm.

Economy is consistently in the region of 41 mpg, and the car achieves a creditable CO2 output figure of 119 g/km which puts it in the band for annual tax charge at only £30.

   One of the most impressive features of the new Mazda3 is its firm and positive feel on the road, which makes it a very relaxing car to drive, keeping easily in-lane on a motorway at speed without much need for steering correction. This is achieved without going to very hard and unyielding suspension, the ride being firm but absorptive, with low levels of road noise. The steering is very light at low speeds and then firms up noticeably at higher speeds. Audio controls are on the left of the wheel, and those for the cruise control on the right. At first, the brakes prove almost a little too sharp in their response, but the driver soon grows accustomed to the need for only a gentle caress on the pedal to avoid throwing the passenger forward against the seat belt. The handbrake is a conventional pull-up lever beside the driving seat.

   Very comfortable front seats are provided with three-stage electric heating and backrest tilt adjustment by lever release. The driving seat allows ratchet height adjustment, and there is the usual provision for the rear seat backrests, divided 60/40, to drop down on to the cushion for additional load space when unoccupied. A neat console layout gives most of its space to the ventilation controls, which are separately adjustable left and right, and the navigation screen is sensibly placed right at the top of the panel where it is easy to read without too much distraction from the view of the road. The navigation system made quite good choice of routes, and the map display is clear. Audio selection is by means of the map screen.

   A disappointing feature of Mazda3 is the restricted stowage space in the cabin. The pockets in the doors will take a bottle and not much else, but there is a useful central locker below the armrest which provides a power point and sockets for audio connections. Space below the tailgate is generous, with more room below the lift-up floor, but the gain is at the penalty of no spare wheel, only a repair kit and compressor being provided.

   A large speedometer is seen through the top half of the steering wheel, and has the unusual feature of a 10 mph section below where the speedo needle is pointing being lit up, as if the sun were shining on it. This makes it quite easy to see roughly what the speedometer reading is without need to look down at it, but the same cannot be said for the rev counter which is too small and has an arc of blocks lighting up instead of a needle. Similarly, the fuel gauge is a diminishing line of blocks in the instrument on the right, which also gives a digital display of average fuel consumption as well as other trip computer data.

  Generous equipment includes self-switching lamps and wipers, and the wipers sweep large areas of the screen. An efficient rear window wash wipe system is provided. Visibility is good, helped by the high seating position and the gap between the door mirror and the screen pillar on the driver’s side.

   We were pleased by this latest version of the Mazda3, but one might cut the already good price down further by dispensing with the £600 navigation option and going for our recommended Prime Choice which is Mazda3 2.0 120ps SE-L with six-speed gearbox, but without sat-nav, for £18,795.

Honda Civic 1.6 i-DTEC SR
Even in the first mile driving the new Honda Civic we were impressed by the amazing quietness and smoothness of the engine. Was this really a diesel, or had they sent a petrol model by mistake? A glance at the rev counter with its limit at the usual 4,500 rpm confirmed that it was indeed the version with 1.6-litre diesel engine. Petrol versions are available with 1.4-litre or 1.8 engines, but the diesel comes only as 1.6 with six-speed manual gearbox. It’s a very smooth-acting gear change, and up-down arrows in the centre of the instrument panel remind the driver that a gear change either way is required.

   As well as the refinement of the engine, the performance is impressive as well, accelerating through the gears to 80 mph, reached in third gear, in 17.7 seconds and going on to a top speed of 129 mph, while its high gearing in sixth gives effortless cruising in the 80s (on the Continent of course!) at a modest 2,500 rpm.

   As always with Honda, the car is very neatly built, with perfect fits of doors and bonnet, a tidy layout of the engine compartment and interior, but what is also outstanding is the fuel economy of this diesel. Not surprisingly we couldn’t get near the claimed combined figure of 78.5 mpg, and we are used to these official figures being on the optimistic side, but we were astonished to see that it was returning real-life mpg consistently in the upper 60s; our overall test figure for 300 miles was 62.2 mpg.

   It is slightly confusing at first that the same switches on the left side of the steering wheel control the audio, navigation and the trip computer. Sometimes, when wanting to alter the trip computer reading or set the navigation we finished up losing the radio programme, but with familiarity it was good to see the informative display on the instrument panel showing a varying length line of oblongs indicating the instant fuel economy, as well as the overall average, audio choice, outside temperature and time. A large rev counter confronts the driver, seen through the top half of the steering wheel, and speed is shown by a digital read-out viewed above the steering wheel. Some careful adjustment of the seat height and steering wheel position is necessary to get a clear view of the digital speedo but it is then easy to read and many drivers might find it preferable to the more conventional analogue type; but it is typically optimistic, showing 80 mph at a true speed of 75.8.

   The Civic’s body has an aerodynamic look about it with the bonnet sweeping back into a very raked back windscreen, and it has the appearance of a two-door model because the rear door handles are blended into the corner of the window behind the glass area. The tailgate of this five-door hatchback opens by a concealed release button to reveal a roomy load space with further out of sight stowage room below the floor, but the penalty of course is that there is no spare wheel - only a repair kit and inflator. Interior stowage space is also generous with large door pockets, a roomy compartment on the passenger side and a useful bin under the centre armrest.

   Ride comfort is not the Civic’s best feature, with quite a lot of firm, joggey movement on poor surfaces, but the steering, handling and brakes are all first rate.

   The test car featured the SR specification, dearest but one of the four available, in which the chief assets over the SE Plus equipment are a full length fixed glass roof panel which made the interior very bright and cheerful, leather upholstery and seat heating, plus the navigation system which provides a clear map but is not too clever in its choice of routes. Considering that the on-cost is £2,400 we would recommend saving this money unless the panoramic glass roof is really valued, and instead advise as our Prime Choice the Civic 1.6 i-DTEC SE Plus with 6-speed manual at £21,960.

Peugeot 308 Allure
Before taking over the Peugeot 308 test car, a quick run through the specification details brought some surprises. It was going to have a petrol engine with a turbo-charger, but more surprising was that it was going to have only three cylinders. Would it be rough and lumpy, and rather lacking oomph?

  Just a short initial test drive put these fears to bed, when it was found that the engine was exceptionally smooth - better than many with four cylinders - very quiet, and performed amazingly well for a capacity of only 1,200 cc. Several versions of the new engine, called PureTech,  are available, giving power outputs of 92, 110, 120 and 150 bhp, and our test car was near the bottom of the range with the 110 bhp version, but it was still able to accelerate from rest to 80 mph in just under 20 seconds, and go on to a top speed of 117 mph. It’s surprisingly good on low-speed torque, pulling strongly in fifth gear from as low as 30 mph, though a change down to third is much more rewarding and can be held right up to beyond the legal limit for swift overtaking.

The power unit has 12 valves, and the use of separate cast iron cylinder liners in the aluminium block ensures rapid warm-up from a cold start. 

   Efficiency and low exhaust emissions enable the new PureTech engine to give 18 per cent less CO2 than a similar four-cylinder; but although good economy of 61.4 mph is claimed, we couldn’t get near this in normal brisk driving and found figures in the middle 40s were more typical.

   Naturally the engine has automatic stop/start control, which works very well, though sometimes when it failed to restart immediately a gong sounded and the warning sign ‘depress clutch pedal fully’ lit up reminding us to get the clutch pedal right down. It is a little surprising these days to find only five gears provided but the engine is free revving and the gearing allows cruising at 76 mph for only 2,500 rpm, while even at maximum speed the engine is revving at below 4,000 rpm.

   Other aspects of the new 308, which won one of the many Car of the Year awards this year, are a mixture - some pleasing, others less so. We have some doubts about locating the instruments where they are seen above the top rim of the small diameter steering wheel, where they seem a little distant, but in addition to the analogue speedometer a digital read-out can be selected on the trip display, which is easy to read. Slightly odd is that the rev counter needle rotates anti-clockwise instead of going round the dial in sequence to the speedometer needle.

   With its small leather-trimmed steering wheel, the steering is precise and pleasantly light in action even at low speeds. The suspension also pleases, with good bump absorption, little wheel thump or tyre roar, and a taut feel coupled with reassuring response through corners. The brakes are very responsive to a light touch on the pedal, and the parking brake is electric, with automatic action to apply it on stopping the engine, as well as to release it when driving off.

   A touch–sensitive command screen mounted sensibly high up simplifies the controls for heating and audio, as well as providing the map for the navigation system. The map display is commendably clear, but the same cannot be said for the navigation system, which made some very odd choices of route, and did not seem able to accept a postcode as a destination. Heater output seemed a little weak, and we wondered if it would be adequate to cope with a very cold morning.

   Stowage space in the 308 is good, with a deep compartment below the armrest, wide door pockets and additional out of sight space around the space saver spare wheel beneath the boot floor. Load space is generous, with easy action to tilt the back seat squabs down, but the tailgate is rather heavy for someone laden with shopping to open. The key-in-pocket locking and engine starting system works extremely well and proved very convenient, to the point of almost forgetting where the key was. The door mirrors swing in when locked, which is a convenient confirmation that the car has been secured. Wipers clear large areas of the screen and park neatly out of sight, but not quite so good is the visibility due to the thickness of the screen pillars.

   Having also driven the Peugeot 306 1.6 diesel with the same Allure trim, we find the 1.2 petrol a better bargain, saving £1,000, even if not quite so economical, and so recommend as our Prime Choice the 308 Allure 1.2 e-THP 110 five-speed at £19,045.

MPG Marathon - our Stuart Bladon drove a Peugeot 308
For many years I have offered my services to drive one of the cars entered for the Fleet World MPG Marathon economy run, but perhaps having organised the first three events they thought I knew too much about it, and the offers were declined. But suddenly, two days before the start of this year’s event there was a phone call: would I and my brother Hugh like to drive one of the Peugeots because the nominated driver had suffered a back injury?

   We accepted eagerly, and made our way to the Four Pillars Hotel at South Cerney, near Cirencester, where we met the Peugeot Press officer Kevin Jones who was co-driving one of the 308s entered, and took our car out for a short one-hour trial to see how it responded to attempts at economy driving. Apart from very gentle acceleration and getting into sixth gear as soon as possible, there wasn’t much one could do to achieve optimum economy, and we found that on level roads just the tickover setting of the engine was enough to keep it bowling along at 42 mph with foot off the accelerator.

Fuel measurement is by the brim-to-brim method, with last top-up from an AA bowser giving precise indication of final litres.

   Then it was back to the hotel to get the maps out and study the route. In the old days of economy runs each competitor had a detailed route book detailing every junction to be taken, but not so now. Instead we were just given five post codes, four of which were at hotels chosen for meal or coffee stops during the two days of the event, and the fifth was for the final refueling halt at a nearby Esso Garage. So long as one arrived at the specified places within the very generous time limits, one could make one’s own choice of route, and the ingenious Tracker system, identifying the location and mileage covered by each car, provided the basis for working out fuel consumption.

   After our short test drive, the car was filled to the brim until no amount of shaking would persuade any more diesel to go in, and then parked up for the night. Next morning, after a short briefing, the 20 competing cars, plus three light commercials and three electric cars were all flagged away at one minute intervals from 11 am.

   The first halt was in Wales at Llansantffraed Court Hotel, so there wasn’t much choice of which way to go - it obviously had to be all the way along the M4 and over the westerly one of the two Severn Bridges. We were even given the £5.20 money for the toll.

   In the old days, economy runs used to be exciting, keeping the driver and navigator on utmost concentration to follow the tricky route along minor roads and over every hill in the vicinity; but in contrast, this one was frankly boring. Mile after mile was covered trickling along motorways at just over 40 mph, as a potential moving road block causing lorries to pull over into the middle lane to go past, and giving no challenge at all for driving skill.

   On the way back from Wales we became caught up in a traffic jam on the Worcester by-pass and had to crawl along in a stop-start queue, which was not very good for the economy. After wondering what on earth was causing the delay we saw that there was a mechanical roadsweeper at the front of the queue, just the thing for the 5 pm rush hour traffic!

   The target is to achieve better mpg than the manufacturer’s claimed figure for the model, and on seeing that our Peugeot 308 had a target of 91.1 mpg - one of the highest figures of all the cars entered - we knew there wasn’t much hope of improving on that. The Peugeot’s instant fuel consumption indicator spent so long showing figures of 200 mpg and above, that we began to hope we might achieve 100, but the reality was disappointing. In spite of nursing it along at ridiculously low speeds again next day, our overall mpg was 83.49 - best of the three Peugeots, and seventh highest overall, but not high enough for an award. This was taken by John Kendall and Paul Nieuwenhuis whose Citroën C4 Cactus achieved 95.0 mpg, a gain of 3.9 per cent over the claimed figure for the model which was the same 91.1 as ours.  The highest percentage improvement went to the Ford Fiesta ST-3 which made 75.77 mpg, against a works target figure of 47.9 a gain of 58.2 per cent. It was crewed by Harrison Scott and Louise Richardson.

   As to be expected in view of the exceptionally easy route and absurdly low average speed required, 18 of the 23 competitors managed to exceed the official mpg target for their vehicles. This could be claimed to give credence to the official mpg figures, but such a conclusion would be mischievous; the MPG Marathon is simply too undemanding.

   The event was well organised but highly unrealistic. An average speed of 30 mph on a route that was about 80 per cent of the distance on motorways was absurd, as well as being potentially dangerous, with cars moving so slowly and causing the heavies to pull out and overtake. For a future event Fleet World should either exclude the use of motorways, or specify an average speed of 50 mph on motorways and dual carriageway.

Lexus CT200h F Sport
For anyone having doubts about the possibilities of electric power for cars, the Lexus CT200h might be an eye-opener. Its basic power unit is a 1.8-litre petrol engine giving 98 bhp, but it is backed up by an electric motor adding a further 81 bhp at maximum effort. The result is vigorous performance, reaching 80 mph from rest in 18.9 seconds, with economy in the realms one would expect from a diesel car, rather than one with a petrol engine. We never managed to get near the 69 mpg claimed for the model, but easily saw 55 mpg even when driving briskly, which is much more than one might normally expect from a 1.8-litre petrol engine. It also, of course, brings all the advantages associated with an emissions output figure of only 87 g/km, meaning no annual tax to pay and immunity from the congestion charge.

   The additional benefit of electric power is the smoothness and silence which results. On starting from cold, which simply means pressing the start button and selecting drive with the two-position drive control, the petrol engine tends to start up but soon fades out, if the battery is in a good state of charge. There is no provision for plugging in to the mains; battery regeneration comes from the petrol engine and from the energy recovery system during trailing throttle or braking. State of charge is shown on the instrument panel, and we never managed to get it below two of the six blocks of charge indication.

   Many drivers will be happy with the lack of complication of the drive system. There is no change down provision on the selector, just forward and reverse, plus a part-time selection marked ‘B’ which gives additional overrun braking for steep descents, saving the brakes and conserving energy. There are no change-down levers below the steering wheel, as the transmission is by electric CVT, giving smooth progression without any ratio change surges. Also, of course, the lack of noise is uncanny, especially when stopping at a red traffic light, when the car is totally silent and moves off equally unobtrusively on the green light.

   The let-down spoiling the quietness of the Lexus CT 200 is the noise and harshness of the suspension, which we found firm and unyielding in this Sport version of the model. It gives a bumpy and noisy ride, but does of course contribute to the rock steady handling and cornering, while steering precision at speed is also hair-line.

   A rotary switch beside the transmission selector gives choice of ECO, or Sport modes; there is also an EV position for running solely on electric power but the battery will not support this for long. When switched to Sport, the large instrument to the left of the speedometer, which normally shows the amount of power being used, converts in an instant into a rev counter. As soon as normal driving mode is chosen it reverts to its Eco format helping the driver to proceed economically. There is no engine temperature gauge, but a clear fuel gauge is provided, and very comprehensive choice of computer read-outs is available.

   Everything else about the Lexus CT220 is fairly conventional in a roomy five-seater hatchback with very responsive brakes, comfortable seats with electric adjustment and heating in the front, and provision to fold down the 40/60 divided rear seat backrests for additional load space. In the boot there is a false floor which allows space for some items to be stowed out of sight, and beneath this is a space-saver spare wheel.

   A large central screen at the top of the console serves also as display for selecting audio, climate control and many other functions as well as a very clear map for the optional navigation system. The audio system is very good, so is the ventilation and heating, but we were not so impressed by the navigation unit which sometimes made odd choices of route. Visibility is exceptionally good with a deep screen well swept by wipers which tuck away out of sight when switched off, and the door mirrors do not block quarter vision too badly, and swing in automatically when the car is locked up.

   On seeing an extra cost of £2,250 for the Sport model against the 200h Luxury for £24,495 we would advise in favour of Luxury instead of Sport. We would also suggest that a simple and very effective Garmin navigator for around £100 might be preferable to spending £995 on Lexus Navigation. But in other respects we happily name as our Prime Choice the Lexus 200h Luxury 1.8-litre petrol and electric hybrid, electric CVT transmission, for £24,495.

Audi A3 Cabriolet 2.0 TDI Sport
Just occasionally a car coming our way for test proves so pleasing and thoroughly attractive that we are tempted to start thinking in terms of sending a cheque instead of the car back. This is how it was with this delightful convertible because it proved so pleasing to drive, so clever in the way that the hood can be put up or down even without having to stop - provided the speed is brought under 30 mph - and so wonderfully responsive to all its controls. Then comes the shock which kills off such thoughts, on looking at the price!

   The test car just topped £33,000, with all its options included, having started off with a list price of £27,820.  How do they manage to pile on more than £5,000? Well, the pattern is set on seeing that the rather dull ice silver metallic paintwork adds £525. One could do without that and take a standard colour, but the £795 for black leather upholstery would perhaps need to be regarded as a ‘must’; £495 for the satellite navigation system might be queried - why not a Garmin attached to the windscreen? - though it has to be admitted that the built-in navigation with very clear map and the way that it rises from a concealed location in the top of the facia is very attractive.

   One thing we would regard as definitely worth its cost is the £300 for the Comfort package which brings a detachable rear wind deflector. It might sound odd to have an open car and then fit something to stop the draught, but the result is delightful open top motoring without the annoying wind buffeting from the back. The screen is easily put in place, can be removed if rear passengers are to be carried and does not obscure too badly the important rear vision. It can be left in place with the hood up, and can be neatly folded down with a quick pull.

   We thought the one disappointing feature of the A3 Cabriolet is its very harsh, unyielding ride, which results in part from the fitting of 18 inch low-profile tyres, and the fact that the test car was the Sport model. So here’s another saving to be made: choose the SE version instead of Sport, and you knock a further £1,225 off the price, and get a more forgiving suspension.

   One of the major features of the Sport version is the special suspension with lower ride height, and what is called Audi drive select. This gives a choice of five modes, affecting suspension, engine and transmission behaviour. We favoured the automatic setting, but found the differences to be rather marginal. Sport suspension can be deleted as a no-cost option, but then why pay extra for the Sport model?

   The wide range of A3 Cabriolet models extends from a 1.4 TFSI turbo petrol version at £25,790 right up to the S3 Quattro with 300PS engine at £38,910. Our test car had the 2.0 litre turbo diesel unit which proved impressively smooth and quiet as well as exceptionally lively, giving a wonderful turn of acceleration in third and an acceleration time of only 14.9 seconds to go from rest to 80 mph. It is also exceptionally economical and returned over 50 mpg even on exasperating journeys calling for a lot of full power for overtaking, while in more leisurely motoring it gave over 55 mpg. All models have a six-speed gearbox except for two of the S tronic automatic models which are 7-speed.

   Everything about the way that the A3 Cabriolet drives is delightful, notably the hairline precision of the steering, excellently responsive brakes, and the reassuring handling and directional stability. We reckon that if you fancy open top motoring this new A3 Cabriolet, which looks so much better without the ugly roll-over protection hoops behind the rear seats which spoilt the appearance of the previous model, will be found very rewarding indeed. Roll-over accidents are rare, but should one happen, head protection is provided by reinforced struts which shoot up behind the back seats.

   Long study of the prices and options will be rewarded if you decide to buy one of these attractive convertibles. Our recommendation for Prime Choice is the A3 Cabriolet 2.0 TDI SE 150 PS six-speed for £27,240.

Toyota Auris Hybrid Excel
At first it seemed that Toyota’s engineers had been a little too nervous in choosing how much work the battery could do. The Auris didn't go a great distance without the engine cutting in, and similarly any speed above about 10 mph seemed to be the limit before, again, the petrol engine would take over, although throughout the whole test we never came near to flattening the battery. On the other hand, the automatic switch-over to electric power when trickling along in a queue of traffic, and the immediate silence on coming to rest, were much appreciated and make it well worthwhile to pay the extra for the Hybrid version of the Auris. When cruising at around 80, the electric motor cuts in from time to time to support the very quiet 1.8-litre 16-valve petrol unit.

   Control is completely automatic. Just put a foot on the brake pedal, move the selector  back to the D position and accelerate smoothly away. The only other positions for the selector are R for reverse and B for steep hill descents. Surprisingly there is very little engine braking on releasing the accelerator. Three push buttons give selection of EV (electric vehicle mode), ECO for economy, and Power. Even in EV mode, the petrol engine would still cut in, and ECO made the accelerator very stiff to press down, so we finished up using the Power mode most of the time and achieved a best economy of 52.4 mpg, and 49.6 when pushing the Auris a little harder. These figures are some way down from the claimed 72.4 mpg, but the difference is normal these days.

   In all other respects the Auris is a pleasing car with roomy five-door body, accurate and pleasantly light steering, and a comfortable ride dealing well with poor road surfaces. The brakes are a touch too sensitive and the driver tends to over-brake at first until becoming accustomed with the feel. There is a conventional pull-up handbrake lever, and a P (for Park) button can be pressed to put the transmission into Park without moving the lever, but it is still necessary to apply the handbrake. The car takes corners confidently but tended to wander a little in cross winds at speed. Road noise is rather high, tending to spoil the otherwise low level of mechanical noise.

   Upholstered in coarse cloth with stitched leather side pieces, the seats are comfortable and both front seats have ratchet height adjusters.  The back seat is divided in 40/60 format with easy provision for the backrests to drop down on to the fixed cushion for extra load space.

   The Auris in Hybrid form with top Excel specification provides many attractive features such as a clear navigation system whose screen also serves to make easy selection of radio stations, front and rear parking sensors, and automatic action for the lamps and wipers. The screen for the navigation system is touch sensitive, but mounted a little too low, with ventilation outlets above it. The main instrument is a large speedometer, and this is flanked by a same size power gauge, with its needle showing how much power is being used, encouraging the driver to proceed economically.

   The attractions of the Hybrid specification are boosted by the low CO2 emissions of 91 g/km meaning no tax to pay, and the five-year Toyota warranty is extended to eight years for all Hybrid components. The Hybrid package brings an extra cost of £1,640 (June 2014) against the 1.6-litre with the same CVT automatic transmission. Worth it?  We think so, and choose as our Prime Choice the Auris Hybrid Excel at £22,345.

BMW i3
‘Very impressive’ - that was the reply given to the many people who wanted to know what we thought of the strange-looking BMW i3. It was indeed a revelation to find how wonderfully responsive an electric car can be, and we didn’t experience the problems that had been anticipated. Of course, the range limitation is a restriction, but the range indicator which comes on as soon as the Start button is pressed proved very accurate, so at least one knows how far you can go before running into trouble. At the start of our standard 46-mile test route it was suggesting a range of 82 miles, and on arrival after driving briskly there was still energy left for a further 29 miles. The effect of charging the i3 for a week and 203 miles was scarcely noticeable on our electric bill.

As well as the wonderful quietness, the acceleration proved remarkable, taking the car on the test track from rest to 80 mph in just 13.0 seconds, and the top speed is 93 mph.

   We quite expected that acceleration runs would soon crease the battery, but it stayed up very well. The accelerator gives very good control, enabling one to inch forward when parking or keeping up with crawling traffic, and as soon as the pedal is released the system goes into regeneration mode, turning the energy of the car back into stored electricity. This is so effective that there is seldom need to use the brakes, making possible one-pedal driving.

   It is regrettable that BMW has gone along its own pathway as regards recharging, and the cable for rapid charging did not fit our installed high output charger. So it was necessary to use a conventional three-pin mains connection, and as soon as this is plugged in the display on the facia shows when full charge will be reached. This was usually in the region of eight hours, after which it switches itself off, so can be left on over-night.

   We wanted to take the i3 on a journey that would have been 75 miles, and while we had no doubts about the ability to get there, the standard power point at a lunch venue would not have enabled the battery to be recharged sufficiently in reasonable time for the return. BMW rapid charge points displayed on the internet showed that the nearest one to our venue would be another 25 miles, so it was out of the question. This difficulty is resolved if one pays an extra £3,150 for the ‘range extender’. This is a small two-cylinder 650 cc petrol engine mounted next to the electric motor, above the rear axle, which increases the battery range to 180 miles. We are sorry that the test car did not have this feature enabling us to assess its efficiency and report on such matters as noise.

   Other aspects of the i3 are generally very pleasing, with light steering, an exceptionally tight turning circle, and predictable, reassuring handling. The only disappointment was the rather choppy and bumpy ride, but the tombstone-type high-back seats are comfortable and give good support. Access to the surprisingly roomy rear compartment is helped by the fitting of rear-hinged doors, which cannot be opened unless the front doors are also open. There are big door pockets, a central locker between the seats, and a roomy boot below the tailgate. A navigation system with sensibly big screen is standard. Options such as rapid charge preparation and cold weather cabin pre-heating included on the test car added up to £6,605, bringing the total on-the-road cost to £37,285, reduced to £32,285 by the Government’s subsidy.

   For our Prime Choice we have to recommend inclusion of the ‘range extender’ so it becomes the BMW i3 with optional on-board petrol charger, for £33,830, reduced by the Government grant to £28,830.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
Quite amazing were the fuel consumption figures returned during the recent launch of the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. The lowest mpg figure was 78 to the gallon, and the highest was 2,824 mpg! Well, of course, the secret was that a lot of the running was done electrically, but that is indeed the remarkable aspect of this new hybrid; the battery, mounted under the floor, has colossal capacity, and can power this big off-roader for over 30 miles. Then, when the electric power is exhausted, the 2-litre petrol engine takes over, and does so completely seamlessly and unobtrusively, only the on-board display revealing what has happened.

   There are electric motors both front and rear, in addition to the mechanical drive from the front-mounted engine to the front wheels. It thus has full four-wheel drive capability. Effectively there are three driving modes: first, fully electric drive, which on test we found capable of cruising at around 75 mph with minimal noise and lasting for about 30 miles. In the second mode, the petrol engine will have cut in and acts as a generator providing power to the electric motors. The third mode is called parallel hybrid for maximum acceleration or fast cruising, when the petrol engine is providing most of the power, assisted by the electric motors as required. It gave impressive performance, reaching 80 mph from rest in 19.6 seconds, with a top speed of 108 mph.

   The important thing is that it is all done automatically. There is no need to select four-wheel drive or low-range, or to determine whether to conserve battery power. It all happens without need for the driver to take control, though there is provision to increase regenerative braking, using the paddle shift lever beneath the steering wheel which would be useful, for example, on a long hill descent.

Important factors to boost the appeal of the already very attractive Mitsubishi Outlander is the PHEV (standing for Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) system.

   Costing no more than the equivalent diesel model after provision of the Government’s £5,000 grant, and that as indicated by the name, it can be plugged in to the mains to charge the battery, taking about five hours. Alternatively it can be charged from the engine with the car at rest, taking about 30 minutes to bring it up to 80 per cent capacity, and this was what was done for us during the lunch hour. Obviously it could not be done on the street, and if on private ground such as a hotel car park one would need to leave a notice to deter well-meaning passers-by from coming in to say: “You’ve left your engine running.” In fact, the engine noise when just charging the battery is so slight that it is hardly noticeable.

   Of course, there is no road tax to pay, since the emissions figure is only 44g/km, and there is immunity from the London congestion charge, as well as a minimal 5 per cent benefit in kind tax for business users. Coming with a five-year 100,000 mile warranty on all Electric Vehicle components, and three-year unlimited mileage cover on all ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) features, this really does seem to be the first electric vehicle with no disadvantages. It would be ideal for a commuting run of perhaps up to 12 miles each way, but also able to cope with the sudden demand for a long journey.

   There are three equipment packages, beginning with the GX3h at £28,249, which seems the best bargain of the range, but more advanced features such as remote control through a smartphone to turn on the electric heating for a cold morning come in the GX4h at £32,899; more equipment including an electric sunroof, powered tailgate and timers to control heating, cooling and charge times, is available for £34,999 in the GX4hs. Our recommendation for Prime Choice in April 2014 is the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV 2-litre twin electric hybrid at £28,249, but buyers may well be tempted by the options in the two dearer versions.

Seat Ibiza
If you’re in the market for a sporty supermini you can’t go far wrong with the SEAT Ibiza. Based on the same platform as VWs Polo and the Audi A1, one of its key selling points is a keen starting price at just over £8,000 on-the-road, especially when compared to similar models from rivals, including the same manufacturer grouping cars mentioned above. It is also, arguable, one of the cheapest to run in its sector, including insurance, and if our recent experience is anything to go by it appears to be very miserly on fuel as well.

   We feel the latest styling of this supermini is nicely balanced with recent improvements including new driving lights, front grill and bumpers; furthermore, the restyled bonnet allied to the existing crease lines gives the car a neat mature look. Inside, everything remains pretty much as before, although the instrument cluster and climate controls have been restyled, as has the steering wheel, which is now flat bottomed. Few changes are listed under the skin, and it is still available as a five or three-door hatchback, and an attractive estate.

   Having recently had the opportunity to try the attractive Ibiza FR estate retailing at a shade under £17k., with numerous options fitted, we were impressed by its performance and all-round driving dynamics, although we did find the ride a little on the hard side, but the resulting sharp handling with little body roll was welcome. Road noise is well subdued, but wind whistle does tend to build up as speed increases near the legal limit.

   As a six-footer, it is difficult in some smallish vehicles to get the seats correctly adjusted, but with the Ibiza’s comprehensive steering and seat controls this was not a problem; the seats are comfortable and visibility all-round is fine, despite chunky pillars. Rear passenger space is good and getting in and out on the estate is easy due to larger rear doors, although leg and knee room could be a problem for tall people if the front seats were set right back. Headroom was adequate in the back of our estate, but may be restricted on other variants, particularly the three-door version, due to their more rakish design. The boot is well shaped and practical, especially as it widens towards the tailgate opening.  

   Ibiza models are available with a wide engine choice ranging from a petrol 1.2 litre 60 PS through to a 2.0 TDI 143 PS and many in between. The estate, however, is more restricted in power unit choice; ours was equipped with a 1.6 TDI developing 105 PS and allied to a five-speed manual gearbox which gave commendable performance under various loads and conditions. Automatic transmission is available on selective models of the Ibiza range. 

   Overall then, although the Ibiza is certainly no Ferrari, it is a sporty and economical supermini that now looks better than ever offering great value from just over £8k, and with a wide selection of good power units. Our opinion is that the most attractive is the three-door hatchback (pictured above), but we thought the estate derivative an extremely good looker, too. Our Prime Choice is, therefore, the latter for shear practicability over its smaller siblings.

Renault Test Day
A short drive in the new Megane was a little disappointing and highlighted the increasing discrepancy between claimed fuel economy and what the car’s on-board computer shows is really being achieved. We were seeing only 39 miles per gallon, barely half of the claimed 80.7 mpg it is supposed to give.

The engine in the Hatch we drove was a diesel of 1,461 cc with only eight valves and output of 110 bhp. It had a six-speed gearbox and the stop-start system worked well at traffic halts.

   Interior design is rather mundane in black plastic with sharp edges and a very small drop-down facia compartment. A little Irritating for the passenger is that the top of the arc swept by the wiper on the left is not high enough so one is left looking through glass obscured by rain drops. Called Dynamique, this Megane Hatch is listed at £19,245, increased to £20,630 by the options which include keyless entry, push button starting, and a TomTom-based navigation system.

   We were glad of another opportunity to drive the Zoe electric which, at £16,450 thanks to the Government grant, has undoubted appeal for short journey work, especially commuting in London. The quietness and off the mark getaway are impressive, but we wondered how well the heating would cope on a really cold day, as the output at full chat seemed rather limited.

   We started our test drive with Zoe showing a range of 52 miles, and 20 miles later it was still giving an optimistic 41 miles. It would be interesting to see what happens when the battery charge is exhausted, but one would need a back-up support car to be able to adventure that, and this must always be the worry for anyone buying a Zoe.

   The leasing arrangement for the battery removes one of the big anxieties of the electric car - the possibly horrendous cost of having to replace the battery at the end of its life, and the monthly cost on a three-year contract ranges from £70, up to 7,500 miles a year, to £93 for 12,000 miles. One would need to make careful calculations and estimates to see if Zoe would work out cheaper overall than a small diesel car.

   Most impressive drive of the day was in the Dacia Logan MCV, for which the price is an almost unbelievably low £6,995. Most buyers would happily go without the options package called Access, which seemed to comprise turning almost everything into black (door handles, mirrors, and 15 inch Gobbi steel wheels) but even with this all included the price is still only £7,340.

If you expected it to be very basic at this price, one is pleasantly surprised to find things like a rev counter, gear shift indicator, power steering and a five-speed gearbox, all in a roomy estate car body.

   The engine is a four-cylinder petrol unit of 1,149 cc with 16 valves, and while it’s no ball of fire it covers the ground very adequately with acceleration to 60 mph in 14.5 seconds and a top speed of 97 mph. The test car had a Kenwood radio with CD slot and USB connection but this was one of the few extras, listed at £250.

   If one were looking for low-cost motoring the Dacia Logan MCV, claimed to give nearly 50 mpg and coming with a three-year 60,000-mile warranty, would certainly provide the answer. So our Prime Choice from the Renault test day, held in February 2014, would be the Dacia Logan MCV 1,149 cc estate car five-speed at £6,995.

When we heard there was going to be a new addition to the SEAT range called ST we presumed it was to be a performance version, but the launch revealed something very different. It’s a most elegantly designed and very spacious five-seater load carrier, with huge space at the back below a tailgate which is spring assisted to open just by a gentle pull on the S badge. Below the floor is a space-saver wheel with a lot of additional out of sight storage room around it. Load space is 587 litres, increasing to 1,470 when the back seats are dropped down by release catches at the rear. As an extra there can be provision for the front passenger seat to tip forward providing a long extension of the load floor. Also optionally available is a full-length glass sunroof.

   A wide range of engines is offered, starting with a 1.2-litre petrol, competitively priced at £16,675, followed by 1.4 and 1.8, and there are two diesel engines - 1.6 and 2.0. All engines, both petrol and diesel, are turbocharged, and even the 1.2-litre gives 105 PS. Three trim levels are available, with a full specification in the standard trim level, boosted by many useful but not essential refinements in the SE trim and the top level FR.

   We started our ST test drives in the 2-litre diesel and were at once impressed by its quietness and the eager performance, taking it through the gears to 80 mph in only 13.2 seconds and on to a top speed of 142 mph. It’s a very controllable and relaxing car to drive, with well-placed controls, good response from the brakes and a confident feel through corners. The instruments are large and clear with back-lighting, and an information display between the speedometer and rev counter. The ride is a shade harsh and pattery but this might be down to the fitting of 17 inch wheels with low profile tyres. Not quite so reassuring was the steering which is now electro-mechanical with progressive response tightening up from 1.4 turns lock to lock at parking speeds to 1.1 turns at speed. We found it tended to wander slightly off course, a bit like the sensation of running over tram lines.

   This effect was much less noticeable, but still present a bit, when driving the 1.8 TSI version with 180 PS petrol engine and DSG automatic transmission. This direct shift gearbox is extremely refined, giving gear changes which are scarcely noticed, and what is also very marked is the quietness of the engine.  Gear selection is shown by an indicator at top right of the instrument panel, and there are paddle shift levers below the steering wheel to change up or down if you don’t want to leave the transmission to make its own choices. The performance of the petrol model was almost the same as with the diesel, reaching 80 mph in 12.7 seconds and with a top speed at 139 mph. More significant difference was, of course, the fuel economy, with the diesel model averaging 45.8 mpg on our test run and the petrol version showing 35.3. Both figures are well down from the claimed 65.7 and 48.7, but could be improved with gentle driving, and we noticed that the 1.8 TSI was often recording over 40 mpg. There is also an Ecomotive version of the 1.6TDI, at £20,485, for which phenomenal economy of 85.6 mpg is claimed.

   Options totaling nearly £4,000 were on each of the FR trim test cars driven, and there are many clever features available such as self-dipping headlamps and a tiredness recognition feature warning the driver that attention is drifting.

   We enjoyed our drives (February 2014) in the Leon ST and at FR level would by tempted by the petrol engine instead of the diesel, saving £1,785 difference between the 2.0TDI and the 1.8 TSI. But as buyers we would go for the standard trim, giving more scope for choosing from the options list, so for our Prime Choice we select the ST 1.6 TDI model with S trim for £18,375.

Mazda5 1.6D Venture
In 2013 Mazda made a big feature of its new engine development, but it is not until you drive one of the cars with this new unit that one realises there really has been significant progress. We could well have believed that we were driving a 2-litre version of the Mazda5 diesel, except for the knowledge that there is no such thing. The choice is limited to a 2-litre petrol or a 1.6-litre diesel, and it was this second version that so impressed us.

   Its performance on paper is not particularly outstanding, with a time of 23 seconds to accelerate through the gears to 80 mph, and a top speed of 111 mph, but what does seem so remarkable is the effortless way in which it responds; this really is an eager and lively engine, and its fuel consumption was consistently around 42 mpg.

This is a very versatile car, designed primarily as a four-seater, giving rear passengers comfortable armchairs, or the seats can be rearranged to seat three abreast.

   At the back there is an additional row of two seats which pull up from the floor, so they don’t obstruct luggage space when not in use, and it thus becomes a seven-seater. It is necessary, of course, to remove the roller blind luggage cover to be able to bring the rearmost seats into use. Rear access is through a sliding door each side which is easy to operate and is very convenient in congested parking areas. The tailgate is spring-assisted to lift of its own accord once the catch has been released.

   The driver enjoys a well-shaped seat with ratchet lever height adjustment and another lever to increase backrest firmness, and the high seating position possible makes for excellent visibility helped by the fixed quarter window ahead of the opening window, which eliminates the often obstructed blank area between the windscreen pillar and the door mirror. The only drawback is that the top of the steering wheel tends to obscure the upper part of the rev counter, unless one raises the wheel in which case you then lose the mileometer readings and the row of blocks indicating fuel level. There is no coolant thermometer, but a blue light stays on until the engine has warmed up. An array of LED readouts at the top of the central panel gives such information as outside temperature, time, and the computer details of mpg, fuel range and so on. These displays all have an upper shade which makes it possible to read them even in bright light.

   Just down from the information displays is a large coloured screen for the navigation system, which is TomTom-based with a clear map, and the screen is touch sensitive serving as the selector for audio programme's which can also be operated by a switch on the left of the steering wheel. The steering itself is accurate and light, and all controls work very well, notably the very responsive brakes by discs all round, and the reassuring handling enables this quite large and spacious car to be hustled through corners with confidence.

   As mentioned earlier, the vigorous response of the engine makes light work of journeys, cruising effortlessly and quietly at speeds around the 80 mark, and the car as a whole is quiet though there is some tyre roar on certain surfaces.

With only two versions from which to choose, the question becomes simply one of petrol or diesel. The petrol model is cheaper by £1,300, with a price of £19,995, and it is also more powerful, developing 150 PS instead of the diesel’s 115; but the diesel delivers much more torque: 270 Nm against the petrol engine’s 191. The petrol version features stop/start at traffic halts, ingeniously done without needing the starter motor, and this is not available on the diesel. We enjoyed this £21,295 1.6 diesel so much that we are tempted to prefer this, but logic dictates that unless one is planning huge mileages, that £1,300 price difference would take an awful long time to recover with a saving of about 10 mpg, so we favour as
Prime Choice the Mazda5 2.0MZR VCR Venture, petrol six-speed manual, at £19,995 in January 2014.

Mercedes Test Day
After driving 150 miles to the first test day of 2014, staged by Mercedes-Benz at their HQ in the town of the thousand roundabouts (Milton Keynes), the one model we were really keen to drive was the new S-class. There were only three available and inevitably they were all out with various journalists who seemed to be enjoying them so much that they were absent well over an hour. In the end we settled for a CLS 250 CDI AMG Sport Coupé, which costs £50,600, increased to £58,050 with options. It has a four-cylinder diesel engine of 2,143 cc, and introduced us to the latest driving technology of the make.

