Monday, 25 April 2016

A Grand Day Out

I had a very good day out at the Guild of Motoring Writers appropriately-titled ‘Big Day Out’ last week. It was held at Castle Combe, in Wiltshire, a track I don’t know particularly well, having only commentated for two race meetings there – the most recent of which was back in 2005, when the British F3 and GT championships visited.

The day had the backing of several manufacturers, including Honda, Fiat and Jaguar Land Rover, but more importantly allowed members to drive their own cars on the circuit. Altogether, I had an hour of driving on the track, and somewhat more than that sampling other cars on the local roads.

Although I normally confine myself to writing about the sport rather than road cars, I had such a good day that I wanted to record it here. I know it’s self-indulgent, but then if I can’t be self-indulgent on my own blog, then where can I be? Especially since I no longer keep up-to-date with my hand-written diary!

Readers may know already that my regular road car – that I have owned since 2009 – is an Audi S4 Avant. The biggest surprise of the day was that I fell back in love with it. Not that I had ever really fallen out of love with it, but I realised once again what a good car it is. It is certainly not a ‘track day’ car (although it does boast 328bhp), and I am certainly not a track day driver, but the car lapped very quickly, was great fun to drive and most important, kept me safe despite a couple of minor misjudgements on my part. The car simply accelerated well, braked well and turned where I wanted it to.

By the end of the day, I was confident enough that I knew the circuit, and had the opportunity to take a Honda Civic Type-R around. With 306bhp compared to my Audi’s 328, but weighing only 1397kg compared to the 2275kg of my car, this pocket-rocket was quite brilliant. It may have lacked some of the subtle refinements of the Audi, with that over-stated rear wing and rather bright red sports seats, but I can easily see how it would appeal to a younger version of myself. After a couple of laps, I pressed the red “+R” button that adjusted the engine mapping, steering and suspension, to make driving more quickly even more of a pleasure. Keeping up with a competently-driven Caterham offering passenger rides up ahead was not difficult, and when the chequered flag was shown to bring the session to a close, I was genuinely disappointed. The car is built just thirty miles away in Swindon, and demonstrates a corporate interest in the sport that the soon-to-be-launched NSX (later this year) will surely continue. Honda at Le Mans? Why not?

The other side of the day was made up of various road cars that could be driven, not on the track but around the byways surrounding the picture-postcard village of Castle Combe itself. There were two absolute stand-out cars here: at very different ends of the spectrum, but both left me smiling broadly as I stepped out of them.

First was the Jaguar XF. Equipped with a three-litre turbo-diesel six-cylinder engine and delivering 296bhp, this car welcomed me into its driving compartment from the moment the door closed with a satisfying ‘thud’. Having previously owned a 1988-vintage Jaguar Sovereign, I expected “grace, space and pace”, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the 2016 evolution still provided opulence, speed and a general feeling of quality that surpassed anything that I’ve experienced from any of the German manufacturers that are regarded as market leaders.

Its list of features is far too long to describe here; indeed, I could not even manage to explore everything that the car could do in the brief half-hour that the car was at my disposal. But this was luxurious technology for the 21st century – making driving more comfortable, convenient and safe.

Inevitably, such things do not come cheap: the basic on-the-road price is just under £50,000 and the version I drove would have set me back £58,355, but this is an astonishingly well-appointed car. I found it so good that I would give very serious consideration to it when – if ever – the time comes to replace the Audi. These days, when perhaps greater consideration should be given to the country of manufacture, it is good to know that two of the best cars I drove on the day were made in England.

Then there was the Fiat 500. Powered by an 875cc twin-cylinder air-cooled engine, it sounded a bit like an old VW beetle that I drove thirty years ago. But it was such a happy little car – no wonder you see so many of them on the roads. I promise you, I couldn’t stop laughing as I drove it. And when I spotted a fellow Guild member in a Jaguar XE behind, I couldn’t resist showing him how quick the thing was. It may only deliver 104bhp, but it does so extremely well. Kim Palmer from Jaguar was most concerned that we might have been “racing on the public highway”… Of course not, Kim!

The Fiat is, obviously, aimed at a very different consumer from the Jaguar. But it does go to prove that there are different ways of giving driver satisfaction. Back seat passengers would be somewhat squashed, but not impossibly so. And journeys of over an hour might become more wearying than those in the Jag. But if the task is the daily commute, the school run or nipping over to see friends, then I can see no need to consume fuel at the rate that the Jaguar gulps it down, when the Fiat will get you there in the same time, use less fuel and for an outlay of less than a third of the cost of the Jaguar.

Thanks to Guy Loveridge, Chris Adamson, Kim Palmer, Tom Lynch, Puneet Joshi and Nick Mason who between them ensured it was indeed a Big Day Out. And to Jeff Bloxham for additional photographs.

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