This Week’s Test Car

Mercedes-AMG E63 S 4MATIC+

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…

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

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.

Rolls-Royce Ghost – handcrafted British luxury

The baby of the Rolls-Royce range is an expensive blend of old world charm and outrageous luxury. The interior combines a rash of retro buttons and switches with futuristic stuff, like a 10-inch dashboard screen and a crystal, rotary controller. If you can afford the car then urban fuel consumption of 13mpg won’t be an issue – and that’s posh, premium unleaded too. Prices start at £231,180 but you’ll want some options with that for sure. 0-60mph in 4.7 seconds with 563bhp on tap – just what you’d expect from a 6592cc V12 engine….

The Ghost may be the smallest model in the Rolls garage but it is a whopper to park around town. Unlike the larger Phantom model, the Ghost has less room in the back and usually requires the owner to actually drive it, rather than rely on a chauffeur.

This may be the entry-level Roller but buyer beware. My model came with monogrammed headrests, lambs wool floor mats and Starlight Headliner, turning the roof lining into a twinkling light display. The final bill for this and other options came to £302,000!

Rolls-Royce is owned by BMW but their cars are built at Goodwood. I soon discovered the Ghost is the ultimate blend of German engineering and British prowess – is there a finer way to drive to the office?

There’s a Black Badge ‘sporty edition of the Ghost, although why anybody would want to travel faster in their luxury saloon is a mystery to me. Effortless power was never served up in such a sublime and luxurious package.

You might imagine a car like this works best on a straight stretch of autobahn in Germany with no speed restrictions. Not so. Tipping the scales at a hefty 2.3 tons, the Ghost might wallow on a fast corner but it can still tackle a cross-country journey with pace and style.

That said, it should be an offence to push a Rolls-Royce along at such an undignified speed. Instead, I enjoyed my magic carpet ride across the Cotswolds, soaking up an aria on Classic FM with optional ventilated seats and a purple leather steering wheel.

The view down that long, sculpted bonnet is one of the finest from any motor car. The famous Spirit of Ecstasy mascot stands proud above the grille, although these days it can be lowered automatically to prevent vandals and thieves.

There is plenty of room in the back for family outings and you can bamboozle passengers by leaving them to find rear door handles. The back pair are rear hinged and work beautifully. A pair of umbrellas are hidden discreetly in the front door frames.

Driving a Ghost is a wonderful experience. Once you get over the price tag and engage with it like a ‘normal’ car, there’s nothing to fear. And the good news is modern Rolls-Royces hold their value well – another good reason to buy one.

 

Volvo XC60 D5 R-Design – lathered in lagom

The new mid-size SUV from Sweden is racking up a raft of awards, as Volvo’s resurgence in the family car market continues. The D5 R-Design costs £43,505 and returns an impressive 54.1mpg (combined) from its 235bhp 2.o-litre diesel engine – more importantly than that, it’s an exceptionally good car with a classy interior and more safety features than you can shake a reindeer antler at…

In recent years Volvo has left its antique dealer/two Labrador image behind and become the epitome of Scandinavian chic. No, it doesn’t sell a sports car but as a multi-tool of motors, the Swedes now put together SUVs better than an Ikea flat pack.

The transformation started with the XC90 in 2002, a full-fat luxury crossover that left many conventional MPV owners with a sour taste in their mouth. The latest XC90 is already regarded as a legendary all-rounder, super safe and very desirable.

The pint-sized XC40 has just launched Volvo into the compact SUV market too. It has snatched the European Car of the Year Award and is going to give the BMW X1 and Audi Q3 a bloody nose, make no mistake.

Now I’m discovering my inner Sven driving the XC60. The semi-skimmed, mid-range model is smaller than the XC90 and minus a third row of seats but otherwise a doppelganger. Last month it was named World Car of the Year. Yep, and it’s a Volvo.

The XC60 is lathered in lagom – that’s trendy Scandi-speak for ‘just right’. I’ve already discovered it boasts the world’s most relaxing and well-organised cabin, feng shui’d to the hilt and all the more brilliant for it.

So if you currently drive a sports utility vehicle with a busy dashboard, marvel at what Volvo’s interior designers have done to theirs. My dog could count the number of buttons in our XC60 on two paws.

They’ve been swept away and replaced with a mini iPad screen. It’s not as big as the one in a Tesla but intuitive and simple. That also leaves a larger space in the air-conditioned glovebox where the manual used to be. You see everything needed to learn about this car is accessed via the touchscreen manual.

I wouldn’t say I’m your typical Volvo driver – one hound, no kids – but almost begrudgingly, after just seven days, I have to admit the XC60 is something I never expected it to be. Cool.