First Drives – Autobritannia at Millbrook

Andy Goundry: Autobritannia were pleased to be invited recently by the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders to attend their Test Day at Millbrook Proving Ground. The day gave us a brief opportunity to evaluate a number of recent models from a host of manufacturers over a number of challenging test tracks ranging from a high-speed banked oval to a very tricky off-road course. My personal favourite being the innocuously-named hill route, in reality 3 miles or so of tortuous gradients, adverse cambered bends and swooping dips all designed specifically to identify any shortcomings in ride & handling abilities.

Nissan Qashqai 1.2 DIG-T petrol Tekna 2 WD manual

                              photo: Nissan
the new Qashqai – one of Britains best-selling cars                                                 photo: Nissan


Nissan are now well-established in the UK, and, although this was AutoB’s first meeting with them, we hope to bring you more from them soon. Interestingly, Nissans UK Engineering Centre is not far from Millbrook, at Cranfield, and they use Millbrook extensively for development testing.

My expectations of the new Qashqai in 1.2 litre form were, frankly, not high as I fully expected to find it seriously underpowered with compromised ride or handling, being a typically high-riding SUV. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The 1.2 litre four-pot was enough to hustle the car round the hill route very respectably, whilst the car handled excellently round even the most vicious bends, staying on line even when hitting the strategically placed mid-bend bumps designed to send a vehicle off-course. This surprisingly agile handling was not accompanied by the expected board-like ride, which whilst firm was not tooth-jarring.

the well-appointed interior, in Tekna trim level
the well-appointed interior, in Tekna trim level

Quality of the car seemed high, with admirable fit & finish, and in Tekna trim level included a raft of useful kit including an excellent satnav, reversing camera, leather trim, lane departure. With an on-the-road price, in solid paint Tekna spec, of £23,145, it is easy to see why the Qashqai was Britains 6th best-selling car in 2013, with over 50,000 sold.

Nissan Leaf Electric Tekna

the new Leafs clean lines.        photo Nissan
the new Leafs clean lines.                                                                          photo Nissan


Electric car take-up has been comparatively slow, and the day gave a brief opportunity to get behind the wheel of a Nissan Leaf to try one out for the first time. First impressions on pullaway, were of excellent torque giving decent acceleration, with the resulting performance levels being more than adequate. Ride was smooth and well controlled, although under very hard cornering the nose occasionally seemed to push a little bit wide, not surprisingly in a car intended for more sedate urban use.

Again, fit & finish seemed very impressive, and the amount of space inside was particularly impressive, with ample space in the rear seat for a 6’ passenger to sit behind a 6’ driver, with plenty of headroom.

as with the Quashqai, the Leafs interior was well appointed
as with the Quashqai, the Leafs interior was well appointed

Clearly, in such a short drive we were not able to assess driving range, the oft-quoted curse of electric cars, however a number of improvements to the technology are claimed to have improved the range of this latest Leaf over its predecessor, including an energy-efficient heating system based on heat pump principles.

Leaf's two charging points - one for the domestic chargers, the other for fast chargers
Leaf’s two charging points – one for the domestic chargers, the other for fast chargers

In Tekna trim, including such goodies as leather trim, Bose stereo and reversing camera, the Leaf, like all electric cars, is not cheap, at £30,445 after the £5,000 Government grant, however this must be weighed against the low running costs, ranging from free charging (on the Ecotricity network at motorway service areas etc.) to around £2 for a full charge from a domestic supply.

1971 Jaguar E Type Series 3 2+2 V12 5.3 litre manual

the glorious 1971 E Type
the glorious 1971 E Type

As well as the latest products from the worlds manufacturers, a number of more classic cars were on show, and the opportunity was seized to take out a 1971 series 3 E Type. Purists may argue that this was the least memorable of the E Type generations, yet it still, to me at least, retains all the magic of the earlier versions.

This particular car, Regency Red WHP 205J had an interesting history. Originally part of Jaguars press fleet, it had a memorable claim to fame when it was used to “race” a Jaguar jet fighter aircraft. It has been retained as part of the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust collection ever since.

Jaguar v Jaguar - one of the classic publicity shots.   photo: Jaguar Heritage
Jaguar v Jaguar – one of the classic publicity shots.                  photo: Jaguar Heritage

Clambering over the surprisingly wide & deep sill into the tight-fitting bucket seat, it was immediately striking just how narrow the cabin was compared to a modern car. Indeed, the whole all-too-brief drive served to remind us just how far car technology has advanced since the days forty-plus years ago when this model was the peak of automotive excellence. Even setting off was not the smoothest, with just the right amount of throttle needing to be applied to prevent embarrassing learner-driver style kangaroo hops.

Once on the move though, the car was smooth and responsive, although stopping required a huge effort on the brake pedal. Foot movement from the accelerator to the brake required care, as the space between the pedals was minimal. And yet these little quirks in no way detracted from the magnificence of the beast, although it demanded 100% attention – this was a car you need to engage with to savour it. And the smell of exhaust fumes after they had passed through those four Zenith Stromberg carburettors could be bottled and sold for a fortune!


Vauxhall Astra Sports Tourer Tech Line 1.6CDTi 136ps manual

Astra Sports Tourer
Astra Sports Tourer

Although the Astra has been around for a couple of years, this was an opportunity to try the latest 1.6 litre diesel unit, dubbed the “whisper diesel” by the manufacturer. In truth, whilst noise levels at idle and cruising were muted, under acceleration there was a pronounced diesel “boom”.

