A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to the SMMT Test Day at Millbrook Proving Ground.
The SMMT Test Day is basically an excuse for journalists and manufacturers to get together and network whilst getting to drive some of the great cars they currently have on the market. Millbrook itself is like a theme park for petrolheads with its famous Alpine Hill route, the high speed bowl, a city route and off road course along with loads of other specialist test sections. With it being a purpose built test facility with the likes of Aston Martin having their own on-site premises, it is the perfect place to drive a variety of cars in a variety of different environments.
Due to the nature of the event, certain cars could only be driven on specific routes and there was a strict 55mph speed limit on the Alpine Circuit for everyone’s safety so there was not much scope for a full-on road test, but there was definitely enough time and road (or track) to give you a great idea of what the cars will be like in the real world.
All in all, I got to drive around 20 cars, but to save you a few hours that you will never get back, I have picked out a select few that I feel a worth talking about:
Audi R8 Spyder
After about half an hour of briefings and a short talk by the SMMT Chief Exec, Mike Hawes, I was handed the keys to my first drive of the day. A Daytona Grey Audi R8 Spyder. There are definitely worse ways to start a Thursday!
I have wanted to drive the newest incarnation of the Audi’s flagship supercar as the last time I got up close with one was way back in 2007 when the original V8 model was released. The R8 has come along way since then – The original was a great looking car and a real show stopper for the time, but as the likes of Mclaren and Porsche have upped their game in the “entry level supercar” catagory, the R8 needs to be very special to warrant that £120k+ price tag! On the outside the second generation R8 looks as good as ever. The subtle cosmetic changes have kept the style up to date whilst still keeping that noticeable “R8” shape.
It’s all very futuristic and space-age inside, Audi have done away with the traditional screen in the centre console and replaced the old dials with what Audi calls its “Virtual Cockpit” which is essentially a very impressive single screen that not only acts as the speedo and rev counter, but also turns into a full screen map for the satellite navigation among other things. Being used to my older cars and being a bit of an old man at heart anyway, it did take me a few minutes to work out exactly how to navigate my way around the dash set up and set the Drive Select switch to my preferred setting, which was of course the “Dynamic” setting.
The first thing you notice when you start to drive off in the R8 is how light everything feels. It doesn’t have the usual heaviness that a lot of supercars have. It’s one of the things that makes it a great everyday car – just cruising along at 30mph feels the same as it would in a TT, you don’t even really feel like the car is that wide or loud. It’s when you open the taps on it though that you realise you’re not in a TT. The V10 opens up and all of a sudden there is a sense of occasion. All you can hear is that fabulous V10 roar as it’s 540bhp pushes you forwards. Accelerating from 0 to 60 in 3.6 seconds, the Audi will then keep going all the way to 197mph and it will keep you smiling all the way there.
The body stays flat all the way round the Alpine Circuit, and there is little to no understeer from it’s rear-biased Quattro set up. Everything about the Audi feels tight including the gear changes. I know a lot of people would have liked the choice of a manual gearbox as the 6-speed gated one in the first generation was spot on, but in my opinion the newest wave of double-clutch transmissions are just so quick and precise. Add that to the throttle blips on downshifts and crackles from the exhaust and you’ve got a fantastic driving experience that just anyone who has a drivers licence can enjoy. Compared to a lot of other cars around this price point, the R8 is by far the easiest to live with. The rear visibility is not as bad as I was expecting and on the high speed circuit cruising as over 90mph with the roof down, it still felt quite civilised and quiet. When you put the car back in to comfort mode the whole thing loosens up, the throttle blips disappear and the gear changes are not as hard making it ideal for everyday driving.
All in all, the R8 is a fantastic all-rounder. Focused enough to take on the Mclaren 570S but comfy enough to live with everyday like the AMG GT or a Porsche.
Coming up: Part 2 – BMW M4 Competition Pack