Let's hit the road
MERCEDES-BENZ E 63 AMG ESTATE
Given that range-topping machinery plying Germany's autobahns is already thicker on the ground than boils on a medieval pig farmer, it's always struck me that the success of AMG – Mercedes' in-house conversion specialists – owes far more to the quest for fast lane status than any real desire to actually travel any faster.
Don't take my word for it, though; ask the board of Daimler AG… Word has it that 9 out of 10 directors own a Brabus breathed-on Mercedes. And I can only assume that they favour Brabus over AMG because they too must at some point have sampled the latter's fettled S-Class, the S 55, and shared my conclusion that, in terms of bang for your bucks, it hardly constituted value for money.
Lifting the price to a bad toupee short of a hundred grand, the only external signs of AMG's £25,000 conversion were fatter rubber and a body kit that looked about as sensible as a loud kilt worn over flared trousers. Under the bonnet, the V8 swelled by 473cc to give an extra 58bhp.Which worked out at £431 per horse. Now, it strikes me that anyone paying that amount for a horse could at least expect to be able to pop a jockey on it and watch it snort round Aintree. In performance terms, though, this added price proved even more pejorative: The S55 was a face bending, um, half a second faster to 62mph than the standard car, so each tenth of a second would set you back a modest... £5000. Bargain. Mindful, then, of this previous encounter with a now mercifully defunct model, I approached the E63 AMG Estate with more than a whiff of cynicism, only to be thoroughly and comprehensively disabused of my preconceptions.
For a start, the maths now makes sense. The £73,000 E63 Estate comes loaded with every imaginable (and indeed unimaginable) extra. An E500 boasting an equally lavish specification will afford you little change from £60,000. Power takes a proper, 138bhp hike, equating to a lowering of the 0- 62mph dash by almost a second to just 4.6 seconds and an identical, ludicrously shackled top speed of 155mph.
The estate's handsome bodywork has been subjected to only the mildest tinkering, largely in the interests of shoe-horning a monstrous 6.3 litre, 525bhp V8 under the bonnet, and then allowing it to breathe, and perspire, properly. So it's largely left to lumpen exhausts resembling a first, abortive metalwork evening class to give the AMG game away. Oh, and 19” alloys that appear to have simply been rolled through a shallow puddle of molten rubber and left to dry. The largely classy interior is exactly as you left it in E-Class saloon, with the addition of a class-leading load space that has been subjected to astonishing attention to detail. There are handy hooks, nooks and crannies everywhere, and a raft of demountable, load-restraining goodies hidden under the floor. The only slight glitch being that, without the weight of gold bullion, the rear seat backs won't fold entirely flat.
Labrador pulping performance is, of course, a given, and the V8's soundtrack is just fabulous; a mellifluous, throaty, bass laden growl that, though ever present, is never too intrusive even as it builds to an irresistibly sonorous bellow.
But that which makes the E63 truly irresistible is the separation, via a raft of transmission tunnel- mounted knobs, of power train and suspension adjustment. This means you can leave the suspension in the closest anything AMG-badged comes to a 'Comfort' setting, whilst dialling in 'Sport+' for the very best the engine and 7-speed automatic transmission have to offer.
And this setting's ace in the hole? Well, manual override flappy paddles are there for the asking, but they might as well sign on the dole because – for the first time I've experienced in fully automatic mode – rather than leaving you thumping into a bend in an inappropriately high gear with no engine braking, this gearbox comes down through the gears, unsolicited, as you lift off… And the resultant transformation from merely fast to properly enthralling is little short of absolute.
MEGANE RENAULTSPORT 250
Where previous generation Renaultsport models have relied largely on appliqué artwork and 'phat' alloys to flag internal mechanical intent, the new 250's exterior treatment takes greater pains to lift itself above that which was hardly hum-drum in the first place.
In the bows, the standard coupe's brushed metal Hoola-Hoops have been replaced with a somewhat less cohesive combination of black plastic moustache and the thin, pouting lower lip of the point-of-tears toddler leaving the newsagents without a lolly. In profile, fattened wheel arches are bridged by a bodywork blister which, bizarrely built into the door rather than the sill beneath, all too readily recalls the unwarranted pooling of over-generously applied gloss paint. Astern, the ubiquitous rear diffuser 'n' central exhaust combo gangs up with an enlarged roof spoiler to offer the requisite whiff of sporting intent.
On board, you'll have to delve rather more deeply into the optional equipment pool to differentiate the Renaultsport 250 from a conventional Megane. Above drilled alloy pedals, an instrument binnacle strangely angled with searchlight intent at the ceiling houses a yellow rev' counter, the leather steering wheel rim sports hot hatch-fashionable, opposite-lock-bookmark top dead centre stitching and, in the standard fit department, that's pretty much it.