   Look in vain for a floor-mounted selector for the automatic transmission, and then realise that it’s on a lever to the right of the steering column: up for reverse, down for Drive, and press in for Park. It’s a logical arrangement and one cannot fail to be impressed by the quietness and smoothness of such a big car with only four cylinders. There are seven ratios in the automatic, and the claimed fuel consumption - perhaps never achievable in real life but still impressive - is an average of 54.3 mpg, while top speed is 150 mph.

   We whizzed round a few roundabouts in the CLS and then hurried back to find that the staff had kindly kept an S-Class for us, a silver gray S 350 BlueTEC L with a price tag of £65,650. Like the CLS, it has a seven-speed automatic with column-mounted selector, but under the bonnet is a V6 3-litre diesel engine, and again the claimed fuel economy of 50.4 mpg is remarkable for such a big and swift car.

   We were puzzled at first by the simplification of the instrument panel, which seemed to present only a speedometer and rev counter. No fuel gauge? we asked and were then shown that fuel contents are displayed as a percentage, and a reading of 100 % showed that it was full (Scotland here we come). And what about the mileometer? There it is, we were told, pointing to 16.4. Isn’t that the trip? No, it’s the total, this one is straight off the trolley!

Also greatly admired before we even set off was the huge and admirably clear navigation map screen, probably the best we have yet seen in a car.

   But as soon as we started our drive, due mainly to our lack of familiarity with the car, there was a snag: try to accelerate from one of the many roundabouts and the engine almost seemed to die until on pressing right down on the accelerator it suddenly burst into life and we rocketed away. The same happened again whenever the speed had dropped below 30 mph, and we guessed that it was an automatic speed limit enforcer which can only be overcome by giving full throttle, and we didn’t know how to turn it off. Later we were shown which button to press to cancel it. This is certainly a feature we would not want on any car, and it’s surprising that it’s part of the standard equipment.

   We found our way on to the M1 and were able to enjoy the relaxed effortless performance and remarkable quietness of the new big S-Class, but one would need much longer to explore all its clever features and find out how everything works. Also, without studying the prices and equipment of the range it’s impossible to suggest any preferences as to our prime choice, but it did seem that the S 350 at £67,990 including options represented better value than the CLS with less than £10,000 between them.

   It was an interesting driving day but as usual one would have liked more time. One thing that is apparent is that Mercedes-Benz is certainly offering cars which are very fuel efficient.

SEAT Leon 1.6 TDI
Knowing that a new model was on the way, we took the opportunity to try the outgoing SEAT Leon in summer 2013, and now at the end of the year have been able to drive the new version. Where is the progress? - that’s the question.

The new Leon has a more stylish and sporty-looking frontal design with triangular-shaped daytime running lights, and the interior has been tidied up without spoiling what was already a very functional layout.

   A substantial difference was that the earlier version tried had the 1.2-litre TSI petrol engine and we commented on what a lively and responsive unit it was as a result of turbocharging. Our assessment of the new Leon family was based on a 1.6-litre TDI diesel, and on paper both engines give the same power output of 105 PS, yet on the road the 1.2 petrol was slightly faster than the diesel, taking only 17.1 seconds to go from rest to 80 mph, against 20.8 for the diesel.

   The big difference, of course, is the gain in fuel economy with the diesel consistently over 50 mpg, and readily able to return nearly 60 mpg if driven in relaxed mode. In comparison the petrol model was more often in the middle 40s, and its CO2 emissions are a little higher at 114 g/km against only 99 for the diesel.

   In the new Leon range you can now get DSG automatic transmission with the 1.2-litre petrol engine, which was previously not available. In standard form the 1.6 diesel gets a five-speed gearbox with easy change and well-placed lever with shiny top. Good features are that the whole range now has engine stop and restart at traffic halts as well as energy recovery when slowing down or braking. The stop/start system worked very well on the test car but will not operate until the car is completely at rest, and one wonders why this is necessary. There would be no objection to engine stop occurring at speeds below, say, 30 mph allowing the car to coast up to a red traffic lights.

   Leon is a five-door hatchback with the usual provision for the rear seat backrests to be dropped down on to the fixed cushion for extra load space. An option on the test car was 17in. alloy wheels with Pirelli Cinturato tyres, and this combination gives the Leon a rather harsh and lively ride with quite high levels of tyre roar and thump over bumps. Many good features are retained, notably the very reassuring handling and stability at speed, responsive brakes with a very effective handbrake, and the excellent instrumentation. The only drawback here is, as mentioned in our test of the earlier model, that the steering column cannot be adjusted high enough, with the result that the critical 2,000 to 4,000 rpm range of the rev counter is obscured by the left rim of the steering wheel.

   As before, the steering wheel carries controls for the audio, telephone (if fitted), and computer selections. A very good radio with DAB selection as well as FM and AM is included in the technology pack, currently provided free of charge, which also provides a navigation system. The map display is clear and very detailed, and the instructions for navigation are good but choice of route not always the best. Also listed as an extra is a space saver spare wheel at £95. There is still plenty of stowage space around it in the under-floor area of the load compartment. The tail gate is released by lifting the ‘S’ motif.

   It is normal for the new version of any model to cost more than the predecessor so it was quite impressive to find that the 1.2 petrol S version of Leon at £15,850 shows a price rise of only £180. The extra £1,120 for SE trim instead of S seems justified by the extra features provided. Also normal is to recommend the diesel in favour of the petrol, but in this case, seeing a price saving of £1,700 in favour of the 1.2 petrol instead of the 1.6 diesel, we feel that one would need to run up a huge mileage before the extra fuel and tax costs of the petrol version would equal the added purchase price of the diesel. Whichever Leon you go for, you won’t be disappointed, but in this case we recommend as Prime Choice the Leon SE 1.2 TSI with turbocharged petrol engine for £16,970.

Kia Sorento
At much the same time as the Kia Sportage was with us for test, we were able to try the new Sorento. It’s larger and quite a lot more expensive than Sportage, but it has a 2.2-litre diesel engine - there are no petrol models - and all versions are seven-seaters. Like the Sportage, it comes with Kia’s remarkable seven-year warranty covering up to 100,000 miles. It gives what many buyers want in this kind of vehicle - a high seating position with good visibility, ‘lord of all I survey’, yet is light and manageable on the road. The engine especially pulls smoothly giving lively performance, and economy is good for such a big vehicle, returning over 40 mpg on a run. It is 1,885mm wide, 4,685 mm long and weighs 2,510 kg.

   Kia has rationalised the range, so that all Sorentos now come with the same engine giving an impressive 194 bhp power output and four-wheel drive which comes in unobtrusively whenever front wheelspin occurs. Standard transmission is a six-speed gearbox with slightly ponderous gear change, or there is automatic transmission, again with six speeds, at £1,500 extra. Unlike some 4x4 vehicles, the ride provided by Sorento is resilient, giving good absorption of rotten road surfaces. Bumps are heard rather than felt. Very efficient braking is provided by discs all round, vented at front, and there is a conventional pull-up handbrake positioned close to the driving seat.

   The middle row of seats folds down readily and they tip to give access to the back ones, and all seats can be folded flat to form a uniform load platform. There is generous load space in the back, and a usefully spacious central compartment beneath the armrest. Many manufacturers are tending to do away with the spare wheel, but Sorento has a full size spare on an alloy rim mounted on a wind-down tray at the back. Equipment is comprehensive in the KX-2 version as tested, including such features as rain sensing wipers, automatic switching of lights in failing light, and cornering lights which show the way round tight corners.

   Prices for Sorento start at £26,695 for the KX-1 trim, but the KX-2 brings a lot of extra features to justify its price of £29,095 including self-leveling suspension, heated front seats with leather upholstery, and a very effective rear view on the large colour screen which comes on when reversing. Not so tempting are the hefty £1,100 extra for sat-nav, or the additions to KX-3 specification which push the price up to £35,295, the main feature being a panoramic sunroof.

   The test car came with a tow-hitch and 13-pin electrics correctly wired, so advantage was taken to try its towing ability. Not surprisingly, it made very light work of a 1,100 kg caravan, since its maximum towing limit is 2,500 kg, though the mpg tumbled down to 24.4 when towing.

   Called SUV - sports utility vehicle - the new Sorento is stylish and very capable and will bring great satisfaction especially with its low running costs thanks to the warranty and modest service requirements calling for attention only every 20,000 miles or one year. Our Prime Choice recommendation is the Sorento 2.2 CRDi 194 bhp six-speed manual with KX-2 trim for £29,095.

Peugeot 508 Hybrid
In due course we shall become accustomed to the silent movement of electrically-powered cars, but at present people are still surprised by it, like the woman who was loading up her hatchback and was startled to turn round and see the Peugeot 508 Hybrid which had glided into the parking space alongside. “Oh,” she exclaimed, “I didn’t hear you arrive.” It’s part of the magic of the Peugeot 508 Hybrid. At low speeds it runs silently on the electric motor driving the back wheels. As you accelerate away it changes unobtrusively to front wheel drive from its diesel engine, which is also exceptionally quiet except when working hard. Under full power, such as you might use climbing a steep hill or overtaking, the electric motor joins the effort to give extra urge.

  Most of the time the use of electric power is determined automatically, and a little display between the main instruments shows where the power is coming from - the engine, or the battery, or electricity from the engine charging the battery. In place of a rev counter there is a gauge showing how much of the total power is being used, usually only about 30 per cent.

   One can also override it all by using the rotary switch which gives a choice of ZEV, Sport, 4WD, or automatic. I selected ZEV (zero emissions vehicle) to climb the steep hill through Lymington town, giving no noise and no pollution. But by the time we had reached the top, the engine cut in to start recharging the battery. 4WD applies power to all wheels to get the car out of a tricky situation, while Sport is the one for optimum performance.

   But you don’t have to touch it if you don’t want to be involved, and the transmission is fully automatic, selecting unobtrusively whichever of the six gears is needed, and changing gears so smoothly that most of the time they are not noticed. There is no clutch pedal, nor is there any provision for plugging the Peugeot Hybrid into the mains to recharge. It all happens of its own accord from the diesel engine.

   The brakes give immediate sharp response, and as soon as the driver releases the accelerator the energy starts being transferred back into the battery. On a long hill descent instead of using the brakes, the car is held back by the generator, charging the battery. As soon as the car stops at a traffic halt, the engine stops if it was running anyway, and on pressing the accelerator the car moves smoothly away under electric power with the diesel starting up only when needed.

   Other features of this big Peugeot saloon are also very pleasing. It’s a ‘key in pocket’ car in which a touch on the start/stop button is all that is needed provided the key is on the person. The boot lid is opened either by a touch on the button on the facia, or by a press on the remote locking key fob, and it goes up unassisted. Boot space is generous despite the loss of some room below the floor taken by the electric motor and battery; and there’s no spare wheel, only a repair kit.

   Also rather handy is that there is no need to apply a parking brake; it is put on automatically as soon as you stop the engine and move the transmission selector to N (neutral). There is no Park position and indeed one wonders why this should ever be necessary.

   The seats are extremely comfortable with full electric adjustment plus pneumatic tensioners to boost up the firmness of the backrest as desired. The rear seat backrests let down on to the cushion for extra load space.

   The big test of the 508 Hybrid, of course, is what does it do for the economy. The answer is that the more low speed running and stop-start traffic work one is involved in, the better the benefit. We found mpg in the upper 40s was easily achieved, and the overall consumption on a 600-mile journey was a very creditable 47.4. The added benefit is that its emissions are so low, at only 95 g/km, that there is no tax to pay, which helps to offset the extra £5,645 of the Hybrid. It’s a lot extra to pay but it comes with the top Allure specification, and we feel the Hybrid assets are worthwhile, enabling us to name as our Prime Choice the Peugeot 508 Hybrid 4, total 200 bhp, six-speed automatic at £32,100.

Kia Sportage
A manufacturer that has come on leaps and bounds over the past decade is Kia; and having the opportunity to drive a Sportage 2.0-litre CRDi KX-2 recently, our faith in this brand has reached even greater heights.

   As I pen this the big sturdy Sportage SUV is sat directly outside my window. Its eye-catching lines (created, incidentally, by the same man who designed the Audi TT) gives the car a distinctive presence in today’s style-conscious market and it is practical, spacious, comfortable, well-equipped - including a panoramic sunroof and roof rails - and offers strong all-round performance combined with sharp handling (although some may think the suspension is a little on the soft side) that we found ideal. We did not drive off-road on this occasion, but suspect with its hill descent control and locking differential it would cope admirably.

   From the driver’s seat the view all-round is good, but vision out of the back is slightly restricted making parking a little more difficult than it should be, but reverse bleeper’s and large rear view mirrors help. The dash layout is both attractive and logical with simple, yet sturdy, control switches and a stereo system that is both efficient and, most importantly, easy to operate for us elderly folk. All driving controls are within easy reach and straightforward to operate.

   There is plenty of room in the back for three adults with lots of legroom and comfortable seats; some nice finishes and practical touches are evident, such as a low lip for easy loading of bulky items and the load net in the boot to secure items. The luggage area itself (even with the 60/40 split rear seats in place) offers some 564-litres of space and when fully folded this increases to 1353-litres. An extra area is also incorporated beneath the boot compartment cover for other miscellaneous items, as well as a proper spare wheel. Quite a few other storage areas are dotted around the cabin, including a large cuddy in the centre console shaped to accept a couple of bottles, deep door bins on either side, a large glove compartment and other useful recesses.

   It would be hard to better the 2-litre diesel power unit on this Sportage which we found nicely matched to the chassis and very flexible throughout the rev range; other choices include a 1.6-litre petrol unit moving through a 1.7 diesel engine in different states of tune to the 2-litre power units. However, whichever of the engines you choose, and whether you opt for two-or four-wheel drive, or manual five-speed or six-speed gearbox, or even an automatic, we feel that the less expensive two-wheel-drive variants are more than adequate for general everyday use. We managed well in excess of 45mpg on our test car which is pretty respectable for a vehicle in the crossover sector.

   With an array of class leading safety features, including anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, front, side and curtain airbags, child-seat points, hill-start assist, roll-over sensor and anti-whiplash headrests designed to protect occupants necks, you are fully protected from most eventualities. Add to this the makers seven-year or 100,000-mile warranty, and you realize how confident Kia is in the durability of its products. Resale values in the used market are strong and routine servicing costs should undercut most rivals and, of course, that warranty will keep your bank balance safe for many years to come.

   Our Prime Choice model, as reviewed, would be the  2.0-litre CRDi KX-2 with manual gearbox at £27,195 on the road. The Sportage range starts at £17,495 for the 1.6 petrol engined variant and tops out just short of £28,700 for a KX-4 2.0 CRDi Sportage fitted with an automatic gearbox.

Mazda Mazda3
At the September 2013 Frankfurt Show, Mazda revealed a new version of its popular model, confusingly called the Mazda Mazda3. With availability of the new model in Britain coming soon, it’s timely to look at the outgoing model for which bargain prices might be available, and particularly to try the new 1.6-litre diesel engine for which high claims are made. Official fuel consumption is given as 65.7 mpg, with CO2 emissions at a tax-cheating 115 g/km. There is no initial tax to pay, and subsequently the annual charge at present is just £30.

   The same figure, 115, is the PS output of the engine which is impressive for a 1.6, and is borne out by the liveliness of the Mazda3 on the road. A time of a shade over seconds to go from rest to 80 mph is unremarkable, but does not reflect the response and free-revving ability of the engine which zooms up to 4,000 rpm without fuss and is extremely quiet. Surprisingly it does not have the increasingly common feature of automatic engine stop at traffic halts, but it does have a gear shift indicator reminding the driver to change up or down as needed. It has a six-speed gearbox with very easy action. Despite using the performance fairly freely and enjoying the Mazda3's fast cruising ability, we regularly saw over 50 mpg, and the overall figure for nearly 500 test miles was 49.7 mpg.

   Less pleasing than the dynamic behaviour is the suspension which has been made firmer in the interests of precise handling, and gives rise to a lot of thump and thud noises on bad roads, which is perhaps not helped by the 17 inch wheels which are standard. In other respects the Mazda3 delights with its positive steering, reassuring feel through corners, and touch-sensitive brakes by discs at all wheels. A conventional pull-up lever handbrake is offset to the left of the centre division.

   Seats are well-shaped with pronounced side bolsters for lateral support, but on a long run the firmness of the seat cushions begins to cause some aches. Seat trim is in cloth with red stitching, and heating for the front seats with 5-stage control is included with the Venture package. The body is a five-door hatchback, and load space is generous, helped by having only a space-saver spare wheel, and is extended by very easily folding down the rear seat backrests, which are divided in 60/40 format. There is a useful stowage compartment beneath the centre armrest, and a drop-down holder for glasses above the driving mirror. Exterior door mirrors are large and heated, with provision to fold in by switch. Instruments are large and clear, back-lit for clarity in all conditions, and the only other instrument in addition to speedometer and rev counter is a fuel gauge showing the level by diminishing number of blocks. A very good audio set has a CD slot above it, and remote control switches on the steering wheel. Less impressive is the TomTom-based navigation system which also comes with the Venture package. It has a touch-sensitive screen and provides a clear but rather small map, and speed camera locations can be inserted.

   An extra price of £1,500 is charged for the Venture specification, taking the total to £18,995, and we feel that the discerning and cost-conscious buyer might decide not to venture into the Venture additions, so we recommend as our Prime Choice, the 1.6D Tamura six-speed at £17,495.

Suzuki SX4 S-Cross
Everybody’s wanting them, it seems, and now Suzuki joins the vigorous market in cars designed more for the school run and domestic pleasure rather than for violent off-road use. But Suzuki’s new offering, called the S-Cross, is available in two-wheel drive or 4x4 form, and there’s choice of four trim levels starting at £15,000 for the cheapest SZ3 version with 1.6 petrol engine.

Straight away we can report that SX4 looks stylish and is very functional, and it has Suzuki’s neat build quality and finish. Under the bonnet, one has only to lift off the air filter unit - no tools required - to see the impressive engine layout beneath.

   We took our first long drive in SX4 in the diesel version with four-wheel drive, designated DDiS, and were at once impressed by the quietness and smoothness of the engine. It has automatic stop-start at halts, but the noise level is so low one is scarcely aware that it has stopped. There’s not a lot of low-speed torque, but use the easy action and well-placed gear shift to get a few more revs on board and it then astonishes with the response from this engine which seems a little small in relation to the size of the car. All the engines, both petrol and diesel, are of 1.6-litre capacity, and both petrol and turbo diesel engines give the same power output of 120PS.

   The petrol engines offer a choice of five-speed manual gearbox or CVT automatic transmission, and we tried one of these afterwards but were less impressed than we had been by the diesel. Although it performs well there is a lot more engine roar in hard acceleration and, of course, the fuel consumption is heavier, showing 34.2 mpg after a necessarily brief test run, whereas the diesel version had been consistently around 50 mpg and finished showing 49.5 mpg. CVT is not available for diesel models.

   An unusual feature - a world first, claims Suzuki - is the panoramic sunroof extending over the front and rear seats in two sections. When opened, the front panel slides back over the rear section which then also slides back giving a huge opening, delightful for a very hot day provided, of course, some side windows are also open to prevent buffeting.

   When driving we were aware of a severe visibility problem over the right shoulder due to the thickness of the centre pillar, merging with the wide headrest, to make it almost impossible to see if the way is clear at a trailing right junction. The S-Cross is available only in five-door five-seater form. The rear seats are divided 60/40 and their backrests fold down readily on to the fixed cushion. The tailgate is strongly spring-loaded to open almost of its own accord, revealing a spacious load compartment with additional room beneath the floor.

   The four-wheel drive system has a four-position selector behind the gearshift giving choice of sport or snow, or automatic electronic control bringing 4x4 in when needed. The fourth selection is by a lock-up switch to give positive drive to all wheels for severe conditions. Regrettably four-wheel drive is available only with the two top trim levels, SZ-T and SZ5.

   The latter move the price up to £21,549 for the petrol SZ5 4x4, or £23,549 for the diesel version, so the conclusion has to be that unless 4x4 is regarded as essential, stay with the front drive version and our recommendation for Prime Choice is the SX4 S-Cross DDiS SZ3 6-speed manual front drive with 110 g/km emissions and £20 per annum car tax, for £16,999.  

Renault Zoe
Against all the encouragements for drivers to switch to electric cars - a Government grant of £5,000 towards the cost, no tax to pay, free entry to congestion areas and so on - the big stumbling blocks are the enormous cost of battery renewal, and the worry about what happens when the battery runs flat. With its new all-electric car called Zoe, from ‘zero emissions,’ Renault counters the first problem by taking on the responsibility for battery life. The buyer will take the battery on a lease scheme, costing ‘from’£70 a month, relieving the owner of all worries on this front. The cost sounds high but not when related to the amount that might otherwise be spent on petrol or diesel fuel.

   The matter of possible range on a full charge remains the big anxiety and this was brought home to us when we tried Zoe at a recent Renault test day. The event was based near Gatwick airport where the minor roads are all congested and slow, so we fought our way across to M23 and joined the motorway heading north. In a few miles we passed the exit to Gatwick airport and realised with some alarm that this was the last turn-off before M25. The range indicator at the start of our run had suggested that Zoe had enough energy to cover 71 miles, so hopefully it would make it to the flyover junction where we could go straight on before being able to make a legal U-turn and head back. Normal range is quoted as 62-93 miles according to driving style, speed, and conditions.

   The worries were over, and Zoe made it back to base, still showing a possible range of 31 miles. However, the experience revealed that this new electric five-seater is not a motorway car. The power kept cutting out above about 55 mph, calling for the accelerator to pressed down hard again. It wasn’t realised at the time that this is a feature of the ECOmode setting, to conserve power. It was also appallingly noisy - something which had not been evident while driving with the traffic on minor roads. Ride comfort also left much to be desired.

   So the appeal of Zoe is obviously for a driver who needs to do perhaps 20 or 30 miles of commuting every day, who will be able to keep pace with the fastest traffic, and even see many of them off at traffic lights, and remember to put the battery on charge each night. For this there is an arrangement with a power company to have a suitable point installed at home, so that the on-board cable connection can be used. Recharging time can be reduced to half an hour at a 43kW point, bringing the battery up to 80 per cent of charge.

   Built expressly as an electric car, Zoe brings some advantages, one of which is the programmed heating or air conditioning which can be turned on remotely so that the car is hot or cool as required when you step into it in the morning. Heating and cooling are by a heat pump system, working like a refrigerator, but we have some doubts about its efficacy for a really cold day. Zoe is also a true five-seater with reasonable luggage space. The price, after deduction of the Government’s £5,000 allowance, is £13,995. Running costs should be no more than the £70 monthly battery lease charge, with little to pay on maintenance and certainly no oil or filter changes. Three trim and specification levels are available.

   Although the package is attractive, we later drove the Dacia Sandero dCi with 1,461 cc diesel engine, claimed to give 70.6 mpg on the combined cycle; we all know that means that the owner will probably see around 50-55 mpg. The price of £11,380 is increased by £395 to extend the warranty to five years, or £850 for seven years. It lacks the novelty of Zoe but perhaps makes more practical sense.

   However, the Zoe package for the short-range commuter is undoubtedly attractive, and we would recommend going for the base model called Expression at £13,995 and spending some of the cash saved compared with the two Dynamique packages at £1,200 extra, on some of the options offered. As our prime choice, therefore, we would plump for Zoe Expression 87 bhp electric for £13,995, plus £70/month battery lease.

So much to see and do in Germany, says Stuart Bladon
Where should we go and what should we do on our late summer holiday in Germany? asks a friend. Well, I am able to advise, having just spent three weeks of conducted exploration in the hands of the German National Tourist office on a magnficent tour arranged for the Caravan Writers’ Guild.

   Although this was not included in our tour I would strongly advise a visit to the charming little village of Monschau, close to the border and just south of Aachen. You can park outside the village and take a short walk to the centre enjoying its charming little shops, restaurants and the superb vista over the river.

   From here it’s a pleasant cross-country drive of about 100 miles to the oldest town in Germany, if not in Europe, the ancient city of Trier. Founded over 100 years BC, Trier has a variety of ancient Roman ruins in various states of preservation, including eight UNESCO world heritage sites and there are numerous museums and historic buildings.

   It is well supplied with parking places or you can take one of the many conducted tours with an English-speaking guide. Not to be missed are the Cathedral - the oldest in Germany, built 1,700 years ago, and the fabulous Roman baths with underground walkways often as much as half a kilometre long. The baths, we were told, were never used! Perhaps even in those days Governments were prone to change their minds and waste money on unfinished projects, all too familiar in modern times. Here, too, you may wish to visit the birthplace of Karl-Marx, now a museum.

   As caravan writers, we were all in our caravans and motor caravans which for this centre were located at the very attractive Campingplatz at Echternacherbrück, and the busy schedule included time for a two-hour cruise on the Moselle, as well as numerous wine-tasting visits.

   There was much more to see in the Trier area, enough to justify another visit later, but our schedule called for hitching up and moving south-east some 300 miles to sample the highlights of Bavaria; and here a word of warning. Major roadworks are in hand to widen the two-lane carriageways of the Autobahn between Stuttgart and Munich, and German drivers seem to be as bad as the English at failing to cope with roadworks and lane-switching, so we were delayed by several accidents.

   Our site was at camping Lech in Affing near Augsburg, and from here we began the industry side of our tour with visits to AL-KO, the leading manufacturer of chassis for both caravans and motorhome. Nearby is the historic town of Nördlingen where you can walk round Germany’s only preserved city wall (but be warned, it’s 2.6 km along the parapet), and visit the Ries crater museum to learn about the impact of a huge meteorite. The event was explained by archeologists only as recently as 1961, although the crash actually occurred some 15 million years ago.

   It has been calculated that the meteor hit the earth at 45,000 mph, and penetrated the earth’s crust to a depth of about two miles, discharging energy equivalent to 250,000 atomic bombs. We must hope it doesn’t happen again!

   Essential viewing in Bavaria are the famous castles of King Ludwig II, the enormous costs of which led to his downfall and ultimate death in a lake with his hated doctor-minder; no one knows if it was suicide or murder. Our tour took us to the magnificent Neuschwanstein castle, which is best seen from a little bridge over the river halfway up the walk to the top. The interior I find a little disappointing, and not as magnificent as the superb Linderhof with its dazzling gold decor, array of mirrors, and gravity-powered fountain leaping up into the air about every half hour.

   While at Neuschwanstein a call at Füssen is rewarding for a walk round the historic town, and then we went to Uffing, where a boat took us to Murnau which is famous for its artists and authors who lived and worked here, but what really enthralled me was the pedestrianised centre street with restaurants, wine and beer tables  while in the background soaring into the sky are the mountains of the Bavarian Alps. The boat excursion on the Stafelsee is well worthwhile. This area, in the foothills of the Alps is called the Blue Land. We had a very informative talk here by the mayor in perfect English, who then departed on his bicycle. “What, no mayoral limo?” I asked, and he replied that he always used his bike in Murnau.

   Up into the mountains was the next item on our schedule, and we went to Brannenburg for the rack railway up to Wendelstein at 1,838 m. Unfortunately, after brilliant sunshine the previous day, the mountains were largely ‘bottled’ by cloud, but a very good lunch was enjoyed in the Wendelstein House just below the summit.

Into the mountains next and we went to Brannenburg for the rack railway up to Wendelstein at 1,838m. Unfortunately, after brilliant sunshine the previous day, the mountains were largely ‘bottled’ by cloud, but a very good lunch was enjoyed in the Wendelstein House just below the summit.

   Gradually, the clouds lifted, revealing some of the spectacular mountain views, before we descended by the alternative transport system, an enclosed cable car. Did they know how many people could be crowded into the cabin, we wondered, but the cables took it alright.

   After our fairly leisurely sight-seeing days it was time to carry on with the industry research part of the tour, starting with a visit to Truma, which supplies hot water and interior heating for most caravans and motorhomes, and we were shown the elaborate test procedure undergone by every gas combustion unit. “How often do you get a failure?” I asked. “Failure,” came the reply; “what is that?”  But they still test every unit just in case, because a carbon monoxide leak could be fatal.

   Next came Hymer, which was something of a revelation. This manufacturer of caravans and motorhomes has a vast factory, and we saw chassis coming in at one end, furniture and fittings being installed, and finally the body sides and roof going on for the finished product to emerge at the other end, about 1 km away. A lot of manual labour is involved. Almost unlimited land space in Germany makes it possible for them to have such a huge factory for caravan and motorhome production. An important part in caravan production is played by Whale which supplies pumps for water circulation in the caravan.

   Another very pretty and historic town awaited us at Memmingen, and then just a short distance away is Ottobeuren. We had visited a number of churches and cathedrals, but the amazing Basilica at Ottobeuren is well worth the diversion. It has been repaired now at cost of a million euros following damage caused by a severe hailstorm a few years ago.

   One cannot leave Bavaria without exploring Munich, which is perhaps best done on one of the many city sightseeing tours. It is a magnificent city; and after we had enjoyed our fill of nostalgia and historic buildings it was time to hitch up our BMW 520d Touring to the caravan and set off back north. We avoided the congested Stuttgart motorway, picking up the A6 near Heilbronn and on to the A61 west of Rhine Autobahn which is less congested than the Frankfurt-Cologne routes on the other side. Our destination, the large but very attractive site at Rüdesheim was on the east side of the Rhine, so we took the short cut across using the ferry which takes only about ten minutes and costs 10 euro for the car and caravan. The site, Campingplatz am Rhein, is one really to be recommended and we had a fine pitch with a view across the Rhine.

   A short walk into Rüdesheim takes you to the intriguing Sigfried mechanical music museum, where a fabulous collection of self-playing musical machines can be seen, many of them still in working order. From here it’s just a short walk to take the cable car ride to the Niederwald monument which was erected after the Franco-German war of 1870-71. You can return the same way, or walk the hill crest for about two miles to descend by another cable car to Assmanshausen for a meal and then return to Rüdesheim by bus or boat.

   Next day a three-hour cruise on the river heading north was a relaxing finish to our busy three-week tour and took us to the historic little town of Braubach followed by a road train up the hill to Marksburg castle, the only one of the many on the Rhine which has never been destroyed. But a lot of steep climbing is involved to explore the interior. Finally a one-hour train ride took us back to Rüdesheim.

   It had been a busy and thoroughly entertaining tour in which we had explored a lot of Germany, though some would probably say we had barely scratched the surface of a country so full of variety and history. If you go touring in Germany I can guarantee that you will be delighted - and you don’t need to take your German phrase book; almost everyone speaks perfect English.

Caravanning in Germany
Included in our tour were inspections of a large number of caravan sites in addition to the three at which we stayed, and without exception they were all impeccably clean, tidy and well-maintained. The roads are also in far better state of repair than our neglected ones, and although traffic volumes are invariably high, progress is steady and reasonably rapid.

Motorhomes have a big advantage over trailer caravans, which are beset by an unrealistic speed limit approximately 50 mph or 80 km/h. To qualify for an extension to 100 km/h (62 mph) you have to call at Aachen, and arrange to have your trailer inspected by an engineer to obtain authorisation for a ‘100' sticker to go on the back, allowing the upper speed limit.

   Finding somewhere to park the outfit in Aachen and arrange all this is quite impractical, so for a while we tried sticking to 50, only to realise that this is potentially dangerous. All the time, lorries are being forced out to overtake the caravan. The alternative is to take to the minor roads, but with big mileages to be covered, this is also very frustrating.

    I am trying to bring what pressure is possible to try to get the German authorities to accept an engineer’s report in the home country for the 100 km/h limit to be applied. The other drawback is that long sections of Autobahn especially where there are roadworks have a sign forbidding cars towing trailers from overtaking. The result is that you are trapped in while cars and motor caravans go flooding past and cutting in at the front of the queue. One can only put up with this or ignore it and risk a heavy fine.

   Patience is necessary, and then when you arrive at the site you will find a warm welcome, delightfully clean facilities, and the caravan can be unhitched leaving the car free for touring. On both the outward and homeward journeys it’s a good idea to visit Luxembourg to fill up, where fuel is much cheaper than in Belgium or Germany.

SEAT Leon S 1.2 TSI
Driving this example, bottom of SEAT’s new (2013) Leon range, one could well think that there was a 1.6-litre engine under the bonnet. For a 1.2 to perform so well there is a simple explanation: every model in the Leon range, whether petrol or diesel, is turbocharged.

This four-cylinder 1,197cc version gives 105 PS, and the performance is very creditable, with 80 mph reached in 17.1 secs, and a top speed of just under 120 mph. Even more striking is the lack of noise.

   This four-cylinder 1,197cc version gives 105 PS, and the performance is very creditable, with 80 mph reached in 17.1 seconds from rest, and a top speed of just under 120 mph. Even more striking is the lack of noise. The engine has automatic stop and restart at traffic halts whenever the gear is in neutral, but the only noticeable difference when it stops is seeing the rev counter needle go back to zero. It also remains very quiet when made to work hard through the gears, and in contrast to diesels, this petrol engine can be revved right up to 6,000 rpm without fuss.

   It is available with automatic transmission having seven speeds, or as the test car, with an easy and well-placed manual gear change and six gears. There is good low-down torque, so it is not necessary to use the gears too liberally, and a little indicator at the top of the information display hints when it is overdue for a change up to the higher gear. Cruising at speed is also impressively quiet. The average fuel economy is quoted as 57.6 mpg, which is perhaps a little optimistic, but we were consistently seeing over 45 on test, and better than 50 on any run where traffic prevented high speeds.

   1.2-litre versions are available with S or SE trim, perhaps the most important gain of SE being front fog lights which come on to light the way round tight corners at low speeds, though these are also available with the Lifestyle package which also provides 16 inch alloy wheels, for £395 extra on the S model.

   Although a little on the firm side, the suspension swallows bumps well and there is not a lot of tyre roar, but the seats upholstered in coarse weave cloth proved rather hard and unyielding on a long journey. You have to move up to FR trim to get sports seats with leatherette bolsters, but FR is not available with the 1.2-litre engine; the 1.4 FR costs £19,385, getting on for £4,000 more than the 1.2S.

   Brakes are by discs all round, vented at front, and response is very sharp, tending to catch the driver out on the first few applications. A lever-type handbrake is mounted nearest the passenger seat and needs to be pulled up firmly.

   There are many pleasing features in Leon. We liked the way in which the wipers hide completely out of view when switched off, and when the wash/wipe system is used they give a further single wipe after about a minute, to clear any dribbles. There is also an effective rear wash/wiper system with intermittent action and the front wipers on intermittent have an adjustable delay. The instruments are very clear, and back lit all the time, while the information provided on a fixed screen at the top of the console shows journey progress in terms of time and fuel consumption, and the mpg readout can be set to show since start of journey, since last refuelling or since last reset. The screen also serves for choice of radio listening, and is touch sensitive - just tap the screen to select your programme or other features such as monitoring the tyre pressures.

   Visibility is good, with space to see around the door mirrors instead of having them merged with the screen pillars, and the driver has a reasonable degree of seat height adjustment by working a ratchet lever. There are pockets in all four doors, a useful drop-down compartment in front of the passenger, and good load space under a lift-up tailgate which raises the back shelf on cords. There is also space under the boot floor, there being no spare wheel there - only a repair kit with pump and pressure gauge.

   For a medium size family car the new Leon has a lot to offer, and we would name as Prime Choice the version as tested, SEAT Leon S 1.2 TSI for £15,670 with recommendation to specify the £395 Lifestyle Pack as mentioned earlier.

Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI
Previous Audi models have used the Sportback name, and it is particularly appropriate for the newly announced (2013) addition to the range because it is a very sporty car to drive. For a car with an engine of only 1.6-litre capacity, the gearing is exceptionally high, giving a relaxed cruising pace of 71.6 mph at only 2,000 rpm. The engine is so quiet and unobtrusive that sometimes one forgets what gear is selected, and pressing the accelerator down doesn’t have any effect - no growl or vibration, but no acceleration either; then a glance at the little tell-tale in the instruments reveals that the gear is still in sixth and the engine turning at only 1,000 rpm. A snappy change down to third brings immediate response, and indeed the way to drive the A3 Sportback is to make full use of the gears, and worry not about the economy.

   It seems that no matter how hard the car is driven, it always returns over 50 mpg, and any attempt at economy driving should see 60 mpg, though the claimed 85.6 for driving on the extra urban cycle might remain elusive. No matter, the figures achieve what is wanted, namely a CO2 figure of less than 100 g/km, ensuring there is no car tax to be paid.

   Engine stop occurs whenever the car is at rest with the gear in neutral, but it is a little irritating that it won’t happen until the car is completely motionless. On restarting, which happens as soon as the clutch pedal is pressed, it is important not to hurry the getaway too much or it is quite easy to stall the engine. A little indicator in the bottom of the speedometer shows what gear is engaged, and an arrow and number hints that a change up or down should be made. The skilled driver tries to anticipate these warnings and beat the system! For a 1.6-litre diesel, performance is very good, with a time of 18.7 seconds to go from rest to 80 mph, and a top speed in excess of 120 mph.

   At a modest extra cost of £220 one can specify Audi drive select, which gives a choice of five settings for firmness of the suspension, and changes can be made either by the main control with display shown on the navigation screen, or by a simple thumb switch on the console which gives each of the settings in turn and shows as a reminder which one is in use. Whichever has been selected, the ride tends to be firm but absorbs bumps very well. A four-spoke steering wheel with stitched leather rim has computer controls on the left, audio on the right, and steering control is hairline accurate, while the car sits down most reassuringly through fast bends. The brakes, by discs all round, give very sharp reaction, and the parking brake is operated by electric switch, releasing only when the driver’s foot is on the brake pedal.

   A huge choice of systems is provided, with the driver able to select, for example, if the doors are to lock automatically on driving off, and the choices are revealed on the screen which emerges from the top of the console and swings into view, ideally located, as soon as the key is turned. A very good navigation system with impressively clear map comes as a £495 extra. The seats are well-shaped and both front seats have ratchet height adjustment. The rear seats are divided 40/60 and the backrests drop easily down on to the fixed one-piece cushion, but they don’t line up with the boot floor. Under the boot is a space-saver wheel.

   Very clear instruments, a most informative trip computer system, and generous stowage provisions are all part of the attractions of this very desirable small car which we have no hesitation in naming as our Prime Choice for a small, lively five-door hatchback which is great fun to drive: Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI for £20,775 on the road, £25,410 including options, of which the most expensive item is the Xenon light package for £1,250.

Volvo V40 D3
The V40 tested in D3 form is unusual in having a five-cylinder diesel engine. Inherited from Audi, the five-cylinder unit brings advantages of smoothness and quietness, with good low-speed torque, and although engine capacity is only 1,984 it gives generous power output of 150 bhp, providing very good response. There is also a D4 model in which the same engine is developed to give 177 bhp, which is remarkable for a 2-litre.

   Start-up procedure is simple: press the key fob into the slot and then press the start/stop button with clutch pedal depressed, which makes one wonder why other cars need to have a key. At traffic halts automatic engine stop occurs once the car has come to a complete halt with the gear in neutral, and starts again as soon as the clutch pedal is pressed. The gear lever with shiny top and leather gaiter is well placed, and sixth gear allows quiet cruising giving 72 mph at only 2,000 rpm. The engine is mounted transversely, driving the front wheels.

   The V40 gives a very positive feel through corners, and stability at speed is most reassuring, helped by very accurate steering. The leather-trimmed wheel has a very hard rim and carries switches for the cruise control on the left and audio on the right. Less pleasing is the firmness of the suspension which is bit harsh and thumpy on poor roads and gives a lot of tyre roar from the Bridgestone tyres. Safety conscious Volvo provides disc brakes at all four wheels, vented at the front, and response is perhaps almost too sharp making it a little difficult to drive smoothly avoiding jerky halts. The pull-up handbrake lever is offset to the left of the centre tunnel.

   A neat display with screen mounted at the top of the console gives a mass of information and can even be switched to show a bar chart of mpg achieved every ten miles, encouraging one to try to do even better! We couldn't’t manage the 65 mpg claimed for the V40 but did regularly see over 50, with a best of 55.3 on a long run.

   Ample luggage space is provided in spite of the short tail of the hatchback body, and there is a useful out of sight space beneath the boot floor, under which is a space-saver spare wheel. Interior stowage space is also generous with a large drop down compartment in front of the passenger and more space below the centre armrest, plus useful pockets in all four doors. For the driver only, there is ratchet-lever height adjustment and both front seats provide a twist knob to adjust backrest tension. Upholstered in stitched beige leather, the seats proved very comfortable, and the rear seats are divided in 40/60 format to drop down easily on to the fixed cushion for additional load space.

