This Week’s Test Car

Ferrari Portofino

Want to drive a Ferrari 365 days a year? The Italians think the answer is the new Portofino convertible – a 2+very small 2 grand tourer costing £166,000. Lighter, faster than the out-going California, the Portofino is powered by a 3.9-litre twin turbo V8 that produces 591bhp. It’s a direct rival to the delightful Aston Martin DB11 Volante and if you are interested, the waiting list is getting longer by the day. It’s Ferrari’s new ‘everyday’ car. We drive it across the Cotswolds on a sunny morning in July…

Advertisements

The Everyday Ferrari? It’s Called Portofino

About six years ago I was whisked off to Maranello for a global press conference that was entertaining for all the wrong reasons.

Coachloads of journalists had been shipped in from around the world to receive an update on the company’s progress – It must have cost millions and probably kept Alitalia in business for a whole year.

Unfortunately, it was one of those PR disasters that in Italy involves somebody sleeping with the fishes. Coaches went round and round in circles, translation earpieces failed to work – the good people of the press were left bamboozled.

To add insult to injury, the ‘big’ story was that Ferrari wasn’t going to embark on a massive sales drive, instead choosing to ‘preserve the brand’. Production would not increase and erm, what exactly was the story again?

Well, that’s a little like being invited to the launch of the new Portofino. This is the natural successor to the ten-year-old California, a 2+2 convertible grand tourer that never really lived up to the hype.

The Portofino obviously looks great roof up or down. It sounds amazing, is well proportioned and will fit newbie Ferrari drivers like a glove.

Underneath, the framework allows the Portofino to be 35 per cent more rigid than the California and it’s lighter too. Stiffer suspension and electromechanical power assisted steering instead of hydraulic should improve the handling.

A revised 3.9-litre twin turbo V8 sits up front, there’s an easy-to-understand 10-inch display and, well, it looks jolly from the inside and out. You can even fit two jockeys on the back seats. The hard top also folds up in 14 seconds and at speeds of up to 30mph.

What’s wrong with it? At first glance, not much. The Portofino has incredibly annoying indicator buttons on the steering wheel and despite onscreen multi-adjustment of the seats it’s not a comfortable place to sit.

But more importantly, what I’m missing from this Ferrari is the human touch. Everything about this car ‘feels’ like it is controlled by computers. There’s no drama and ultimately no skill involved in making it fly – and if you enjoy driving that’s a bad thing.

I’m sure this is exactly what Ferrari want to hear because it is an easy drive at very fast speeds. Anybody could sit in this Ferrari and feel like Lewis, it’s very good at that.

Me, I want to feel like Fangio and connect with the car I’m driving. I’d like to feel it through the seat of my trousers, the pull on the steering wheel. If that sounds old-fashioned then you take the Portofino and I’ll opt for the DB11.

McLaren Senna – how fast do you want to go?

Even if you want one, you can’t have one. The full allocation of McLaren’s new hypercar sold out ages ago – long before the first delivery to customers start next month. The latest model in the company’s ‘Ultimate Series’ is loaded with an uprated 789bhp version of the 4.0-litre V8 that powers the remarkable 720S. Just 500 will be built, each costing £750,000 BEFORE taxes and options. 0-62mph in 2.8 seconds and a top speed of 211mph. Just how fast do you want to go? CarCouture visits the track in Portugal where Ayrton Senna won his first grand prix to find out…

When the clock struck midnight last night, the internet was awash with embargoed reviews of the new McLaren Senna. It had to be amazing to be worthy of the Brazilian champion’s name – and it is.

Unlike the forthcoming Brabham BT62 track car, McLaren insist their machine is for the road as well. However, unless you own a large slice of England, don’t expect to enjoy the full performance of one of the world’s greatest cars.

That’s because the McLaren Senna is so fast it really needs a racetrack – and possibly a tame racing driver – to exploit its potential to anywhere near full capacity. For the rest of us, this hugely powerful McLaren is a sharp learning curve.

I recently drove McLaren’s top of the range 720S – a car that’s so easy to live with you could use it to sit the driving test. How could the Senna be that different?

Monstrous power has been squeezed from the same 4.0-litre V8 but it’s much more than that. The car codenamed BP23 relies on incredible, track-focussed technology to get it around the track faster than anything I’ve ever driven.

This isn’t a hybrid like the P1 but it is incredibly light at 1200kg. A whopping rear spoiler that outdoes anything from the 1980s also produces 800kg of downforce at 150mph. The result? The Senna feels stable and responsive at crazy speeds.

Through the corners the grip is staggering, thanks in no small part to some Senna tuned tyres. And strapped in to the cockpit with a HANS device and six point harness, the driver feels completely at one with the McLaren.

In truth, your nerve will go long before the Senna lets go. The shove in your back on the straights is quite brutal – how on earth this car could be used on the road is beyond me!