None of which, judging by hot Megane UK sales history to date, will be of the slightest interest to Renaultsport 250 buyers, for whom little else matters but smiles per honed mile. And the price.
Two models are available: the Cup, at £21,995, and a better equipped Sport model – simply dubbed Renaultsport 250 – at £22,995. The Cup offers a lower riding suspension set-up with stiffer springs, dampers and anti-roll bars, grooved brake discs and a limited slip differential. The Sport, meanwhile, out-cosies its sportier sibling with the likes of leather upholstery, heated, electrically adjusted front seats, dual-zone climate control and automatic headlamps and wipers. Push the price to £24,995, however, and you can meld the chassis of the former with the luxury of the latter.
Both offerings share an extensively revised iteration of Renault's 2.0 litre, four cylinder turbocharged power plant. Developing 247bhp and 251lb ft of torque, it lobs the 250 to 62mph in just 6.1 seconds, and on to a maximum 156mph. However, merely commendable rather than downright startling in the context of today's hottest hatches, it isn't the 250's outright performance that astonishes, so much as the ridiculously civilised manner in which the car goes about its business.
Where rivals may roar, snap and lunge down the road, torque steer-laden helms writhing like the giant python caught napping in Johnny Weissmuller's favourite bathing pool, the Megane Renaultsport is positively oleaginous in its ability to cover ground quickly, yet remarkably smoothly. Ride quality is extraordinarily cultured and supple for a machine with dandruff dislodging capabilities, the steering proves effortlessly refined and accurate, and the 250 displays appropriate poise and admirable tenacity when cornering.
Ironically, a somewhat baggy gear change and a never entirely appealing engine note aside, the only mild disappointment resultant from all this new-found refinement is that the Renaultsport 250 is so well-mannered it rarely feels as fast as it actually is. The hottest Megane will undoubtedly make many new friends, but does leave me wondering whether one or two long-term aficionados of Renault's sporting wing might find it no longer quite red enough in tooth and claw.
VOLKSWAGON POLO SE 1.6 TDI 75
It's always struck me as gently perverse that each successive Car of the Year has invariably been on sale for so little time that most owners have clocked up little more mileage than that required to pop to the corner shop for cat food and corn plasters before the laurels have landed. How, then, can jurors sensibly adjudicate on such weighty considerations as build quality in a car which, much like everywhere the Queen goes, still smells of fresh paint?
I owned a second hand version of the much vaunted Golf GTi 16v Mk 2 for a while, and it drove me quietly insane. The dashboard – clearly constructed from something with all the structural integrity of compressed rhino spore – rattled like Mothercare on a Saturday morning, and my local dealer wanted more than the car was worth to strip it down, with no promise of actually curing the problem.
This, to rub salt in the wounds, precisely coincided with the TV advert in which a Golf owner is delighted to discover that the onboard source of an irritating squeak is actually one of his girlfriend's dangly earrings. How we laughed. Truth is, the public has absolutely nothing to do with Car of the Year voting; this fifth generation Polo being awarded the 2010 honour by, as ever, a jury of 59motoring journalists from 23 European countries .
Unfortunately however, the 'COTY' judging process has started to exhibit disturbingly similar characteristics to another face-off in which the public is entirely responsible for the outcome, the Eurovision Song Contest. Once a lively vehicle for humorous commentary interspersed with largely un-hummable tunes and terrifying dress sense, Eurovision now merely plumbs the dismal depths of partisanship, cross-border brown nosing and the international settling of old scores.
With jurors having a total of 25 points to award and a maximum of 10 going to any car, one look at this year's voting figures makes it instantly apparent that the COTY members of Germany, Austria and, bizarrely, Portugal have all suffered a nasty attack of Eurovision, lavishing points on the Polo whilst almost entirely shunning its strongest rival,Toyota's clever iQ. Not even the French – notoriously partisan when something homespun appears on the shortlist – have ever blockaded so blatantly.
On the basis that this did the trick, just, I should report that Polo, now larger than a Mk 1 Golf and almost identical looking to a post-Weightwatchers Mk 6 Golf, is a very fine car in every respect.The £13,205 SE version I drove is handsome, beautifully made, comfortable, tidy to drive and quiet in the cruise. My only complaint being that the lesser powered, 74bhp variant of two 1.6 litre turbo diesels available couldn't pull a new age traveller off your sister.
What it has done, however, is pull off a victory for lack of voting integrity. If the Car of the Year award is to serve any purpose at all, that, surely must be to reward flair, ingenuity and innovation. Were this the case, the iQ would be a clear winner.