   V40 is available with choice of two 1.6-litre petrol engines and a 1.6-litre diesel as well as the five-cylinder 2-litre engines. The 2-litre units bring the option of six-speed automatic transmission. For this very stylish and practical hatchback we have no hesitation in recommending as Prime Choice the version tested: the V40 D3 ES 2-litre six-speed at £21,245, or £22,825 including some very useful options.

Honda Accord Tourer
It took quite a long time for Honda to bring out a diesel engine, but when it did so the Accord jumped to eminence as one of the quietest and smoothest diesels on the market. Now, others have caught up, but it is still an impressive engine for its refinement, and as with any Honda engine the sight that greets you when you open the bonnet is one of wonderful neatness and orderly design. It’s a four-cylinder with capacity of 2.2-litre, and power output is a creditable 150 PS. There is also the much more powerful Type S model with revised turbo and larger intercooler, giving 180PS.

   Called the Tourer, the estate model is also available with 2-litre or 2.4-litre petrol engines, and the diesel comes with six-speed manual or 5-speed automatic, as in the test car. Like the engine, the transmission is extremely smooth with the option of sport mode by bringing the selector lever fully back, or changing ratios up or down using the paddle switches below the steering wheel. When any change of transmission mode is selected the number appears in a window in the rev counter, but soon goes out, and the transmission equally swiftly reverts to the normal Drive mode. Surprisingly, the engine does not have automatic switch off at traffic halts, but what it does have is an automatic freewheel on overrun, revealed by seeing the rev counter drop back to its tickover speed of 700 rpm.

   A feature of the accord is Trailer Stability Assist on all models, to detect any snaking movement of the trailer and correct it by individual wheel braking, so we were pleased to put this to the test by attaching our test caravan to the Tourer. With this feature, the towing stability was excellent. Less impressive was the pulling power of the engine, which most of the time put the transmission in fourth. Only on down grades did it come up to fifth. Fuel consumption when towing the caravan was 24 mpg, against 35 in normal mixed solo running.

   It was good to find that the tow hitch was detachable and that the electrics were correctly wired to power the caravan fridge and battery as well as all the running lights.

   The suspension gives a very comfortable ride and when towing there was none of the pitching and tail end bounce experienced with some cars. It proved ideally suited to the purpose. Also excellent are the brakes, and there is an effective pull-up lever for the parking brake. Steering is precise with a comfortable leather-trimmed wheel with audio controls on the left, cruise control on the right, and trip computer selection below.

   Upholstered in perforated leather, the seats are well shaped and both front seats have electric adjustment, but we would have liked more vertical height. However, the forward view is good with the wipers neatly hidden from view when parked. The impressive console is capped by a clear navigation screen, ideally placed and shielded to be easy to see. The navigation map is clear, but the system makes some odd choices of route. When reversing, the screen changes to give a clear picture of the view behind. The audio unit is first rate and comes with a CD changer and USB socket in the central compartment below the armrest.

   Electric action raises or lowers the tailgate revealing a generous load compartment with an out of sight stowage space beneath a lift-up cover at the back. There are also door pockets in all doors, large ones at the front, and a big compartment in front of the passenger though a lot of space is taken there by the huge handbook. Electric action for the tailgate and part leather upholstery are the chief advantages offered by the EX trim as on the test car for £31,490 plus £490 for metallic paint, so we feel it might be wise to forgo these and such details as automatic switching for lights and wipers, and select as Prime Choice the Honda Accord Tourer automatic with basic ES trim for £28,015.

Audi A7 Sportback 3.0 TDI quattro
On one point there can be little argument: Audi’s V6 3-litre diesel engine is a superb power plant, giving delightfully quiet and smooth response, with never any harshness to reveal that it is a diesel. Most of the time the engine speed is only at about 1,500 rpm, but instant power comes in reply to a touch on the throttle.

At traffic halts, automatic engine stop takes place to save fuel, the only drawback being that the driver must keep pressure on the brake pedal, because restart is automatic as soon as the pedal is released.

   In standard single-turbo form it gives 245 PS, and the acceleration time from rest to 80 mph is only 10 seconds. Many cars that seem quite quick take that sort of time to get to 60 mph.

   The power comes seamlessly through a Tiptronic transmission using twin clutches and providing a choice of eight speeds. One is seldom aware of ratio changes taking place, but if a spurt of sudden performance is needed the paddle switches below the steering wheel can be used to prompt an earlier down change. Criticised before is the fact that these paddle switches go round with the steering wheel, which makes them sometimes difficult to find when there’s a lot of wheel twirling on a mountain pass; but the central selector can always be used instead.  Exceptionally high gearing gives a cruising speed of around 80 mph for only 1,800 rpm, contributing to wonderful lack of engine noise. Fuel consumption was often over 40 mpg, and 36.0 overall for 789 miles.

   Many choices are provided as standard, and one can select a sport mode for the transmission but this takes away the effortless cruising in eighth gear and really seems superfluous. The suspension can be adjusted for firmness and sportiness with a range of five options, of which the best for comfort seemed to be the automatic mode. The ride is taut but resilient over potholes. Excellent brake response is provided by the four large ventilated discs, and the parking brake is operated by electric switch. Automatic release of the parking brake can be selected provided the seat belt is fastened.

   Upholstered in brown leather, the seats have pronounced side bolsters which can be moved in or out electrically, and there are two memory settings to retain seat adjustments. The rear seat is divided in 40/60 form with provision to drop down either or both backrests giving additional load space to supplement the already huge boot space. The large tailgate lifts and closes electrically. The price at £48,190 was swollen to £56,090 to include extras.

   As soon as the engine is started - simply by touching the start/stop button, provided the key is on person - the navigation screen rolls up at the top of the facia to an ideal position where it can be seen with minimal distraction from the road ahead. It also serves as the display for such features as audio and suspension adjustments. The instruments are a model of clarity with large diameter rev counter and speedometer, with clear display of trip computer readouts between them, as well as showing what gear is in use even in automatic mode. It’s just regrettable that the instruments are not back lit unless the lights are on, but a clever digital projection of the speed at the bottom of the windscreen can be switched on.

   There is very little to moan about in this latest version of the Audi A7, and much to praise. The only points we would make are that it needs a rear wiper, and that it is a very big and wide car. Will it fit your garage? Width excluding the mirrors is 1911 mm with the length at 4969 mm, and the wings make big overhangs to be allowed for when backing into narrow parking bays. As to the model selection, we would be very happy with the one tried and not be tempted by two turbos! So our Prime Choice for a delightful Coupé style five-door hatchback remains the Audi A7 Sportback 3.0TDI quattro SE for £48,190.

Toyota Auris
Engines are improving all the time and one of the greatest strides is shown by the new 1.4-litre diesel engine in Toyota’s latest version of the Auris five-door five-seater hatchback. A lot of attention has been paid to economy with such unobtrusive changes as new piezo-electric fuel injectors acting from a higher pressure common rail gallery, a coolant by-pass system to reduce warm-up time, and a charging control system which makes the alternator work harder when the car is slowing down or braking. The effect of these and other changes is to make the Auris 1.4 diesel able to give over 50 mpg in all conditions, and nearly 60 mpg on any run that is not too demanding. Its claimed consumption is 74.3 mpg, and its CO2 output of 99 gm/km results in zero annual road tax and exemption from the London Congestion Charge. The engine develops 89 bhp, giving acceleration from rest to 80 mph in 22.5 seconds and a top speed of 112 mph - impressive figures for a 1.4-litre. The engine is quiet and cruising is relaxed, but it doesn’t like low revs, tending to grumble below about 1,500 rpm.

   It’s unusual to find a six-speed gearbox on a car with such a small engine, and it has a neat, easy action gear change with lift-collar to safeguard reverse. A shift warning light is provided, telling the driver to change up or down, but its set speeds sometimes seemed too cautious, calling for a change down out of sixth whenever the speed dropped below about 55 mph. As with most cars nowadays, automatic engine stop occurs whenever the car comes to rest with the gear in neutral, and restart is always prompt as soon as the clutch is depressed.

   The electrically-powered steering has been improved, making it more responsive; the hard-rim wheel is leather trimmed with audio controls on the left and switches for a telephone on the right, as well as a switch to change the readings on the trip computer. The Auris gives a positive feel through corners and rides well with good absorption of bumps and potholes and the brakes respond to a light touch on the pedal. A conventional pull-up handbrake is nearest the driving seat.

   Seats are upholstered in tough cloth with pronounced side bolsters for support when cornering hard. Both front seats have ratchet height adjusters, but unduly large headrests restrict the view for rear seat passengers. Easy release catches allow the rear seat backrests (divided in 40/60 format) to drop down on to the one-piece cushion. Luggage space is good with a false floor providing out of sight stowage, but there is no spare wheel - just a repair kit and inflator. The door pockets are very mean, but there is a reasonable drop-down compartment on the passenger side and a stowage box in the centre. A holder for spectacles is provided in the roof above the driving mirror.

   The instruments in black with white pointers are difficult to read in some light conditions unless the side lights are turned on to bring on their back lighting. We wondered why it was necessary to have a warning light on all the time indicating that the passenger air bag is on standby. Good windscreen wipers are provided, which park out of sight, but the rear wiper lacks any washer provision, and in dirty weather it needs one.

   Extra on the test car was a very good navigation system with touch-screen control, although the map display is a little dull, being nearly all in grey. What was appreciated was the ‘beep’ warning signal on the approach to all fixed speed and traffic light cameras.

   With its purposeful aerodynamic shape and functional interior design the new Auris is certainly set to please. The Icon trim package of the test car doesn’t offer a great deal more than the base Active model to justify its extra cost of £2,650, so we recommend as Prime Choice the Auris 1.4 D-4D with Active trim at £15,845.

Mitsubishi Outlander
For many years the Mitsubishi Shogun was a prime choice in the big 4x4 class, but there is now another contender from the same firm - the third generation Outlander which is claimed to offer a sports utility vehicle with luxury and refinement.

   There is a range of seven models, though the differences are mainly confined to choice of trim and transmission, since they all have the same 2,268 cc turbo diesel engine. It’s a slightly brash unit, never to be mistaken for a petrol engine, but it delivers lusty power of 156 PS in manual transmission versions, reduced slightly to 150 PS with automatic transmission.

   In all versions there is permanent four-wheel drive but it can be disengaged in the ECO mode giving drive to the front wheels only unless wheelspin occurs, when drive to the rear wheels comes in automatically. The selector switch between the seats is pressed to move to 4WD AUTO with permanent four-wheel, or a third press selects 4WD LOCK for optimum traction to tackle severe conditions.

   Helped by its low weight (100kg less than the previous model) the new Outlander is a lively performer, going easily from rest to 80 mph with six-speed automatic in 18.3 seconds. Engines are installed transversely, and there is no longer a two-wheel drive version. Automatic is offered only for the GX4, adding £1,400 to the £30,000 price of this model. The range starts at £24,224 for the base GX1.

The reason for many people to buy a vehicle such as the Outlander is for the high seating position giving a commanding view, and visibility from the Outlander is very good with the wipers parked neatly out of sight.

   Handling and cornering are very reassuring with good response to the brake pedal and a conventional pull-up lever for the parking brake. Ride comfort is good and the car deals very well with our neglected and potholed road surfaces, but there is a fairly high noise level inside the car.

   Comfortable seating for five is provided, while the GX3 version brings in an additional row of seats at the back, the centre row then having a sliding action to provide more legroom at the rear. Even then we thought the space in the back rather cramped and although children would be happy there, some adults might find it a bit of a squash and difficult to get out.

   Generously equipped, the Outlander provides sufficient extra features in GX3 form to justify the extra cost of £2,700 over the GX2, taking the price to £26,399, but it’s a big jump of £5,000 to the GX4 automatic which was the only model we were able to try at the recent launch day, at £31,399. So we would recommend as Prime Choice, providing the third row of seats as well as such details as fog lamps, power folding door mirrors, leather trim on the steering wheel, gear knob and handbrake, and dual zone air conditioning, the Outlander GX3 2.2 diesel with seven seats and 6-speed gearbox,for £26,399.

   Coming in the summer will be an addition to the Outlander range with electric drive to all four wheels, powered by a 12 kWh lithium-ion battery which can be charged from the mains in four hours as well as from an on-board 2-litre petrol engine. In what is called Parallel Hybrid Electric Vehicle mode (PHEV) the petrol engine can also be engaged to drive the front wheels in addition to the electric motors, but it is engaged through a gear train without need to operate a gear lever or clutch. There is no clutch. No prices are given yet for the PHEV Outlander but it is claimed to give CO2 emissions of only 49 g/km and to have a range of more than 547 miles on full charge plus a full tank of petrol.

On arrival at the end of a very satisfying drive in the new Mazda6, and on opening the bonnet to examine the layout, it was astonishing to find, as the lid went up, that the engine was still running; my colleague hadn’t yet switched off. That shows how impressively quiet the new Mazda 2.2-litre diesel is.

   Much is made of development work, called Skyactiv, which Mazda engineers have carried out on this engine (and indeed on the whole car) with the emphasis on performance and economy, but to our minds the more impressive aspects are the smoothness and quiet running of the engine which is rated at 150 PS. There is also a more powerful 175 PS version. The performance and low-speed response are first rate, but to judge from the readings of the on-board computer, the claimed economy seems a little optimistic. Instead of the quoted average of 67.3 mpg for the 2.2-litre 150 PS manual six-speed version, we were more often seeing figures just below 50 mpg. However, in defence, the going was a bit demanding in severe cold, on roads often with frozen slush on the surface, and in examples of the cars which had not yet covered 1,000 miles and were still comparatively tight and not fully loosened up. Automatic engine stop at halts is standard on all models, but with the automatic transmission models a firm press on the brake pedal after stopping is necessary to make it respond.

   Driving the new Mazda6 proved very relaxing with precise feel to the steering, instant response to light pressure on the brake pedal, and a very slick gear change. The acceleration is shown by a time of 16 seconds to go from rest to 80 mph, with almost exactly the same time recorded by the 2-litre petrol manual as well as the 2.2D automatic version which we liked very much. This six-speed automatic with finger-tip paddle switches to change down or up, suited the diesel engine very well indeed. The ride is firm but comfortable and the suspension coped well with the rather badly potholed roads (as well as frozen surfaces) in Scotland where the launch was based. The only driving aspect not so pleasing is the thickness of the screen pillars which are set on a very gently sloping angle so the driver must move the head around to make sure there is not an approaching vehicle which may not be seen.

Styling is sleek with the roof line tapering gently to the rear giving the impression more of a Coupé than a saloon. There is also an estate version called the Tourer which again looks stylish with long rear quarter windows which are helpful when looking rearwards..

   On both the saloon and the Tourer, the boot lid or tailgate opens easily with spring assistance and the load space is generous, helped by the omission of a spare wheel; just a repair kit and inflator are provided.  Extra cost for the Tourer over the saloon is £750.

   The range starts with 2-litre petrol versions in 145 PS or 165 PS form, beginning at £19,595, the only version offered at less than £20,000. As part of the Skyactiv technology in the new Mazda there are a number of clever features. Brake energy is transferred back to the battery, bodies are stronger but lighter, city brake support should prevent those low-speed collisions often due to inattention, and there is a lane departure warning system. At Sport level, £2,400 dearer than the SE-L, the car gains leather upholstery, electric action and heating for the seats, and bi-xenon headlamps with beam direction in response to the steering. There are other Sport features including a rear view picture on the screen when reversing. Surprisingly there is no temperature gauge, the only instrument in addition to rev counter and a good, clear speedometer is a diminishing line fuel gauge; but there is a comprehensive information display.

   We would recommend as Prime Choice the Mazda6 2.2D 150PS SE-L saloon with manual six-speed at £22,595 with the possible options of six-speed automatic for £1,200 extra and Tourer five-door body at an additional £750.

Smart fortwo Electric
Each time there is an opportunity to drive the latest electric cars we are glad to have a go because there is no doubting the future role of such cars. The big attractions are the quietness, the instant getaway, and the benefits of low pollution and avoiding high petrol or diesel costs. But the drawbacks are the limited range, the possibility of being left stranded with no charge left in the battery, and the high cost of battery replacement.

   With its expanding range of Smart two-seater electric cars, available as Coupé or Cabriolet, Mercedes-Benz seeks to overcome some of the obstacles in the way of electric car future. First, there is a ‘sale and care’ package which takes care of the car and battery for up to 10 years, with free replacement if necessary. Effectively it means that the battery is leased, and at the end of the 10-year period there is the option to extend the lease for a further ten years. The down side is that it’s a bit expensive, with the battery being leased at £55 per month. That sounds quite a lot, but how much do you spend on monthly fuel bills for your car?

   Tackling the problem of how far it will go, Mercedes-Benz claims that the Smart electric will go for ‘up to’ 90 miles on a full charge, that the remaining charge in the battery can be read at the touch of a button, and that a special rapid charging unit is available which will bring a flat battery back to full charge in one hour. But, the down side again, this is also expensive at £2,650. Otherwise, charging is by standard connection to a household socket or a public charging station for seven hours.

   Customers who don’t like the idea of a monthly lease for the battery can buy it outright. In this case, the on-the-road cost of the Coupé rises from £12,275 to £15,395. Both prices are after deduction of the Government grant, which is nearly £4,000 for the lower price and £5,000 for the higher one.

   We took the Coupé for a quick drive on the 15-mile test route and were impressed at its eager response and the way in which it quickly went up to 70 mph on A3, not far short of its claimed maximum of 78. The ride is firm and a bit bumpy due to the high weight of the batteries calling for hard suspension, but owners will find that it is well able to hold station with brisk traffic. There will also be the advantages of ease of parking due to its compact dimensions, no annual car tax to pay, no London congestion charge, and subsidised or free parking in many London suburbs and cities. It also comes well-equipped, with air conditioning, satellite navigation system, and leather-trimmed steering wheel.

   Quick work with a calculator shows that in ten years the £55 monthly charge would amount to £6,600, so it would obviously be preferable to pay the extra £3,120 at the beginning and avoid the battery leasing fee even if it means buying a new battery during the ten-year first ownership, so we choose as our Prime Choice the Smart fortwo Coupé electric at £15,395 (after deduction of £5,000 Government grant). The Smart electric is available for order from January 2013.

   We also drove and were very impressed by the Mercedes-Benz E300 BlueTec Hybrid, and look forward to a longer and more detailed appraisal of this interesting car in the not too distant future.

Children can drive
At the Mercedes-Benz driving day based at Mercedes-Benz World, near Weybridge, Surrey, we were invited to take children aged under 16 to have a go at driving, provided they are able to reach the pedals, which calls for a minimum height of 1.5m.

Stuart Bladon’s elder grandson, also having the same name, just made it, with a height of 4ft 11in, and he was 10 at the time with his 11th birthday only nine days away. His instructor, Angelo, is a professional driving instructor and was patient, helpful and gave excellent tuition.

   Cars for the junior instruction lessons have a master brake pedal on the passenger side, and under guidance Stuart soon mastered the response of accelerator, brakes and steering in a Mercedes-Benz B180 CDI. Tuition was on the remnants of the old Brooklands straight at Mercedes-Benz World, now very bumpy.

   Later there was another half-hour session, this time in a four-wheel drive ML350 on a different part of the track, taking in some very steep artifical hills calling for a lot of power to clamber up. For this session Stuart had a lady instructor, Chris, who was also very reassuring, and he said that the scariest bit was climbing up the steep hills unable to see anything of the track over the bonnet other than the grey sky.

   This instruction for under-16s is available at £33.75 for half an hour on the main track, or £37.50 on the 4x4 course, and can be booked at Mercedes-Benz World or the new Driving Experience centre at Silverstone. For qualified drivers there are all kinds of track driving opportunities, but the costs go up, even to as much as £650 for the ultimate half-day driving experience in a Mercedes SL. For both centres, call 0870 400 4000. As well as the driving instruction there is much to see at Mercedes-Benz World with their cars of all ages displayed, as well as a film show and driving simulators. Admission is free, seven days a week from 10am to 6pm.

JLR Field Day - Freelander and Jaguar XF Estate
What is your natural reaction if you get stuck in mud with wheel-spin?  Most drivers stop revving and try to find a less demanding route, but with the Land Rover Freelander the technique is different. “Accelerate harder, give it more power,” the instructor advised; and he was right. Amazingly, the Freelander managed to find some grip and went clambering on up the very steep slope at the famous Eastnor Castle test track near Gloucester. What makes the difference is that the traction control cuts in, applies a brake to the wheel which is spinning and transfers torque to the wheel on the other side.

   There is no low range transfer for the Freelander, but with automatic transmission and traction control they overcome the lack of it. For very steep descents on a slippery surface, the technique is again different. First ratio of the six-speed automatic is selected, and the cruise control switched to low holds the car back very reassuringly, with no need to touch the brakes and use the anti-lock system - that is happening automatically.

   This demonstration of the Freelander with 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine (giving an impressive 190 PS) was arranged just before the end of 2012, and as well as its off-road behaviour, the Freelander impressed very well for its ease of driving on ordinary roads, coupled with very lively performance. Freelander seems much bigger inside than expected, yet it can be hustled along country lanes and cruised fast on open roads. Not so good was the fuel consumption which evidently suffered in the hilly terrain of the Malvern hills, showing only 28.7 mpg at the end of our test, well down on the claimed 40.4 of the combined economy figures.

   The test car had leather seats and all interior trim in black which looked a little sombre, but with the revisions for 2013 the interior has been made neater, and there is a very good and well-placed navigation screen. One of the changes which may not be to everyone’s taste is that the parking brake is now electrically operated, but there is no difficulty in doing a hill restart thanks to the hill hold feature which allows two seconds to transfer the foot from brake to accelerator. As tested, the Freelander was priced at £39,805, with £185 to be added for a full-size spare wheel.

   Jaguar’s presence at the JLR Field Day was marked by a preview of the new F-Type and very exciting it looks, but it was not yet for driving. Instead, from the wide range available, we were pleased to try the XF in its new estate car form, which Jaguar calls the Sportbrake.

   Powered by the four-cylinder 2.2-litre diesel engine giving a remarkable 200 PS power output, the XF offers a remarkable combination of performance, quietness, and - if we can believe the claimed figure of 54.3 mpg - economy. 

Our test run showed it to be nearer 40 mpg, but that is also creditable for such a big and spacious load carrier.  It accelerates from rest to 80 mph in only 15.5 seconds, and goes on to a top speed of 134 mph.

   One wonders why Jaguar needs to calibrate the speedometer right up to 180 mph; a less pretentious max would allow wider spacing of the digits. A touch-button action to raise and lower the tailgate is a pleasing feature of this big estate car. Prices for the Sportbrake are not yet available.

   A wide range of engines are offered, and the automatic transmission for the 2.2 as tested boasted no fewer than eight speeds, with digital display between the speedometer and rev counter to show all the time what gear is in use. This new Sportbrake looks set to have wide appeal for Jaguar buyers, for whom the 2.2 diesel will no doubt be our Prime Choice.
Honda Civic 1.8 i-VTEC
Just open the bonnet of the Honda Civic and you cannot fail to be impressed. Beautiful engineering is revealed, and the whole layout is delightfully simple and logical giving good access to all components as well as looking good. But then start the 1.8-litre engine and you’ll be impressed again by its quietness and smoothness. At the first traffic halt we thought the car must have the ever more widely used stop/start feature because not a sound was heard, so it was a surprise to glance at the rev counter and realise that it was still running. Stop/start is not available with the automatic.

   Only two petrol engines are offered for the Civic, beginning with a 1.4-litre 100PS unit. Our test car featured the 1.8 which comes in various forms, but with five-speed automatic transmission it offers 142 PS giving brisk performance - acceleration from rest to 80 mph in 17.6 seconds and a top speed of 130 mph. The transmission is very smooth, changes down willingly in response to extra throttle, or can be booted down either by knocking the selector lever back to Sport, which brings an immediate change down, or by using the paddle shift controls beneath the steering wheel. The five-door hatchback is the only body offered for Civic.

   Honda was a late starter in the move to diesel engines, and only one unit is offered with capacity of 2,199 cc and power output of 150 PS. There is no automatic option for the diesel. The economy claimed for the diesel is some 20 mpg higher than the mid-40s offered by the petrol versions, but most owners may be content with the claimed 44.8 miles to the gallon for the 1.8 automatic, and our overall test figure was not much less than this, at 41.5 mpg.

   This is a very snug car to drive; you feel well located on well-shaped cloth-upholstered seats, with all controls well placed including the transmission selector which is high-mounted bringing it within easy reach of the steering wheel. A large rev counter confronts the driver, seen through the top part of the steering wheel, and above it is a large digital read-out for speed. We found the trip computer a little confusing to use at first and the information available is less comprehensive than some competitors, but as well as showing average mpg there is an extending bar to indicate instant consumption. An ECON button can be pressed to select a gentler and more economical transmission programme.

   A rather high scuttle line calls for a high seating position, which can be set using the ratchet adjuster lever, but one then needs to take care not to bang the head at the top of the door recess when getting in or out. Rear vision is slightly restricted by the bar across the tailgate window carrying the central brake light and mounting for the rear wiper, and the window itself slopes very gradually, allowing smooth wind flow over it. The back seats fold down for extra load space and as they go down the divided cushion also moves forward giving a level extension of the boot floor. Under the boot is additional out of sight stowage space but, unfortunately, there’s no spare wheel, just a repair kit.

   Precise steering goes with very reassuring handling through corners to make this a relaxing car to drive with a high safety factor, and calling for special mention is the sharp response of the all-disc brakes which was appreciated when high speed traffic on a dual carriageway suddenly came to a halt. The pull-up handbrake, offset to the left, is also very effective. The suspension gives a firm ride but with good absorption of road noise and bump thump.

   The equipment provided as standard on the ES is generous including a very good audio unit with CD slot and remote controls on the steering wheel as well as switches for an on-board hands-free telephone, automatic action for the wipers and headlamps, and a rear view parking camera which shows the display on the console screen when reversing. The only thing we didn’t like was the use of alloy pedals for brake and accelerator and we often found the right foot had slid off the accelerator and was pressing against the housing over the right hand front wheel.

   This combination of the 1.8 i-VTEC engine with five-speed automatic transmission is so pleasing that we have no hesitation in recommending this combination but we hesitate a little over the extra £1,185 for the ES trim over SE, so we name as our Prime Choice the Civic 1.8 i-VTEC SE 5-door automatic for £19,585.

Škoda Rapid
One wonders what was the thinking behind the Skoda's marketing department choice of prices for the new Rapid. The 1.2-litre petrol engine with 86 PS output and five-speed gearbox is attractively priced at £14,650 in SE trim, but the 1.6-litre diesel jumps nearly £2,500 to a price of £17,100. Perhaps they had an eye to the fleet market and priced the diesel high to be able to offer big discounts. However, both versions offer attractive value for this new five-door hatchback which falls neatly between the Fabia and Octavia as the seventh model in the Škoda range.

   They are good to drive and comfortable, although the suspension is a shade harsh and unyielding, and the equipment package is comprehensive with the option to add various extra cost packs.

In keeping with Škoda tradition, the Rapid is a spacious car with huge luggage capacity which was demonstrated at the launch by the removal of a seemingly unending bundle of suitcases.

   Only two models were available for driving at the launch - the 1.2-litre petrol with four-cylinder engine and the 1.6 TDI diesel. Also offered are three other petrol engines starting with a three-cylinder giving 75 PS and a more powerful1.2-litre four-cylinder offering
105 PS, and a 1.4-litre. This 1.4 develops 122 PS and is the most powerful of the range, but comes only with 7-speed DSG automatic. Apart from the basic 1.2 petrol which is the cheapest available with S trim at £12,900, all the engines are turbocharged.

   We started our drive round a fairly undemanding test route with the diesel and were at once impressed by the economy shown on the computer, which was consistently over 70 mpg, and reading 73.2 on arrival. Later tests with measured fuelling will show whether the instrument was grossly over-reading or whether this car really is as economical as it was indicating, since its official consumption figure is 64.2 mpg. The diesel engine is quiet and lively, taking the car through the gears to 80 mph in 21.4 seconds. Surprisingly none of the engines are equipped with automatic stop at halts, and even the diesel has only a five-speed gearbox.

   The new Rapid - resurrecting a name first used in 1935 - is easy to drive with good controls, reassuring handling and effective brakes. The instruments are well sited and clear although only the pointers are illuminated unless the lights are turned on. The tailgate opens high, taking the parcels shelf up with it, to give a generous opening for easy loading. The layout of the facia panel and console is tidy and logically arranged. The driving seat can be adjusted for height by a ratchet lever, but backrest angle for both front seats is by a release catch into notched positions.

   A rather abbreviated run in the 1.2-litre five-speed showed very reasonable performance for an engine of this size and it is again quiet but obviously needs to be worked rather harder with more frequent gear shifting to get the best out of it. The fuel consumption indicated 48.7 mpg, which is a long way down from what the diesel returned and is well below the claimed 55.4 mpg. This has the lowest CO2 figure of the whole range at 119 g/km, putting it in Band C for tax at just £30 a year. Even with current excessive fuel prices it would take a huge mileage - over 60,000 -  to recover the price difference between these two models, 1.2 petrol and 1.6 diesel, so we recommend as Prime Choice the Rapid SE 1.2 TSI with four-cylinder 86 PS petrol engine for £14,650.

Škoda Yeti 2.0 TDI 140 PS SE Plus
Earlier this year we reported on the Škoda Yeti with the most powerful version of the VW 2-litre diesel engine, giving 170 PS, and one of the comment made was that the Yeti had achieved a number of awards. Since then it has added to its triumphs by taking the Class Award for cars in road tax band G (emissions below 165 g/km) in The Caravan Club Towcar of the Year contest, and was also voted second ‘favourite car’ by the Southern Group of Motoring Writers.

   The chance to try Yeti again was not to be missed, especially since the test car was the actual one that The Caravan Club had subjected to their rigorous test routine. It’s interesting to note that Škoda entered the 140 PS version for the awards, rather than the top model. So how well did it cope, particularly in the towcar role being used to trail an 1,100kg caravan all the way from the south coast to the Norfolk coast, a round trip of 700 miles plus some solo running to take the total to over 800 miles?

   It certainly performed extremely well, but although impressively good, the lack of the extra 30 PS which the more powerful version had provided was quite noticeable. It still pulled the caravan gallantly, but there was much more need to use the six-speed gearbox freely and change down to fifth for gradients. Surprisingly, the final drive ratio is a little higher for the 140 PS version than the 170 which is obviously geared for performance. Also unexpected is that the more powerful car was better on economy. Its mpg when running solo was 48.4, against 45.2 mpg from the 140 PS version, and the difference when towing also favoured the more powerful engine, giving 32.9 mpg compared with 29.3. Acceleration from rest to 80 mph (solo) took 14.3 seconds with the 170 PS model, while the 140 PS version took fully 6 seconds longer, at 20.4 seconds.

   The suspension is on the firm side and the ride rather joggey. This later test car (the 140 PS model) was on Pirelli P Zero tyres which are good for lack of tyre roar and thump, but not as resilient as the Dunlop SP Sport tyres on the more powerful Yeti. Both are the same size: 225/50 R 17 (ZR for the Pirellis).

   In many respects, though, the 140 PS model was preferred to the 170 PS. Both versions had the six-speed gearbox with drive to all four wheels. An important improvement, we were pleased to note after criticising it before, is that the later 140 PS model came with the electrical connections for the caravan correctly wired. On the previous one they hadn’t provided power to the caravan fridge and on-board battery. The 170 PS model featured the Elegance trim specification, and we were reassured to find that the SE Plus package which we had recommend as our Prime Choice for the Yeti buyer still came out as better value. It enabled the Yeti to be equipped with the very pleasing Panoramic opening glass sunroof at £1,065 extra, taking the total price from £21,805 (including space saver spare wheel) to £22,870.

   So, having now tried them both, we confirm our earlier Prime Choice of the Yeti 2.0 TDI with six-speed gearbox and SE Plus trim; the engine choice remains a matter of opinion and personal preference but anyone who chooses the £835 cheaper 140 PS engine will not be disappointed, at £22,870.

Keen to buy an Audi but daunted by the prices? Help is at hand in the form of the SEAT Exeo, which is essentially derived from and based on the outgoing Audi A4. But it’s not a straight copy, and it has many attractive features, one of which is the high level of standard equipment. In the SE Tech version with 2.0 TDI engine you get leather upholstery, a very good sat nav with large, clear screen, and CD and radio with MP3 compatibility. The list goes on, including rear parking sensors, tyre pressure monitoring, plus automatic lights and windscreen wipers.

The SE Tech also features Multitronic seven-speed auto transmission with an indicator between the speedometer and rev counter to show what gear is in use, and finger-tip paddle switches below the steering wheel to give an instant gear change.

   The 2-litre diesel engine starts promptly and is extremely smooth and lively, although the automatic is inclined to be jerky at low speeds. The engine is also quiet at cruising speeds; but it lacks the current trend towards engine stop and start at traffic halts - no bad thing, some might say, as having the engine cut out every time the car comes to rest is not popular with everyone. The lack of it did not prevent the Exeo from weighing in with impressive economy at 46.0 mpg. Acceleration time from rest to 80 mph is 16.9 seconds and top speed is 129 mph. It’s commendable that the car’s performance speaks for itself without wild exaggeration in the very clear and large speedometer.

   An attractive steering wheel is trimmed in leather but rather coarse to hold - perhaps this will smooth out with wear - and adjusts both ways for comfort. Audio controls are repeated on the wheel with switches for an on-board telephone on the right, and cruise control switches are below the wheel on the left. Steering control is accurate and road holding sets the driver at ease straight away. The disappointing feature is the rather harsh suspension with a high level of tyre roar and thump over bumps, which may be due to the Pirelli P Zero tyres fitted. Brakes are by disc at all wheels, vented at front, and give very sharp reaction. A pull-up handbrake is effective, and offset to the passenger side.

   Well-shaped with stitched leather surrounds and velour interior panels in white, the seats are comfortable, and both front seats have ratchet height adjustment as well as a small knob to adjust backrest tension. The rear seat is divided in 40/60 format with easy provision for the backrests to drop down on to the fixed cushion.

   Exeo is in most respects a very pleasing and satisfying car, and is available as a saloon or, at about £1,000 more, as estate car. The saloon provides a huge boot and as part of the convenience pack (£480 extra) you can have remote boot opening as well as front parking sensors. A full size spare wheel on steel rim is provided below the boot floor. The other option appreciated on the test car was a glass sunroof with electric tilt slide action for £614 - again a lot less than the cost of the same option on an Audi.

   The engine choice is all 2-litre, with three stages of power for the TDI diesel (120, 143 and 170 PS, with the middle one for our test car), and a TSI petrol unit of the same size giving 211 PS. There are seven trim levels and even the basic S version comes well equipped, at £20,400, but if the budget can run to the extra £3,655 we would recommend as our Prime Choice the Exeo SE Tech 2.0 TDI 143 PS with Multitronic transmission for £23,695.

Audi A3
Because it looks much the same as the previous version, Audi is anxious to assert that the latest model of the A3 is the ‘all new A3'. It is, in fact, a different and much improved car with the significant advantage that many changes to the structure (including use of aluminium for the bonnet and front wings) have reduced the overall weight by up to 80 kg. The wheelbase is also extended by 23mm to give more space in the rear, and the chassis is completely new.

   We started our test drives with the 2-litre TDI model with six-speed manual gearbox and were disappointed at first by the prominent ridge around the top of the gear lever knob. It is not very comfortable when changing gear but may have the desirable result of discouraging drivers from resting a hand on the gear lever instead of on the steering wheel! After this minor complaint, all was praise except perhaps for the high level of tyre noise. But the suspension is much improved and now gives a very pleasant and absorptive ride; it is interesting to note that buyers may now specify Sport or S-Line trim packages without having to suffer the discomfort of rock-hard suspension, although this is still available for those who want the ultimate handling.

   There is much that is tremendously impressive in the new A3, but foremost is undoubtedly the smoothness, quietness and terrific response of the 2-litre diesel engine. On our quite brisk test drive it returned 51.4 mpg and is stated to offer 68.9 mpg on the combined test cycle. Its acceleration is remarkable, taking it through the gears from rest to 80 mph in only just over 13 seconds, and on to a top speed of 134 mph. Initial engine choice is this excellent unit or the TFSI petrol engine in 1.4 or 1.8 form. The 1.8-litre develops 180 PS, which is quite a lot higher than the 2-litre diesel’s 150 PS. Surprisingly, the 1.8 TFSI Sport model with S-tronic seven-speed automatic was not much faster than the diesel, taking 11.7 seconds to reach 80 mph against the diesel car’s 13.3, but its top speed is 10 mph faster at 144 mph.

   Coming at the end of the year (our test September 2012) will be a 1.6-litre version of the diesel followed in Spring 2013 by a 1.4 TFSI petrol engine with on-demand cylinder cut-out, as well as the Sportback launched at the 2012 Paris Show. Later, there will be quattro four-wheel drive versions of the more powerful models. All versions have engine stop and start at traffic halts, contributing to the good economy, with electric regeneration on braking. With CO2 at only 106 g/km there is no initial tax charge and only £20 per annum thereafter.

   Excellently smooth, hairline steering and reassuring handling make the new A3 a pleasure to drive, while the response to the brakes is sharp and immediate.

   Many changes have been made inside. Most noticeably the screen for the navigation and other services rises up from the top of the facia panel as soon as the engine is initiated making it much clearer to read without diverting eyes from the road, and a large and very legible display between the rev counter and speedometer can be set to give a variety of computer read-outs including a digital speedometer. The facia-mounted air outlets are more controllable by rotating the outer rims, and the instruments are back-lit with white on black lettering and red needles. The satellite navigation system is based on an SD card and comes at a reasonable price of £495, providing an excellently detailed map.

   The new A3 - or must we call it the all-new A3 - comes only as a three-door at present but five-door and Sportback variants will follow. In the three-door the front seats tip forward readily for access to the back and do not lose their adjustment settings.

   We have no difficulty in making our recommendation from the models now available and naming as Prime Choice the Audi A3 SE 2.0 TDI at £21,505, or well-loaded with options as our test car with delivery paid, at £25,540.

Kia cee’d
Some cars give the immediate impression that the manufacturer was really out to please and satisfy, rather than to make the maximum profit. In this category is definitely Kia’s new mid-range hatchback with the extraordinary name cee’d - though this is not new. The name emerged in 2007 as the first Kia to be designed, engineered and manufactured in Europe; it is built at Kia’s plant in Slovakia.

   It’s the little things noted straight away that impress about the cee’d, such as the provision of usefully large pockets on all four of the side doors, a fold down compartment above the mirror for glasses and the fact that the brakes are by discs all round. Later, at night, there’s the useful provision of side illumination lamps which come on when taking tight corners to show you where you are going, and it’s useful to have two power sockets in the bottom of the console. There’s a very good handbook, but there is hardly need to consult it because everything is so logical and straightforward. Most important, too, is the amazing seven-year warranty on all Kia cars.

Called Ecodynamics, the test car had a 1.6-litre diesel engine which achieves the remarkably low CO2 figure of 97 g/km, so no first-year tax impost and no annual tax. This promise of economy is borne out on the road test.

    With consumption consistently over 50 mpg and averaging 54.1 over 533 miles, the engine pulls well and cruises easily at around 80 mph, but is not so keen on low revs, tending to growl a bit and call for a down gear change once it is below 1,400 rpm. All models have a six-speed manual gearbox coupled to exceptionally high overall gearing in the 1.6 diesel, giving 34.5 mph per 1,000 rpm, or put another way at 70 mph you are doing only just over 2,000 rpm. Helping the economy is a very effective stop/start system which cuts the engine on coming to rest and starts it again as soon as the clutch is pressed down. There is also the option of a six-speed automatic transmission. The acceleration time of 20.2 seconds to go from rest to 80 mph is creditable for a 1.6 diesel.

   Roomy inside and with comfortable, well-shaped seats, the cee’d rides well on all reasonable surfaces but gives rather a lot of thump and reaction on poor roads. The steering is accurate and allows a tight turning circle, and the wheel fairly bristles with minor controls enabling you to adjust the audio, set the cruise control, select any of a variety of readouts on the trip computer or telephone, all with hands on the wheel. The car handles confidently through fast bends and is relaxing to drive on motorways. The brakes give sharp response and there is a conventional pull-up handbrake.

   Unlike most cars today, which provide facility for the rear seat backrest to drop down on to a fixed one-piece cushion, in the cee’d the cushions are divided as well and can be pulled forward and tipped first, to give a level extension of the load floor. A very good audio unit has provision for plugging in MP3 and USB connections.

   A large and very clear speedometer is provided with red pointer travelling a black background with white digits, and the trip read-outs for mpg, average speed and so on appear in the centre of the speedometer. The only slight snag of the layout is that the rev counter is well over to the left and tends to be masked by the steering wheel rim. Date, time and outside temperature are shown in LED display at the top of the console.