 

Ayrton Senna’s first win came at this Estoril track in a turbocharged Lotus. What you don’t need to enjoy this McLaren is quite the same level of ability…

 

Mercedes-AMG E63 – a wolf in wolf’s clothing

The BMW M5 has been the class-leading performance saloon since time began. Mercedes’ answer is the E63 – another brutally efficient machine with a 4.0-litre V8 lump under the bonnet. Churning out 612hp, the Merc offers supercar stats, racing to 60mph in 3.4 seconds and on to a limited 186mph.

Passengers are unaware of the drama in a suitable luxurious cabin. Our S model with ‘drift’ mode can even revert the E63 to rear-wheel drive, instead of permanent four-wheel drive. The price is £88,035 but with options such as ceramic brakes, our test car topped £102,000. As good as an M5? Read on…

The E63 is the most powerful Mercedes saloon of all time. It’s the sort of car you can imagine Lewis Hamilton driving when he has kids – ridiculously fast and very ‘Mercedes’.

What makes the Merc so special is the twin-turbo V8 engine. It gives Stuttgart’s finest tons of character and a mid-range punch that is irresistible. Overtaking is a total thrill.

This is achieved with little drama, apart from a thumping bass track to the enhanced exhaust pipes. The accelerator responds from any speed and just keeps on going.

Most of time I pottered around in Comfort setting by the E63 has a variety of drive modes to explore. Sport is the obvious choice for a country road, Sport+ turns the Mercedes into a snarling monster.

4MATIC four-wheel drive is standard – and very useful considering this is such a big car. However, our S model allows deactivation, so the E becomes effectively rear-wheel drive in Drift mode. I wonder how many executives will be using that…

Handling is kept together with ride control air suspension, enhanced to offer neutral cornering and greater traction, even at higher speeds.

Inside, it’s pure Mercedes. Ironically, that means the navigation system isn’t the easiest to navigate, the scroller and mouse control is simply too fiddly. Not sure we need the silly mood lighting either.

There’s intrusive noise in the cabin from the 20-inch alloys and even in Comfort mode, the ride is on the firm side.

But that aside, the Mercedes is a remarkable car. It’s not as quick as the BMW, or as comfortable but brims with character and appeal.

For most people, it will come down to the badge on the bonnet because there’s not much else to choose between them.

 

Extended fun? – Only in a BMW i3

BMW’s latest version of the (almost) iconic i3 is the best yet. It has more range, produces 170bhp and can silently whisk to 60mph in 7.3 seconds. It also costs more – £37,220 with the must-have Range Extender (RX) option.

The 33 kWh motor does a fine job but the i3’s secret weapon is that RX – a 647cc petrol engine that will serve up an extra 50 miles of range if the batteries run flat. It looks quirky but the i3 is a seriously useful piece of kit….

Range anxiety – it is every EV owner’s nightmare. I got used to it in the BMW but there’s always a calculation going on in my head comparing the distance to destination with miles left in the battery.

The funky i3 it comes with the option of the Range Extender, a tiny, two-cylinder petrol engine that offers an extra 40-50 miles to get you home. Brilliant.

If that sounds like cheating then save the extra £3,000 and go completely green because the latest 2018 model has plenty of power from the batteries alone.

BMW claim it will manage 186 miles on battery power alone – realistically, you can expect around 150 miles between charges.

The i3 isn’t that big but it’s the best small, premium electric vehicle you can buy. It looks great and drives even better.

Rear-hinged back doors make for a massive opening space into the cabin, which is a very cool and relaxing place to sit.

For most people it will come down to two things – the oddball looks and the price. It’s a more eye-catching alternative to the VW e-Golf but some might prefer to keep their green machine under the radar.

Honda Civic Type R GT – the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

Back in the 1980s I drove a ‘loadsamoney’ Porsche 911 with a ridiculous rear spoiler. Nowadays you need to own a Lamborghini for anything quite so outrageous – or perhaps a Honda Civic Type R? That’s right, the company that makes lawnmowers also offers a crazy version of every grandmother’s favourite runabout. The £35k Type R is loaded with a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine churning out 316bhp. It has a ‘modest’ 0-60mph time of around 5.8 seconds but equipped with four-wheel drive, this car goes faster than a stabbed rat. Top speed is 169mph – although don’t expect fuel economy of 36.7mpg (combined) attempting that. Join us for a May day dash in the Mad Hatter of hatchbacks…

Hot hatchbacks – sounds like a moniker from the last century. Golf GTI, Peugeot 205 GTI, Ford Escort XR3 – remember them? It may be 2018 but manufacturers haven’t forgotten wannabe supercars for those on a tight budget.

The best picks of the bunch couldn’t be more different. The subtly styled Golf R is a class act minus the bling – the Honda Civic Type R is laden with spoilers and side skirts.

Definitely not one for the shy retiring type, the R outpunches the ridiculous Focus RS for in your face looks. Even a 1990s Subaru Impreza looks like the Plain Jane sister in comparison.

