Having reached the stage in life where I no longer have to live on a student's budget, I'm now in the market for getting myself a nice new set of wheels. As in, an entire new car, not just a set of nice alloys. So this morning I went down to Portsmouth to check out some motors. I'd drawn up a brief shortlist, mostly consisting of products from VW Group manufacturers.
First up on the list from the VW Group was the Seat Leon FR. It looks good on the outside, and not too bad on the inside, except for the atrocious 'ergonomic' gearstick. It looks like a really cheap PC gaming joystick, but worse. Unfortunately the dealer didn't have an FR for me to test, so I can only assume the gearstick works better when you're on the move. I'll go back later for a test drive.
Then whilst on my way to see the Audi dealer, I saw a Smart Roadster–Coupe Brabus on a DaimlerChrysler dealership's forecourt. So I went in, took a look, and then took it out for a drive round Portsmouth with the very helpful dealer in the passenger seat. I like the way the car looks…it's got plenty of presence, despite being tiny. However, being tiny means that it will be great for the cross–town commute in the morning to get the train into London, with some respectable fuel consumption from the miniscule engine.
The driving experience in this Smart is also great. All the car journalists go on and on about how it feels like a miniature supercar, with the pops and whistles from the turbo, and a surprisingly aggressive growl from the three–cylinder engine. And, from my brief experience, those journalists were right; it sounds wonderful. The suspension also felt spot on, it was nice and firm but still comfortable, which is how I like it.
It wasn't all supercar–sweetness though, the semi–automatic gearbox is awful. The dealer said that with time, you can adjust your driving style to help smooth the gearchanges; but I think we can all agree that shouldn't have to be the case. Under full acceleration (which by Porsche standards is admittedly sluggish, but you'll never ever have so much fun going so slowly in a road car) you could feel the speed ebbing away whilst the gearbox pondered over the next gear change. It would have been quicker to get a spanner out and physically moved the gear selector thingy in the gearbox yourself.
In 'manual' mode, where you change gear using some nice paddles on the steering wheel, or pushing the gearstick itself, the situation wasn't much better. Although the changes did seem quicker (the dealer pointed out that you're more likely to think that a gearchange is quicker in manual mode, because you know when you've requested the gearchange), there was still too much delay. And I'm sure that the gearbox changed up a gear by itself at one point when I clattered into the rev limiter…which is a reasonable thing to do, but nowhere near 'manual' enough for my liking. And to add to the gearbox issues, I also felt that the power steering was too over–assisted, which could be a problem when blasting down my favourite backroad.
It is a great car, with some brilliant touches, but it's also flawed. I could also do with some rear seats…but, it's a Brabus , so I'd like to think I could overlook that. Also, when the asking price for this particular ex–demo car is almost £15k, that doesn't leave me much money to get a second car for transporting thing like friends around. I could get a well used E39 M5 for £15k…now there's a thought…
Next, I moved onto the Audi dealer. The discontinued Audi A2 is a car built with an emphasis on efficiency in a similar manner to that of the Smart. They had a used A2 in stock which I took a look at, and it was nice enough inside. The cabin was nice and airy, thanks to a massive sunroof, and it felt like a 'proper' car, which was a nice surprise. However, from the outside, it does look like a toy car, which quickly killed my interest.
The Audi is not the only Audi on the shortlist. I then moved onto the A4 Avant, which I think is a wonderful looking car. It’s got a lovely shape to it, I quite like the massive grill, and it was extremely impressive inside. Oddly, when sat in the back it felt very cramped, but it was very comfortable. The cabin also lacked that 'certain something', that indescribable factor that makes a car feel just right. I couldn't say why, but it didn't feel very welcoming. Which is something it shared in common with this particular Audi dealer, who seemed very keen to not entertain my mildly over–optimistic desire to purchase one of his products :D
Finally I went to the BMW dealer over the road, to explore a natural A4 Avant rival…the 3–series Touring. Of course, I’m not looking for one of the new, extremely ugly 3–series; but rather one of the previous–generation models. Happily the 3–series cabin did have that 'certain something', even though, it lacked the all of the A4’s buttons and switches, which is something I do like. The dealer was also a world apart from his Audi counterpart, and was very keen to help me identify the right spec model, which he did. But, as good as the 3–series is, I just don’t think I’m a 3–series person. It’s too common.
So my search for a new car will go on for a while yet. However, whilst I was driving home in the family 306, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it didn't feel like a piece of tat, considering that I'd taken a good look round some pretty pleasant cars today. The handling was nice, the engine pulled well, the cabin was light and airy….maybe a 306 GTI–6 would do the job, and that would be considerably cheaper than one of these German automobiles. But, perhaps, not quite as satisfying.