   As a security move, the first press of the remote lock/unlock keyfob releases only the driver’s door and a second press, or use of the internal unlocking button, is necessary for the other doors.

   Four engines are offered for cee’d, with petrol or diesel in 1.4 and 1.6-litre capacity; and there are four trim grades with the charmingly uncomplicated names 1, 2, 3, and 4. Although we haven’t tried the three other engines available we would recommend this excellent 1.6 diesel and feel that the extra prices charged for the higher trim levels are reasonable and reward study of what is offered, but for sheer value we suggest as our Prime Choice the cee’d 1.6 CRDi 126 bhp with trim level 1, for £16,295. Car tested and price shown in September 2012.

Jaguar XF 2.2D SE
Bruce faces a slight dilemma. A senior equine surgeon, he has been running a Jaguar XF 3.0D for two years and wonders whether to go for the new 2.2D when the time comes for replacement next year. The price difference of nearly £6,000 (£29,940 instead of £35,885 for the 3-litre) would allow a higher specification within the budget. He could have, perhaps, the Luxury model, or the Sport, both with 200 PS versions of the 2.2 diesel engine; but would it be as good on performance and refinement?

   The offer to try the Gear Wheels test car was gladly accepted, and for comparison he brought along his dark green 3-litre, seen here parked alongside our white test car. He was at once impressed by the smoothness and quietness of the new engine. “There’s none of the four-cylinder diesel rattle I was expecting,” he said. Our test car had the standard 163 PS version of the 2.2-litre, so not surprisingly he noticed that it was not as fast as his 3-litre, but in one respect it was better. This was the response at low speed, when the 3-litre tends to lose a second or so almost as if it has to make up its mind which gear to use, and this delay did not occur with the smaller engine.

   In another respect, though, the four-cylinder brings a small disadvantage. This is a tendency to mild vibration in the highest gear at around 1,500 rpm on a slight uphill gradient. This unfortunately corresponds to 70 mph and would be irritating for any meticulous speed limit observers who would find frequent need to use the paddle switch below the steering wheel to prompt a downchange. When this is done the eight-speed automatic drops out of the top ratio and goes straight down to sixth. At faster cruising speeds, around 80-85 the problem does not occur. The XF has phenomenally high gearing, with 2,000 rpm corresponding to 93 mph; 46.5 mph per 1,000 rpm is exceptionally high.

   A welcome benefit of going to the smaller engine, even in 200 PS form, would be the improved economy. On one motorway trip the car was showing 48.2 mpg on the computer while cruising comfortably fas; at the same sort of speeds the 3-litre might have been in the low 30s.  Our overall fuel consumption in varied running was 43 mpg, helped by the very effective stop/start system to avoid idling at traffic halts.

   Other aspects of the XF proved much the same as in the car to which Bruce is now so well accustomed, notably the fine response of the steering, the taut but not harsh ride, touch sensitive brakes and the confident way in which the car settles down with a well-balanced feel through corners. Some small changes were noted, such as the curved lamp units with the headlamp washers separated from the lamps, coming out on an extending arm when operated.

   The XF is a very convenient car to use, with no need to use a key to get in and drive off, provided the key fob is on the person, and the parking brake both applies and releases automatically. On pressing the start button, the rotary transmission selector rises up ready to be turned to R or D, and the air vent covers open. When the engine is stopped, using the same button, the transmission selector goes automatically to the Park position.

   One change which might be in the offing from Jaguar is the introduction of four-wheel drive for the XF, and if this comes it would interest Bruce whose present car all too easily gets stuck in snow, though winter tyres might help. He is not interested in the projected
estate car version; but on one point his mind is made up, and this is that the replacement next year will be another XF.

   Our Prime Choice from the price list (which runs right up to £65,380 for the 5-litre V8 supercharged model) would be the car as tried but with the very good navigation unit as an option, rather than paying £3,000 more for the Luxury model. So our recommendation is the Jaguar XF 2.2 SE with 163 PS engine and eight-speed automatic, for £29,950.

Range Rover Evoque
Torrential rain on M4 brought out the best of the Range Rover Evoque. The wipers were coping well, there was no misting up, and the car felt reassuringly solid and stable, treating the foul conditions with contempt. The Evoque cruises effortlessly and accelerates to 80 mph in 16.2 seconds, going on to a top speed of 113 mph, and it’s a car that is very convenient in everyday use.

   With the key on the person there is no need to unlock the doors - just pull the handle, step in, put a foot on the brake pedal and press the engine start button. At once, the rotary transmission selector of the type first seen on Jaguars, rises up and is turned to D or R position. The park brake releases automatically and away you go until arrival at destination when all that is necessary is to press again the engine start/stop button and the selector turns of its own accord to the Park position and sinks down out of sight, with the parking brake applying automatically. On locking the car, the mirrors fold in automatically.

   All versions of Evoque have a four-cylinder diesel engine of 2,179 cc mounted transversely, except for one model which has a 2-litre petrol engine developing 240 PS. The diesels come in two forms, with power of 150 or 190 PS. Our test car had the less powerful engine of the two, with CO2 output of 174g/km, and six-speed automatic transmission. As an unusual departure for Land Rover you can, if you’re not worried about looking silly when it snows or in a muddy car park, specify front-wheel drive instead of the permanent 4x4 which is otherwise standard across the range. The price is reduced by £750 for the two-wheel drive version, but economy is also claimed to be better, averaging 56.5 mpg instead of 49.6. Our 150 PS automatic model is credited with 43.5 mpg on the official combined test, but in varied swift motoring it returned 34.2 mpg.

   Very smooth automatic transmission changes are scarcely noticed, and for swifter response or engine braking, the paddle switches beneath the steering wheel can be used to prompt changes down or up. The steering is accurate although with slight stickiness in the central position, and the wheel fairly bristles with additional controls for audio, cruise, computer and telephone. The suspension copes with big bumps very well but is inclined to some joggle movements on poor surfaces as well as giving quite a lot of tyre noise. Just behind the transmission selector are switches for the adaptive dynamics system, to set the suspension and transmission for a variety of road conditions, from highway to sand or rutted mud.

   In Prestige form (as driven) the Evoque is attractively trimmed and although expensive at extra cost of £4,325 we would be tempted by the LUX pack which provides powered action for raising or lowering the tailgate, a large and clear screen for the navigation system, full length panoramic fixed glass sunroof with electric blind, keyless entry, and automatic parking to slot the car into a kerbside gap between vehicles; and there are some other features as well, such as television and a very good audio system. The adaptive dynamics mentioned above costs £1,150 and bi-xenon headlamps add £305.

   As well as the five-door estate car version of Epoque, there is the choice of a Coupé model, but it costs £1,000 more and seems to offer less, so for our Prime Choice we would recommend as a very pleasing, competent and well-equipped car, the model as tested,
Range Rover Evoque six-speed automatic with Lux Pack, adaptive dynamics and bi-xenon headlamps, for £44,780.

VW Tiguan
Launched in 2008, the Tiguan has recently been updated and now bears an even stronger resemblance to its larger stable mate the Touareg. The fresh look is dominated by the horizontal lines of the front grille as well as other changes to bring the model into line with the appearance of other new Volkswagens. Additionally, various subtle styling tweaks (both exterior and interior) have been incorporated, and more efficient engines have been introduced to further reduce emissions and give even better economy, including stop/start and a battery regeneration system.


   In the metal the Tiguan's sculpted body portrays a pleasantly smart classy image that is pleasing to the eye. Good to drive, thanks to responsive engines and a finely balanced chassis, it is an accomplished all-rounder that drives more like a car than a tall SUV and would prove a useful tow vehicle if so desired.

   As to be expected from VW, the driving position is fairly upright and is widely adjustable for all shapes and sizes, while the 60/40 split back seats can be set by sliding them back or forth to give a choice of either extra rear leg room or longer boot space.

   Partly based on the Golf, build quality and fitments are well up to the manufacturer's usual high standards. Available with a choice of two or four-wheel drive, as well as two body versions, one biased towards on-road driving, the other more suitable for heavier off-road use. Some may find the suspension a little on the firm side, but that means less body roll even when cornering hard; progress through the gears was always smooth with very little road noise, even on poor road surfaces.

   With a five star crash rating, Tiguan boasts the most up-to-date safety devises including an innovative fatigue detection system in some models. We drove a 2-litre TDI 6 speed manual variant priced at £25,675 on-the-road and this would be our Prime Choice, but prices start at around £20,000 otr for a 1.4-litre petrol model.

BMW 520d Touring M Sport
Having noted the very small amount of rubber between the wheel rims and the ground, we expected a tough ride in the BMW touring with M Sport adaptations, so it was a most welcome surprise to find it gave an excellent ride. A switch beside the selector allows the driver to choose Comfort or Sport settings and in Comfort mode it really was comfortable.

   The suspension deals with neglected roads very well indeed and road noise is well suppressed. The only potential problem is the vulnerability of the wheel rims against kerbs, in fact, when our car arrived for test it was noted that the nearside wheels had already been scraped.

   The benefit of the M Sport package (now available for the 2-litre diesel version of BMW’s estate car) is mainly seen in the interior where you get a thick-rim leather-trimmed steering wheel, sports seats with heating and electric adjustment, two memory settings for the driver’s seat and black roof lining.

As a further option, 19 inch wheels can be ordered for £1,210 and these were on the test car. As with most BMWs and many other quality cars nowadays, run-flat tyres are fitted in the interests of safety.

   On this fourth generation of the 5-Series, the 520d is available with an eight-speed auto transmission and features automatic engine stop at traffic halts. One becomes quite accustomed to the uncanny silence on coming to rest, but you do have to keep a foot on the brake, because engine start-up occurs as soon as the pedal is released.

   The four-cylinder engine, mounted in-line and driving the rear wheels, is creditably quiet and offers a remarkable combination of performance and economy. Better than 45 mpg was returned on most runs and acceleration from rest to 80 mph is achieved in 14.2 seconds, with the top speed given as 137 mph. The handling is at all times reassuring, and the steering accuracy is excellent, the merest movement of the wheel being all that is needed to keep neatly in lane on motorways. Brakes are also very efficient, with internal venting of the discs front and rear. A switch operates the parking brake, which has to be released by a quick downward press on the switch before moving off.  Engine start is also by button, provided the key is on the driver or in the car.

   In a longer than usual test in which over 2,000 miles were covered we came to form great affection for this BMW and appreciated many of its assets, some of which were additions to the car from the options list. We particularly liked the console layout with a large and exceptionally clear navigation map screen at the very top of the unit, the electrically-powered lifting and closing tailgate and such thoughtful provisions as the way in which the rear seat backrests can be folded down for extra load space just by pulling a release handle each side of the load area. There is an out of sight stowage compartment below the load floor.

BMW 520d as a tow-car
One tends not to think of a BMW for towing, but why not? Many buyers, having chosen a 5-Series Touring, take their holidays in a caravan, or want to tow a boat.

In our case, the 520d was used for a long caravan towing trip to Germany and back, and right at the start it was delightful to find how easy it is to bring the tow-hitch into use for connectioning up.

   Just open the side panel at the rear, press and keep down an actuating button and in about ten seconds the tow-hitch swings out from underneath the rear bumper and locks into place. The switch changes from red to green when the hitch is securely located, and the socket for electrical connections is mounted on the side of the towing arm. The only shortcoming was that whoever installed the wiring failed to provide power to the caravan to keep the fridge going when on the move - a point to insist on when ordering. We managed to arrange a separate power supply plugged into the convenient socket in the rear of the load space. This self-operating tow-hitch costs £805. When backing on to the caravan to couple up, the rear view picture on the navigation screen is useful, though of course the park distance control warnings get very excited.

   With ample power available, the 520d made light work of a 1,100kg caravan which was well within the 2,000 kg limit, and the stability was always reassuring even in high winds. Just occasionally on a gradient one could feel that the engine was labouring a little, and it helped to give a quick touch on the paddle switch below the steering wheel to prompt a change down, usually to sixth, and this was also useful for rapid acceleration to overtake lorries. Even with brisk driving, the 520d frequently returned over 30 mpg, which is a target not achieved by many tow cars with this particular caravan.

   The M Sport package adds £3,415 to the cost of a 520d touring with SE trim. It’s there if you want it, but we might advise buyers to be content with the SE format and then cherry pick from the options list which ran to £12,670 for our test car. So for Prime Choice we would go for the BMW 520d Touring SE with eight-speed automatic transmission for £33,945.

Škoda Yeti
At launch in 2009, the Škoda Yeti escaped us, but it has achieved a number of awards since and we were glad of the recent opportunity to try it both as a family car and as a tow-car for pulling a 4.8-metre 1,100kg caravan. A formidable choice confronts the Yeti buyer, since there are five engines offering a range of eight power outputs, five trim levels, and the further important consideration that the more powerful engines - 1.8 TSI petrol and 2-litre TDI diesel - are available with four-wheel drive.

   With Elegance trim and the most powerful of the three diesel engines, our test car was very much the top model available and priced at £23,790, which was boosted to £26,540 by the options. Some of these might not be wanted, such as the silver roof rails at £160, and £200 for the rough road package. However, it is good that such things are available as some buyers of Yeti might be planning to submit it to demanding terrain, since it is essentially a functional sports utility vehicle if not strictly ‘all-terrain’. Prices start at £14,945 for the 1.2 TSI petrol version.

   Functional is certainly the key-note of the Yeti, with very practical seating layout providing three individual rear seats which are adjustable and removable, high ground clearance with firm suspension to cope with big bumps, and the asset of four-wheel drive which comes into action ‘on demand’ without need to operate any controls to engage it. A separate switch keeps the car under control when tackling steep descents on tracks with poor grip. An asset for the off-road adventurer is that the informative display between speedometer and rev counter shows compass direction all the time.

   VW’s excellent 2-litre diesel engine is offered in the Yeti in 110PS, 140 and 170PS form. The latter, as tried, is very lively, taking the car through the gears to 80 mph in a commendably quick 14.3 seconds, as well as providing ample power for towing. Few hills needed a change down from sixth on motorways, but even running solo the engine does not like being allowed to turn too slowly. Anything below 1,500 rpm called for a down change, which means using fifth below about 50 mph - but that is what gears are for and anyone who doesn’t want the aggro of gear changing can choose the DSG (direct shift gearbox) automatic at £1,255 extra.

   The Yeti proved a very competent tow-car, with easy access to the hitch and electric socket, but it was disappointing to find that whoever installed the 13-pin socket had not bothered to provide power to the caravan to keep the 12-volt fridge running and the battery charged. Anyone ordering the Yeti to have a dealer-installed tow-hitch should be on the alert for this economy. The hill-hold facility is useful for those who find restarts on a slope tricky when towing, and note that it costs much less (£95 instead of £495) on four-wheel drive models.

   Apart from a slightly imprecise change for the six-speed gearbox, all driving controls are light and easy - the brakes almost a touch too responsive and inclined to give an abrupt stop until the driver is familiar with them. Discs are fitted all round, vented at front. The steering is precise and the column is adjustable in both directions. The instruments are clear, with temperature gauge within the rev counter, and the fuel gauge is similarly in the speedometer; and there is a permanent km/h read-out. With the driving seat set high, some may find the need to move their head to be able to see the speedometer readings below 60mph. The audio unit is very good, with CD slot above it as well as a six-pack CD changer in the boot, and the navigation unit is easy to operate and provides a very clear map display.

   We drove the Yeti in June, 2012, and it proved a very pleasing car during its brief test returning 48.4 mpg when solo, and still above 32 mpg when towing. On studying the equipment details, it seemed that the chief advantage of the Elegance trim over the SE Plus at £1,235 extra is the provision of leather upholstery for the seats, so we choose as Prime Choice the Yeti 2.0 TDI 170 PS with six-speed gearbox and SE Plus trim at £22,555.

Mazda CX-5
Here was an interesting test for the nervous: drive straight up to that car in front at 20 mph and don’t touch the brake; the car will stop for you. Well, I did it, and it did it! After discovering that the ‘car’ in front was just a life-size picture of one fixed to a mattress lying on its side, it was not quite so alarming, and it was certainly most impressive. It’s called Smart City Brake Support and is intended to stop those low-speed accidents in stop-go traffic when the driver relaxes for an instant and doesn’t realise that the car in front has stopped. It’s  a standard feature of the new Mazda CX-5.

   This new Mazda also introduces what is called Skyactiv technology to give optimum fuel economy and below average CO2 emissions. Scottish roads, where the launch was held, with long straights and relative lack of traffic encourage one to drive swiftly, so perhaps it was not surprising that the fuel economy returned, although good for a big and roomy car of this size, was not outstanding with the best figure returned being 43.3 mpg. In more sedate running it would probably top 50, but the makers 60+ mpg claimed for the best of the diesels might prove elusive.

More impressive, we thought, were the comfort of the ride over sometimes indifferent road surfaces and the easy, relaxed progress, which made long drives in the CX-5 especially enjoyable.

   Three engines are available; a 2.2-litre diesels offering 150 or 175 bhp with manual six-speed or automatic transmissions and a 2-litre petrol developing 165 bhp. We started our test drives with the 2.2 diesel in manual form and front-wheel drive, and the engine is quiet, pulls vigorously from low revs, and recorded 17.9 seconds to accelerate from rest to 80 mph at which (on the test track section, of course) the CX-5 cruises quietly and sounds very unstressed.

   The next test route, involving a long and quite demanding mountain road, was enjoyed in the four-wheel drive version with the more powerful of the two diesels driving all four wheels. In spite of the extra 25 PS, performance was much the same (17.6 seconds to 80 mph), so buyers might feel inclined to take four-wheel drive only if it is likely to be needed, since there are evidently some penalties in added weight and frictional resistance.

   Our final drive was in the 2-litre petrol model which was fastest of the three (16.1 seconds to 80 mph), and almost as economical showing 38.6 mpg. The petrol engine does not have the low-speed torque of the diesels, but the much extended rev range makes it seem a very eager and responsive car to drive.

   There are many good features in these new Mazdas, such as the clear instruments, the clever way in which handles in the load area allow the rear seat backrests to drop down for extra luggage capacity and the easily manageable controls with precise steering, reassuring handling and very effective brakes backed up by the automatic SCBS system mentioned earlier. Our only reservation is that the seats seemed rather hard and unyielding on a long journey but they hold one in place well and did not prevent my passenger from sleeping the whole way on the long, fast return drive back to Inverness airport. A very good navigation system is provided at the fairly modest extra cost of £400.

   For a change we become petrol heads, and recommend as our Prime Choice the CX-5 2.0 SE-L 165 PS petrol with six-speed manual gearbox, for £21,395.

Audi A1 Sportback
Should one go for petrol or diesel when considering the new Audi A1 Sportback - that’s the big dilemma? But I know which I favour - the diesel every time. On straight price comparison there is £650 extra to pay to have the 1.6 TDI with five-speed gearbox instead of the six-speed petrol version with 1.4-litre TFSI engine. This petrol model was the first example of the new Sportback that we drove at the recent launch, demonstrating its delightful handling and response through the seven-speed S Tronic transmission.

   Its acceleration is most impressive, reaching 60 mph in just under nine seconds, but although this is quicker than the larger engine diesel version, which takes 10.5 seconds to 60, the diesel felt altogether more relaxed and less fussy at speed. Also, the diesel scores substantially on economy, showing 55.9 and 54.1 mpg in the two versions tried, against 38.3 mpg with the 1.4TFSI. There is sure to be further benefit in terms of retained value for the diesel.

   But the choice is there, and for those seeking a low-cost Audi with the advantages of the more practical five-door body style there is also a 1.2-litre TFSI petrol version offering 86 bhp and claimed 55.4 mpg, all for a price of £13,980. The whole range of Audi A1 models (apart from the high performance 185PS version) benefit from nil annual first year tax and the 1.6 diesel with its CO2 output at 99 g/km scores further with exemption from the congestion charge and no annual tax to pay. Later in 2012 there will be a 2-litre TDI diesel engine, and the 1.4-litre TFSI petrol engine becomes available with supercharging and turbocharging to give 185 PS;  it will have seven-speed S Tronic transmission as standard.

The 140 PS version of the 1.4-litre TFSI engine gains up to 60 mpg economy helped by cylinder cut. This means that under light load between 1,400 and 4,000 rpm, 2 and 3 cylinders are closed off leaving the car to cruise smoothly on cylinders 1 and 4.

   The 140 PS version of the 1.4-litre TFSI engine gains up to 60 mpg economy helped by cylinder cut. This means that under light load between 1,400 and 4,000 rpm cylinders 2 and 3 are closed off leaving the car to cruise smoothly on cylinders 1 and 4.

   What is the difference between the Audi A1 and the new A1 Sportback? The essential change, of course, is that the Sportback is a five-door five-seater. The on-cost against comparable three-door versions of the A1 is £560, but the Sportback also provides a little more headroom and shoulder room in the rear. The roof finish in contrasting colour from that of the main bodywork gives immediate recognition of the Sportback.

   Common to all of the new Sportback models are the comfort of the seating, precision of the steering, and the tidy layout of the interior and instrumentation. There is also an excellent navigation system with Audi’s very clear map display which rolls up at the top of the facia panel when the ignition is switched on, but this moves us into the world of option temptation with a price of £515 plus £305 for the ‘connectivity package’ which is essential for the navigation but includes top-spec audio features.

   All models except the high-performance 185PS version of the 1.4 TFSI have start/stop engine cutout at halts, but we felt this was a little too insensitive; it would not operate until the car was completely at a standstill, which was annoying at traffic halts on a downslope. The 1.2 TFSI and 1.6 TDI have five-speed gearboxes; the 1.4 TFSI comes with a choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed S Tronic in the less powerful 122 PS version. The most powerful of the TFSI engines giving 185 PS comes as seven-speed S Tronic only.

   As usual with Audi it’s a fascinating range, but for our Prime Choice we would select the A1 Sportback 1.6 TDI 105 PS five-speed with SE trim (not Sport) at £15,040. And then spend an afternoon studying the options list!

Peugeot 3008 HDi Active
Four-wheel drive is a great asset for any car, but it brings penalties in terms of added weight and cost. Peugeot cleverly avoids these issues on its 3008 with an electronic system called Grip Control. Working in conjunction with M+S (mud and snow) tyres, it provides the option of four traction control systems selected by a rotary switch near the gear lever giving choice of snow, mud, sand or standard. A fifth position turns the electronic stability programme off.

   Unfortunately our test of the 3008 coincided with a long period of dry weather so it was not possible to carry out any definitive traction tests on wet grass or mud except to say that when towing quite a heavy caravan the system eliminated the occasional momentary wheelspin sometimes experienced even on dry tarmac when trying to make a sharp getaway.

   One stage beyond this is Peugeot’s 3008 Hybrid4 which uses electric drive to the rear wheels to provide full four-wheel drive, but this is available only with the 2-litre engine. The test car had the 1.6-litre 8-valve diesel giving 114 PS which proved impressively lively and well able to cope with the caravan (much of the time staying in sixth gear) with a drop down to fifth only for the steeper motorway gradients. It is also economical, giving 53 mpg overall (when solo) and one of the few cars we have tried which has returned over 30 mpg when towing the caravan. The more usual figure in these conditions is around 27.

   Described as a Crossover - midway between an estate car and a full multi-seater - the 3008 offers generous space and very comfortable accommodation, making long journeys a pleasure. It’s essentially a five-seater, with provision for the 60/40 squabs to drop down on to the seat cushions which are also divided to tip forward.

   There is a lot of space for oddments, with sensibly large door pockets, and the load space is convenient for loading up because the tailgate is divided: the main upper section is strongly spring-assisted to go upward and then if deeper access is wanted, the lower part can be released and swung down to the horizontal. The rear shelf height is adjustable. A clever feature is the digital speedometer display which appears on a pop-up screen just ahead of the instruments. Costing £260 extra, it is adjustable for intensity and height, but not laterally which did not line up ideally with the chosen driving position; we thought it was all the time a little too far to the left.

   Although the 3008 proved an excellent tow-car for caravanning, the same cannot be said about its Thule detachable tow-hitch. It was in the detached form on arrival and defied all efforts to push it firmly into position. In despair the car was taken to a Peugeot dealer where they responded very well and managed to install it, but even there it took three quarters of an hour.

   The test car came with a good navigation system (£735) which includes a ‘connect’ feature to link to emergency services when required, a panoramic fixed glass roof with electric blind which gives a delightfully cheery and bright interior to the car (£370) and the Grip Control system mentioned earlier, at £470 including mud + snow tyres.

   Selecting a Prime Choice from the 3008 range calls for careful study of the options list because some features such as leather seats with heating and lumbar support are available for £1,230 with the Active model tested, but not with the cheaper Access version; also, the Active specification includes some desirable equipment items such as height adjustment for the front seats, and ability to fold the front passenger seat down to serve as a table. So we settle for the 3008 FAP HDi 1.6-litre six-speed with Active trim package at £20,245.

VW up!
Some strange names have been chosen for cars, but surely calling Volkswagen’s new small car the ‘up!’ takes the biscuit. But if they wanted to emphasize that it’s a completely new car they have certainly succeeded. Its chunky new body looks very dinky and smoothly shaped, almost as if it could be picked up and taken indoors with you, and the engine is a new three-cylinder unit of just under 1-litre capacity built of aluminium. There are two power formats, giving 60 and 75 PS.

   We started our test with the less powerful version for which fuel economy of 62.8 mpg is claimed. It has a five-speed gearbox with very easy and well-placed change, and the engine is impressively quiet as well as pulling extremely smoothly from low revs. But it feels the hills and needs frequent gear changing as well as rather lacking ‘steam’ for overtaking.

   So our next move was to try the more powerful version of the engine, still the same 999 cc capacity and 12-valve layout, but giving 75 PS output. The extra liveliness was very evident, while the fuel consumption is almost as good, with a claimed figure of 60.1 mpg. But the problem is that three specification levels are offered with the charming names Take up!, Move up!, and High up! and the more powerful version of the engine is available only with the top spec and a whopping price increase from the basic £7,995 to £10,390. It brings a lot more equipment, including air conditioning and seat height adjustment for the driver.

   The temptation would be to go for the middle spec, Move up!, at £8,970, but this still comes only with the 60 PS engine. It brings many features one would appreciate even in a small car like the up! including air conditioning, height adjustment for the driver, electric windows instead of the manual wind-up of the Take up! version, and a split folding rear seat.

The up! comes only as a three-door at present, with the disadvantage that the front seat back rest has to be released for access to the rear, losing the adjustment; but a five-door version will be added later in the year..

   Next year (2013) an electric version is to be introduced.

   The up! is roomier inside than might be expected with a length of only 3,540 mm and width of 1,641 mm excluding the mirrors. A wide range of optional equipment, all bundled into packages, is available, and a feature new to this level of the market is an accident avoidance device which detects the risk of a collision at speeds up to 19 mph and automatically applies the brakes - ideal for the commuting driver who hasn’t fully woken up and is about to hit the car in front! We were tempted to test this against the nearest brick wall but were not sure if the test car was fitted with this option. What we didn’t like was the bright red painted facia panel, but this can be in the body colour if preferred.

   Our Prime Choice from this new range of small VWs would be the Move up! at £8,970, or if mileage will be high enough to justify an economy version, there is Move up! with BlueMotion technology, claimed to give 68.9 mpg, at £9,330.

Latest Beetle
Time was too short for more than a brief drive in the new Beetle, which has been given a modest face lift with the windscreen moved farther back, longer bonnet and more boot space. Although of course with front transverse engine and front drive, it assumes more the proportions of the original model first launched in 1938, fore-runner of 22.5 million Beetles sold in nearly three-quarters of a century.

The new model is considerably larger than the predecessor, with length of 4,278mm (152 mm longer), and an extra 84 mm on the width, now 1,808mm, resulting in more room and luggage space.

   There is a huge range of equipment, packaged as Beetle, Design, and Sport, and there will be a choice of five engines (three petrol, 1.2, 1.6 and 2-litre) and two diesels (1.6 and 2-litre).

   Our brief test drive in the 1.2-litre revealed eager performance, indicated fuel economy of 42.1 mpg against a claimed 47.9, and in particular the remarkable quietness of the engine. At tickover one could think it had stalled, only to find that it was still running. Stop/start technology is available on some of the models with BlueMotion versions of the two diesel models.

   Full details and prices of the diesel versions will be revealed later in the year; at present the prices for petrol models range from £16,490 for the 1.2-litre with seven-speed DSG automatic, to £21,220 for the TSI Sport 1.4. Our Prime Choice would be the version we tested, namely the 1.2-litre Beetle with Design trim, 105 PS and seven-speed DSG automatic, at £18,895.

Audi A4 and S4
They’re at it again! Those industrious people at Audi can’t let many months go by without another new model introduction, and this time they have launched the A4 in revised form with a number of improvements and restyled frontal appearance. The lamp units now sweep back round the front corners and there are detail revisions to the radiator grille and bumpers. Prices go up by only a modest £200, and there is a new 1.8-litre TFSI turbocharged petrol engine now developing 170 PS (previously 160) and giving 21 per cent less CO2 output. With its 49.6 mpg claimed economy and the lower price for petrol against diesel, this new engine narrows the gap between petrol and diesel economics.

   Unfortunately the new engine was not yet available for proving, so we started our test runs with the new 2.0 TDIe version of the Avant estate car with six-speed manual transmission and a price of £28,130, boosted to £30,440 by the time some rather extravagant options had been added. It’s surprising that with the long life expectation of an Audi, and the threat of an obligatory switch to digital radio in a few years time, £305 extra should have to be paid for digital audio.

   There were no disappointments on driving the Avant, with its exceptionally quiet and smooth 2-litre four-cylinder diesel engine. Its ride is on the firm side, but there are handling benefits and there is notable improvement in the hair-line precision and lightness of the steering, which is now electromechanical for more precision and takes no electrical power when running straight. On our simple test run this A4 recorded 46.3 mpg and would evidently top 50 easily in better conditions.

   Noticed immediately is a big improvement in the instrumentation. The speedometer on the previous model had 120 mph at the top of the circular dial which left all the lower digits crowded and difficult to read. The new one has 85 at the top, perhaps equating to a more normal cruising speed, and all the intermediate 10 mph breaks are clearly labelled. The whole layout of the instruments, minor controls and high-mounted navigation screen is very pleasing.

   All Audi A4 engines now have automatic start-stop at halts, but the system is perhaps not sensitive enough. Engine stop will not occur until the car is completely at rest rather than trickling up to a red traffic light, and with automatic versions the foot needs to be pressed quite firmly on the brake pedal for engine stop to operate.

Our next run was in the fabulously fast S4, powered by a V6 3-litre petrol engine giving 333 PS with a top speed of 155 mph. It comes with S tronic 7-speed automatic transmission and quattro four-wheel drive.

  Fuel consumption is claimed to be 34.9 mpg on the test cycle but on our test run it gave a more realistic 24.1 mpg. It’s a wonderfully responsive engine but comes with a deliberately harsh growl whenever the throttle is opened sharply, and the rock-hard suspension picks up small surface blemishes with both jolts and thumps from the tyres. This is strictly a car for the sporty types who will perhaps not be too alarmed by the price of £38,775, boosted to £47,660 with extras.

   Next came the one we liked best - the Avant with 3-litre V6 TDI diesel engine and multitronic 7-speed transmission. With its combination of smoothness, response and quietness, this is a magnificent engine, and the transmission ratio changes are so smooth as to be imperceptible. Acceleration time to 80 mph from rest is a remarkable 11 seconds. The standard seats were noticeably more comfortable than those in the S4, and although the firm ride was again a little disappointing, it was noted that this was a front-drive model with S-line trim which adds some £2,500 to the price. The extra cost might be better spent on quattro four-wheel drive for this powerful diesel model, with the price then running at £35,025, or £35,835 to include on the road additions. Of course, a wealth of tempting options can be added including such luxuries as Drive Select for a choice of driving modes, and even lighting control to ensure maximum illumination in all conditions without causing dazzle.

   It’s no surprise that all this effort is rewarded with outstanding sales success, and last year’s figure of 115,345 models sold marked an increase of 15.7 per cent to 6.65 market share, well ahead of BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

   Our selections for Prime Choice from a bewildering palette of 110 models are the A4 saloon 1.8 SE TFSI petrol, 6-speed manual, 170 PS at £25,240 and, with a little stretch of the budget, the A4 Avant 3.0 SE TDI quattro diesel S tronic 7-speed, 245 PS at £35,835. Prices correct at March, 2012.

Vauxhall Zafira and Astra
Spot the difference could have been the challenge, after driving the new Vauxhall Zafira first as the Exclusiv ecoFlex and then as the Elite; but although they look much the same and have the same 2-litre CDTi diesel engine there are in fact many differences between them to account for a price increment of some £3,500. In particular, the Exclusiv (always with only one ‘e’) has a much less powerful version of the engine, giving 130 PS, and gives better fuel economy. The claimed combined figure is 62.8 mpg, though on a not very demanding road course the computer indicated 39.9 mpg.

   Some features were a bit disappointing, notably the rather clattery noise from the engine, although it becomes quieter when cruising, and the hard plastic steering wheel with a rather thin rim. On first impression one is aware of sitting a long way from the windscreen, but front-side vision is aided by usefully large fixed windows on the front corners. The instruments are large and clear, and all controls are easily manageable. Many drivers unaccustomed to such a large car would soon feel at home behind the wheel of the Zafira.

   In the Zafira Elite, priced at £27,415 instead of the Exclusiv’s £23,950, the extra response of the 165 PS engine was immediately noticeable, and its acceleration time from rest to 80 mph is commendably quick for such a roomy car, at 16.7 seconds. Its claimed economy is a slightly more realistic 54.3 mpg, and the indicated figure on the test course was 36.6, only slightly down against the Exclusiv.

   The bigger differences were the improved interior trim with a three-spoke leather-trimmed steering wheel, electric four-way adjustment for the driving seat, and a panoramic windscreen as well as a large fixed glass sunroof. Although apparently the same Navi 600 unit as in the Eclusiv, the navigation setup was much better with screen display mounted high up and usable, whereas with the one in the Exclusiv we gave up trying to make the map orientated north-up instead of twiddling round at every bend in head-up display format.

   Zafiras are all nominally seven-seaters, with the rearmost row of two seats cleverly arranged to lift up out of the back floor, and when three-abreast seating is not required for the second row, the middle seat can be folded giving more elbow room for two to sit in comfort.

   All Zafiras tried have start/stop facility for economy, cutting the engine when the car comes to rest and restarting automatically as soon as the clutch pedal is pressed to re-engage first gear. Zafira is also available as the Tourer SE with 1.4-litre petrol engine turbocharged to give 140 PS, at £24,005, and as the sporting Tourer SRi, though with the same 165 PS diesel engine as in the Exclusiv and Elite. Price for the SRi 2.0 CDTi is £25,915.

   Also at the test day were examples of the Corsa VXR Nürburgring with 1.6 turbo engine to give 205 PS and make this little fire-cracker a 143 mph insurance man’s nightmare at £22,295, and the Astra GTC 1.6 turbo.

As usual, too many cars for the available time, but we did enjoy a quick drive in the sporty little three-door Astra which takes only 13.2 seconds to reach 80 mph and has a top speed of 137 mph.

   New in November 2011, this model replaces the former Sport Hatch and seemed an attractive car for £21,480, and you wouldn’t expect much more than the 29.2 mpg indicated on the test run. We wouldn’t waste £115 on LED rear lights, but even with these included, the total price was £22,670.

   From this galaxy of up-dated Vauxhalls, we choose as Prime Choice the Zafira Tourer Elite 2.0 CDTi at £27,415.  Also well worth mentioning is that all new Vauxhalls nowadays get a lifetime 100,000 mile warranty

Land Rover and Jaguar
A joint driving day for Jaguar and Land Rover revealed how closely these very different products are being integrated. Our first drive was in the Range Rover with V8 4.4-litre diesel engine and the first thing noticed was that it now has the same kind of automatic transmission selector as first introduced in the Jaguar, with a rotary control which rises up out of the console extension as soon as the engine is started. It is turned to position D and then one is ready to drive off with the electric parking brake releasing automatically.

   Amazing progress has been made since that first Range Rover was launched with a V8 petrol engine some 42 years ago, and the diesel engine is now so quiet and lively that at first we thought we had chosen a petrol version by mistake. Most of the time the engine was inaudible but when opened up for soaring acceleration it gives a delightful howling whine. Automatic engine stop and restart worked well at temporary halts. The automatic has eight speeds, with over-riding up or down changes being selected by Jaguar-type paddle switches below the steering wheel. The ride, too, is impressively comfortable and the suspension is quiet. In sharp contrast with the plastic smell which pervaded that first Range Rover, this latest one has a fine luxury aroma of top quality leather.

   What we didn’t like is that the speedometer scale is black except for the 20 mph segment in which the needle is travelling (30-50 mph for example) but at least it is clear and makes the reading easy to see at a glance. What we also didn’t like was the price: £86,345, and that didn’t include the active rear locking differential at £750.  The extras on the test car walloped the total up to £92,620, which seems a lot but is put into perspective by some of talk of salaries and bonuses flying around. We wanted to try the new Evoque, which is just under £40,000, but there was only one example available for driving and it was busy all day.

   At a much more reasonable price level was the Jaguar XF with the new 2.2-litre diesel engine, again with 8-speed auto transmission and stop-start at halts, and we were impressed to find what a vigorous performer this one is in spite of having the smaller four-cylinder diesel engine. It soars through the gears changing smoothly and unobtrusively, going from rest to 80 mph in just over 12 seconds, and on to a top speed limited to 140 mph, all for a remarkably good claimed economy figure of 52.3 mpg.

Instruments are clear but rather far away and could usefully be larger. The thickness of the B-post pillar makes it very difficult to see over the shoulder when emerging from a trailing junction, so good positioning and use of mirrors is needed

   Instruments are clear but rather far away and could usefully be larger. The thickness of the B-post pillar makes it very difficult to see over the right shoulder when emerging from a trailing junction. You have to rely on the mirror, or make sure to angle the car correctly for a clear view. This was the Portfolio model at £43,050, and it’s certainly very luxurious and beautifully finished inside. However, Audi enthusiasts will note that it has rear wheel drive only and no 4x4 version is available, as was offered  with the X-Type.

   Those who want ultimate performance in a big saloon will be tempted by the supercharged 5-litre V8 model of the XJ range, at £91,050, but the 3-litre diesel which we tried seemed quite lively enough, £24,535 cheaper at £66,515. With the V6 3-litre engine it performs impressively well, reaching 80 mph from rest in just 10 seconds and offering a top speed of 155 mph, while if it achieves anything like the 40.1 mpg consumption claimed for it, an owner should be well pleased. Especially pleasing are the quietness of this large saloon and the way in which it handles and feels like a much lighter car than its big size suggests. This is the benefit of aluminium construction. Also there at Gaydon were the Range Rover hybrid and the fabulous XJ220 - only for passenger rides round the circuit unfortunately.

   It would have been good to stay longer and drive more of this exotic machinery, but with 130 miles to drive each way to the Gaydon Heritage museum which was the venue for the occasion, we had to call it a day, and looking back over the ones tried choose as
Prime Choice the Jaguar XF 2.2-litre diesel with Premium Luxury trim at £37,950.

Mercedes-Benz C220D
What was the prime economy car of 2011? Many remarkable figures came from new cars showing how much the industry has progressed in the current bid to save fuel and reduce CO2 emissions, but these were mainly set by small cars.

   In our view the most impressive demonstration of what can be achieved by today’s highly efficient engines was made by the latest Mercedes-Benz C220CDI. It certainly is astonishing that this roomy and comfortable saloon should have averaged 50.5 mpg overall when on test. On a long run it was often giving over 53, and dropped into the upper 40s only in town. They call this the BlueEfficiency saloon.

   The engine is a four-cylinder 2.1-litre diesel with 16 valves and two turbochargers, and drives the rear wheels through a seven-speed automatic transmission. Engine stop occurs automatically at traffic halts and starts again the moment the driver releases the brake pedal, but this does mean that you have to keep the brakes on when at rest, which might be annoying for following drivers with the stop lamps glaring at them. There’s no delay in start-up, and it was always ready to drive off even after the briefest of stops

  Extremely smooth, the transmission makes changes which are scarcely perceptible and response to the throttle is immediate. Below the steering wheel are paddle switches which can be used to override the normal settings, particularly useful to change down in anticipation of overtaking or to tackle a steep descent. To the rear of the transmission selector is a button switch which brings in Sport mode, then Manual, and back to the normal Eco mode in sequence. Most of the time we were happy to leave it in the Eco setting.