It may be my age but it took me some time to get used to all the attention. Truly, it’s off the chart for silliness.

The rear end is a concept drawing for a spaceship from the next Star Wars movie. And there’s an extra exhaust pipe too – just in case two weren’t quite enough to get you noticed.

At least those pipes don’t make too ridiculous a noise – thank heavens the middle one has been designed to reduce the audible fireworks.

This is no ordinary Civic but it does get the standard big boot, a spacious interior and all the rest of it. Otherwise, the motor that holds the lap record for the fastest front-wheel drive car around the Nurburging goes a bit nuts.

Beefed up suspension and a range of drive settings from ‘comfort’ to ‘+R’ ensure this Honda can serve as an everyday family car or a weekend track star.

Sure, the infotainment system isn’t the clearest – buy a Golf R for that – and the trim is nowhere near VW standards but point it around a corner and the Type R absolutely flies.

To be honest, I’m more of a Golf R man these days but if you like to hang around public cars parks and leave your windows open with the music playing loud (you know who you are), this is definitely a step up from the Focus RS.

The Aston Martin DB11 Volante – for your eyes only…

The Aston Martin DB11 Volante is a convertible that leaves you both shaken and stirred. It owns the road like no other and offers 007 kudos wherever you drive it. Bond usually crashes his cars but this DB11 is so beautiful I just wanted to wrap it up in cotton wool. Top up, or top down, it looks gorgeous from every angle.

The 2018 version costs £144,900 and is powered by a 3982cc V8. Smashing. 0-60mph is dispatched in four glorious seconds and for what it’s worth, you could actually achieve 28.5mpg (combined). It’s May and summer is almost here. Come for a spin in the coolest British car on the road…

The latest Aston sports car may be large but underneath that eight-layer fabric roof is a tiny cabin. A pint-sized Mini convertible actually offers more space.

This successor to the DB9 uses dashboard equipment borrowed from Mercedes, although it’s well camouflaged behind the leather and lightweight composites that line the cockpit. Designers have kept a traditional feel but this is still the most futuristic Aston Martin ever built.

Raising the roof to beat a rain shower takes 15 seconds, driving at speeds of up to 30mph. It’s quite a performance to watch and unusually for a convertible, the DB11 still looks good roof up.

A summer’s drive across country becomes an occasion in the DB11. Enthusiasts will tell you this latest version is the best driver’s car to date – and how right they are.

Steering an older Aston wasn’t for the weak limbed. Just operating the clutch required the calf muscles of a rugby player. Now even the suspension has a range of settings to suit the road surface.

GT is the softest, perfect for high speed cruising. Sport+ unleashes the DB11’s wild side and transforms the car into something of a beast. A massive 503bhp requires nerve – you have been warned.

Under that sleek bonnet is a turbocharged engine that emits a constant burble. If you need extra power there is a faster V12 version too. However, in the upper echelons of the performance car market, this V8 will be more than enough for most people.

It is a fun and rewarding car to drive across country. Unlike the coupe version, the Volante has the added bonus of a folding hood too. There’s an excellent sound system onboard but the music from the huge exhaust pipes was more than enough for me.

There are few vehicles that will give you same experience as the DB11. The new Bentley Continental GT is one, or you might consider a Ferrari 488 Spider But if you want to feel like James Bond on your days off, this is the car.

Nissan Leaf 2018 – a sparky little number

Some manufacturers are racing to bring out their first all-electric car. This is already the second generation Leaf and it’s officially the world’s best-selling EV with 300,000 sales. Our Tekna costs £28,390 and has a plug-in 40 kWh motor that sparks up 147hp. Drive it sensibly and you might achieve the max range of 168 miles – try to reach 60mph in 7.9 seconds and you won’t. A May Bank Holiday in the lovely Leaf…

The Leaf has all the range most people will need for their daily commute. It is relatively affordable to buy and comes absolutely loaded with standard equipment.

However, not everybody will like the styling and regular motorway drivers covering hundreds of miles should look elsewhere. I also found the seats strangely uncomfortable, whatever way I adjusted them.

Cabin quality is top notch but nowhere near Golf standard. And at this price, it comes in right against the e-Golf.

The Leaf’s party piece is the e-Pedal, which can reduce brake application by 90 per cent. It allows the Nissan to be driven with just one pedal by pressing down or lifting off the accelerator to go or slow.

All that battery equipment means the Leaf should struggle with weight but it’s quite agile. The Nissan isn’t a driver’s car but you won’t feel like you are steering a lemon either.

I found it hard not to like the Leaf because it has been designed for first-time EV owners. Everything from the bonnet flap plug-in ports to the chic interior should appeal.

The Leaf is the world’s leading electric car because Nissan has sold more than any other manufacturer. But with other mainstream manufacturers joining the charging fray, it’s going to face much stiffer competition in years to come.