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.

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Range Rover Velar – gorgeous from any angle

If the pretty Range Rover Evoque is the Gucci handbag of SUVs then the company’s new Velar is the Louis Vuitton suitcase. Big, bold and even more stylish, the Velar is set to be THE travel accessory of 2018. With both Rolls-Royce and Lamborghini launching super SUVs over the next 12 months, all-wheel drive, luxury cars like the Velar are set to remain first choice for any well-heeled motorist. Our D240 costs £64,160 and is powered by an eight-speed 1999cc diesel engine. It produces 240bhp and can average an impressive 49.7mpg (combined).

Velar slots in to the Range Rover line-up between the entry-level, compact Evoque and the rather bling Sport (no jokes about footballer’s wives – it’s a serious driving machine). The ‘full-fat’, original Range Rover is still the big daddy.

Expensive, smooth and simply gorgeous from any angle, Velar is a beauty queen in the everyday car park of BMW, Mercedes and Audi rivals. The steeply raked windscreen, low roofline and pert derriere are pure car couture.

I found visibility a little restricted around town through that narrow, rear screen but otherwise the interior is a revelation. Expect minimalist cool – with not one but two control screens that sweep away an ugly rash of dials.

Just like the futuristic Tesla, Velar takes interior design to a whole new level. The steering wheel buttons are touch sensitive, the graphics oh so sophisticated and the Meridian sound system is an ear tingling joy.

Land Rover appears to have thought of everything with the multi-purpose Velar. Even vegetarians are catered for with optional, textured cloth upholstery that pretends to be leather. Mouthwatering indeed.

Velar was the code name given to the concept Range Rover back in the 1960s – so this new model has pedigree. Not that anybody would want to go mud flinging in a machine that costs upwards of £44,000.

That’s the entry-level price. My mid-range 240D HSE costs in excess of £70,000 with a few ‘must-have’ extras, like head-up instrument display flashed onto the windscreen and rear seat entertainment.

Of all the Range Rover models, this one is primarily designed for the road, with a range of eco-friendly petrol and diesel engines. No doubt a hybrid will be along soon, too. Priced to fill the £30,000 gap between the Evoque and the Sport, Velar may be cute but it is still super capable on the rough stuff.

Most versions feature air suspension, which allows the driver to adapt the Velar to suit the terrain – or it can manage the whole lot automatically.

High off the ground and rather chunky, I found the Velar didn’t handle with the pinpoint accuracy of a sportier BMW X5. A Porsche Macan is the best driver’s car.

It’s difficult not to fall for the Velar, perhaps because it has the advantage of being the newest, most sought after SUV available and looks like nothing else.

German rivals do certain things better but as a beautiful package, the Land Rover is something of a head-turning tease. And you can’t really say that about any Audi, Mercedes or a BMW equivalent, can you?

Tesla’s Model X is still in an electric class of its own…

Apart from make the tea, a Tesla Model X does the lot. Elon Musk’s family-mover boasts more luggage space than a Range Rover, will outpace a Porsche – and features a thoroughly entertaining party piece.

The list of standard features also includes four-wheel drive, seven seats for the school run, and a cool interior to make your children the talk of the playground. After all, what other manufacturer has a car travelling through space?

Model X is at the cutting edge of electric car design – and it’s not cheap at £75,000 upwards. Musk, the man behind PayPal and SpaceX, poured billions into his futuristic car programme and this is the electrifying result.

The Tesla is plug-in electric only, with no combustion engine back up or re-charging on the move. Expect some ‘range anxiety’ but even I became used to topping up at night on the driveway, or rapid-charging at a service station.

Inside, the centrepiece is a giant, iPad-shaped nerve-centre that operates everything via a touchscreen. Apart from the obvious, that includes a facility to search out charging stations en route or within range, an e-user manual, plus a top-notch music system.

Above, the front windscreen extends over the top of your head and into the roof, creating a light and airy cabin. The front doors open automatically as you approach, while the rear pair are gull-wing design for added kudos.

The party piece? Tap into ‘Celebration Mode’ and the Model X puts on a display of light flashing, door opening madness to music. You have to admire a man who can build a car with a sense of humour…

Porsche Targa 4 GTS – the car for all seasons

Don’t want a convertible but love to let the sunshine in? The Porsche 911 Targa offers the best of both worlds. A folding, glass roof for the British summer – added security for the rest of the year. The GTS 4 model is tweaked for extra performance, using Porsche’s 3.0-litre engine to produce 450bhp and 0-60mph in 3.7 seconds. It features permanent all-wheel drive too for improved handling. Yours for £109,622, join us for a February drive in the 911 Targa….

The British buy more convertibles than Spain, Italy and France combined. We have a penchant for braving the breeze – choosing style over practicality despite an uncertain climate.

In the past that required a roof made from wafer-thin plastic that proved a minimal deterrent for thieves. Then the folding hard-top came along and suddenly we had year-round protection.

Porsche would argue they invented the genre with the original 911 Targa in 1967. American safety legislation threatened to ban full convertibles, so the answer was an open-car with a fixed rollover hoop and removable hard-top panel.

Equipped with a folding glass roof, the latest Targa is neither a coupe nor a cabriolet. A shade over £109,000, for me it’s the ultimate, everyday version of an iconic sports car.