  A large and clear speedometer is flanked by a smaller rev counter on the right and matching dial for fuel and temperature on the left. Trip computer information selected by a switch on the steering wheel is easy to read, giving fuel consumption, average speed, running time and trip distance. Mercedes make the speedometer clearer by not cluttering up the dial with km/h conversions; instead, speed in km/h is shown digitally at the bottom of the dial all the time. The well-planned and neatly arranged console layout locates the navigation and functions screen right at the top, but unfortunately the navigation system was not operative.

   Ride comfort in the C220 is very satisfying although the suspension is on the firm side, but there is notably little tyre roar or thump. Wind noise is also well suppressed. An unusual feature is that the tyres are of different sizes front/rear; a space saver spare wheel is provided.

   Superb brakes are by discs all round, with cross drilling of the front discs for heat dissipation. By tradition, the C220 has a foot-operated parking brake with release on the right below the facia. The steering gives hair-line precision and the turning circle is compact for easy manœuvring. Front and rear proximity warnings are backed up by a digital display, the rear one being seen through the mirror, above the back window.

   The seats are upholstered in black leather with edge stitching, and there is electric adjustment for height and backrest angle. This and electric heating are provided for both front seats, and there is a rotary knob at the side allowing adjustment of the tilt angle of the cushion. The rear seat, with its generous central armrest, has no provision for folding the backrest. Boot capacity is huge, extending far forward almost out of reach, and it is convenient to be able to press a separate button on the remote locking key fob and see the spring-loaded boot lid open; but never put the key down in the boot and close the lid or, with the doors still locked, it would be trapped

   With its comfort, responsiveness and impressive ease of driving, backed up by the outstanding economy, this was a test car we were very reluctant to hand back. So, our Prime Choice for efficiency in 2011 is the Mercedes-Benz C220 CDI Blue Effeciency Sport 7-speed automatic, at £30,980.

VW Golf
The sixth generation Golf was introduced to the UK market in 2009. From launch, it was available in either three or five-door hatchback configuration with a variety of trim options; a choice of  petrol and diesel engines of varying power outputs was specified ranging from a 1.2-litre petrol unit to a high performance diesel, and lots of choices in between.

   Global sales of the ever-popular Golf have topped 26 million since its inception in 1974. To this day the model still sets the standard in the mid-size family hatchback class and it’s no exaggeration to say it continues to set the benchmark for superb build quality and safety, too. Some say its styling barely seems to change from generation to generation; perhaps there may be some truth in that, but why radicaly change a nicely refined package when a few changes here and there (often quite major, but hidden ones) will suffice.

The latest facelift (arguably the best term to describe the new model which looks largely unchanged, apart from the grille, headlamps and the air dam located in the front bumper) has given Golf an overall sharper look.

   Inside the car benefits from an updated dashboard, as well as extra soft-touch materials around the cabin, resulting in a nicely refined/quieter (a host of new sound-proofing measures, including new door seals and aerodyamics tweaks, has been incorporated) interior, in fact, the level of refinement can be said to put this VW on par with many cars in the class above. Head, legroom and shoulder space is generous, so four adults can travel in comfort. Boot is large and well shaped.

   Although the chassis remaines largely unchanged from its immediate predecessor giving the same competent handling and comfort, additions where they occur include such things as a knee airbag for the driver and a new head restraint system designed to reduce whiplash injuries in the event of a rear shunt. Volkswagen’s Adaptive Chassis Control which allows the driver to select from normal, comfort or sports modes to define the desired suspension, etc., response is now offered on the Golf. 

   Maybe it’s not the most dynamic looking car in its class, but it is extremely efficient all-rounder and with its well-weighted steering is an effortless car to drive giving a feeling of composure in all circumstances we encountered. Rough surfaces are handled with very little drama and the nicely tuned suspension gives the car good grip through corners.

   The Golf isn't the cheapest new family hatchback around, but it's definitely value for money. Discounts are generally available nowadays if you are prepared to haggle and you'll be secure in the knowledge that your investment will be protected by strong residual values. We would choose as our Prime Choice one of the 1.4-litre petrol units, or if your budget can stretch that little further a Bluemotion model with sub 100 g/km emissions and combined economy figure in excess of 70 mpg, for around £16,500. 

SsangYong Korando
On and off has been the career of the Korean make SsangYong, which was relaunched back in April 2008 after being taken over by the Italian firm Koeliker. Now the scenery has changed again, though this time we are assured that it is here for good, following acquisition of the firm by the Indian engineering conglomerate Mahindra & Mahindra; and there’s a new model: the Korando.

   This effectively replaces the former Kyron model, and here’s an interesting note: when the Kyron was reintroduced in 2008, its price was cut by a whopping £3,000, to £14,995. Now comes the Korando £2,000 dearer at £16,995, but it is over three years later, a much improved model and also very generously equipped. However, the £16,995 price quoted as the start of the range is something of an illusion as none of the examples available for test driving were anything near this attractive figure. They were nearly all in the £19-20,000 bracket, and then with only front drive.

   Four-wheel drive is available for the EX top of the range model, but it takes the price to £21,445, or £22,995 with auto transmission. However, the value is still good when account is taken of the substantial size and roominess of the Korando, its nice interior finish, and the generous equipment which includes an opening or tilting glass sunroof, power folding door mirrors, and electric seat adjustment; £999 has to be added for the Kenwood radio with CD and MP3, as well as a very good navigation unit which is heavily based on the Garmin system. There is also electric seat heating in both front and rear.

   Korando provides a high and commanding seating position and the engine is impressively smooth and quiet, pulling through a six-speed gearbox which has an easy change action. Ride quality is very good - a big improvement on the former Kyron model. Instrumentation is clear, with temperature and fuel contents shown by a column of blobs, and a constant read-out of speed in km/h which obviates the need for km/h conversions to be displayed on the speedometer. The engine produces up to 175 bhp, and economy of 47.1 mpg is claimed.

   Former models, the Rexton with four-wheel drive at £19,995 and the roomy seven-seater Rodius at prices starting at £14,995, are still available, and all of the new SsangYong models come with an attractive five-year warranty for which there is no mileage limit. It is good to see SsangYong making a strong come-back, and it’s notable that the Korando is claiming strong towing capacity up to a 2-tonne limit. Rodius has special appeal as a big executive car in which the middle row of two individual seats can be revolved to face to the rear - ideal for that board meeting on the way to the airport

   Not everyone will want four-wheel drive for such a vehicle as the Korando, because they appreciate instead its spacious interior, functionality, commanding view and the feeling that in it they won’t be bullied by other drivers. So we might list as Prime Choice the
Korando ES front-wheel drive with six-speed gearbox for £19,495; but for those who would feel silly if they became stuck in mud or snow with such a vehicle, it has to be the Korando EX with 4x4 and 6-speed T-Tronic automatic all for £22,995.

Audi Q3
What - not another new Audi? Yes, it’s the new Q3, a sporty new versatile semi-off-roader. Sometimes we are asked why we feature so many new Audis, and there are two answers; the first reason is that the manufacturer seem able to bring out new models at an amazing pace, the second is that their press and publicity department is extremely lively and informative - in contrast to some that seem so inactive one might wonder what they do all day!

   Less than two months after the introduction of the A6 Avant, bringing many novelties to this spacious family car, along comes Q3 in a different category altogether. Q3 is also a very significant model because it is built on a new chassis platform which will also be used for the A3 hatchback replacement due to be launched in 2012 - yet another new Audi, oh dear!

   Q3 has its engine mounted transversely, with the chief seller expected to be the 2-litre TDI diesel giving 177 PS with quattro drive to all four wheels through an S-tronic seven-speed automatic gearbox. The same arrangement is available with TFSI petrol engine, with the additional choice of a manual six-speed gearbox. Available from December 2011 is a manual version of the 2-litre TDI, but with only 140 PS and front-drive. There will be no V6 version because it is too long for transverse installation.

    Always keen to find new venues, Audi based their Q3 introduction in the north of England at Whitby (November 2011) from where they plotted a very demanding test route with many sharp climbs and twists, so it’s not surprising that the economy was a bit disappointing with the TDI quattro S tronic returning only 36 mpg, against its official figure of 47.9. On a longer run with more opportunity for relaxed cruising in the very high seventh gear one might expect to see at least 45 mpg.

   This was the only slight disappointment; the most outstanding aspect of Q3 was its excellent ride. Here is a car designed to cope with off-road conditions while also providing very high levels of comfort when dealing with our neglected road surfaces. It is aerodynamically shaped, and has bonnet and tailgate of aluminium.

   It gives a high seating position, helped by ratchet lever to raise or lower the driving seat and a good all-round visibility. Handling and steering are very reassuring with none of the slightly top-heavy feeling that besets some SUVs as a result of their high build. Also very impressive are the quietness of the diesel engine and the smooth response of the S tronic transmission which has two clutches and changes its gears automatically in response to speed and demand. Stop/start operates whenever the Q3 comes to a halt.

   Up/down gear shift paddle controls come with a three-spoke multi-function steering wheel at £240 extra, and another option called Drive Select (£220 extra) allows the transmission to go into freewheel in light cruising when the brakes are not being used. Another option which many will appreciate is a panoramic sunroof in two sections, opening at the front, costing £1,100.

   As with other Audi models S line trim is available bringing leather upholstery, dynamic suspension and many other sporty features, for £2,750 extra, but it was noticeable that all the cars available for test driving had the standard SE trim. The 2-litre TFSI petrol engine gives considerably more power (211 PS with S tronic) making the Q3 even more lively and responsive, but there seems little doubt that the one which Audi predicts will be the best seller is also our Prime Choice the Q3 2.0 TDI SE 177PS quattro S tronic at £28,460.

Skoda Octavia Greenline 11

Skoda is boasting record-breaking sales in the UK, and the same no doubt applies across the globe; no wonder, as the cars are well-built, spacious and offer extremely good value for money with their Volkswagen inspired quality and engineering. The attractively moulded body of the Octavia is, in fact, based on the previous VW Golf chassis and unless you are a badge snob then we would choose the Greenline 11 as a sensible, practical and budget-priced small to medium sized five-door family hatchback.

  The most eco-friendly model of the range, the car is cheap to run with the manufacturer quoting in excess of 74 mpg in their combined performance chart, and we feel this is not an unrealistic figure after a week of use over a mixture of roads and surfaces. With nicely balanced crisp handling and a comfortable ride, at all times we were completely at ease with the Octavia despite varying conditions, even including a spell of strong motorway crosswinds and torrential rain.

The 1.6 TDI pulls well and feels brisk, although acceleration time to 62 miles per hour is modest (although it doesn't feel it) at a shade over 11 seconds. Top speed quoted at 119 mph.

   What we liked particularly in town was its ability to potter along in heavy traffic in a higher gear with no sign of snatch, or tendencies to stall when you really should be in the next gear down. The finely tuned 1.6 TDI engine gives out carbon dioxide emissions of less than 100 g/km., meaning the Greenlne 11 slots into band A where no annual road tax is payable and is additionally exempted from the London Congestion Charge. Stop/start and energy recovery technology are other key features in helping to achieve such good economy. A comprehensive list of goodies, including cruise control and air conditioning, is included.

   Inside all fitments feel solid and well put together with high-quality surface material. Seating is first class with plenty of head and leg room, the boot volume of 585 litres extends nearly three-fold when the split folding rear seats are down. The Octavia range starts at around £14k with Greenline 11 versions (as driven) commencing below £18,000 OTR.

Audi A6 Avant
Here’s a clever feature to impress them at the Golf Club or Hotel. As you approach the back of the car carrying your golf clubs or luggage, just wave your foot beneath the rear bumper of the new Audi A6 Avant and like magic the tailgate opens without even need to put the luggage on the ground. It’s one of the novelties of this amazing new car, and it doesn’t reduce security in any way. It will work only if the person putting a foot beneath the back also has the key in pocket or handbag, and it functions only if the car is fully locked so it wouldn’t open if, for example, the car was paused at traffic lights. If you fancy this clever refinement for your next Audi, start saving, because the cost including advanced electronic key and electric action for the tailgate, is £1,180.

   Most of the brilliant features introduced for the larger Audi A8, such as the night vision assistant which picks out the outline of a pedestrian, and the adaptive cruise control with active lane assist, are now available on the new A6 Avant, but stand by for a shock when you add up the cost of everything. The 3-litre TDI quattro starts with a price of £40,140, but with all the fascinating kit added to the car the price nearly doubled to £78,745.

   One would need to be selective and perhaps forego the Oakwood inlays on the facia and the privacy glass. With further deletions one could trim the price back, especially if one went for the 2-litre TDI whose starting price is £31,340. The thing we did appreciate and would want to have, is the panoramic glass sunroof which opens at the front and makes for a bright and cheerful interior (as well as keeping the dog cool in summer) for £1,370.

The thing we did appreciate and would want to have, is the panoramic glass sunroof which opens at the front and makes for a bright and cheerful interior (as well as keeping the dog cool in summer) for £1,370.

   The 2-litre diesel has been made so quiet, smooth and responsive, that the advantage of the superb 3-litre V6 is slightly diminished, and it is the only one available with a six-speed manual gearbox. But one has only to drive the 3-litre TDI quattro a short way, experiencing the delightful smoothness of the S tronic seven-speed automatic transmission to feel ‘it has to be this one - let’s hope the budget can run to it!’

   Air suspension was fitted on the 3-litre test car, at £2,000 extra, and we have to confess that after trying it in all the available modes from Comfort through to Dynamic, we couldn’t see enough added in comfort and road behaviour compared with the 2-litre riding on steel springs to justify the added cost. No doubt many will disagree, and swear by the benefits it brings.

   In this complete redesign of one of Audi’s most successful models, extensive use has been made of aluminium bringing a weight saving of some 150 lb, equivalent to a smallish adult. Attention has also been paid to fuel economy and emissions, bringing the combined consumption of the 2-litre manual to 56.5 mpg, with the 3-litre almost as good at 54.3 mpg (47.9 for the quattro). For those who want a petrol engine there is a 3-litre TFSI quattro with 7-speed S tronic transmission for £41,130 - a sign of the times, with the petrol version now costing more than the equivalent diesel.

   Coming soon will be an even more powerful 3-litre TDI with two-stage turbo. The Prime Choice from the range has to be the one expected to be top seller, namely the A6 Avant 2.0 TDI SE manual six-speed at £32,100 arriving November 2011, but if the budget can be stretched, go for the A6 Avant 3.0 TDI SE quattro S tronic seven-speed at £40,950 and then start looking at the huge list of options!

Jaguar XJ, XF and XK
A formidable choice awaited us at a recent Jaguar driving day, with the emphasis on efficiency, more power and better economy. There were just two examples of the big XJ saloon - or should it be called ‘limousine’? - so it was important to start with one of these while still available. The test car was powered by the 3-litre V6 diesel engine, claimed to give 39.2 mpg, and did in fact achieve a commendable 36.1 on the test circuit. But what impressed more than this was the effortless performance, taking the XJ from rest to 80 mph in only 10 seconds, and the wonderful quietness and smoothness of the engine. Extensive use of aluminium in its construction has kept the weight down making the XJ feel commendably nimble and responsive.

    All Jaguars these days have automatic transmission, with the novel feature of a rotary selector for the transmission which rises up ready for us as soon as the engine is started and is turned to select Drive or Reverse. In the XJ it’s a six-speed giving very quick down changes, and providing choice of normal, winter or dynamic driving modes.

   Even before starting up, one is impressed by the overwhelming atmosphere of luxury in the XJ, from the superbly comfortable beige leather seats to the tightly-fitted covering of dark blue leather over the entire facia panel. There’s a large and very clear navigation screen, and an unusual feature is that only a 20 mph zone of the speedometer is illuminated at any time. For example, at 60 mph, the figures from 50 to 70 mph are displayed, and the other figures on the dial are visible but darker.

   To turn on the interior lights or map lights, just touch the light itself and it switches on. There are two glass roof panels with electrically operated shades; the front one can be made to open at the back and then slide rearward overlapping the rear one.

   Every kind of luxury is provided in the XJ, from the way in which the lid of the huge boot opens or closes electrically, and the ‘three-flash lane change indicators’, to the adaptive front lighting with cornering lamps and the acoustic laminated glass used for the windscreen and front door windows.

   Top director whose company can run to the £69,525 price is going to feel well rewarded with an XJ, whether enjoying its delightful driving characteristics or lolling about in the spacious rear compartment.

   After the extravagant luxury of the XJ, the latest XF with its sleek, sloping rear end, also impressed with its comfort and quietness. One would never guess that under the bonnet is not a six-cylinder engine, it’s the new four-cylinder diesel giving 190 PS output and enormous torque. It gives the XF a quicker step-off from standstill than the 3-litre which tended to be a little leisurely until the revs had built up.

   With this new 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel, the XF soars to 80 mph from rest in 13.4 seconds and on the test route it gave exactly 40 mpg, while the claimed economy is a staggering 52.3 mpg. The XF has an eight-speed automatic transmission and as well as winter or dynamic drive control, there are ‘paddle’ switches below the steering wheel to give the driver immediate command for up or down gear changes.

   All the instrumentation and panel layout in the XF are different from those of the XJ and a number of detail styling changes have been incorporated. The 3-litre diesel engine is still available as are two V8 petrol engines, one being supercharged to give 510 PS. But the big news on XF is this new, extremely smooth and quiet four-cylinder diesel, bringing this luxury saloon into Band F for tax at only £130 a year. With a price of £43,050, it saves £3,000 against the cost of the 3-litre V6 diesel.

   Unfortunately the rain had started by the time we were able to sit snugly in the XKR Convertible and experience its formidable V8 5-litre engine with supercharger to boost the power to 510 PS. What impressed now was how docile this fantastic engine is. You could use it to go shopping, trickling along smoothly in the traffic; but then get the chance to put the foot down when there’s a scream from the supercharger, a roar of engine and exhaust and the XKR simply bounds ahead, going from standstill to 80 mph in just over seven and-a-half seconds. What is also amazing is that it was able to put all this power through just the rear wheels, even on wet surfaces.

The XKR supercharged V8 with convertible body costs £84,550. For another £12,450 you can have the fastest Jaguar of all, the XKR-S, with power increased from 510 PS of the standard XKR to 550 PS.

   The XKR supercharged V8 with convertible body costs £84,550. For another £12,450 you can have the fastest Jaguar of all, the XKR-S, with power increased from the 510 PS of the standard XKR to 550 PS. It comes as Coupé only, and accelerates from rest to 100 mph in 8.7 seconds, almost the same as the standard XKR takes to reach 80 mph, and goes on to a top speed of 186 mph. The efficiency is shown by its consumption figure of 23 mpg, which is not too bad for such staggering performance.

   Deliveries of this new range of Jaguars begins in September 2011.Making a Prime Choice from this impressive line-up is easy: any Jaguar will not disappoint, but particular attention is deserved by the new Jaguar XF four-door saloon with the new 4-cylinder 2.2-litre diesel SE at £30,950.

Volkswagen BlueMotion additions
Basically, a recent Volkswagen Driving Day was concentrated on the new Pickup called Tamarack with four-wheel drive and choice of two turbo-diesel engines. Tamarack is out of scope of this essentially car-based Milestones feature, but the day gave us the opportunity to catch up on recent additions to the ever-extending Blue Motion technology in the Volkswagen range.

   First seen on the Polo, the Blue Motion package includes stop/start at traffic halts, which many manufacturers are now offering, backed up by energy recuperation into the battery during over-run or braking, a gear change-up or -down indicator to help the driver use the most economical gear, plus engine/transmission refinements for optimum economy. It was tried first on the Eros convertible with 1.4-litre TSI petrol engine giving 122 bhp. It seems a perfect choice for this extensively restyled convertible giving vigorous performance with quite good economy (45.6 mpg overall); 2-litre TSI (petrol) and TDI (diesel) engines are also available.

   Blue Motion apart, it was fascinating to watch the ingenious process in which the Eros folds away its rigid hardtop into the boot, still leaving quite a lot of luggage space when the car is open, and Eros is claimed to be the only convertible incorporating a tilt/slide sunroof as standard. You can now operate the roof folding process remotely. A further refinement is the fitting of ‘cool leather’ upholstery which reflects the sun’s rays, preventing the seats from getting too hot when the car is parked on a hot sunny day. In 1.4 TSI guise the Eros costs £22,900.

   Next Blue Motion adventure was the Passant, whose TDI engine pulls so smoothly, quietly and vigorously that it is hard to believe its capacity is only 1.6-litre. It feels more like a 2-litre despite the fairly modest 105 bhp output, and the official mpg figure overall is given as 65.7 mpg. In brisk driving on a rather demanding test route the trip indicator did’t come up to that level, but showed a still very commendable 49.8 mpg.

The engine pulls very well right down to low revs. The handbrake is applied by an electric switch, but does not release automatically when you go to drive away  - a downward touch on the switch is needed to move off.

   In the revised interior layout the analogue clock seems to be facing up to the roof rather than to the driver and front passenger, but this and the instruments are clear and easy to read, with the circular fuel gauge in the bottom of the speedometer.

   Much the same engine and Blue Motion features are applied to the latest Jetta, essentially a saloon version of the Golf, but it has the drawback of only a five-speed transmission instead of six gears as in the Passat.

   On looking at the prices and seeing that the Jetta at £19,530 is only £1,390 cheaper than the Passat’s price of £20,920, the Passat clearly emerges as the better buy. So from this very encouraging VW driving day during May 2011 our Prime choices are the Volkswagen Eos SE BlueMotion 1.4 TSI Convertible at £22,900, and Passat SE BlueMotion 1.6 TDI for £20,920.

Audi A6
Sometimes a new model feels just right within minutes at the wheel, and the new Audi A6 delighted us even before we had left the long driveway where the launch was staged. On the open road the thrill of its precise handling and the feeling that this big car is so responsive and lively increases with speed and distance driven.

   Extensive use of aluminium in its construction contributes to the impression that the car is so light and nimble. It’s a big car that feels much more like a smaller one. Aluminium is used in 20 per cent of the A6 body area, and the four-cylinder 2.0 TDI version weighs 1,575 kg., 15 per cent less than a steel equivalent.

   The view from the driving seat is excellent, and the 3-litre diesel engine in the model is so quiet and smooth that it’s almost a new sensation of diesel motoring. Ratio changes of the seven-speed automatic transmission are scarcely perceptible. A firm tread on the accelerator sends the speedometer needle scuttling round the dial, with 80 mph reached from rest in only 10.1 seconds and at the end of a rapid test drive the computer showed 41.8 mpg, which is remarkable for such a large car.

   Leather-upholstered seats have electric adjustment and there’s a large storage compartment below the centre armrest with provision for locating a remote control phone there. In the test car the excessive use of black for the roof lining and much of the trim made the interior rather sombre, but there is a wide choice of colours and a sunroof is optionally available. Specially recommended is the adaptive air suspension which was featured on the test car and provided a superbly comfortable ride. It is adjustable to suit driving mode or comfort requirements.

   Audi’s navigation system, already one of the best, is even better on this new model thanks to a larger screen which slides out and revolves upright when switched on. Audi is proud of its tie-up with Google which enables the driver to see a pictorial display of the surrounding countryside, but the excellent map display is more informative for navigation. The instruments are large and clear, but it’s surprising that Audi has not adopted the current trend of showing a digital display of speed in km/h; instead it has traditional km/h markings on the speedometer.

   The new A6 comes as diesel in nearly all models, with choice of 2-litre, 3-litre V6, and 3-litre with quattro four-wheel drive, but there is also a 3-litre TFSI petrol version with quattro; this is the fastest model of the range with the engine developing some 300PS.

   There is only one snag with the new A6: it’s that although the prices start off looking quite attractive, at £30,145 for the 2.0 TDI, there is a formidable choice of options. The executive who enjoys his toys will readily find that getting on for £30,000 has been added to the price if such things as LED headlamps with adaptive light for £2,710 and a very effective head-up speed display projecting the speed reading digitally as if seen on the road ahead (£1,450) are put on the shopping list. But perhaps it’s right that buyers can choose what refinements and equipment they want to add, and in its favour the A6 is predicted to have the lowest depreciation in its class.

   Logically, one has to recommend as Prime Choice (as driven in April 2011) the model which Audi predicts will be the one in greatest demand, namely the A6 2.0 TDI SE with manual six-speed gearbox at £30,145, but if the budget can be stretched a little we would strongly recommend the A6 3.0 TDI quattro SE, well worth the extra at £39,110.

Renault Clio
The popular Clio supermini was once Renault's smallest model; however, over recent years it has edged more upmarket, no doubt inspired by the likes of the Magane and Laguna, resulting in a quite spacious cabin that now feels a whole lot classier, even in basic trim form.

   Safe and enjoyable to drive, this ever-popular hatchback is available in three or five-door configuration with a sizeable range of petrol or diesel powerplants to choose from. We recently drove one of the 1.5 diesel engine variants which we were mightily impressed with giving strong all-round performance under a variety of road conditions, all combined with excellent fuel economy.

Handsome styling gives the Clio a more mature look and this is combined with a pleasant interior. Room in the back for adults is good and access to the rear on two-door models is easy due to wide opening doors.

   With generous boot space the car can gobble up a fair amount of luggage making it a strong contender for those on a limited budget with a couple of children. On the road its driving manners are impecible with a slick gearchange and nicely weighted steering. Front seat adjustment and comfort is good, even for six-footers of more mature years!

   Making light work of the worse that modern driving can throw at it, the Clio 1.5D was equally at home at the legal limit as pottering around town, and from past experience the same is equally true of smaller engined models. Residues are good and running costs competitive, arguably beats the likes of the Ford Fiesta; it is also comparatively cheap to insure, too. The Clio range starts at around £10,000 for the base model with a petrol engine.

Vauxhall Corsa
Perhaps it was a mistake to start my brief appraisal of the revised Vauxhall Corsa range with the SRi 1.7 CDTi which, at £17,390, is one of the most expensive of the range. It certainly performs extremely well, accelerating from rest to 80 mph in only 16 seconds and offering an economy figure of 62.8 mpg on the combined test sequence; but what impressed even more was the delightfully precise steering and handling which made this little Vauxhall very reassuring to drive. The trip computer recorded a more realistic 42.8 mpg, but this was after flying round the test route in rapid style. Driven more gently it should be able to show at least 50 mpg. The engine is remarkably quiet and is so smooth and responsive that there is little awareness at all that one is in a diesel car.

   In contrast, the 1.3 CDTi tried after the SRi was less impressive on handling, though the engine rated at 75 PS instead of the SRi’s 130 PS still performed extremely well making this a very lively 1.3-litre. This version has only a five-speed gearbox unlike the six-speed in the SRi. Both cars were tried in three-door form, and the action of tipping the seat forward for access to the rear is easily done. Five door versions cost £430 extra.

   The new Corsas are identified by the revised front grille treatment with the Vauxhall Griffin badge in the centre in place of the previous V, and there are new headlamp arrangements now including daytime running lights. Frontal styling is significantly different from that of the previous model.

   The interior has also been revised and the facia, instruments and console layout are clear but with the obvious criticism that the screen for the navigation system is too low, with unnecessary space given to the ventilation outlets above it. The navigation screen is touch sensitive, but also cost-sensitive at a formidable £750.

   A wide range of equipment is included with such features as steering wheel mounted audio controls, fog lamps and speed sensitive power steering, and there are many extras of the kind normally available only on much more expensive cars such as adaptive headlamps lighting the way into corners, plus static cornering lights, a hill hold device to prevent running back after a stop on a steep gradient, and an electrically heated leather trimmed steering wheel for comfort on icy mornings. A special cycle carrier unit is available.

   The 1.3 CDTi ecoFLEX features start-stop to turn off the engine at brief traffic halts and start up again as soon as the clutch pedal is pressed. Both these diesel versions give low enough CO2 output to qualify for band C meaning no VED tax to be paid in the first year, and only £30 in subsequent years. All new Vauxhalls come with a life-time warranty for the first owner lasting 100,000 miles.

   The range starts with a 1-litre 12-valve three-cylinder petrol model costing £9,995 and featuring Expression trim. Further trim levels are called Excite, Exclusiv, SE, SXi and SRi. Nearly £2,000 separates the price of the 1.7 CDTi ecoFLEX from that of the 1.4 petrol with the same SRi trim level, but it is so good one would be inclined to advise: forego the £750 demanded for the navigation system, and regard as Prime Choice the Vauxhall Corsa 1.7 CDTi ecoFLEX SRi at £17,390, but if this seems - as it is - an awful lot to pay for a small car like the Corsa, go for the Corsa 1.4iVVT petrol with Exclusiv trim at £12,920. Prices quoted March 2011.

Suzuki Kizashi, Splash and SX4
Only two examples of the Kizashi were available for driving at the updating test day for Suzuki cars for 2011, so it was important to grab it first for appraisal although it has not yet been determined whether it will be added to the range at the end of the year. Opinions were invited, and I had to say that the most disappointing feature was the enormity of the windscreen pillars (or, as often called, the A-posts). They made visibility severely restricted at junctions and roundabouts; did they really expect the Kizashi to have to survive being dropped on its roof from a height of 100ft?

   Apart from this objection, this new Suzuki would move the range up into competition with such as the Audi A4. It proved comfortable,  relaxing to drive and very lively as a result of having a four-cylinder 2.4-litre petrol engine delivering 178 PS maximum power at 6,500 rpm. The engine is commendably quiet.

   Kizashi is a four-door saloon. Our test car had four-wheel drive and automatic CVT transmission, though it may be decided to import only the front-drive six-speed manual version. We think the 4x4 with automatic would have special appeal, and would justify the price hinted at about £24,000. Equipment is generous including an electric sunroof, leather upholstery and electric seat adjustment. Go for Kizashi, we would say, especially if something can be done about the excessive width of the screen pillars.

   More mundane but very functional motoring followed in the latest version of Splash, Suzuki’s small but practical MPV, now with a more efficient 1.2-litre petrol engine. It has varying valve timing and offers power up to 94 PS.

This and the basic three-cylinder 1-litre  engine promise overall fuel consumption of 55.4 mpg, and the all-important CO2 figure is 119 g/km giving both versions a £30 annual road tax, free first year.

  The 1-litre Splash is available only with SZ3 trim at £9,495. The 1.2 versions offer SZ3 and SZ4 trim, with the option of auto transmission for SZ4 at £11,425. This also features key-in-pocket entry, locking and engine start, and a convenient feature is the way in which the tailgate can be opened at a touch on the electric release.

   Substantially bigger than the Splash is Suzuki’s SX4, a roomy five-door more an estate car than a hatchback, and the range starts with the SZ3 trim, 1.6-litre petrol engine and front-wheel drive for £11,995. The other engine available is Renault’s 2-litre diesel, and both engines are available with 2- or 4-wheel drive.

The four-wheel drive system gives normal drive to the front wheels only, but an electric switch near the handbrake selects 4WD auto in which drive to the rear wheels comes in automatically when front wheelspin is detected.

   A further press on the switch gives locked drive to all four wheels up to 40 mph. Above this speed the system reverts to 4WD auto, and switching back to 2WD is recommended when there are no traction problems, thus giving better economy. We were very impressed by the SX4 in SZ5 format with the 2-litre diesel engine and four-wheel drive, which seems a good choice for those needing to be able to tackle occasional snow or muddy road conditions.

   Suzuki’s extensive range also includes the Grand Vitara bringing further improvements though perhaps not everyone will approve deletion of the tail-door mounted spare wheel in favour of a repair kit and inflator. Also with 4x4 and now with a better 1.3-litre varying valve timing engine is the little Jimny. It’s fun to drive but hard to get into the back seat and even harder to get out.

   From this extended and improved range (driven in March 2011) the two models which impressed best for Prime Choice were the
Suzuki Splash SZ4 1.2 with automatic transmission at £11,425 and the SX4 SZ5 with 4x4 and 2-litre diesel engine for £16,695.

Infiniti Diesel
Since October 2009 when we first reported on Infiniti - the new luxury division of Nissan - much has changed and the new marque is beginning to be more widely recognised, identified by its oval badge with an upward kink in the lower edge. More dealers have been appointed and the range has widened. As promised at the outset, there is now a diesel option; it’s a 3-litre V6 giving 238 PS, available in the M30d saloon and the FX30d.

   As before, the model identity of the Infiniti range is confusing, with the letters FX, EX, M and G, the last being the Coupé and Convertible models. FX and EX are described as five-seater cross-overs - midway between a full off-roader and a comfortable saloon, both having four-wheel drive. Standard power unit is a 3.7-litre V6 petrol engine, but the FX is additionally offered with a 5-litre V8 petrol unit. All three models can be ordered with the 3-litre diesel.

The sporty G models come as a four-door saloon, fixed head Coupé or Cabrio which folds its top neatly into the load area to convert it into a very stylish convertible. The G range are all V6 petrol models.

   A recent test day provided opportunity to catch up with the new diesel engine, which is certainly quiet and performs very well, but one wonders whether the diesel option is appropriate for such a car, except for very high mileage owners. Although good, it was inevitably more noticeable than the very refined petrol engine with fuel consumption averaging around 32 mpg, which was only 5 mpg better than the much more powerful petrol engine was able to return. The test cars were all running on very low profile tyres which no doubt contribute to the precise handling but give a rather notchy ride on poor roads. All were fitted with seven-speed automatic transmission, notable for its prompt response and the smoothness of changes.

   Many of the special features of Infiniti are not apparent at first glance. For example, the G37 saloon had self-healing scratch resistant paint. Had we known in advance we would have felt tempted to nudge it against a hard surface and time how long it took to recover! The G37 and M30d also had four-wheel steering, though we confess that we found it difficult to notice the difference from models with fixed rear wheel alignment.

   It is certainly a wide range of models, with some like the FX30d topping £50,000, so the buyer would need to go along to one of the sales offices (now at Glasgow, Birmingham, Reading and London) and probe very carefully into what is offered.

   When we made a Prime Choice recommendation after the October 2009 launch we favoured the Infiniti G37 3.7-litre GT Premium Convertible at £41,865. This still seems the gem of the range, but if a saloon is preferred to an open car with its inevitable load space limitations when the top is down, then the next Prime Choice is the
Infiniti G37 3.7-litre S saloon at £38,372. Both models are subject to £1,568 extra for 7-speed automatic transmission with paddle shift controls below the steering wheel.

Audi A7 Sportback
Even when parked, the new Audi A7 looks elegant and built for speed, especially in the three-quarter rear view which many will see as an A7 goes fleeting past. Styled as a Coupé, which normally means ‘a closed two-seater’, the A7 is a very practical four-seater with five doors and generous space in the back. For tall people the rather limited headroom might pose some problems, though both the front seats have electric height adjustment.

   The recent (November 2010) launch was staged in Spain, and when driving this car in right-hand drive form on the opposite side of the road to the UK, one was very aware of the visibility restriction to the left imposed by the lowness of the central driving mirror. It has to be low to give a clear view through the sloping rear window, and with the driving seat set high enough to see through the centre of the windscreen it was necessary almost to duck down to see below the mirror.  A huge tailgate lifts electrically including the window, the rear number plate assembly, a spoiler (which elevates automatically above 70 mph) and the inner parts of the tail lamp units, to reveal a huge boot. Rear passengers are far enough forward for their heads not to be contacted by the door when closing. All four door windows are frameless, and drop half an inch automatically in the instant of opening or closing a door.

   There is no manual transmission availability for A7, and at present there are just four engines, all having V6 layout and, except for the less powerful of two diesels, quattro drive to all four wheels. The only one which is not a 3-litre is the 2.8 FSI petrol unit giving 204 PS and driving through a very smooth and fast reacting seven-speed direct change gearbox, which Audi calls S tronic. The driver can prompt changes up or down by using the selector control or by the ‘paddle’ switches below the steering wheel, but in hilly terrain when needing rapid changes through hairpins it’s a bit tricky to chase these switches round with the wheel. It would be easier if they remained in the same place.

   The other petrol engine is a 3-litre giving 300 PS with the same transmission but higher overall gearing. Then comes the 3-litre diesel, again in two stages of power, one having 204 PS output and the other 245. The less powerful one has an eight-speed Multitronic (CVT) transmission, and drives only the front wheels, while the 245 PS version has 7-speed S tronic and quattro drive.

   For our tests in Spain the more powerful of the petrol and diesel engines were available, so we can’t include the cheaper and less powerful models in this assessment. The choice is essentially petrol or diesel, and bearing in mind that both in this form are credited with a top speed of 155 mph, we would be swayed in favour of the diesel, which returned 38.5 mpg on our test drive and gave acceleration from rest to 80 mph in a shade over 11 seconds. Equivalent figures for the 3.0 TFSI were 26.9 mpg and a time of 9.3 seconds to reach 80 mph. Also influencing the choice are the CO2 emission figures which are 158 g/km for the diesel against 190 for the petrol. Both engines are superbly quiet in light running, changing to a delightful deep throaty growl when really opened up.

   It was a joy not to be inflicted with Sport suspension, and the A7 provided very comfortable and quiet travel, especially in two of three cars tried which had adaptive air suspension - a £2,000 option. It goes without saying that these top-flight Audis are offered with a wealth of options, in some cases adding some £17,000 to the cost. You can have a brilliant navigation system presenting one of the best map displays ever seen, and an automatic parking system which will detect a gap in a line of parked cars and steer the A7 into it leaving the driver only to control speed and reverse or forward direction as instructed by the on-screen controls.

   The whole interior design and layout of controls is simply beautiful and a triumph of neatness and logical design. Such quality and excellence are never cheap, and the range of four models starts at £45,220 for the petrol 2.8, going up to £48,070 for the 3-litre. S-line trim is available at £1,790 extra. As explained above, our Prime Choice is the A7 3.0 TDI quattro SE with S tronic transmission for £48,000, including VAT at 20%.

Ford C-MAX
Ford admits that it perhaps under-estimated the rapid growth in demand for multi-seaters of the kind pioneered by the Renault Grand Scenic, and was consequently rather late in the market. But now it catches up with launch of the new C-MAX, launched on a fresh chassis base which will also be used next year for the future Focus replacement, defining Ford’s family car philosophy for the next generation.

With stylish appearance it looks more like a conventional car than a multi-seater, with a very aerodynamically swept-back front, and sliding rear entrance side doors. There are two versions.

   The C-MAX is a five-seater, and there is Grand C-MAX which is slightly longer in the wheelbase and has an additional row of seats at the back to bring total capacity up to seven. The central seat in the middle row is rather narrower than the one on each side, and is neatly arranged to fold and swing over to stow beneath the right-hand cushion when not required, leaving more space for two rear passengers. The occasional seats at the back also fold when not in use, and with all these seats down an extending fold-over cover turns the whole area into a level platform for luggage or it could even be used as a temporary bed.

   A first impression on taking the wheel is that the windscreen is a long way ahead, as a result of its very gently sloping angle, and nothing of the car is seen ahead of the glass which makes it perhaps difficult to judge where the front end is until one becomes acquainted with it; but a convenience pack gives audible warning of proximity front or rear when parking or clearing a narrow space. It also includes an automated parking system as already offered on some Audi and Volkswagen models which works extremely well, identifying an adequately large gap between two parked vehicles, and then turning the steering wheel as required to fit the C-MAX into the available space, often with only a few inches to spare. All the driver has to do is to select the appropriate reverse and then forward gears and control the speed.

   Impressive driving features of C-MAX are the comfort of the ride, with very good absorption of potholes and broken road surfaces, and the smoothness and quietness of the engines. Wind noise at speed is also well controlled. No great difference of ride and handling could be detected between C-MAX and the seven-seater Grand version.

   There are only two trim levels, Zetec and Titanium. Among a number of features provided with the Titanium trim are key-in-pocket starting, automatic headlamp and wiper switching, and tyre deflation detection, but the buyer seeking best value would probably do well to stick with Zetec trim and spend any available spare cash on useful option packages especially the Convenience pack for automated parking, proximity indicators, and folding mirrors, all for £525 extra. We would avoid the Sony navigation system which provides a poor map, is fiddly to operate, and costs £750 extra; but it does include a rear view parking camera. The tailgate of the Titanium with Family Pack has electric action, but surprisingly this is not available for the sliding side doors.

   Three petrol and two diesel engines are offered; the petrol engines include a 1.6-litre called Ecoboost, which features high pressure direct fuel injection, low inertia turbocharging, and independent valve cam timing to give a remarkable 150 PS output. But at £19,745 it is £1,000 more expensive than the standard 125 PS 1.6-litre and is available only with Titanium trim. The 1.6-litre diesel gives 115 PS and costs £18,245 with Zetec trim (£1,500 more than the 1.6-litre petrol), and for £20,745 there’s a 2-litre diesel with output of 140 PS.