Dynamically, the car felt a little disappointing, with acceleration fairly leisurely despite the claimed respectable 320Nm torque. The steering felt a little heavier than expected, with the gearshift being a little rubbery and lacking in precision. Releasing the handbrake identified an unexpected finger trap against the gearshift, an issue Vauxhalls ergonomics experts really should have spotted and eliminated before launch.


In Tech Line trim, the Sports Tourer includes a number of useful features, such as  sat-nav, DAB radio and Bluetooth, and is reasonably competitively priced at £20,525 on the road.

Bentley Continental GT Speed Convertible 6 litre 625ps, 800Nm W12, 8 speed auto

looking every inch a thoroughbred - the Continental GT Speed
looking every inch a thoroughbred – the Continental GT Speed

This is billed as the fastest production Bentley ever, and it certainly felt like it! Whilst it was not possible to prove the claimed 205mph top speed and 0-60mph time of 4.0 seconds, the almighty shove in the back at even modest throttle openings gave little room for doubting the manufacturers claims. Under such acceleration the exhaust note left no doubt that this was a performance car of some standing, yet at the same time sounding refined and entirely in keeping with the nature of the car. Otherwise, noise levels were very subdued, although I was surprised to hear a couple of creaks from the convertible roof at times – the roof being firmly up in view of the thunderstorms of the day.

Ride and handling was carpet-smooth, although time did not permit exploration of the variety of ride heights and suspension settings which were available controlled by the central touch-screen.

In many respects, though, the performance is irrelevant for this car is all about impeccable fit & finish, materials & attention to detail, leaving little doubt that you are sitting in something very special. To take but a small example: where almost any other car would have a simple plastic clip to retain the emergency warning triangle in its stowed position in the boot, the Bentley has a beautifully trimmed holder, embossed, naturally, with the famous winged B.

no crude plastic clip to hold the Bentleys warning triangle!
no crude plastic clip to hold the Bentleys warning triangle!

Bentley pride themselves on their ability to personalise a car to the customers taste in a myriad of details, even extending to the level of stitching colours of the beautifully tactile steering wheel. Given the possible permutations, it is easy to imagine that it would be possible to spec a car to the point of garishness, yet our test example was a model of refinement, in Imperial Blue with blue crystal and linen leather seats, all set off by a turned aluminium facia reminiscent of the earliest Bentleys.

peerless quality and attention to detail everywhere
peerless quality and attention to detail everywhere

Such refinement can never come cheap: our test cars starting price was £167,900, escalated to £199,300 by a number of options including an impressive Naim sound system costing over £5,000.

Ford Fiesta 1 litre Ecoboost Powershift

the ever-popular Fiesta   photo: Ford
the ever-popular Fiesta                                                                       photo: Ford

Although coverage of Ford products has been limited in AutoB, they do in fact carry out a substantial amount of engineering design in the UK, particularly of their engine range, and indeed the UK is the worldwide manufacturing centre for both small diesel engines and the 1.6 litre Ecoboost used in the Fiesta ST etc.

Traditional thinking is that a 1 litre engine is just too small to be matched to an automatic transmission effectively, so we were very interested to try out this recently introduced combination. The Fiesta platform itself needs no introduction, having deservedly received high praise from almost everywhere, and we found the 1 litre 3-cylinder engine plus Powershift transmission combination made for a car which was incredibly easy to thread around the tight Millbrook simulated city route, with plenty of acceleration being available and seamless gearshifting. So encouraging was this that we then ventured out onto the high-speed bowl, fully expecting to find the car became noisy and thrashy under high-speed conditions. Again, it far exceeded expectations, having adequate acceleration to enter the high speed bowl – akin to joining a very fast-flowing motorway – and cruising quietly and smoothly ay well over the legal limit.

Altogether this was an excellent little package, at prices from £15,195 on the road, and is well recommended.

Skoda Yeti Outdoor 2.0 litre TDI 140ps automatic

The rather clever and impressive Yeti Outdoor
The rather clever and impressive Yeti Outdoor                Pic: Skoda Auto UK

Although well outside AutoB’s normal remit, with no clear UK content, the opportunity was too good to miss to try this little Skoda soft-roader on Millbrook’s off-road course, particularly in view of the torrential rain of the day making ground conditions treacherous. In fairness, there is no comparable small bog hopper in the price bracket having any significant UK content.

Initial impressions were that the off-road course was comprised mainly of fairly modest potholes and puddles, with solid ground underfoot. However, this misconception was soon dispelled when suddenly confronted with a steep, almost 45 degree, drop of some 20 metres down an embankment. However by selecting hill-hold, the Yeti crawled surefootedly down the slope to safety.

The final obstacle faced was a similar slope, this time upwards and with an extremely sticky mud surface which bore evidence of unsuccessful climb attempts previously by other vehicles. However, foot to the floor we attacked the hill, getting almost all the way up before the mud overcame the tyres. However, rapidly winding the steering from lock to lock whilst keeping the throttle hard down gave just enough traction to let us crawl successfully to the top of the hill.

Interestingly, far from the DSG automatic transmission fitted to the test car being a hindrance, it made off-roading much simpler, allowing the driver to concentrate on the terrain, leaving the car to ensure the right gear was selected.

All in all, an exhilarating experience and a tribute to the amazingly surefooted little Yeti, scorned by many an a soft roader unable to go where “real 4×4’s” can manage.

not the ideal weather for testing a McLaren 650S!
not the ideal weather for testing a McLaren 650S!


Overall, the SMMT day provided an excellent and highly enjoyable opportunity to sample a wide range of vehicles under controlled and repeatable conditions – a tough job, for sure, but someone’s got to do it!

With thanks to Janet Wilkinson and the team at SMMT for their mammoth task in arranging the day.


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