The folding roof is sensational – an elaborate, tour de force that brought pedestrians to a standstill when I lowered the lid in Knightsbridge. Unlike a true convertible, the Targa gives a taste of open-top motoring without the hassles of a fabric roof.

The only downside is the roof is so complicated it can’t be operated on the move, like some folding hard-top rivals. Still, there’s no shame in pulling over to perform this automatic tour de force that takes a full 20 seconds to complete.

Equipped with a seven-speed automatic gearbox, it’s simplicity itself to drive around town, although rear visibility is compromised slightly when parking.

All 911 models are quick but this top-of-the-range Targa GTS churns out breath-taking performance. It features permanent four-wheel drive for incredible grip and can top 190mph on a racetrack.

Guide it down a twisty country lane and like it’s coupe siblings, Targa has few rivals. A neat electronic system called Porsche Torque Vectoring Plus sends power to the wheels where it is needed most, keeping you glued to the Tarmac.

While that automatic gearbox is great for lazy motoring around town, operating the steering wheel paddle changers on fast roads up the driving pleasure. With the roof open, the roar from the 3.0-litre turbo engine just adds to the thrills.

The downside? With a six-figure price tag the Targa is very expensive indeed – especially when you consider a ‘standard’ 911 convertible can be yours for more than £20,000 less.

However, there are few open cars on the market that offer such a complete, all-round package. Drive it to the office every day, tour across the Alps with the roof open, admire it on your driveway.

Porsche aficionados aren’t so keen on the Targa because the extra weight of the roof mechanism impacts performance. However, the rest of us shouldn’t worry.

And because it’s based on a standard 911, the Targa is moderately practical too. It is equipped with ‘modest’ rear seats and offers heaps of luggage space under the front bonnet for weekends away.

I love the Targa so much I even own one – not a bad recommendation when you consider I’ve tested more than 2,500 cars in the last 30 years. Sadly, I’m more follically-challenged for the those wind-in-the-hair drives these days…

The fastest Land Rover on the planet…

At the more ‘affordable’ £100,000 end of the luxury SUV market is the Range Rover Sport SVR. Powered by an upgraded, supercharged V8 that sounds sensational via four tailpipes.

Now, Range Rovers have long been the embodiment of good taste but I’m not sure the red and black leather interior in my SVR does the cabin any favours. It’s no wonder the Sport has a slightly ‘downmarket’ image in some circles.

Whatever you think of the styling, there’s no denying the SVR is a phenomenal driving machine. Fuel is guzzled at an alarming rate but it is ridiculously fast, either on a motorway or across country.

If the SVR doesn’t get you recognised just hit the sports exhaust button. The grumble from the quad tailpipes is silly loud. Order now for £99,680.

Launching in the spring is the Sport P400e, JLR’s first plug-in hybrid model and said to be good for 101mpg, if you believe the official figures.

For me, the SVR is more than enough…

Ferrari GTC4 Lusso T – does everything, apart from snow

The last time I cocked up this badly organising a test car was the foggy week I borrowed a Bentley. The Mulsanne was mine for the five days when visibility was so poor, speed limits around the country were restricted to 40mph.

So to collect the keys to a GTC4 Lusso T the weekend it decides to snow in England is frustrating. I can see the Ferrari parked outside my window but we haven’t actually been anywhere together for two days.

As the snow came down on Sunday, I managed to crawl home with the transmission in ‘ice’ setting. And I mean crawl – 603bhp rear-wheel drive provides all the traction of a bobsleigh.

What can I tell you? If you want to know about handling and performance, try Top Gear. I can reveal the cabin is a smashing place to reside and the deep rear seats will even take a grown up, possibly wearing a hat.

The Lusso T is an oddly placid place to sit though. It doesn’t ‘feel’ quite as titillating as a Ferrari should, although I’m told there is tons of grip if you want a wild moment of rear-wheel drive pranking.

If you are in the market for a four-seat supercar that will take the kids, or a dog, plus decent-sized boot of shopping, then the GTC4 Lusso T could be the answer. Key alternatives? The beautifully formed Aston Martin Rapide, of course…

 

Mercedes GLE 63 S – the maddest ‘SUC’ out there

A sports utility coupe – who came up with that idea? Perhaps BMW, with the ‘squashed’ X6 are to blame. The styling of that car is takes ugly to new limits, so what chance the GLE then?

Well, despite cursing the shape from every angle, it’s difficult not to find this top spec version crazily entertaining. It isn’t the bodywork but what lies under the bonnet that causes a fit of the giggles every time I press the start button.

Forget AMG’s new 4.0-litre V8, this is the old 5.5 with a tank full of torque (like 760 Nm). It’s quite simple the maddest SUV – or SUC – I’ve ever steered. A high-heeled coupe that overtakes everything with a rip-roaring soundtrack.

Wide 22-inch wheels help boost grip and in Sport+ mode it simply flies from the traffic lights.

Inside, there’s the standard issue Mercedes dash – ruined by the barnacle infotainment screen that won’t fold away – great visibility thanks to the extra height but poor rear vision, due to the tiny, tiny screen.

It’s a bit bling, a bit loud and occasionally a bit wild but is there a better way to annoy Range Rover drivers? I doubt it.