   Except for the two base petrol versions all models including the 1.6 Ecoboost have six-speed gearboxes. All these prices are based on VAT at 17.5 per cent and are for the five-seater C-MAX. The seven-seater Grand C-MAX adds £1,250 to the five-seater prices, except for the 1.6 diesel with Zetec trim, where the two extra seats at the back add £1,500 to the price.

   Best economy comes with the 1.6-litre diesel engine for which 61.4 mpg is the mean claimed figure, some 20 mpg better than the 1.6-litre’s 42.8 mpg. But in practice on our short test run the 1.6 petrol returned 37.4 mpg, and the 1.6 diesel 41.6. The test routes were necessarily short and did not give much opportunity for light cruising so these figures could easily be improved upon.

   This new Ford range is an attractive addition to the choice of multi-seaters or spacious five-door family cars. We haven’t yet driven the standard 105 PS petrol engine, which is not available with Zetec trim and all the test cars had Titanium, hence a more powerful version of the 1.6-litre petrol (125 PS). But this engine coped well and the difference of £2,000 is a lot to pay for what is essentially the same car, so we would recommend as Prime Choice the C-MAX 1.6-litre petrol 105 PS with five-speed gearbox for £16,745; but if the seven-seater is wanted then again the Zetec wins, and it’s the Grand C-MAX 1.6-litre petrol 125 PS with five-speed gearbox for £18,745.

Chevrolet Spark
After using the Chevrolet Spark for a week, we have no hesitation in declaring it to be an extremely capable all-rounder with an exceptionally spacious interior (for its class) incorporating lots of standard equipment - including automatic climatic control - plus a nimble and economical 1.2-litre power unit, and all wrapped in a distinctive sporty five-door body shell. It is the smallest member of the Chevrolet family and replaces the Matiz in European markets.

   Cars in this small 'city car' bracket need to be as much at home in the country, as in urban areas; this chevy does not disappoint. With some 80 bhp on tap from the four-cylinder 1,206 cc engine, and allied to a slick five-speed gearbox, it performed well in all conditions we encountered and, most importantly, we found it frugal under a range of everyday driving conditions.

Away from busy streets and on typical rural roads, the Spark could be a little fidgety if pushed hard, but by no means worryingly so; its steering and braking was precise inspiring complete confidence, even over some poorly surfaced and adversely cambered west country moorland routes.

   Most importantly, even though the Spark (at well under £10k) would be considered a budget car by many, it never felt low cost; maybe, this was due to its spacious and generous high-spec cabin - a quality stereo and MP3 port is specified - as well as nice exterior touches such as the neat front grille profile, chrome-trimmed low level fog lamps, large tailpipe, roof rails and deep bumper, etc. Certainly, it has a distinctive personality all of its own which became quite affectious after a day or two of use.

   Interestingly, the manufacturers have disguised the rear door handles by placing them high up within a plastic trim panel on the C-pillar; this works well and helps achieve the overall neat appearance of a two-door in five-door guise. Safety measures are doubly important in small cars and this chevy includes stability control and no less than six airbags; it has four-star Euro NCAP rating and the range starts at £6,945 on-the-road.

Audi A1
Just what many people want: a car of Audi build quality, prestige and service, but without the big size of a car like the A4 or even the A3, and now it is here in the form of the new A1. It has a three-door hatchback body with generous range of equipment and, of course, a huge choice of options. The silvery roof edging shown in our photograph is one of the many options available. 

   The range starts with a 1.2-litre engine giving 86 PS and coming with a five-speed gearbox and all engines, petrol (TFSI) and diesel (TDI), are turbocharged. A larger petrol engine is the 1.4 with 122 PS output. For the 1.4-litre only, there is the option of S tronic auto transmission with seven speeds, costing £1,450 extra. There is just one diesel model, the 1.6 TDI offering 105 PS and coming with a five-speed manual gearbox. All models have very low CO2 output, with no first year car tax to be paid, and minimising the amount charged for subsequent years. The 1.2 TFSI SE costs £13,420 and prices move steadily up to the 1.4 TSI S tronic at £18,665.

   At the recent UK launch, only Sport versions were available for driving and there was no 1.2, although this is available now for ordering. This was perhaps to emphasise the sporty character of the A1 and enable us to appreciate its precise handling and steering, but the ride and accompanying tyre roar and road thump were most disappointing. For our first drive we took the 1.6 TDI which proved relaxing to drive and showed an encouraging 54.4 mpg. This should improve with more mileage, as the A1 diesel is claimed to give 70.6 mpg. The engine is quiet but rather lacking in low-speed torque so it needs to be kept revving above about 2,000 rpm.

   The next drive, again with a Sport version, was in the 1.4 TFSI with S tronic seven-speed twin-clutch transmission which proved altogether more lively, and the responsiveness of the automatic combined with very smooth changes from one gear to the next, made one feel that the extra cost for this transmission is well worthwhile. It includes paddle switches below the steering wheel to give the driver handy transmission control, though the automatic selection works so well that there is little call for them to be used, except perhaps to get ready for rapid overtaking. This version with S tronic is claimed to return 54.3 mpg; we didn’t come near that figure, but we did drive the car hard on a rather demanding route.

All models have start-stop systems to save fuel by stopping the engine at halts, but with the S tronic this works only while the driver’s foot is on the footbrake. Release the brake pedal, even with the handbrake pulled up, and the engine starts immediately.

   At present, the small Audi comes only as a three-door, but no doubt there will be a five-door later. Leg and headroom in the back is good by small car standards, but getting into the back is not so easy as the front seat back tips forward but does not slide the whole seat bodily forward. This can be done using the sliding seat adjuster, but this is not a very convenient arrangement.

   Rather surprisingly, the standard SE trim is not available for the 1.4 TFSI and only a very sport-inclined driver would want that over-firm suspension that comes with the Sport or S-line packages. If it had been possible to try the 1.2 we might have recommended it, but with nearly 20 PS more available for an additional £1,060 and the promise of spectacular economy, the Prime Choice from this new range has to be the A1 1.6 TDI five-speed with SE trim at £13,420. Prices quoted are correct at November 2010 and includes VAT at the forthcoming 20 per cent rate.

Kia Sportage 1.6 and 1.7 CRDi
As promised at the launch of the Sportage 2.0, new additions to the range have been launched bringing the model choice to 16, with prices now starting at £16,645. The launch was based in Slovakia where Sportage is made and a fascinating tour of the factory gave a good insight into the high standards of finish and build quality which go into this versatile vehicle.

   After the tour we were despatched in the new 1.7 turbo diesel version, ‘straight out of the box’ as they say, with less than 100 miles on each one, for the 90-mile test drive up into the Tatra hills. Next day the Sportage 1.7 CRDi was changed for the new petrol 1.6-litre GDI for the return journey to the airport. Inevitably the journeys favoured the petrol model with a long downhill run at the beginning, which had been uphill for the diesel, and probably the diesel engine will benefit more from additional mileage to loosen it up. So it was not surprising that the mpg figures for both of them were much the same, the diesel returning 40.6 mpg, scarcely any better than the 39.9 of the petrol model. Official fuel consumption figures show the 1.6 petrol averaging 44.1 mpg, against 54.3 from the diesel.

   What was very marked with both new models is how well they coped with the smaller and less powerful engines, and how very quiet and smooth they both were. In particular, the petrol engine is barely audible at tickover, and it was sometimes only by looking at the rev counter that one could confirm whether the stop/start system had cut in or not. It is only on hills and when overtaking that these new small engines seem rather hard-pressed to pull this big car along, and of course only the 2-litre Sportage models are available with four-wheel drive. Power output of the 1.6 petrol is 133 bhp, while the 1.7 diesel gives 114. The 1.6 GDI is also deceptively fast, cruising so quietly at 80 mph that one presumed the speedometer was over-reading, but in fact it was accurate within 2 mph.

   Even at entry level, the Sportage 1.6 is generously equipped, with a full-size alloy-mounted spare wheel, and many features such as a leather-trimmed steering wheel and gear knob, fog lamps and cornering lamps, rain responding wipers, and a very good audio system. The main advantage of the next trim level, Sportage 2, is part-leather upholstery and a panoramic sunroof, opening at the front. More luxury including full leather upholstery and heated seats front and rear are among the goodies included with Sportage 3 which is available with satellite navigation.

   In view of the refinement of the 1.6 petrol, and noting the difference of £1,500 extra for the diesel, we have no hesitation in recommending the Sportage 1.6 petrol version with six-speed gearbox at £16,645 as our Prime Choice. Prices quoted are correct at October 2010.

Audi’s Show of Power
Ten thousand horse power (PS) in one car park - that was the proud boast of Audi when it put on display examples of its top metal for driving recently.

   The display certainly showed the huge choice now available at the top end of the Audi range, right up to the R8 Spyder with 5.2-litre V10 engine. Some of the statistics of this open two-seater are quite amazing: its engine is mid-mounted driving all four wheels, and can rev to 8,000 rpm, developing 525 PS. The top speed is 194 mph, with acceleration from rest to 124 mph in 12.4 seconds; at this speed, the ten pistons change direction 1,000 times a second. At the other end of the scale, the fully automatic hood can be put up or down when travelling at speeds up to 30 mph.

It was obviously important to grab the opportunity to drive one of the Spyders before they became swamped by demand on the test day, and the immediate impression was what a delightfully docile, stylish and comfortable car it is.

   The suspension has magnetic ride adaptive damping, which adjusts firmness according to road surface and driving mode. A short driving route close to London gave little opportunity to unleash the fabulous power, but the feeling was always that the Spyder was itching to be given its head, and all the time there was the gorgeous roar of power from the exhaust. The test car had the six-speed manual gearbox which is standard in the £110,915 price, but R-tronic six-speed automatic is available. Not very attractive, but sporty looking, is the gear shift with its exposed gear slots after the style of a Ferrari. Even without the rear deflector in place, there was pleasant lack of wind buffeting; and only later did we discover that the seat belts have microphones for clear hands-free speech on the telephone.

   After an all-too short drive round the test course, it was very pleasing to try the latest version of the TT Sports Coupé with 2-litre TFSI petrol engine featuring direct injection and turbocharging to give 211 PS and the test car had the new twin-clutch S-tronic transmission. It is claimed to give lightning fast gear shifts, but what is noticed more prominently is that the power just floods through in a steady torrent, without giving the driver any awareness of gear changes apart from the neat indicator between the instruments and the rev counter.

As with the R8, the brakes are tremendously responsive to a light touch on the pedal, but not in keeping with the R8 was the ride which seemed too firm in the TT, bordering on harshness.

   The test car had the optional Audi magnetic ride control at £1,150 extra, but tried in all modes it disappointed. In other respects, the TT is a delightful Coupé (with quattro four-wheel drive, of course) and tolerable rear space for two. The Roadster with standard trim and 1.8-litre engine starts the range at £25,310.

   A big price jump to £58,865 took us to the new RS5 Coupé combining terrific power from a V8 32-valve engine of 4,163 cc, delivering 450 PS. This had the S-tronic twin clutch automatic transmission with seven speeds, again delivering smooth power with little awareness of gear changes. It needed a footrest to prevent the feeling of the left foot hanging in the air and again the ride seemed very firm. Opinions among collegues differed, but we found the comfort best in the what is termed ‘Dynamic’ mode. The RS5 in this latest most powerful form certainly gives a wonderful combination of smooth, scarcely audible engine note switching on demand to give rocketing acceleration reaching 60 mph from rest in only 4.5 seconds and going on to a (governed) top speed of 155 mph.

   All the cars on display provided a convincing demonstration of Audi’s engineering excellence, especially when it is noted that the extra power offered is largely accompanied by reduced fuel consumption and emissions. Making a Prime Choice from this formidable array tempts one to say: “Yes, please, all of them” but for special note we would give the ticket to the TT 2-litre TFSI S-tronic at £28,535. All prices quoted are correct at September 2010.

Suzuki New Swift
New models emerge from the industrious Suzuki empire - claimed to be the leading international manufacturer of small cars - with amazing rapidity and after the launch of SZ in January 2010 (see further down these Milestones pages), late summer brought a completely redesigned Swift, now called New Swift. The new car, identified by its huge clear glass lamp units faired front and rear neatly into the curvaceous styling, is considerably larger than the outgoing model, especially in terms of length, extended by 90 mm. There has also been a major redesign of the engines and the new petrol unit is smaller than the previous one, 1.2-litre instead of 1.3, yet it develops more power (94PS against the earlier 93). It is better on fuel economy and emissions; the new 1.2 petrol engine emits 116 g/km of CO2, putting it in Band C for annual tax at only £30.

   Coming in Spring 2011 will be a 1.3-litre diesel engine, again more efficient than its predecessor, with CO2 at 109 g/km; it will be in Band B, with tax at £20. On the launch in Germany it was possible to try both engines, and although the diesel impressed with its quietness and eagerness it was felt that the very quiet and smooth petrol engine justified the difference between overall economy at 56.5 mpg against 67.3 for the diesel. For the petrol engine only there is a four-speed automatic transmission option at £1,000 extra, giving smooth and responsive performance, but with an old-style selector having no detent between Drive and Neutral. Automatic is not available for the diesel, and for this and the 1.2 petrol there is a five-speed manual gearbox with slick change and the gear lever conveniently located close to the steering wheel.

   Three and five-door body styles are available, with a price difference of £450 and there are three trim levels: SZ2, SZ3 and SZ4. Specifications are generous, with disc brakes front and rear, vented at front, height adjustment for the driving seat, folding door mirrors and rear wash/wipe with intermittent action.

The top trim level provides the convenience of keyless entry and push button stop-start for the engine, but surprisingly the automatic stop-start system offered for some markets is not yet available for UK.

   Road driving impressions were highlighted by the overall quietness of the car. Special attention has been paid to reducing wind noise around the door mirrors and for suppression of tyre roar, and the ride comfort is good though much may be due here to the billiard table road surfaces in Germany, unlike our neglected crumbling ones. The instruments are large and clear but rather recessed and tend to be hard to read when the car is in the shade; it would be better if they were permanently back-lit.

   The rear tailgate has a concealed release and lifts to reveal a flip-over rear shelf. A space-saver spare wheel is under the floor. The steering is commendably precise, and the steering wheel is height adjustable; with the SZ4 is it also telescopic.

  No diesel prices are available yet. On studying the prices for five-door 1.2 petrol models (which range from £10,445 to £13,245) £1,000 extra seems a lot to pay for air conditioning and alloy wheels, which are the main differences between SZ2 and SZ3; so our Prime Choice recommendation would be the New Swift SZ2 1.2-litre petrol five-door five-speed at £10,445.

Kia Sportage
Sometimes the changes introduced for a new version of a well-tried model perpetuating the same name are none too obvious and there is almost need to be able to see the outgoing version alongside to see what has altered. In the case of the new Sportage, the styling has been given a marked uplift: the car looks higher at the front with its penetrating snout and an upper radiator grille above a second opening below the number plate; the lamp units are now arranged as four groups.

It’s now described as a Crossover, a kind of midway stage between ordinary sports utility vehicle, SUV, and fully fledged off-roader. Although there’s the illusion of greater height, it is in fact slightly lower than the predecessor, though it is also wider and longer, yet weighs 90 kg less.

   Inside, there is the impression of a very spacious cabin with generous room for five, but the facia layout is somewhat bland, presenting large areas of black plastic. But there’s a functional and very easily understood centre console layout. A large speedometer is clear to read, with smaller part-circle rev counter to the left and fuel/temp gauges paired vertically to the right.

   The driving position is comfortable and easily adjustable for all sizes of driver, by means of ratchet lever height adjustment. Not so good is the thickness of the screen pillars, so the driver needs to move the head around to be sure nothing is hidden behind them at junctions. Load space is generous, with a tail gate that is easy to open and there is a full-size spare wheel beneath the load floor.

  Generous specification includes heating for the seats in the rear as well as the front and when reversing a picture of what is behind is projected on the driving mirror as well as proximity sensors to give a warning signal if anything is in the line of contact when backing. The audio system is easy to use and includes CD player and connections for MP3, USB and iPod.

   The big advance of the new Sportage is under the bonnet, where the transversely mounted 2-litre diesel engine develops 134 bhp and is more efficient, claimed to give 47.1 mpg, although we actually saw only 31.5 on the trip computer. CO2 emissions are down by 31 g/km to 156, putting it in Band G for tax at £155 p.a. The engine is quiet but not all that smooth at low revs, so the gears need to be used to keep revs above about 1,500 rpm. Drive is normally to the front wheels, but torque is transferred to the rear wheels as required. For severe conditions central lock-up can be selected giving positive 50-50 torque split to front and rear wheels.

  An improvement over the previous model is that sensors, including noting whether the windscreen wipers are in use, determine if four-wheel drive is going to be needed and select it in advance, unlike the previous arrangement when drive to the rear cut in only when the front wheels started spinning..

   This new Kia Sportage is an impressive and very business-like vehicle, ideal for big families and, of course, the exceptional warranty cover for seven years and up to 100,000 miles is a big attraction. It has a generous towing limit of 2,000 kgs. Additions to the range later will be a 1.6-litre petrol unit with direct fuel injection, and a 1.7-litre diesel.

  Extra cost for the 2-litre with six-speed automatic is on the high side at £1,300 extra, so for Prime Choice we would recommend the very manageable six-speed manual Sportage 2.0CRDi First Edition at £20,777.

Subaru Boxers
It seems ages since it was first announced that Subaru’s excellent horizontally opposed engine would be offered in diesel form, but it happened at last in 2009 and a recent Press driving day showed that diesel is now an important factor in the whole Subaru line-up. Showing the demand for diesel these days, the addition of the 2-litre diesel engine has accounted for an increase of 40 per cent in Subaru sales so far this year.

   Developing a diesel version of the engine was not as simple as might be imagined, and the unit was extensively redesigned with longer stroke and smaller bore diameters, giving capacity of 1,998 cc instead of the 1,994 of the petrol engine. The cylinder block is of aluminium alloy and the uprated cylinder heads have roller rocker arms. Camshaft drive is by chain. The engine develops 150 PS and all diesel versions have a six-speed gearbox.

   All the range features four-wheel drive and the Outback and Legacy models are essentially estate cars with sufficient ground clearance to tackle quite demanding off-road conditions, while the low weight of the boxer engine contributes to good handling.

   The Outback model is described as a Crossover between estate car and MPV and for this model only there is the option of a 3.6-litre petrol engine giving 260 PS. We enjoyed driving this with its terrific response (£35,795), but unfortunately there are no plans for this larger engine to be offered in diesel form. The Outback is available with the new 2-litre diesel engine (£27,995 with SE trim) or with a 2.5-litre petrol unit at the same price.

   The model which we have always admired is the Forester, an all-purpose five-door estate car, now offered with a larger body giving more rear legroom and higher driving position. There is also an additional 10 mm of ground clearance, which is now 215 mm. Slightly disappointing is that the former two-speed ratio change, which offered lower gearing selectable on the move, is no longer provided now that there is a six-speed gearbox. This feature was particularly good for caravan towing.

   The more car-like model of the range is the Impreza five-door five-seat hatchback which, even still with four-wheel drive, starts the price list with 1.5-litre boxer engine at £13,620. This price also includes the low ratio transfer box, as used to be fitted in the Forester. The 2-litre diesel engine brings a big price jump to £21,500. For those who want rally-style performance, Impreza is available at £32,390 with a turbocharged 2.5-litre Boxer engine giving 300 PS and a top speed of 155 mph. A special competition version of the Impreza is being developed by Cosworth Engineering, to develop 400 PS.

   Making Prime Choice recommendations from such a formidably attractive range is not easy, but best advice would be to look at the Impreza 1.5 R petrol 4x4 with low range transfer at £13,620, and the Forester 2.0D X diesel 4x4 at £22,995.

Ford Fiesta 1.4 TDCi ‘Trend’ vans
Dorset-based stone merchants, Suttles, recently invested in new environmentally friendly vans from Purbeck Ford dealer St. Michaels Garage of Valley Road, Swanage. Suttles chose to use St. Michaels as their company ethos is to support local businesses wherever possible. The two companies have enjoyed a long standing working relationship for many years.

   The vans will be used to commute between their three sites across the Isle of Purbeck and Poole. Laurence Sprigg, Suttles Recycling Manager, said, "As an environmentally-friendly-conscious company supplying recycled products, including crushed concrete and aggregates, the Fiesta 1.4 TDCi ‘Trend’ van is an ideal choice with their high parts recyclable rate; additionally, it’s also important for us to support local businesses and we have been dealing with local company, St. Michaels, for over 20 years."

   Graham Lambert, dealer principal of St Michaels Garage, added "We’ve had a long business relationship with Suttles and are more than happy to supply their new extremely low emissions vans. One interesting feature of the vans is the ‘Ford Easy Fuel’, an ingenious misfuel inhibitor which only accepts the correct pump nozzle to prevent accidentally filling with the wrong fuel; we have at least one incident on our forecourt every couple of weeks and the cost of draining and disposal can reach £3000 for some makes."

Ford Fiesta 1.4 TDCi van with (l-r) Laurence Sprigg,
Paul Bush and St Michaels DP Graham Lambert

   St. Michaels Garage, who are the local Ford dealership in the Swanage area and sell new and used cars, as well as providing servicing and parts, is based on the Valley Road between Corfe Castle and Swanage, They are a well established family-run business which has been serving the community since 1962. Established for over 70 years, Suttles is the local premier provider of crushed stone and aggregates, including recycled products, for the Isle of Purbeck, Poole and Bournemouth areas.

   For further information on St. Michaels Garage call 01929 480221 or visit For information on Suttles telephone 01929 439444 or visit

SEAT Leon and Altea Ecomotive
A clever choice of launch venue and route for the introduction of SEAT’s new Leon and Altea Ecomotive models meant that one was either sitting in London traffic with the engine stopped, demonstrating the usefulness of its automatically controlled stop/start system, or bowling along the Kingston by-pass and subject to a 50 mph limit. So it perhaps wasn’t surprising that the Leon returned just 62.1 mpg on this short but very tedious test drive. We look forward to being able to subject it to more varied motoring conditions to see how the economy stands up at higher speeds; but it is certainly a very promising concept.

The engine is a four-cylinder 1.6-litre diesel, and the SEAT engineers have managed to make it an attractive yet very economical car, with the good news that its CO2 emissions figure is under 100g/km, so there’s no annual tax to pay.

In spite of this, it’s quite a large and roomy car, with good luggage space. The body is a five-door hatchback, though it looks more like a three-door because the rear door handles are neatly recessed into the rear quarter windows. There’s a well planned interior layout with large speedometer and smaller central rev counter as well as a comprehensive trip computer. A gear shift indicator reminds the driver of the need to change up early for economy, but it also indicates need for a down change at low revs. This is just as well, as the engine is obviously designed for economy rather than low-speed flexibility and doesn’t like to pull in fifth gear much below about 40 mph

The start/stop function works well as far as instant start-up on pressing the clutch pedal is concerned, but once or twice the engine surprisingly kept running at halts. Various inhibitors come into play to prevent it from operating at times when it would be inconvenient, such as when still moving at a few mph. During braking the energy recovery system puts charge back into the battery which should help to prevent it from getting too run down in stop-start city traffic over the winter months.

The Leon test car with SE trim was not cheap, at £18,140, but it comes well equipped including such refinements as all-electric windows, tyre pressure monitoring, and front fog lamps which come on individually to light the way on tight turns at night. Rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlamps and rear parking sensors are included in a ‘convenience’ pack at £225 extra. The wipers are cleverly parked at the sides of the screen, in a recess beside the A-post, but with this and air bag housing, the pillars are inevitably very thick, so the driver needs to move his or her head around to be sure at corners and roundabouts that there is not another vehicle or cyclist masked behind the blind spot.

Considerably taller than Leon and billed as MPV, the Altea is also available with the 1.6-litre Ecomotive specification, giving the same 105 PS output and although not quite so impressive on economy it still manages a combined mpg figure of 62.8. Its CO2 output at 119 g/km means that there is no tax to pay in the first year and only £30 thereafter until (or if) rates go up.

There is a wide choice of engines for both models, right up to the Cupra R with 2-litre TSI petrol engine giving 265 PS in the Leon, but the Prime Choice at the moment is clearly the Leon 1.6 TDI Ecomotive which seems best value in S Trim, at £16,840.

Audi A8
Not everyone may be able to contemplate buying an Audi A8, even if as a used car after four or five years, but the good news about this latest launch from the ever-industrious Ingolstadt manufacturer is that many of the innovations it brings will ‘cascade down’ through the model ranges. So you might eventually be able to buy an A3 or even an A1 and benefit from some of the safety features which the A8 introduces.

There are many of them, such as the night vision system for identifying any pedestrians in the way. They loom up as ghostly figures in the space between the speedometer and rev counter. Headlight range is adapted automatically according to speed and the kind of road, with the addition of cornering lights. Adaptive cruise control monitors the proximity of other vehicles and adjusts speed accordingly. In event of critical situations such as skidding all sorts of automatic systems are triggered, such as turning on the hazard warning lights and tensioning seat belts. Tyre pressure monitoring and the Audi parking system, which warns of nearness to anything in front or behind, are standard.

There are also many comfort features which combine to make a journey more relaxing and to avoid tiredness, such as the seat massage system - we thought they were joking until we tried it and found how good it was - and the seats have memory and 14-way electric adjustment. The list of standard equipment is then boosted by a huge menu of options which will keep senior executives poring over it for ages deciding which goodies to have and which to pass by. What we particularly admired was the touch-sensitive pad which can be used to enter numbers or names just by drawing with a finger over the pad. You don’t have to take eyes off the road to do this and each letter is identified and confirmed by voice. This system can also be used to set a navigation destination, or to dial the telephone.

At launch, the two V8 versions, each with 4.2-litre capacity were available for driving and it was perhaps not surprising that both my colleague and I preferred the diesel version to the direct injection petrol one, although the petrol one is some £2,000 cheaper. The diesel is very quiet and refined yet gives enormous torque, reaching 800 Nm, although at 350 PS the power is slightly less than the 372 PS developed by the petrol version. Both engines are simply superb and give effortless performance, staggering acceleration and instant response. Transmission for both versions is an 8-speed automatic with paddle control switches beneath the steering wheel and an unusual selector. It reverts to the same position after moving it forward or back to select the appropriate drive range; an illuminated digit on the top of the inverted ‘L’ shaped selector shows clearly what has been selected.

It goes without saying that the handling, helped by permanent drive to all four wheels and air suspension, is magical, so is the selectable ride comfort. Like its predecessor, the A8 has a body shell largely constructed in aluminium for lightness and there are many refinements to save fuel, so the TDI is claimed to give 37.2 mpg, which is very good for a car of this size and carrying capacity.

The interior is delightfully finished and thoughtfully executed, with such clever features as stainless steel labels for switches which are perforated and back lit for ease of identity at night. How do they press the letter ‘o’ through the stainless steel without having the centre bit fall out? It’s one of the many impressive mysteries of the new A8.

Coming in September will be the 3-litre V6 TDI offering 42.8 mpg and a start price of £54,835; but in the meantime we have no hesitation in listing as our Prime choice the A8 4.2 TDI quattro with 8-speed Tiptronic transmission at £63,900.

It shows how diesel engines have improved enormously when we find how often the diesel is preferred to the petrol version when trying new test cars. We have been driving the revised and much improved Mazda6 on the delightfully clear and generally well-surfaced roads in Scotland and began the fist day’s activities with the 1.8-litre five-door petrol hatchback, whose engine gives 120 PS. It proved very quiet and smooth, but rather lacking in power when needed for overtaking. The seats locate well, and although the scuttle is a little high, the wipers park out of sight and the view forward is good. The instruments are large and clear but deeply recessed and tend to become lost in the shadows in sunny light conditions.

On main roads at moderate speeds, the 1.8 was returning fuel consumption around 42 mpg but it deteriorated to 37 mpg once more demanding roads called for full use of the available engine power. With TS trim, the Mazda6 with this engine costs £18,045, but looking at the additions of the TS trim it might seem better value to go for the standard S model at £16,995 and forego the alloy wheels, dual zone air conditioning, cruise control and trip computer which come with the TS. Note that saloon versions of the Mazda6 are discontinued and the range now concentrates on five-door hatchback or estate models.

After a relaxing and enjoyable drive in brilliant weather to our base for the night we declined the temptation of tea on the terrace and went out again on a long and demanding drive in the diesel with 163 bhp. This is the mid-range model, the new 2.2-litre diesel engine being offered in three forms: 129, 163 and 180 PS. It proved far more responsive than the petrol model although still commendably quiet and at one time the consumption was running at 54 mpg - a good figure for a car of this size and carrying capacity with five generous seats and a huge load space. Later on very hilly roads, it dropped to a still very good 50 mpg. This Mazda engine is an excellent diesel.

Next day came the chance to try the top version, the 180 PS diesel. This had LED instruments, again difficult to read in bright sunlight, but the body of the car was the very roomy estate car. The extra power did not seem all that noticeable, while the economy at 36.5 mpg was a lot lower.

This new version of the Mazda6 has been fine tuned into a very attractive model and the range includes a 2.5-litre 170 PS petrol engine as well as a Sport 2-litre petrol with automatic transmission. Inevitably it wasn’t possible to try all versions in the time available, but we have no hesitation in choosing as Prime Choice the
Mazda 6 2.2 diesel 163 bhp with TS trim (not available as ‘S’) at £19,745. The Estate car version is £650 dearer.

Kia Sorento
Just how well cars are being improved is illustrated by the latest version of the Kia Sorento. It feels much more manageable and responsive on the road than the predecessor and the figures bear out the way in which it performs better, yet uses less fuel. The previous model had a 2.5-litre diesel engine, but the capacity is now reduced from 2,497 cc to 2,199, yet its acceleration time from rest to 80 mph - a much better indicator than the widely quoted 0-60 mph time - is reduced from 20.4 seconds to a very creditable 16.1.

At the same time, the overall fuel consumption has progressed from 34 mpg to 36.2. The CO2 emissions figure is down as well, from 209 to 194, which reduces the annual tax by £10, to £235.

There are many other changes to the Sorento, including the fitting of a foot-operated parking brake in place of the previous pull-up lever. It is hidden away below the facia and is pressed to apply, then pressed again to release. This could be a useful anti-theft device, as any casual joy-rider probably wouldn't realise what to do to release it. The brakes are now solid discs at the rear, previously they were internally vented.

One aspect of the new Sorento which slightly disappointed was the suspension which gives quite a lot of bounce and reaction over bumps. In other respects the new Sorento proved pleasing to drive and coped very well when used to tow a medium size caravan.

Four-wheel drive was standard on the test car, which had the KX3 specification. Normally it's a front drive car, but drive to the rear wheels cuts in automatically when lack of adhesion demands. A switch on the right of the steering column locks the centre differential when required for very tough conditions. But accepting that not everyone wants four-wheel drive, Kia offers the Sorento in cheapest diesel form with choice of manual or automatic transmission and drive to the front wheels only, with prices starting at £22,495. The Sorento also no longer has the low range transfer gearbox which was available with the previous model.

There is also a base model with 2.4-litre petrol engine (front drive only) and five seats. All other versions have seven seats and the whole range is rated with the same top speed of 118 mph.

The test car with KX3 spec, priced at £30,005, brought a useful bundle of extras including a large two-piece glass sunroof opening at the front, electric adjustment for the driver's seat, xenon headlamps and key-in-pocket locking. Just press the Start button to drive away. We reckon the extras provided, including six-speed automatic transmission, justify the added cost, so our Prime Choice would be the Sorento 2.2 diesel KX3, six-speed automatic and 4x4 at £30,005. Worthy of special mention is that all Kias come with an impressive seven-year warranty lasting up to 100,000 miles.

Rolls-Royce Phantom
It was a not-to-be-missed opportunity: Rolls-Royce hosted the AGM of the Guild of Motoring Writers and in the afternoon there was to be opportunity for a few members to drive the fabulous £275,990 Phantom on a route from the Goodwood factory lasting about an hour and a half.

After a briefing on how it all operates, a touch of the Start button and a slight tremor and burble show that the massive V12 6.8-litre engine is running; touch the selector lever above the steering column down to the Drive position and away we go, as smoothly and gently as if the Rolls-Royce were electrically powered. There’s no need to release the parking brake - that happens automatically.

Then, after a little familiarity, an open stretch of dual carriageway gave the opportunity to press hard on the accelerator and feel the Phantom's effortless soaring acceleration, still with hardly any noise. The speedometer needle spun round the dial alarmingly quickly, but with a roundabout coming into view, a touch on the big brake pedal brought the speed down reassuringly quickly. The V12 BMW-derived 6.8-litre engine really is a marvel of power and refinement and the automatic transmission is so smooth that there is no awareness of ratio changes taking place.

From outside, as well as from within, the huge bonnet with its diminutive Spirit of Ecstacy mascot is very high. I would have liked to be able to set the driving seat higher than the limit allowed by the electric adjustment, yet one could not complain about lack of visibility.

After watching the Phantom being built at the discreetly concealed and elegantly designed factory, it was a thrilling experience to be able to drive it, albeit for only about 20 miles. Then it was time to pull into a lay-by to hand over to colleagues and try the sumptuous rear seat ride.

Perhaps the greatest impression left by the short drive in the Phantom was the way in which this huge car - and it really is massive - feels so nimble and responsive on the road, with delicate hair-line steering and wonderful precision in the way that all the controls operate.

The other lasting impression is the comfort of the ride. Phantom owners will have no cause to complain about the state of British roads, because the bumps and potholes are scarcely noticed.

I confess that I have never been much taken with the exterior styling of the Phantom with its slab front and diminutive headlamps, but inside it is a wealth of elegant design and immaculate choice of materials and finish.

As to be expected there are many unusual features, such as the way in which the instrument to the left of the speedometer is not the expected rev counter, but a gauge showing how much of the available power is held in reserve. Trickling along, it reads above 90 per cent, but tread firmly on the accelerator and the gauge swings round to the lower percentages - not that one can hold it there for long, such is the acceleration.

Also unusual is that the rear doors are hinged at the back and close electrically at the touch of a switch, with safeguards to ensure that they can never be opened when the car is on the move.

Slightly smaller and £80,000 cheaper (at £195,840) is the Ghost which might fit garage and budget better, but for the moment it must be the huge Phantom if one really wants to impress. A few may also be tempted by the Phantom available as a convertible for £321,740, and there is also a two-door Coupé version (£303,180). One might call it being spoilt for choice!

Suzuki SX4
Unfortunately, with all the plans made for the launch of its new five-door hatchback, including an off-road section through the woods at the back of Beaulieu, the new model with four-wheel drive was delayed and not available on the day. So the road route concentrated on the two-wheel drive model and the off-road section was tackled in the old model, which perhaps emphasised that not a great deal has changed.

The front of the car has been restyled and the main difference is that the 1.6-litre engine is substantially updated, with electric throttle control, varying valve timing and a revised intake system to give better economy (45.6 mpg is now claimed).

CO2 output is reduced to 143 g/km, which puts it in Band F for car tax at £125. The DDiS diesel engine (which is supplied by Peugeot) gives 90 PS and the CO2 figure is 129 g/km.

To complicate matters the SX4 is now renamed SZ, and there are two versions starting with SZ3 with petrol and 5-speed gearbox at £11,640, the better equipped SZ4 with hardly enough additions to justify its extra price, and a SZ4 with automatic transmission for £13,280. Then comes the four-wheel drive version, only with petrol engine for which prices are not yet available.

The new petrol engine is lively, quiet and smooth. On the road the Suzuki was judged a fairly average contender with the advantage of high roof line and good space, but a drawback is the considerable blind spot on the offside front quarter which is not helped much by the small fixed quarter window.

Where the Suzuki scores is availability of the 4x4 version which will serve very well for modest off-road work. Normal drive is to the front wheels. A three-way switch in mid position adds drive to the back wheels when slip occurs while in the third position it gives locked-up four-wheel drive for extreme conditions.

It’s a pity that we don’t have prices for this version yet, but if it is not too expensive our prime choice from the five models of this new hatchback, described as a Sport cross-over for all seasons, would be the 1.6 petrol SZ5 with 5-speed manual gearbox and 4x4.

SEAT Mania
No, that isn’t the name of a new model - it’s the term applied to a recent test day to bring us up to date on what they call ‘an avalanche’ of new models introduced by SEAT in 2009. There was a huge range of 30 new cars for assessment - far more than one could cope with in a single day; even a week would have kept us busy.

Most significant of the year’s new SEATs is the Exeo which marks the firm’s adventure into a new segment of the market, an elegant saloon with a huge boot and the distinction that all models have turbocharged engines.

Three of these are 2-litre diesels in three stages of power output, plus a 2-litre direct injection petrol engine giving a beefy 200 PS output and with Sport trim. Selected for a brief trial run was the 2-litre TDI in its most powerful form giving 170 PS. All Exeos have six-speed gearboxes as standard.

At once the Exeo impresses as a comfortable, well-equipped car, with an extremely quiet diesel engine giving really vigorous performance. Its claimed economy is around 48 mpg, but on the brief test route on indifferent roads including a short section of motorway it gave six miles per gallon less. The console is well laid out and the instruments are clear, but it’s a pity that they are not back-lit because they are deeply recessed and become virtually unreadable in shadow. An indicator shows what gear is engaged - perhaps superfluous information with a manual transmission - and doesn’t suggest the need to change up or down.

Priced at £21,455, this roomy saloon has great appeal and brings important new competition in the area of the market dominated by the Ford Mondeo and Peugeot 407.

Best-selling of the SEAT range is the Ibiza, which has now come in for a wide-ranging up-date with the car now based on the Volkswagen platform and bringing improvements in weight and fuel economy, with all models now giving less than 160 g/km of CO2. Particularly interesting is the new Ecomotive package which is available on Ibiza, Leon and the big seven-seater Alhambra. Wide ranging changes on the Ibiza Ecomotive include better aerodynamics, improved engine efficiency and higher (or ‘longer’) gear ratios for third, fourth and fifth.

It’s a little sluggish at low revs, so the driver needs to change down quite a lot to keep the engine on song, and it is then very responsive as tried with three-cylinder 1,422 cc engine giving 80 PS. Its CO2 emissions are low enough for it to qualify for Band A of annual car tax, with nothing to pay. It was priced at £12,755, and gave over 61 mpg without any attempt at economy driving and should readily achieve 70 mpg.

With time running out, and so many cars to examine, there was opportunity for a quick dash in the Ibiza Cupra Bocanegra.

Top of the performance range of Ibiza models and powered by the 1.4-litre TSI engine with turbocharger and supercharger to give 180 PS. The performance from such a small engine is staggering with a 0-60 mph time of 7.2 seconds and top speed of 140 mph.

It has the seven-speed automatic DSG transmission as standard in the price of £16,695.  A rather bullish-looking black grille and lamps surround gives the Bocanegra its Spanish name.

With a formidable range of standard equipment the Cupra Bocanegra stands out as exceptional value for money for anyone looking for a small, fast, three-door car with great individuality. It comes only with top SC trim.

One couldn’t pick a Prime Choice from such a varied range, but of them all it was perhaps this last one which made the greatest impression; the SEAT Ibiza Cupra Bocanegra 1.4 TSI, turbo and supercharged, 7-speed DSG at £16,695.

Skoda Fabia
Having recently driven Skoda's latest Fabia we must say how impressed we were; certainly, if you want the space and versatility of a larger car in the framework of a compact one then you can't go far wrong with this smallish Czech supermini in either hatchback or estate guise.

Taller and more practical than the previous generation, the Fabia offers room for five with enough space left over for luggage. Attractively styled and sporting the familiar Skoda grille, the bodywork is nicely proportioned to give a stylish, contemporary look. Inside it is solidly put together with decent materials, it's comfortable, airy, has good passanger accommodation (among the best in its class) and incorporates lots of storage areas; this is all enhanced with a nice driving position, clear instrumentation and easy-to-use robust controls to give a refined overall package.

Refinement is also a strong point when on the move. The ride is surprisingly comfortable soaking up potholes and bad road surfaces with ease, and yet the car remains remarkably agile through its nicely weighted steering, even when pushed hard on twisty roads and through corners, an asset which is rarely the case with such a forgiving suspension.

The engine choice is wide enough to suit most tastes ranging in size from 60 bhp 1.2 to 1.6 petrol units producing some 105 bhp. Four diesels are available from a 1.4-litre 70 bhp motor through to a 105 bhp 1.9 TDi. A five-speed manual gearbox is standard, or a six-speed Tiptronic (a function that permits all six ratios to be manually selection, if desired) automatic transmission can be specified on the 1.6-litre petrol version. Central locking and electric front windows are fitted on all models and a choice of six different trim levels, air conditioning, heated seats and such like, can be ordered.

High on value for money, prices start from under £9,000 including two years unlimited mileage warranty, a third year until 60,000 miles has been completed, plus other valuable benefits. Fabia is proof (if proof is needed) that Skoda has completed one of the most remarkable transformations in the car industry of recent years.

Audi goes stop-start
Will it work when the engine is still cold? we wondered and on stopping and putting the gear lever in neutral, nothing happened; sensibly, the stop/start system newly introduced on a number of Audi models does not operate until normal engine temperature has been reached.  There are some other safeguards, such as that it will not operate after reversing, or if a minimum speed of about 3 mph has not been exceeded. At normal times, though, it works extremely well and it’s rather pleasing to be stationary at the traffic lights in complete silence. The moment the clutch pedal is touched, the engine restarts, ready for a quick getaway.

This new stop/start technology was assessed on the A3 Sportback with 1.4-litre TFSI petrol engine. This 1,390 cc engine is turbocharged with direct fuel injection and develops 125 PS, which is 10 PS better than the 1.6-litre atmo engine it replaces. With the stop/start package comes also regenerative braking, which puts some of the energy of slowing the car back into the battery to compensate for the extra current used by stop/start and reduce the load on the alternator.

Despite the economy features, the A3 1.4 TFSI returned only 35.8 mpg on the test route, although combined mpg is claimed to be just short of 50 mpg., so there’s still a strong case for the diesel. Apart from these aspects this new A3 Sportback is a very pleasing car, with lively performance and pleasant handling and controls. Price of the test car was £18,490, but there’s another £755 to pay if you want leather upholstery and don’t forget that Audi always adds upwards of £740 for on the road costs.

A magnificent line-up of Audi machinery was available for testing at the recent range review, providing the opportunity to catch up with some of the new models which keep emerging from the industrious Audi machine, in particular the A4 allroad and the new Q5. These are very similar cars to meet the demand for vehicles with good road behaviour as well as the ability to tackle quite demanding off-road conditions. Both proved excellent on the road - no off-road trials were possible - and choosing between them would not be easy, but our preference is for the Q5 over the A4 allroad. With 3-litre TDI engine its OTR price is £34,650, against £34,565 for the similarly powered A4 allroad, both having 7-speed S tronic transmission. Perhaps the deciding factor might be can you get it into your garage? The Q5 at 1880 mm excluding mirrors is 40 mm (1½ in.) wider than the new A4 allroad.

No Prime Choice is possible from such an extensive range, except to say that any Audi purchase will be expensive but not regretted. It’s good to see this strongly performance-orientated company putting real effort and technology into the drive for better economy.

Not often do we have a completely new marque to write about in Gear Wheels, but the exception comes with the October 2009 arrival of Infiniti, the new luxury product range from Nissan. Made in Japan, Infiniti is well established in 32 overseas markets, but now comes to Britain. On sitting in the cars one can’t help feeling that they are designed and aimed mainly for the wide roads of the American market, yet although they are all big cars they are impressively manageable on our roads.

These are extravagantly furnished and equipped luxury cars, with seven-speed automatic transmission incorporating ‘paddle’ up-down change switches below the steering wheel and in most versions a 3.7-litre V6 petrol engine developing 320 PS is the standard power unit. Common to most of the range is four-wheel drive and many models also feature four-wheel steering for improved cornering and handling. A disappointing aspect is the high level of wheel thump on bumps, made noticeably better on switching the damper setting from automatic to Sport, although one would have thought that the latter would have been harder. The engines are superbly smooth and quiet.

Prices begin at £30,300 for the standard four-door saloon, G37, and the range of body styles includes Coupé, convertible, and the FX defined as a ‘cross-over’ between estate car and large hatchback.

The convertible certainly looks stunningly elegant, but its drawback is that when the rigid folding top is lowered, not much room is left in the boot for luggage.

Infiniti’s argument is that their kind of buyers don’t travel far with the car open, but like to swan around in a fully open car after arrival, when the luggage has been safely moved into the hotel. Alternatively, perhaps the luggage might be sent on separately with the butler!

Right at the top of the range at £53,800 is the FX50S cross-over, which is the only one not powered by the 3.7-litre V6 engine. Instead, it has a 5-litre V8 giving 390PS, which certainly gives it formidable acceleration (5.8 seconds from rest to 60 mph, and 80 only a few seconds later). Infiniti is not for the economy-minded motorist: the claimed thirst for the FX50S is 21.6 mpg, and on a brief and rather demanding test run it showed 19.7 mpg. The 3.7-litre version is rated at 23.4 mpg, but actually returned 28.2 mpg when driven moderately in slow traffic. A diesel version is to be added.

At present there is only one dealership, on the A33 just south of Reading, but centres at Birmingham and Glasgow will follow soon, with eight more to open later.

Making a Prime Choice from this wide-ranging line-up is pretty well impossible, but we were taken with the Infiniti G37 3.7-litre GT Premium Convertible at £41,900.

Volkswagen Polo
It is now the best part of 35 years since the original Polo was launched in the UK. In the intervening decades over 10 million sales worldwide has been notched up - a very respectable achievement - and this is set to continue with the latest fifth generation model launched at the Geneva Motor Show in March 2009; it became available in the UK from mid-October.

With each new generation this supermini has become noticeably larger (although slightly lower in height for the new car). It is also more technically advanced, but displays similar timeless looks to its predecessor. The influence of its larger stablemates is apparent.

The horizontal grille and neat headlamp arrangement is instantly recognisable from the Golf, while the sculptured wings blend neatly into the package along with other styling cues from the VW range. Nicely proportioned all round, the new supermini has been assembled (as to be expected) to the usual high standard of the marque; we can, therefore, predict, it will prove to be as reliable as earlier generations and hold it's value equally well.

The Polo is also stuffed with the latest safety features resulting in a five star rating in the Euro NCAP crash tests; in consequence, the new car has been awarded a low insurance ratings - important for us budget conscious motorists.

Although we drove a four-door Polo, three-door models are expected to be available shortly and cost about £1k less across the range. Engine line-up (in petrol form) includes a naturally aspirated 1.2-litre unit developing either 59 bhp or 69 bhp, the more powerful 84 bhp 1.4-litre engine and a 1.2-litre turbocharged motor giving 104 bhp. Diesel variants are restricted to 1.6-litre TDI (common-rail power unit from the Golf) in either 74 or 89 bhp guise. A five-speed manual gearbox is specified for all but the 1.2 turbo which gets a six-speed transmission, while the 1.4 petrol sports a seven-speed Direct Shift Gearbox to neatly combine the comfort of an auto box with the responsiveness of manual change.

On the road all cars driven behaved impeccably with precise and sure-footed handling over a variety of roads and surfaces. Ride is comfortable, as is the seating, and the controls/instruments are all nicely laid out. The cabin oozes the quality (as well as features, such as DAB digital radio) expected in more upmarket cars.

Expect in excess of 50 mpg overall (careful drivers should comfortably exceed this figure) for most petrol variants with probably another 15 mpg or so from the diesel engined cars. The best selling model is predicted to be the SE 1.2-litre 60 PS with five-speed manual gearbox at £11.385 on-the-road which we feel is a good overall package and our Prime Choice.

Kia cee’d
After only two years in production, Kia’s strangely named cee’d model came in for an autumn 2009 clean-up bringing styling changes most noticeable at the front and in the interior where the console has a silvery finish and a more attractive steering wheel design. Instrumentation is excellent, with a large speedometer in the central position of the three units, clearly marked in white on black with red pointers and as soon as the engine is switched on they become back-lit, easy to read in all conditions.

This five-door hatchback is very easy to drive, lively and handles well, though the ride is a bit harsh. Seat shape is also not ideal, tending to slump one forward a little and we feel more central back support is needed. Nothing is seen of the car from the driving seat ahead of the windscreen and this includes the wipers which park neatly out of sight. As before, the three-door version is called Pro_cee’d and the estate car is cee’d SW.

Significant changes are improvements in engine efficiency, with introduction of automatic engine stop at traffic halts. This is nothing new, of course, having been available on Citroëns, Volkswagens and now Audis for some time, but Kia arranged a particularly horrid test route through the centre of Liverpool taking in every possible traffic light junction, to demonstrate how stop-and-go works. As soon as the car comes to rest and the gear is in neutral, the engine stops, starting again the moment the clutch pedal is pressed. It was surprising to find that in a 7.6-mile route through the centre of Liverpool, taking 40 minutes, the engine was off for a total of 11 minutes. Obviously this brings real benefits for those doing a lot of driving in heavy traffic, but initially the EcoDynamics programme is available only for the CRDi version with the less powerful of two 1.6-litre diesel engines, costing £14,195.

Diesel engines come with a six-speed gearbox, petrol ones only with five-speed and tend to be a little more fussy when cruising, though we found both engines to be extremely quiet and smooth.

There is little difference in acceleration times between the petrol-powered cee’d and the more powerful of the two diesels.

Kia is anxious to stress one important thing about its cars which has not changed and this is the exceptional seven-year 100,000-mile warranty.

There are three trim levels (simply labelled 1, 2 and 3), with prices starting at £11,595 for the three-door pro_cee’d with Trim 1 and 1.4-litre petrol engine, but an interesting choice is offered at £14,195. This is the price for cee’d with 1.6 petrol engine and automatic transmission, or the 1.6-litre CRDi (high power) engine giving 113 bhp, or the less powerful (89 bhp) engine with the EcoDynamics features, offering 67.3 mpg. The middle one of these was the one we enjoyed driving best and is still rated at 62.8 mpg, so our Prime Choice would be the Kia cee’d 1.6-litre CRDi 113 bhp diesel engine and trim level 2 at £14,195.

Chevrolet Cruze
In the turmoil of uncertainty about the future of General Motors, in July 2009, GM launched a new mid-range saloon imported from its American base. It has distinctive styling with an imposing frontal shape and comes with choice of 1.6-litre or 1.8 petrol engines, or a 2-litre diesel.

Good features are the quietness of the engines, especially the diesel version and the suspension gives a comfortable ride. Not surprisingly, the car is rather too big for a 1.6-litre engine, which can prove a bit lifeless on gradients, but the 1.8 performed reasonably well. Best choice is undoubtedly the 2-litre diesel, which is offered in two stages of power output: 125 PS and 150 PS.

The Americans can’t spell very well, so we must forgive the name Cruze and they are not much good at diesel engines, but they overcome this problem by using very good Korean built units, for which fuel consumption is claimed to be around 50 mpg. All versions have five-speed manual gearboxes, but a six-speed automatic is available for the petrol models at £1,100 extra.

The attraction of Cruze will diminish for many buyers on finding that it is available only as a four-door saloon; but there’s a good boot with concealed external release and under the floor is a full size spare wheel but with steel rim.

An impressive list of standard equipment is included, with quite a good sat-nav system available at £545 extra, with its map screen mounted sensibly high up. However, this option seems to be limited to the LT model which, with 150 PS 2-litre diesel engine, runs out at £15,195. The Cruze sounds good value at its start price of just under £12,000, but it jumps £1,600 to £13,595 for the 1.8-litre. At £100 less than this, the 2-litre diesel in its less powerful 125 PS form stands out as the best value, so our Prime Choice would be the
Chevrolet Cruze 2.0 VCDi with standard S trim and five-speed manual gearbox at £13,495.

Audi A5 Sportback
‘Will it fit your garage?’is the question often asked about any new car and it takes increasing relevance when you see that the new A5 Sportback from Audi is longer, lower and wider than an A4 saloon and has a longer wheelbase. For many people, width is the worrying factor and at 1854 mm., excluding the mirrors, the new Sportback is probably too wide for many private garages.

Never mind, leave it outside, let passers by enjoy the lovely view of this elegant new model and relax in the knowledge that it has one of the most secure anti-theft systems available nowadays.

At the rear, the Sportback has a huge tailgate which opens easily, and joins up with an abbreviated and removable shelf to the rear of the back seat, hiding the contents from view. It provides a very wide opening and the luggage space is said to be almost as great as that in the A4 Avant estate car. It is claimed to combine Coupé style with saloon practicality and almost estate car carrying capacity; a slight drawback compared with the Avant estate is the lack of a rear window wiper. For a tall occupant, rear seat headroom is borderline, although there are recesses in the headlining at the back to give a little more space.

A disappointing feature is the poor instrumentation. The speedometer and rev counter are deeply recessed and become difficult to see in some shade conditions not dark enough to trigger the automatic lighting; the speedometer is, in our opinion, poorly calibrated with 120 mph at the top of the scale resulting in confusing congestion of the lower readings. However, a digital speed read-out can be selected in addition.

Taking a more vigorous look at fuel economy, Audi now includes automatic engine stop at halts with both the 2-litre petrol and diesel models, as soon as neutral is selected; the engine restarts on pressing the clutch. Energy is recovered during braking, to offset the extra battery drain of frequent starter operation.

On a test drive in Britain and France, with full use of the performace, the 2.0 TDI with six-speed manual gearbox recorded an impressive 45.5 mpg.

In addition to the 2-litre petrol and diesel units, the new Sportback is offered with 3.2-litre petrol, and 2.7 or 3.0-litre diesels. There was no 2.7-litre for assessment, but the 3-litre TDI with S-tronic automatic transmission proved an absolute joy to drive, with its effortless response, quietness and economy still on the right side of 31 mpg. But there is a high price penalty to jump from the 2-litre TDI at £27,140 with SE trim, to £32,600 for the 3-litre TDI, partly explained because the 3-litre includes quattro four-wheel drive.

Despite the large increase, our Prime Choice of the A5 Sportback would be the 3.0 TDI quattro 6-speed manual with SE trim at £32,600; but understandably the Audi prediction is that the main seller will be the 2.0 TDI front drive 6-speed manual with SE trim at £27,140. Quattro four-wheel drive is available for the 2-litre diesel at £1,500 extra.

Among three new models launched at the 2009 Frankfurt Show is the S5 Sportback with 3-litre V6 petrol engine boosted by a supercharger to give 333PS. It will go on sale in Spring 2010.

Even with the previous model parked alongside there is not a great deal of difference to be seen in the outward appearance of the new Mazda3. Mainly it has gone like the Peugeots with lamp units much more stylishly and aerodynamically swept back into the body; but there’s a lot more changed inside. as well as mechanically, starting with the engines. All are more efficient, giving better economy and reduced CO2, beginning with a 1.6-litre petrol unit and there are three new turbo diesels all with particulate filters, offered with choice of five or six-speed manual transmission, or five-speed automatic.

A 2-litre petrol engine is available with direct fuel injection giving 151 PS and this unit comes with automatic engine stop at halts, featuring an ingenious Mazda system whereby at traffic halts the engine stops always with the pistons in the appropriate position to restart the engine as soon as fuel is injected and ignited. Mazda claim that restart occurs in only 0.35 seconds, with hardly any assistance from the starter motor as soon as the clutch pedal is depressed. Engine stop is automatic when the car comes to rest with the ignition key still in the normal ‘on’ position and the gear lever in neutral. A second auxiliary battery is fitted to cover against lack of charge in town driving with a lot of stop-start work.

On test in Scotland, we found these new versions of Mazda3 very pleasant to drive, with neat handling and steering, plus excellent brakes by discs all round, all giving great confidence enhanced by the standard fitting of dynamic stability control and electronic brake force distribution. The only slight disappointment was the high level of tyre roar on some coarse surfaces encountered.

Particularly attractive features are the neat console layout which features a clear display of average mph and mpg, the clear instrument display, back-lit on some models and the roomy load space with the hatchback released by a simple push button.

Most of the Mazda3 range are five-door hatchs, but there are four saloon versions and the usual permutation of trim options: S, TS, TS2 and Sport. Prices start at £13,500 for the 1.6S petrol, extending to £19,900 for the 2.2-litre diesel in saloon or hatch.

Later this year a 15th model will join the range, called MPS with 2.3-litre petrol engine giving 260 PS at £21,500.

Time was running out for the return flight from Scotland and we had to press on very hard to get to the airport in time, so we were delighted to find how fast and responsive, as well as quiet, was the 1.6-litre diesel we were driving. It is rated at only 109 PS so it was very impressive to find that it performed so well, while returning 49.6 mpg. We have no hesitation in recommending as Prime Choice the Mazda3 1.6D TS with five-speed manual gearbox and CO2 emissions of 119 g/km, at £15,760.

Peugeot 308CC
When Gear Wheels writers attend Press launches of new cars, they often have to travel considerable distances to the venue. For example, the impending introduction of a new Mazda takes place just a few miles away from John O’Groats, the northernmost town in Scotland!

We don’t object (travel broadens the mind, they say), but it was a pleasant surprise to find the starting point for the introduction of the new Peugeot 308CC was on our doorstep at Christchurch, where we learned that our journey would include a sea trip – from Sandbanks to Studland, across the entrance to Poole Harbour!

Never mind - your contributor stayed with the open-topped car, spending the few minutes of ‘the voyage’ in having a good look round this latest Peugeot, trying the back seat for legroom (very little when a tall driver has moved his seat as far back as it will go) and admiring its high standard of equipment and finish. Later – at the Lulworth Castle stop-over to swop front seats with my driving companion and have a cup of tea – I tried the back seat again, this time with the car in closed coupe form. Sitting normally, my head was in contact with the rear window!

So – it’s not a car for carrying six-footers in front and rear at the same time, which makes it similar to many other moderate-sized sporty four-seaters, but for those who are prepared to live with this sort of compromise, Peugeot’s 308CC is an attractive proposition..

For an open-top car, the body is impressively rigid, with good handling, ample performance, decent economy and a high level of refinement. On a pleasant, sunny spring day and with the roof retracted into the boot, it wasn’t necessary to muffle up with hats and scarves. As well as the conventional heater system, the 308CC blows warm air round the backs of the necks of front seat occupants in a pleasant and quite unobtrusive manner!

You don’t need to stop to open or close the roof, but you do need to slow down to about 8 mph and the roof movement takes some 20 seconds. If there was nowhere to stop, I would put on the car’s hazard flashers while the roof was going up (e.g., with the onset of rain) or down.

The 308CC goes on sale in June at prices starting from £19,495 and rising to £24,295, with three 1.6-litre petrol engines (120 and 150 bhp for manual gearbox models and 140 bhp with automatic transmission) and diesels with 110 bhp (manual only) or 140 bhp (manual and auto). There are trim and equipment levels called Sport, SE, GT and GT100, together with a wide range of styling, in-car entertainment, safety and security, comfort and convenience options.

Audi R8 V10 and A5 Cabriolet
Quite the most exciting motoring of 2009 so far came with the launch in May of Audi’s latest additions to its fast-expanding and ever-improving range.

The new R8 5.2 has a ten-cylinder engine mounted midships in a car that is much the same as the previous race-bred R8, offering more power but also better efficiency.

It has direct fuel injection, develops 525 bhp and lifts the maximum speed to a staggering 196 mph. Perhaps if you took the mirrors off it would make it to 200 mph, or beyond!!

But more impressive still, we thought, was that the car is so manageable and tractable, trickling quietly through villages on the test route wisely chosen on the Continent, but also responding with wonderful zest to go soaring up to and beyond 140 mph in very short distances. Its time for acceleration through the gears from rest to 80 mph was only 6.4 seconds, with 100 mph reached only 2.6 sec later (total only 9 seconds).

Slightly disappointing is the very functional-looking but not very attractive interior, but this is a car to impress with its race-going style, and Audi cleverly arranges for the magnificent V10 engine to be always on display beneath a lift-up transparent cover behind the seats. It features quattro four-wheel drive, and gives the buyer a little bit of change out of £100,000 for the six-speed manual version - provided no extras are chosen - or £104,665 for the automatic version called R Tronic. This R8 5.2-litre is a formidable new rival for footballers and bankers who might have been thinking of a Porsche or Aston Martin.

A much more attractive-looking interior comes with the beautifully styled A5 Cabriolet. When the A5 was launched as a Coupé, it was felt that it would make the basis for a lovely convertible, and that is what is now on offer at prices from £29,795.

It proved delightful to drive with the top down, and the great joy is that by slowing down to under 30 mph the top can be put down or up entirely ‘on the button’ without need to stop. Outstanding features of this new convertible are the quietness, especially with the top in place, and the rigidity of the body.

There is total lack of the shake and tremor which tend to mar some convertibles on poor roads. It is also unique in being the only convertible available with quattro four-wheel drive.

It’s offered with six-speed manual gearbox or two types of automatic: multitronic with the 2-litre or 3.2-litre petrol models, or S tronic with self-changing seven-speed gearbox and double clutch for the quattro versions (2-litre, 3.2, and 3.0 TDI diesel on which it is standard). Although the excellent V6 3-litre TDI diesel engine is most tempting at £37,935, We were so impressed by the smoothness, quietness and eager response of the 2-litre direct injection petrol model that we would make our Prime Choice the Audi A5 Cabriolet 2.0 TFSI 211 PS quattro S tronic with SE trim at £34,555.

Ford Kuga 2WD and 2.5 4WD
Many drivers want the space and convenience of an SUV like the Kuga, but are not worried about four-wheel drive; they don’t go off road, and if it’s snowing they stay at home. So it’s quite a good move for Ford to add a front-drive version of Kuga with the 2-litre Duratorq TDCi diesel engine, bringing three advantages. The first is a 2 mpg improvement in mpg, up from 44.1 to 46.3, the second is an important 10 g/km reduction in CO2 output, and the third is a useful £2,000 price reduction.

With Zetec trim the 2-litre front drive model costs £19,790, and the CO2 saving brings it into the under 165 g/km tax bracket, costing £150 this year, and £155 next year. Business customers will be able to claim a 20 per cent annual write-down allowance, instead of only 10 per cent for the 4x4. The £2,000 saving could be spent on the more lavish Titanium trim, whose 2WD price is £21,790.

Also added to the Kuga range is the five-cylinder 2.5-litre Duratec petrol engine as used in the Focus ST, Mondeo and S-MAX. This unit gives 200 bhp and makes the Kuga a much more lively SUV with top speed of 129 mph and 0-60 mph in 8.1 sec, with a six-speed gearbox. There is also a five-speed automatic transmission option for this engine only.

The Kuga 2.5 comes only with 4x4 and Titanium trim costing £25,090 (auto £26,290), but the combined fuel consumption figure tumbles to 28.5 mpg, and the CO2 emissions figure soars to a hefty 234 g/km. So for these penny-scrimping times, a realistic Prime Choice is the Kuga 2-litre TDCi 136 PS front drive at £19,790

Ford Focus RS
Just when we might have been thinking that Ford had run out of money and was heading steadily on to the rocks, along come two interesting launches. The first is an electrifyingly fast version of the Focus, continuing the long-established RS designation which first appeared with a hot version of the Escort in 1970.

The previous Focus RS went out of production in 2003. Its new successor is powered by a five-cylinder 2.5-litre engine with 20 valves and Borg Warner K16 turbocharger, giving a formidable power peak of 305 PS at 6,500 rpm. Maximum torque is 440 Nm, and all this fearsome output goes through a six-speed gearbox to the front wheels. Ford claims to have quelled any tendency to torque steer effect by an ingenious Ford RevoKnuckle system, but we can only say that in hard acceleration there was still quite a lot of tug on the steering. Not living up to the claims was the fuel consumption; the combined figure is supposedly 30.5 mpg, but despite a rather slow test route, and few occasions to give it a blast, our Focus RS gave only 22.3 mpg. Hard suspension gives a rather bone-shaking ride.

Is the middle of a recession, with shocking falls in car sales, a good time to launch a car like the Focus RS? Essentially it’s mainly for competition, and Ford is reckoning to sell only 4,000 examples in the next two years, with orders already taken for 2,000. So evidently the launch of Focus RS is timely, with deliveries starting later this year. For their £24,740 (the starting price for the RS), buyers will certainly get plenty of performance, with the top speed at 163 mph, and acceleration from rest to 60 mph in only 5.9 seconds.

Honda Insight
With its previous adventure into hybrid technology some ten years ago, also called the Insight, Honda’s styling was a bit of a monstrosity, and the car was only a two-seater which greatly limited its appeal. Now comes a more realistic and practical successor with the same basic principles of IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) and five-seater capacity.

The system is ingenious, using an electric dynamotor (combining the functions of charging and powering) fitted in line with the petrol engine. When the driver calls for power to accelerate away or climb a hill, the petrol engine and the electric motor work in concert. But throttle back to descend a hill or slow down, and the electric motor becomes a battery charger. In this state, the fuel supply to the petrol engine is cut off but the engine keeps turning, being in constant link with the electric motor. What is surprising is that in this state the valves of the engine continue to operate. One would have thought that pumping losses would have to be overcome, but as Honda engineers explain, the power required to push the pistons up against compression is regained as they go down.

The petrol engine has capacity of 1,339 cc and develops 88 PS; the electric motor adds only 14 PS, but produces a lot of torque, especially at low revs. The Insight is being offered only with a CVT automatic transmission but it operates very smoothly and has paddle shift control levers below the steering wheel as one of the advantages of the dearer ES version. Engine stop occurs automatically on coming to rest, though not cutting in as promptly as on some cars with this feature, and restarts automatically on pressing the accelerator.

Advantages claimed for this hybrid system are that it is efficient and particularly good on emissions, with a CO2 figure of only 101 g/km, so it qualifies for car tax at only £15 a year, and is exempt from the London Congestion Charge. All sorts of ingenious instrumentation is provided, from a digital speedometer whose background colour changes according to driving style, to read-outs of power use, battery state, and the number of green leaves on the trees to reflect how economically you have been driving.

However, one cannot help feeling that it is all a lot of politically correct inspiration not really backed up by the sort of economy one might have hoped to achieve. Honda’s claim is that the most economical version (SE) gives 64.2 mpg on the combined EC cycle. Driven swiftly but not unduly hard on a varied test route, it returned only 51.3 mpg, and a supreme effort at unrealistically low speeds gave only 69.3 mpg. The inescapable conclusion is that a small diesel-powered car would have done better, but would not have achieved the same low particulate emissions and low Nox output.

Not much extra is provided by the ES version which costs £1,300 more (at £16,790), so if you want to go green the Honda way, our
Prime Choice has to be the Honda Insight SE at £15,490.

Suzuki Alto
Interest in small economy hatchbacks is increasing all the time, so Suzuki’s launch of a new Alto range is timely. This is the seventh generation to use the Alto name since it first appeared 30 years ago, and the emphasis is on a smooth body shape for low drag with an efficient three-cylinder 12-valve engine giving a claimed combined mpg figure of 64.2. The engine gives a healthy growl when working hard, but settles down to give relaxed cruising where the main noise source is from the tyres. The suspension is rather firm and unforgiving on poor roads, but adequately comfortable, helped by well-shaped seats with good wrap-round for lateral location.

With sights set on sales of 7,200 a year, Suzuki has sensibly simplified the model range so that all have the same 50 bhp engine and five-door body, with prices starting at an attractively low £6,795 for the SZ2 trim.

There is not a great deal of difference between this base model and the next up, SZ3, which is priced at £7,245, an increase of £450. The main gain is the fitting of air conditioning. Moving up to the top trim level, SZ4, adds a further £715 to take the total to £7,960, but the list of improvements to the specification is more substantial and includes a small rev counter in a pod to the right of the speedometer, ratchet seat height adjustment for the driver, alloy wheels, fog lamps and some minor additions.

There is also the possibility to pay an extra £600 for the SZ4 and have it with a four-speed automatic transmission. There was only one example of this at the recent launch and we were glad to lay claim to it for the first test drive and found changes very smooth and the system lively and responsive. For anyone seeking a small car with an automatic transmission which is easy to use, the Alto SZ4 would be a good choice, though at £8,560 it is not as attractively priced as the base model. It is also, of course, less economical with an average consumption of 54.3 mpg, and the emissions figure rises from 103 g/km to 122.

Interior accommodation is fair, with a large unlidded stowage box in front of the passenger, and reasonably roomy door pockets. An internal release catch has to be used to open the tailgate, revealing a deep but not very long load space, with space-saver spare wheel nestling under the floor. A further advantage of the SZ4 specification is that the folding rear seat is centrally divided instead of being in one piece as on the two cheaper models. Thick screen pillars and a substantial ‘dead’ corner where the door mirror is mounted make a wide blind spot, so drivers need to move the head around at junctions to check that nothing is hidden behind them.

Unless one is particularly anxious to have air con at £450 extra, or the automatic version, there seems no doubt that the Prime Choice is the Suzuki Alto 1.0 SZ2 five-speed manual at £6,795.

At the same time as the revised Alto was launched, Suzuki offered a more powerful and quieter four-cylinder petrol engine for the Grand Vitara off-roader, now with capacity of 2.4-litre instead of 2.0. As before it has permanent four-wheel drive with diff lock and low range selectable by a simple rotary switch control. A number of minor improvements have been made, and the larger engine is claimed to be a match for the 2-litre on economy and emissions. Prices start at £13,800 for the 3-door SZ3, and top of the range is the 5-door SZ5 with automatic transmission for £18,250.

Volkswagen Golf
Half of the road was surfaced in a very low friction coating almost like ice, with a sprinkler playing on it, while the right-hand half was normal tarmac; and the test was to arrive with the speedo at least on 28 mph (45 km/h), then hit the brakes and swerve to the right to avoid the cones blocking the lane. This was one of the tests carried out when we visited the Volkswagen works at Wolfsburg and tried the new Golf for the first time, and it was certainly very impressive the way its anti-skid system responded and kept the car under control.

This is just one of the new features on the latest model, as part of a major drive to make the sixth generation of the Golf an even safer car. It has seven airbags including a knee protection one for the driver, a whiplash-limiting headrest system, and rear seat belt monitoring. The electronic stability programme which made the car so controllable on simulated ice conditions also includes an electronic differential lock and traction control.

At the launch of the new Golf in Britain in January 2009, the press office produced a pictorial display showing all the significant changes, which is useful since the new one, the sixth generation since the original was launched 34 years ago, looks very much the same as before. External identity features include the new radiator grille with VW roundal recessed into the front of the bonnet.

We drove first the 1.4 TSI model at £15,962, which uses turbocharging and petrol direct injection to give 122 PS output. It proved very lively and has a six-speed gearbox, but economy was a little disappointing, showing only 29.2 mpg on the trip computer. There is also a version of this engine with both turbocharging and supercharging to produce 160 PS, and claimed economy is 44.8 mpg.

Tried next was the 2-litre diesel which is an excellent engine, and although a bit more noisy than the 1.4 TSI, it was much better on economy, showing 49.5 mpg on the test route. Third example driven was the more powerful 2-litre TDI diesel giving 140 PS, in conjunction with the very impressive five-speed DSG (direct shift gearbox) which gives all the advantages of a fully automatic system, plus the ability to have full manual control if preferred.

On all the new Golfs we liked the seating and the control layout which now includes much clearer instruments. A small irritation is that the passenger’s wiper arm goes too far over to the driver’s side, leaving a streak across the driver’s sight-line. In other respects, though, the new Golf is undoubtedly a very pleasing and much improved car. Our favourite was the TDI 140 with DSG, but its price is a bit formidable at £20,537, so as Prime Choice we would recommend the Volkswagen Golf SE 2.0-litre TDI 110 PS with five-speed manual gearbox at £16,911.

Mini Clubman
If you like the idea of a MINI as your next car, but are a little concerned about its interior space, then the extra practicality of the Clubman (over the standard model) may just fit the bill. It should certainly be at the top of your list before looking at any other make.

Practical, versatile and comfortable are words that spring readily to mind to describe this model; and that is discounting its sure-footed handling, all-round performance, affordability and, of course, superb build quality with styling that incorporates a few neat retro touches. 

Although longer and taller than the standard MINI, it’s at the back where the main differences of the Clubman are immediately apparent. Gone is the single hatch door and in its place are two double doors - as on the original model of some four decades ago - operated by a couple of chrome handles with each door having its own wiper and, additionally, on the inside incorporating a practical cubby area for extra storage. From the side view, the long glass run is immediately noticeable, as is the distinctive rear edge pillars stretching from the roof to the bumper; the colour of the latter matches that of the roof to give an attractive two-tone paint finish. 

A unique single side rear-hinged door (similar, but not identical, to that employed on the Mazda RX8) on the right hand side allows a wider opening for back seat passengers, but you can still gain access via the opposite front door without too much effort. Although generally opening out into the traffic in the UK, the extra engineering efforts of placing this door on the nearside (our kerb side) would probably have been too costly for the restrictive worldwide market for vehicles that drive on the opposite side to us!

Most other interior features of this model are much on par with its stable mates. Obviously, the boot area is larger, plus an additional under floor area, as is the seating in the rear which gives extra legroom and more height.

Overall, we think the new Clubman is a worthy successor to the original car, especially as it is larger, more sporty and more refined in so many areas. Prices start at around £14k. 

Audi Q5
Almost too big for British roads, Audi’s Q7 is a luxury rival for the Range Rover market, but now comes a more practical alternative for those seeking a car of more reasonable size combining off-road ability with performance and driving pleasure: the Q5.

Tested on a demanding mountain route in Spain, it proved extremely comfortable to travel in, and very reassuring to drive.

There’s none of the suspension harshness and top-heavy feeling that tend to spoil some off-roaders, and it’s clear that providing a car with good response and sporty handling has been high on the list of priorities in designing Q5.

But it is also a highly practical vehicle with long-travel suspension, generous ground clearance, and easy access to the load space through a top-hinged and strongly spring-loaded tailgate, which can be opened by remote control. A quick-release pull on either side allows the wide or the narrow section of the rear seat backrest to fold down on to the one-piece cushion. A huge panoramic sunroof with the front section opening and sliding back above the fixed rear section is optional.

All versions of Q5 have quattro four-wheel drive permanently engaged, and there’s a hill descent control system. A clever feature is provision of a sensor to detect if the roof rack is in use, in which case it brings the electronic stability programme into action earlier.

At launch, there are just three engines: 2-litre petrol with FSI direct fuel injection, and two diesels: 2-litreTDI and 3-litre TDI. Of these, Audi expects the 2-litre TDI to be the best-seller of the new range, and it is certainly priced attractively at £27,070 (prices have been updated since the VAT reduction) with manual six-speed gearbox. Most versions are listed with S-tronic 7-speed automatic transmission. Especially attractive is the 3.0 TDI with SE trim and S-tronic transmission, but lots of money is needed to pay for extras, and the all-in price of the lavishly equipped test car was not far short of £47,000.

Again we have to criticise Audi’s speedometer, which has 120 mph at the top, so that all the important digits are crowded into the left side of the instrument, and even those who take their Q5 to Germany will not often see the speedometer needle in the right-hand half of the dial. Other than this silly mistake, the interior furnishing is delightfully neat and functionally arranged, and for ultimate luxury there is even a cup-holder which can be set to keep drinks either hot or cold. They certainly think of everything.

SE versions seem worth the £2,260 extra above the standard model, so our prime choice would be the Audi Q5 2.0 TDI SE quattro with six-speed manual gearbox at £29,320..

Mazda6 gets improved diesel
Starting in January 2009, the Mazda6 range increases with arrival of an enlarged diesel engine whose capacity goes up to 2,184 cc, and it is offered in three power versions:125 PS, 163, or 185. To make the choice even more extensive, there are three body styles: saloon, hatchback and estate car, and buyers can choose from five equipment levels.

There are also three petrol engines, though the diesel is so quiet and refined as well as offering more power and economy that it would be difficult to recommend any but one of the diesel models.

It is difficult to make a positive Prime Choice from the range until the prices are announced, and even then the recent launch over a severely testing route gave chance to drive only the 163 and 185 diesels. Of the two, we liked best the 163 PS, but this could be influenced by the fact that the 163 was in the slightly smaller hatchback body, while the 185 was an estate car. Fuel consumption is much the same for all models, with the quoted combined figure either side of 50 mpg, which is very good for a car of this size. The 163 PS version just creeps under the critical 150 g/km emissions limit, which is important for taxation even with the promised deferment of Chancellor Darling’s swingeing increases.

At the same time, Mazda introduces a rear vehicle monitoring system which shows a warning light on the interior side of the windscreen pillar, and if the driver uses the indicator to show intention to change lane when a vehicle is in the danger zone it sounds an additional warning. This is a good move to eliminate the need to turn the head to check that there is nothing in the blind spot before changing lane.

All versions have six-speed gearboxes as standard, and there will not be an automatic transmission for the diesel until 2010. Very convenient is the way in which the rear seat backrest drops down on to the cushion simply by pulling the release knob in the load space area. Not so good is the considerable blind spot caused by very thick windscreen pillars. The driver needs to remember to move the head around at junctions and roundabouts to make sure that no pedestrian or vehicle is masked by it.

Pending prices to confirm the recommendation, we would name as prime choice the Mazda6 TS Hatchback or Estate with 2.2-litre 163 PS turbo diesel engine.

Volvo C30
Every now and again a car stops you in your tracks. This was the case recently when we saw the Volvo C30 which, we believe, is one of the smartest looking new cars around.

Offering great value for money, it is a real head turner compared with most of today’s anonymous-looking hatchbacks. OK, from the front it’s very much S40 inspired (which is no bad thing) but further back its stunning Scandinavian design very much echoes the lines of the iconic Volvo 1800ES of the 1970s, particularly the swept flanks and distinctive all-glass tailgate, but we will leave you to judge for yourself.

Inside everything has a solid, stylish and quality feel. An attractive and clear dashboard is enhanced by a neat central console, extremely comfortable and supportive seats, and plenty of stowage areas. For a three-door car, rear space is surprisingly large with the superb individual seats allowing adults ample head, shoulder and leg room; the main drawback, if any, is probably the boot/load area which can best be described as 'just about adequate', although the seats do fold easily to make space for the occasional larger item to increase the cars load area and overall practicality.

On the move, this small executive hatchback did everything asked of it without undue fuss. Sharing many mechanical and chassis parts with Ford’s Focus we, however, preferred the Swedish set-up which, in our opinion, is probably engineered more towards everyday comfort rather than the raw performance and agility the Ford hatch is capable of. That said, we found the all-round dynamics of this compact Volvo excellent and could not fault it under normal road driving conditions.

At under £15,000 list price for the petrol 1.6 model, topping out at some £21k for the diesel T5 R-Design SE Sport, we feel the C30 range offers very good value for money, especially with a potential residual value of some 50% over three years. Be prepared, however, for those who cannot resist admiring its striking good looks, whichever model you choose!

Audi Field Day
Just how extensive the Audi range has now become, with 27 different models compared with only 12 ten years ago was amply demonstrated when the company recently held a Range Review near Wellesbourne, Warwickshire.

There was a bewildering choice of cars to be driven, and we decided to start off gently with the A3 Cabriolet in 1.8-litre FSI (direct petrol injection) form, and loved the smooth, quiet response of its engine, scarcely audible at all at tickover. We had driven the A3 Cabriolet at the launch in France, but we were glad to try it again on British roads and was just as impressed as before, especially when wafting along with the top down. Putting the hood up or down is entirely electric on the button, with no need to release any catches, and Audi retains the concept of a flexible soft top instead of the later trend to folding hardtops, with the advantage that generous 260-litre luggage space is available with the top up or down. Raising or lowering the top can be done on the move, up to 20 mph, so you can do it as you move away from your parking position.

With a six-speed gearbox, the A3 Cabriolet in this form was priced at £28,845 including options, but the range starts with 1.6-litre engine at under £20,000.

Following the A3 Cabriolet came the TT Coupé in its new guise with 2.0 TDI diesel engine and quattro four-wheel drive. It also featured magnetic suspension control - a system which varies the firmness of the dampers on demand, but we couldn’t really feel that the extra £1,650 cost of this refinement was justified. On the other hand we were tremendously impressed by the TT and reckoned it was the sportiest and most responsive diesel we have yet driven. It gives a lovely purposeful snarl of power when accelerating and soars rapidly up to its 4,500 rpm limit in the gears. It’s a bit difficult to get into the car, but once there you feel very snug and in control. We noticed at this test day that it is nothing for these cars to be stacked up with more than £10,000 worth of extras, and this TT listed at £25,850, totalled £36,050 in the form as tried.

Next came the big thrill: Audi’s R8, the amazing Coupé with 4.2-litre V8 engine, producing shattering performance. One felt in complete control of the car, although not too happy about the amount of feed-back through the steering, tending to pull slightly one way or the other, and the automatic transmission called R-Tronic created quite a surge between ratio changes, almost as if the brakes came on for an instant. It was made much smoother by easing the accelerator back for gear changes. We didn’t look at the price list until we had the R8 safely back in the compound, when it was found that the standard £83,245 was boosted to £98,975 by the extras. Its acceleration rockets the car from rest to 80 mph in only 6.9 seconds, and all things considered the fuel consumption at 19.9 mpg was not too bad although the test route didn’t allow much in the way of high speeds.

Another very fast car available for gentle proving round the Warwickshire lanes was the RS6 Avant which has a V10 5-litre engine developing 580 bhp, which must make it the fastest load carrier on the market. It was very comfortable and effortless to drive, and when opened up it proved as fast as the R8, going from rest to 80 mph in exactly the same time of 6.9 seconds. The RS6 has its top speed restricted to 155 mph, unlike the R8 which - with the important proviso always given, ‘where the law permits’ - is able to reach 187 mph. The RS6 was listed at £76,700, and a modest outlay on extras totalled it out to £80,510. Both of these, of course, have quattro four-wheel drive.

Also in quattro form was the last car for which there was time for a long drive, the A4 Avant 3.0TDI, which we were particularly keen to try to compare with my own Avant 2.5 TDI quattro which is now nine years old. We fell for this new Avant in a big way with its lovely refinement, effortless performance and very high levels of comfort, but there were some things we didn’t like. The test car had the S-line specification which means that those rather unsightly day running lights, like a string of shiny beads beneath the headlamps, are on all the time the engine is running; and the interior is rather sombre with black leather trim and black headlining.

A bad mistake, in our view, is the calibration of the speedometer, which has 120 mph at the top of the dial, and as much space devoted to the figures from 120 onwards as for those from 0 to 120, which are very crowded together. However, you can switch the computer information display to show speed digitally. Many other engines are available for the A4 Avant, but if you want a diesel with quattro four-wheel drive, which will be appreciate by caravanners, then the 2-litre TDI is attractively priced at £27,450. The 3-litre, costs £31,350 in SE specification, plus £1,400 extra for Tiptronic automatic transmission.

A fascinating day’s driving left us just time to go out again briefly in the R8 with manual transmission, reminding ourselves what a superb car this is for those to whom money is no problem.
Choosing a Prime Choice from this impressive array of Audi engineering is pretty impossible if any concern is given to price and running costs, otherwise one would like them all. However, the two which impressed particularly strongly are the A3 Cabriolet 2.0 TDI standard at £22,760, and the A4 Avant 3.0 TDI quattro SE for £31,350.

Universal screwdriver
Do you ever find you haven’t the correct screwdriver for the job and have to rummage about in the toolkit to find what you need? The JML universal screwdriver could be handy on such occasions, because it has a choice of 12 bits, any of which can be chosen and loaded in much the same way as a revolver. Just twist the barrel until the required bit is in the window, then push back and the required bit is in the jaw ready for use. The revolver barrel holds six bits, and the barrel with the other six stows away in the handle. It takes only a few seconds to unscrew the holder and swap barrels, and the driver head is magnetic so there is no danger of having the bit fall out and getting lost.

JML’s barrel-loading screwdriver costs £5.99 from John Mills Ltd, Regis Road, London NW5 3EG. Telephone 0800 781 7831 or you can order it on-line from

Volkswagen Scirocco GT 2.0 TSI
It’s quite amazing to reflect that 34 years have passed since the first Scirocco was launched, marking a major departure for Volkswagen from rear-engined air-cooled engines, to water-cooled front-drive models, to be followed by the Golf. Now comes the new one which is every bit as exciting as the original in terms of progress and driving pleasure.

Initially it is launched with a 2-litre 16-valve TSI engine, but next year a 2-litre TDI diesel will be offered. There will also be a 1.4-litre TSI engine which will be offered with six-speed manual or seven-speed DSG automatic. The current 2-litre TSI unit is a turbo-charged petrol engine with direct fuel injection and power output of 197 bhp, as well as very high torque (280 Nm).

We drove the Scirocco with the optional DSG automatic transmission and was thrilled by it. DSG stands for direct shift gearbox, and means effectively that the car has a six-speed gearbox with no torque converter, and drive is through twin clutches giving smoothly progressive power, and almost instantaneous gear changes, as well as providing the driver with complete control of up and down gear shifting if required, by means of the gear selector or paddle switches beneath the steering column. In fully automatic mode the Scirocco soars smoothly and swiftly through its gears to reach 80 mph from rest in only 10.7 seconds, and goes on to a top speed of 145 mph.

On first settling into the snugly shaped driving seat the impression is of sitting rather low with slightly restricted visibility, especially to the rear, where fixed head-rest hoops for the rear passengers rather spoil the view to the back. But soon after setting off the needle-sharp handling of the Scirocco and its sparkling performance make it a most desirable Coupé, absolutely a joy to drive.

It will take four people, just, but rear passenger space is a little limited, and the rear hatch opens by means of a switch on the driver’s door or the key fob, to reveal quite generous luggage capacity..

The rear seats are centrally divided to tip forward giving an extra load platform, and beneath the rear floor is a space-saver spare wheel.

The instruments are clear but slightly recessed and rather dark unless the lights are on. The body is fully galvanised and has a 12-year anti-corrosion warranty. The interior of the car tried was in a rather sombre black, but a panoramic glass sunroof with electric tilt action is available at £230.

There are no trim options, and only the one engine at present, for a price of £20,940, to which the DSG transmission adds £1,330. It works so well, and enhances the sporty appeal of the Scirocco, that we feel justified in suggesting that the prime choice for a delightful high performance Coupé should be the Scirocco GT 2.0 TSI with six-speed DSG automatic at £22,270.

Dodge Journey
It’s claimed to be a ‘family friendly’ car, and the Journey does indeed justify the claim because a lot of thought has gone into the interior. Seating is provided for seven, and there are many clever features such as the way in which the centre seats move forward and tip to give easy access to the rear two, and stowage space is provided in a bin each side under the floor behind the front seats, and there’s another compartment under the front passenger seat.

On getting into the Journey you notice what a high vehicle it is from the way in which you climb up into it, and then enjoy a commanding view from the high vantage point. Also appreciated straight away are the neatness and clarity of the instrumentation which is all illuminated from a panel which is black until the key is turned. It was surprising to find that the speedometer is almost exactly accurate, demolishing an initial impression that the car was going nowhere near as fast as was being indicated. It turned out that it was, indeed, moving along very rapidly. At speed it gives a feeling of confidence and reassurance. The ride is also quiet and comfortable on main roads, but when taking poorly surfaced secondary roads there is rather a lot of suspension movement. The seats are comfortable, and the driver has electric adjustment but this is for the cushion part of the seat only, and features only on the dearer SXT version. Backrest angle is adjusted by lever release.

Although it may look like an off-roader, Journey is not intended as such. It has big ground clearance and sizeable wheels, but drive is to the front wheels only.The range starts with a 2.4-litre petrol model at £16,995. This has SE trim, which is also available with a diesel. Unlike the Jeep Cherokee from the same family, which uses an Italian VM diesel engine, the Dodge Journey has the Volkswagen 2-litre TDI engine which is very efficient and manages an official consumption figure of 43.5 mpg - creditable for a seven-seater. However, the installation and noise suppression of this diesel are not as good as Volkswagen manages to achieve, and one hears the growl of the diesel quite prominently all the time.

Automatic six-speed transmission is available for the SXT trim level, which is itself £2,000 dearer than the SE. Automatic adds a further £1,200, taking it to £21,195.

With its bullish and distinctive appearance as well as its generous carrying capacity, there is a lot of attraction in the new Dodge Journey; but on examining the equipment specifications we can’t really see £2,000 of extra value when you upgrade from SE to SXT. So prime choice of this attractive new model would be the Dodge Journey 2.0 CRD SE manual six-speed at £17,995.

Road,Track and Jaguar - Stuart Bladon's impressions
What an exciting prospect! Go to Germany and drive the new Jaguar XF on the road, and then try the XK on the circuit at the Nürburgring; it was too good an opportunity for Gear Wheels to miss, and it proved every bit as thrilling as expected. On arrival at Köln/Bonn airport my colleagues and I were confronted by a magnificent line-up of XF models, from which I chose first the 2.7-litre V6 diesel with automatic transmission and the advantage of ‘paddle’ levers beneath the steering wheel for prompting up and down changes.

At once the smoothness and quietness of this Peugeot-origin diesel engine impressed, and in hilly terrain on our test route it gave superb response. The only slight drawback is that the paddle switch controls go round with the steering, so when taking tricky tight bends it’s difficult to remember exactly where they are. Keep hands in the same position on the wheel? No, you can’t do that because on some of the bends you would finish up with arms crossed and colliding with each other!

This XF seemed absolutely magnificent, and is the model I would chose if selecting one to buy, because the diesel penalties are negligible, and the comfort of the ride and general quietness and ambience are wonderful.

At the end of our fairly short drive to the halfway changeover point it had scored 29.4 mpg, which was not bad for hard driving over a fairly demanding route. My only complaint is that the instruments are poor, and when it was necessary to have the lights on in wet weather, the figures become back-lit and even more difficult to read. Such a high-speed car merits a larger and clearer speedometer and rev counter.

For the second leg of the drive to the Nürburgring a 4.2-litre supercharged XF took the place of the diesel, showing staggering acceleration, as expected, though traffic conditions gave little opportunity to put the full power on to the road. This version of the XF would be most satisfying where the speed potential could be exploited, but even with a lot of dreary slow-speed running and few opportunities to overtake, it returned a horrifying fuel consumption. The cars were in left-hand drive form, with Continental instrumentation, and what looked like a frightening 19.7 litres/100 km was even more terrifying when converted to give 14.3 mpg.

All too soon we were at the Nürburgring race circuit, and the journey, initially in heavy rain, had been nothing like enough to explore and exploit the potential of the fabulous XF, but served as a welcome appetiser. After a quick comfort stop at the circuit it was then out to a formidable line-up of Jaguar XK sports cars, and at first some skid-testing was arranged. On a very low-friction wet road surface, the passage of the front wheels triggers a sideways jolt as the rear wheels pass over it, and it was quite an eye-opener to find how difficult it was to control the car in these conditions of simulated wet ice. Car after car went into a graceful pirouette in spite of full opposite lock steering correction. More impressive was the lane change test at 65 km/h (40 mph) when the XK showed its ability to respond to the steering and switch from one lane to the adjacent one through cones, in response to a sudden jerk of the steering.

Then it was into the crash helmets, and the exciting bit of the day’s testing on the Formula 1 circuit. We drove in pairs, following the line of a racing driver leading the way in another XK, which was a very instructive way to learn the capabilities of the XK. Highest speed reached on the all-too short straight was 195 km/h (121 mph), which seemed quite fast enough for me, though it was reassuring to be following the expert, and shown exactly where to start braking and what line to take through the corner.

After this came two laps as passenger with a racing driver - in my case, Tom Schwister, who showed the full potential of the XK. He kept asking: "Tummy OK?", meaning was I beginning to feel ill, as some passengers do on a racing circuit, but he needn't have worried - I was feeling great and really enjoying it.

Jaguar have a tremendous presence at the Nürburgring, with a hospitality suite, and staff on hand to demonstrate that the XK is a formidable high performance sports car, and it was good to have a brief acquaintance of both XF and XK. It’s a pity that all the cars were in plain black, but perhaps Jaguar wants to show that it’s what’s inside that’s important.

Jeep Cherokee
A storming off-roader is an apt description of the new Jeep Cherokee gained after a really convincing demonstration of this vehicle’s most impressive off-road abilities; at one stage even plunging down a bank and into a rock-strewn river for nearly half a mile of deep fording.

Successfully out at the other end and to another off-road facility, where the Cherokee really showed what it can do, clambering up deeply rutted climbs, and then slithering down equally steep and alarming ones, under complete control.

This new Cherokee with the optional five-speed automatic transmission has a hill descent control, operated simply by pressing a button and choosing in advance which gear to select. The higher the gear, the higher the speed it allows the Cherokee to attain up to a maximum of 12 km/h (8 mph), using the anti-lock brake system. It’s quite exciting just to sit back, see the bonnet disappear over a frighteningly steep drop, and then have the car descend under complete control. A three-position switch near the console gives choice of two-wheel drive, automatic four-wheel drive coming into action as needed for the terrain, and four-wheel drive low ratio. Starts on a steep hill are achieved without running back, thanks to the hill start assist system, and the hill descent control works equally effectively to prevent the car from getting out of control backwards when reversing down a steep and slippery slope.

Behaviour on the road is also good though perhaps less outstanding, with the new suspension system giving a comfortable ride with not too much in the way of bump thump or tyre roar, and a feeling of confidence is given by the handling and steering. A beefy Italian VM four-cylinder 2.8-litre diesel engine gives the Cherokee good hill climbing and lively performance, reaching 80 mph from rest in 19 seconds. The fuel consumption indicator at first seemed disappointing, with a reading of 26.5 mpg, but this is in US gallons, the equivalent metric figure being a more reasonable 31.8 mpg.

There are no petrol versions, and although a six-speed manual gearbox is the standard ware, it is expected that most buyers will opt for the automatic which suits it very well and seems worth the extra £1,000 cost. The selector is knocked to the left to change down sequentially, and to the right to change back up, becoming fully automatic again in D.

With a towing capacity of 2,800 kg, the Cherokee should prove a capable tow-vehicle, and at the test facility it was demonstrated towing a lightweight caravan through muddy water up to a foot deep.
Special feature of the new Cherokee is the optional canvas top roof which has electric action and gives a huge opening to the sky, making the car almost like a convertible. Costing £950 extra, the sliding roof can be opened at front or rear, or taken right back, and stopped at any position. Also available is an entertainment package including improved audio and a very easy to use and effective navigation system.

Leather trimmed seats are standard, and there is only one trim level, called Limited, to consider, so the prime choice would be the Jeep Cherokee 2.8 CRD Limited automatic at £25,595.

SEAT Ibiza
In July 2008 SEAT launched its fourth generation Ibiza model, built on a new base platform which will also be used by Volkswagen for the forthcoming new Polo. It has longer wheelbase and wider track, yet the new car is lighter than before. A body swage line runs back from the top of the lamp units across all four doors, and a new feature on some models is that the fog lamps serve also as side illumination lamps when turning. For a modest £35 charge, a mounting unit for the owner’s satellite navigation unit can be provided on the top of the facia, but the gently sloping windscreen is a long way away, and we found the Tomtom screen too small to see clearly from such a distance.

The Ibiza comes as a five-door, but three-door versions will be available from October. Oncoming options will include a direct-shift 7-speed auto gearbox before end of 2008, and a panoramic fixed glass sunroof.

Initially there are just three engines - 1.2, 1.4 and 1.6 - all 16-valve petrol units, to be joined by diesel engines in 2009.

At the launch in the north-west of England, we drove first the 1.2 and was pleased to find how quiet this small engine is, becoming hardly audible at all at tickover, but inevitably it’s a little lacking on power, and those planning to use the Ibiza as a family car would probably do better to opt for the 1.4 or 1.6.

A poor feature of the car is that the instruments are deeply recessed and difficult to see. We found it necessary to have the sidelamps on all the time to obtain the necessary back lighting which should be on automatically. Otherwise, the calibration of the instruments is good, with the speedometer pleasantly devoid of the km/h equivalents which always make speedometers look untidy. Instead, as provided by Mercedes-Benz, the display between the speedometer and rev counter shows speed in km/h, and when the car stops this changes automatically to give the car’s total mileometer reading. There is no temperature gauge, and the fuel gauge is just a column of red blobs.

The return drive over the same test route in the 1.6-litre was much more rewarding, with lively performance available, but fuel consumption at only 37.9 mpg was a little disappointing. Its CO2 figure is 157 g/km against 139 for the 1.2 model, and claimed fuel consumption is 42.8 mpg. The Ibiza has only a five-speed gearbox with fairly low gearing giving only 21.4 mph per 1,000 rpm in fifth. The ride is a bit knobbly and bumpy but the handling and steering give a sporty feel to the 1.6, tried with Sport trim.

A useful option for S, SE and Sport models is a hill-hold feature: select first gear on a hill, then release the brake and the car will not roll back during the two-second delay while you engage forward drive. It comes as part of a package which includes electronic stability and emergency brake assist, all at £280 extra.

At £11,095, the 1.6 Sport is £1,775 dearer than the 1.2 with basic S trim and the addition of air conditioning, and seems worth the difference; our prime choice would be Ibiza 1.6 Sport at £11,095.

Honda Accord
Cars keep on getting larger, and the new Honda Accord is a typical example. When I settled into the driving seat of the new model my first impression was of sitting in a big car and being too low in relation to the base of the windscreen. I tried to activate the rachet lever beside the driving seat to give more height, only to find that it was already in the highest position. The Accord is also rather black and sombre inside, with a formidable array of controls and switches on the console; but these are all clearly labelled, and on switching on, the instruments light up as a model of clarity. Sensibly placed right at the top of the console area is the navigation screen under a large lip to avoid reflections and provide a clear map display in all conditions. The navigation system can be voice activated.

Tremendous work has gone into the engines to reduce emissions to well below the limits demanded by the upcoming Euro 5 standard in September 2009. The engine we tried first was the 2.2-litre diesel (i-DTEC) in six-speed manual gearbox form, and as with all Honda diesels, it is exceptionally quiet and smooth, wind and tyre noise being the dominant sound sources on the road. Contrary to the claims for this new 149 bhp unit, low speed response seemed a little lacking, and there was need to use the gearbox freely to keep the revs up, when the engine then seemed much more lively.

Acceleration times for the 2.2-litre diesel are almost the same as for the 2-litre petrol model, and it reached 80 mph from rest in 16.7 seconds, with a top speed of 131 mph. Driven briskly, the 2.2 diesel recorded 39.6 mpg, but would no doubt give a better figure given a less demanding test run providing more chance for cruising in sixth gear. The official claim for this model is 49.6 mpg overall. Impressive aspects are the comfort of the ride and the seating, and positive feel to the handling.

Next we graduated to the 2.4-litre petrol Accord with five-speed automatic transmission. Power output is 198 bhp, and in conjunction with this very smooth and responsive automatic it made the Accord an extremely pleasant car to drive, with the advantage of paddle switches below the steering wheel to give over-riding control of gear changes. In fact the transmission responds so well that there is little need to use these. This automatic will become available for diesel versions next year. Inevitably the 2.4 petrol model used more fuel, indicated at 26.5 mpg on the very informative computer display, but the claimed figure is 32.8 mpg. CO2 emissions are 204 g/km putting it in Band F for car tax at £210 this year, £300 next year. Price of the 2.4-litre automatic is £24,560, compared with £24,060 for the 2.2 diesel with equivalent EX trim and manual gearbox.

Tremendous efforts have been taken to make the new Accord a very safe car, with all kinds of optional equipment such as cruise control linked to the speed and proximity of the vehicle ahead, adaptive brake assistance, and a driver alert system to warn of wandering out of lane. Saloon and Tourer (estate car) versions are available, the Tourer costing £1,300 extra. We enjoyed the Honda Accord 2.4 EX automatic at £24,560 so much that we would name this as our Prime Choice; but for the economy conscious it would have to be the Honda Accord 2.2 ES diesel six-speed manual at £21,060.

Mazda RX-8 – R3 version
Going on sale from late August in “R3” form, the iconic Mazda RX-8 four-door sports coupe with its unique design of twin-rotor engine, which does without conventional valves while going through the motions of a conventional four-stroke working cycle, has been extensively up-dated and is more powerful, more refined and better equipped than ever; it is priced at £24,995 “on the road”.

With a claimed maximum output of 231 bhp (from what Mazda refer to as a 1.3-litre capacity - but has been suggested should really be regarded as 2.6-litres!) the twin-rotor unit remains incredibly smooth and mostly quiet until the driver uses full power, when the motor emits a sound perhaps best-described as a “shriek”.

It continues to be a most enjoyable driving machine, yet truly practical with its four-door access to very comfortable leather-upholstered seating (with the qualification that there must be compromises with tight legroom if all four occupants are tall).

For a car as rapid as this, the ride is firm without being harsh and the handling is excellent and very predictable, which it needs to be with a claimed top speed of 146 mph and 0-62 mph acceleration in only 6.4 seconds. It remains recognisably the same shape, but with mildly revised frontal styling of the strengthened body, large diameter wheels (19 inch) with very low-profile (40 section) tyres – although the ride isn’t harsh.

The six-speed gearbox has a short, smooth and precise movement which will be a joy to enthusiastic drivers who will probably be unimpressed by the fact that there is genuinely good flexibility from around 2,000 of the 8,200 rpm at which maximum power is developed!

As well as its unusual concept of sports coupe styling with four-door access, the RX-8 has many refinements, like dusk-sensing automatic lights, Xenon headlamps with auto levelling and washer jets, rain-sensing wipers, remote central locking with deadlocks. All four occupants have cup holders (!) and other luxuries include a premium Bose MP3-compatible audio system with no fewer than nine speakers and an integrated six-CD changer together with steering-wheel mounted audio controls.

Our early taste of RX-8 – R3 delights was in West Sussex, where the weather treated us to a variety of streaming wet roads as well as dry ones on a day of thunder storms, making the RX-8’s splendid handling a joy as well as a practical benefit.

The RX-8’s rotary engine is known to be a thirsty unit (the “combined” figure of this new R3 version is 24.6 mpg and owners of existing models will tell you that they would be happy to achieve that but seldom do so!) but although it may be an anti-social and anti-environmental attitude, not many potential buyers will worry too much about high fuel bills. This is truly a fun car but also a real four-seater. It doesn’t have many rivals in its price sector.

Ford Kuga
No one could say cars are not fashionable, and the big fashion these days is for what is called the Crossover, which is a polite way of saying ‘4x4 with environmental apologies’! Latest new offering in this category is Ford’s German-built Kuga, and a very pleasing car it is indeed. There’s none of the harsh ride characteristics of some 4x4s, designed for pounding over bad roads at ridiculous speeds - instead the Kuga is extremely comfortable, and it’s powered by a refined and exceptionally quiet four-cylinder 2-litre diesel engine with six-speed manual gearbox. There are no plans for a petrol version or for one with only two-wheel drive. The four-wheel drive transmission uses a Haldex coupling giving progressive torque transfer on demand as the rear wheels begin to loose grip on a soft surface.

The test route gave little opportunity to try Kuga at speed, and with few occasions to do more than about 40 mph it was perhaps not surprising that very good economy of 47 mpg was returned, but the official economy claim is also impressive at 44.1 mpg, with the all-important CO2 figure at 169 g/km which puts it in Band E with tax for 2008-09 at £170 (£175 in 2009-10).

To start the engine, the key can be kept in pocket or handbag and the Power button is pressed twice with the clutch pedal down. Good features of Kuga are the clear instruments and information display between the back-lit rev counter and speedometer, good visibility from a high seating position with large, clear door mirrors, and the two-stage tailgate which is spring loaded to lift of its own accord after an initial upward pull. Either the whole tailgate or just the upper part incorporating the back window can be opened.

Quiet, comfortable and easy to drive, Kuga looks set to win many friends for Ford, and it should prove reasonably inexpensive to run, helped by good insurance grouping (10E). The Kuga has plastic front wings, saving weight and reducing minor accident damage.

Only two models are offered, Zetec at £20,500, and Titanium for an extra £2,000, but a wide range of options is available including a 230-volt power socket in the rear offering up to 150 watts, to power such items as a laptop or to recharge a camera. However, unless one wants to go to the luxury of partial leather upholstery and some other items there didn’t seem to be enough extra to justify the added cost of Titanium trim, so our Prime Choice would be the Kuga Zetec five-door 136 PS 4x4 at £20,500.

Fiat ECO Bravo
In a big drive to encourage buyers, Fiat is offering 48-hour test drives, and the Bravo range which was launched in revised form last year, has come in for major engine developments. At the same time, the warranty has been extended to cover five years with unlimited mileage.

No measured fuel economy tests were possible at the recent driving opportunity based on Henley-on-Thames, but the indications of the fuel consumption indicator were most encouraging with readings of 51.1 mpg, and 50.8 from the new 1.6-litre Multijet diesel. The CO2 emissions figure for this engine is 119 g/km, which puts it in Band B for annual car tax at £35. Power output is a modest 105 bhp, but a more powerful version giving 120 bhp is available, as well as a 1.9-litre diesel offering 150 bhp. In addition there is a wide range of petrol engines starting at £10,995 for the 1.4-litre with base trim, the total range being 17 versions, including choice of five trim levels, all with five doors.

The new ECO engine proved a little lacking in response at low revs, so fairly frequent use of the six-speed gear change is necessary to keep the revs up, since nothing much happens once the revs have dropped below 1,500 rpm. There are many special features to the Bravo, including the hill-hold facility, which allows the car to restart on an uphill gradient, or reverse back up a downhill one, without need for clever handbrake coordination, and the steering has Fiat’s two-stage control giving choice of reduced effort for low-speed work, and increased sensitivity at speed. Most models also feature provision for the lights to stay on for a preset interval, lighting the way to your front door.

Particularly impressive on the test drive was the comfort of the ride - a feature too often neglected these days in the interests of optimum handling, yet the cornering and stability of the Bravo are very reassuring. Less pleasing is the way in which the instruments are rather buried away and hard to read unless the lights are on. Also, a driver taking advantage of the seat height adjustment to raise the driving position finds the critical left part of the speedometer masked by the steering wheel rim.

This latest Bravo brings many improvements and a comprehensive range of equipment is offered as standard, especially in the Dynamic trim as tried, and can be enhanced from the extensive options list offering such features as rear parking sensors, electric sunroof, and dual zone climate control. On the launch drive it was not possible to try any of the petrol models, and for a low-mileage family car the 1.4-litre 90 bhp FIRE engine might prove tempting with basic trim and the start price figure of £10,995 in spite of its high 158 g/km CO2 figure (annual tax £145), but we consider Prime Choice to be the Fiat Bravo 1.6 Multijet 105 diesel Active Sport six-speed at £14,655.

Audi A3 Cabriolet
Why Audi chooses to call its convertible a cabriolet is not quite clear, but what is certain is that this new small open car is absolutely delightful. There are none of the flexing and tremor of the body which are noticeable with many open cars, and the handling is excellent, with immaculate steering precision, plus roadholding which makes the car seem able to take corners at almost any speed - within limits, of course!

Unlike the modern trend to folding rigid hardtops for open cars, Audi retains the concept of folding fabric, and this system brings the advantage that there is no loss of luggage space in the boot, whether the top is up or not, and rear seat legroom is not compromised since it was not necessary to move the rear bulkhead forward. Also, the Cabriolet retains the split folding rear seat feature enabling boot space to be extended into the car, or for long items to be carried.

With the Sport and S-Line models, hood folding is entirely hands free apart from holding the switch to operate it. Lowering the roof takes nine seconds, and putting the top back up was timed at 12 seconds. The forward part of the hood has a rigid backing which serves as the tonneau cover when the top is down. The slight drawback compared with folding rigid top convertibles is that the hood is at risk of vandalism, and not as secure against thieves with a knife. With the standard model, nearly £2,000 cheaper, hood action is described as ‘semi-automatic, electrically operated’, so some releasing and fastening of catches is necessary.

Some may say the rear appearance of the A3 Cabriolet with the top down is slightly spoilt by the fixed roll-over safety hoops. The hood features a heated glass rear window.

  Unusually in these days when emphasis is on diesels more than petrol cars, the models available for assessment at the launch were all powered by the FSI petrol engines in 1.8-litre and 2.0-litre form, both with turbocharging. Particularly impressive was the 2.0 FSI with superbly smooth and responsive S-tronic six-speed transmission which adds £1,400 to the already rather hefty £25,510 price for the 2.0 FSI, and if the budget will run to that, this would be our recommended Prime Choice. For a lower budget, and with the 1.9-litre TDI diesel engine and five-speed manual gearbox, you can still have lovely fun motoring at £20,750.

But of course, the temptation, if you can afford it, to spend a lot more on such refinements as leather seats (£1,200), satellite navigation (£1,650), and special alloy wheels (£300), can easily add together to push the price up another £8,000 or more. Being sensible, though, our Prime Choice would be the A3 Cabriolet 2.0 TFSI Sport with S-tronic automatic transmission, for £26,910 or, keeping the budget down and reducing the all-important CO2 factor from 181 to 134, the A3 Cabriolet 1.9 TDI standard five-speed manual at £20,750.

New Mazda6
Mazda6 is more than just a new model from the Japanese company – which is part of the Ford family. It’s a whole new range! Cars tend to get larger and usually that means heavier. Not this one – although it’s bigger and stronger, it’s actually lighter and more efficient.

And the choice is impressive: three body styles (saloon, hatchback and estate car) and four engines - 1.8-litre, 120 horsepower petrol; 2-litre, 147 bhp petrol and 2.5-litre, 170 bhp petrol; plus an extremely refined and flexible 2-litre, 140 bhp diesel.

There are no fewer than 25 individual models ranging in price from a 1.8-litre petrol-burning five-door hatchback in “S” trim and equipment for £15,100, through “S”, “TS”, “TS2” and “Sport” to a five-door estate car with the highest (“SL” – meaning “sport luxury”) level of trim and the diesel engine for a shade over £22k.

Versions with 1.8-litre engines come with five-speed manual gearboxes, diesels have six-speed manuals and five-speed automatic transmissions are offered on more up-market 2-litre versions for an extra £1,050.

Our Mazda6 experience began from Manchester Airport in a five-door hatchback with the highest level trim and equipment available with this body (Sport) and the most powerful engine (2.5 petrol) at £19,630 and also the highest (12E) insurance rating. Heading off to the north-western corner of Wales, with its splendid scenery (mountains topped with late spring snow), over good roads with only light traffic, progress was rapid and effortless. It was interesting to find out just how far lengthy inclines could be tackled without changing down from the tall sixth gear!

Progress was halted when we came across colleagues stuck at the roadside, having clipped a large rock in the road which burst a front tyre (luckily, we just missed it!). Plans to assist them in changing the wheel came to nought when we discovered that there was no spare wheel – just a cylinder of “gunge” which supposedly inflates a punctured tyre and seals the hole - but won’t work when the tyre has a big split in it! You cannot beat a proper spare wheel!

Despite having the lowest profile (225/45) tyres and the stiffest suspension in the range, the Sport provided a smooth ride and confident handling to go with the strong performance.

The next day the diesel estate car was chosen with the greatest carrying capacity of the three body styles, although only by 49 litres compared with the hatchback (rear seat folded in both), while the luggage space of all three with all seats in use, but loaded only to side window level, is almost identical at a bit over 500 litres. Fold the back seats in the hatch or estate and you get a massive 1,700 litres when loading to the roof.

Unsurprisingly, the 2.5 petrol model felt the best to drive, with its greater power, but the diesel’s outstanding mid-range “grunt” (nearly 50 per cent more torque than for the largest petrol unit) provided outstanding flexibility and, in “real world” use, could well be considered more desirable, even at an extra £710 premium.

The best buy? Probably the diesel-powered hatchback in “S” trim and equipment level at £15,620 (only £510 more than the cheapest Mazda6) and with the next to lowest insurance group (8E), lowest emissions level and road tax groups, while still having high levels of trim and equipment.

One of my colleagues gained a favourable impression when he drove the Mazda2 during its launch, but this is the first opportunity we have had to try the supermini out over a more extended period, and mightily impressive it proved to be.

Producing a respectable 86 bhp, the lively and refined 1.3-litre petrol engine in the TS2 model used is allied to a beautifully smooth five-speed manual gearbox and a well balanced chassis, resulting in sharp all-round performer making the car great fun to drive whether on a long journey or merely pottering down to the shops; some may think the ride a tad on the firm side, but that's a minor trade off for its solid feel, sure-fire grip, agility and general handling. The overall fuel economy from our 2 was approaching 40 mpg, which is respectable for a petrol and more-or-less on par with what you would expect from a more expensive diesel unit.

Appearance wise, it's somewhat athletic stance ensures the new 2's design continues the dynamic image that the Japanese manufacturer has cultivated over recent years - its sharp, sporty, looks certainly puts it in a different league altogether from its rather boxy predecessor!

Inside the good news continues. The short overhang of the 'wheel-at-each-corner' concept means an impressive wheelbase resulting in a good deal of usable cabin space - rear leg room and boot space is particularly good for a car of this size - with extra interior room freed up by the high-mounted gear change lever and the neat centre console. Small touches like the well thought out glove box with map/magazine compartment add to the general ambience of this sub-£!0k otr motorcar.

From the drivers seat we like the uncomplicated dashboard, clear instrumentation and the neat rounded appearance of the controls and vents. Front seat adjustment was fine for my 6 foot, plus, frame, with good support and no signs of aching niggles from the lumbar region after a longish journey. Air conditioning, side and curtain airbags, 60/40 split rear seats, heated mirrors, and numerous other desirables, come as standard.

Our follow up drive of this small Mazda confirms the favourable impression gained at its launch in Scotland last year (we have reinserted our original launch impressions at the end of Milestones). All in all then, we feel the Mazda2 to be well designed and superbly engineered with excellent build quality throughout; in the long term, we would expect it to wear well and retain a strong residue value.

Audi A4
Cars go on getting bigger, in spite of the constraints for fuel consumption and CO2 emissions to be reduced, and so it is with the latest Audi A4. This third generation of the model is longer, wider and lower, and when driving it the impression is that it’s quite a big car now, offering a lot of space inside but needing more room on the road and in the garage. But by clever engineering the makers have managed to position the differential between the engine and the clutch, and thereby to move the front axle forward by 154 mm, and to position the steering rack below the front axle.

These changes have made the car better balanced, becoming delightfully responsive and precise to handle, while a longer wheelbase has allowed the new A4 to have more legroom in the rear, and for the boot capacity to be increased. Also, by improving the aerodynamic factor, Audi has managed to claim a 15 per cent improvement in fuel economy and emissions.

Remarkably, at the launch, all the models available for driving were diesel-powered, the choice being a four-cylinder 2-litre with six-speed gearbox giving 141 bhp, a 2.7-litre V6 available initially only with Multitronic eight-stage automatic, and a 3-litre V6.

The petrol versions available are a four-cylinder 1.8 and a V6 3.2-litre with quattro four-wheel drive, and both have FSI direct fuel injection. The 1.8 petrol is £1,350 cheaper than the 2.0 diesel, and has a six-speed gearbox. The V6 diesel 3-litre also has quattro.

There were not many things to disappoint in these highly impressive new Audis, but we didn’t like the lack of any footrest for the left foot, and thought the calibration of the speedometer very bad indeed. It has 120 mph at the top of the circular scale and then goes on round the dial to 180 mph. It means that the increments on the side which most drivers in UK will be using are very close together, and the all-important 30 mph figure is not marked at all. You just have to guess that it’s at the mark between 20 and 40, though it was not too clear which mark corresponded to 20 mph. However, it is conceded that the very comprehensive and easy to read computer display between speedometer and rev counter can be switched to show a large digital speed read-out.

All sorts of refinements are available such as a hill hold system which will be valued by caravanners, adaptive cruise control to maintain a fixed distance from the vehicle in front and air conditioning feeding through the seats to keep them cool in very hot weather. But prices need to be watched, as the extras on the 2.7 TDI, for example, took the price from £28,440 as listed to a formidable total of £40,545. Two trim levels are available - SE and S line - the latter being identified by its row of little LED lights on all the time when driving by day or night.

We enjoyed driving these new A4 models enormously, and agreed that most buyers will probably be very happy with the quiet, responsive and very fast 2.0 TDI, expected to be the top seller. But for £4,500 extra the 2.7 V6 with 188 bhp and auto transmission seemed very tempting indeed, so our recommendation for Prime Choice would be the Audi A4 2.0 TDI 6-speed at £23,940, or if the budget will run to it the A4 2.7 TDI V6 Multitronic CVT automatic for £28,440.

Back, better and cheaper, is the concise summary of the revised SsangYong range in a line-up described as ‘completely refreshed,’ and now being marketed by a new company called Koelliker UK Ltd., which took over the franchise last year. For a limited period - and they don’t reveal how long it will be - SsangYong is offering free servicing for three years and up to 30,000 miles, plus free satellite navigation upgrades on certain models.

There are three models - Kyron, Rexton and Rodius. Much better value than before when it cost £17,995, the revised Kyron is now on sale at £3,000 less (£14,995), and has a 2-litre five-cylinder diesel engine, but note, front-drive only. For another £2,000 it gets four-wheel drive, and a further £1,500 adds Mercedes-Benz five-speed T-Tronic automatic transmission. What is not made too clear is that in basic form the Kyron has beam axle rear suspension, and the ride was uncomfortable. Far better, but also a lot more expensive, was the Kyron 2.7 SPR, which has a 2.7-litre diesel engine, permanent four-wheel drive and independent rear suspension with Mercedes-Benz T-Tronic automatic. The price for this one is £22,495.

The Rexton models all get four-wheel drive and 2.7-litre diesel engine, the Rexton S starting the range at £19,995.

Under the Rodius name come seven-seater SsangYongs, all with the same 2.7-litre diesel engine, and beginning with the 270S at £14,995 in front-wheel drive form. Four-wheel drive comes in with the top model, Rodius 270 EX which also has auto transmission and costs £19,995. We particularly liked the ingenious centre armrest and storage unit which takes out and converts into a baggage trolley with wheels.

The substantial price cuts compared with what the SsangYongs cost before make this new range sound attractive, but one needs to check prices and specifications carefully. Following a brief test day acquaintance our recommendation for Prime Choice would be the SsangYong Kyron 2.7 SPR auto with four-wheel drive at £22,995, and the SsangYong Rodius 270 ES seven-seater two-wheel drive at £16,995.

Renault Twingo
It always seemed an odd decision of Renault UK back in 1992 not to import the previous model of the Twingo, which looked so attractive when seen in France. They were anxious not to conflict with Clio sales, but no such reticence applies now, and the Twingo was launched here with right-hand-drive in September 2007, and what a very appealing little hatchback it is too.

It was pouring with rain when we drove the 75 bhp version, but that is often the best weather in which to try a car and discover any shortcomings. With Twingo there were none, and instead we appreciated the good ventilation keeping the windows clear of condensation, and the clever pantograph action of the left windscreen wiper, which enables the two wipers to sweep nearly the whole of the windscreen area.

The front corners present a fairly large triangular block to corner vision, but this has become almost a universal problem with modern vehicles due to the requirement for roll-over structural strength. Twingo is offered with just two engines at present.

Both of these are16-valve four-cylinder petrol units with 1,149 cc capacity, developing an impressive 75 bhp in standard form, which gives the car lively performance reaching 60 mph in just under 12 seconds, and a top speed of 106 mph; and the other is a 100 bhp turbocharged unit for the sporty GT model. Claimed fuel economy for the 75 bhp version is 49.5 mpg, and a still very creditable 47.8 mpg for the GT.

Ride comfort is good, and there’s generous load space with two individual folding rear seats, adjustable to and fro to give priority to load or legroom as required. The standard model, called Dynamique, is well equipped including foglamps, remote locking, and a neat rev counter mounted separately above the steering column. To the left are a digital speedometer and a fuel gauge comprising a diminishing column of blocks with trip and total mileometers beneath. The digital instruments are large and bright enough to be clearly legible in all light conditions.

Price of the Dynamique is £8,375, or £8,900 with air conditioning, though some extras on the test example took the price up slightly. A wide range of options is available, so we would select as Prime Choice the Renault Twingo 1.2 Dynamique 75 at £8,375, plus £525 if the optional air conditioning is required.

‘Zoom-zoom’ is the well-known brand call of Mazda, whose range goes on expanding and improving at a great rate, and January brought wide-ranging changes to the Mazda5 multi-seater. In a car of sporting style, the manufacturer offers seating for seven with the second row of three seats arranged to slide or fold, and there are two folding seats at the rear. Inevitably there’s not a lot of luggage space when all seats are up and in use, but roof rack runners are available if necessary to put some luggage on the roof.

Mazda5 offers the convenience of sliding doors which are very easy to open or close, so it hardly seems necessary to provide electric action for them; but this is one of the new features, as part of a £1,750 luxury pack which also includes xenon headlamps and black leather trim, and is available for Sport and Sport Nav models only.

The range starts with a 1.8-litre petrol engine at £14,760, but there are also 2-litre petrol and diesel engines. As suggested by the name, the Sport Nav model includes a very good touch-screen navigation system, which also switches automatically to give a rear view picture when reversing. This comes with the 2-litre petrol engine at £19,080, or £20,545 with the more powerful of two 2-litre diesels.

Auto transmission is available but only with the 2-litre petrol engine. All 2-litre models have six-speed gearboxes (five-speed on the 1.8).

Revised frontal appearance and a better interior layout add to the appeal of the new Mazda5, and we were pleased to see good instrumentation. All too often these days, speedometers are too dark to be seen in many light conditions, but on the Mazda5 the instruments are illuminated all the time, and clear to read at a glance. Best value of the new range seemed to be the 2-litre diesel (110 PS version) with TS trim at £16,265, but also attractive is the 1.8 TS petrol, so our prime choice is the Mazda5 1.8TS 115 PS (182gm/km) at £14,760, or for the high mileage driver anxious to keep tax and fuel cost down to a minimum the Mazda5 2.0 Sport 143 PS (162 gm/km) at £18,895.



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