All entries for August 2006

August 27, 2006

Hands on with the Golf GTI

Yesterday I continued my quest for a new car by checking out the VW Golf. I walked into the local dealership and asked about the GTI, which is towards the top of my budget. The dealer responded by offering to let me try the GTI, and also recommended the lesser GT TSI 170 and GT TDI models, which are usefully cheaper than the GTI. I had never considered these other models, since I'd like something with a bit of sparkle, but the dealer's recommendations were surprisingly wise…and full of Q–car appeal.

First car I took for a run out was the GT TSI 170. The ‘TSI’ signifies that the car has a clever 'twin–charged' 1.4ltr petrol engine. Sounds weedy, but the 'twin–charged' bit means that the engine has a turbo– and super–charger, which work in conjunction to supposedly give the performance of a normal, naturally–aspirated 2.3ltr engine. And, I was pleased to find that it most certainly did have that sort of performance. The TSI 170 pulled like a train throughout the rev range, overtaking traffic was easy peasy, and it was super–smooth along the motorway. I think it cruised at 70mph at some ridiculously low rpm, something like 2,200rpm, so it was very quiet indeed. Considering the red line is a touch over 6,000rpm, and it was hushed throughout the rev range, it's fair to say that long–distance high–speed cruising in this car would be a very pleasant experience.

It was extremely impressive, and to be honest, had the GTI been as fast as the surprisingly rapid GT 170 was, then I would have been far from disappointed. However, the GTI was much faster. Indeed, it was so capable, that driving at legal speeds on the motorway demanded more attention than hitting the sorts of speeds that have Daily Mail readers wetting themselves. The GTI isn’t just about straight–line speeds, though; it can most certainly handle the twisty stuff.

The dealer gave me a good demo of this when we left the forecourt, with him driving. He started telling me about the ESP system, which applies the brakes on each wheel individually to alter the attitude of the car; and how good it was for safety, performance, and the like. He then asked if I was a nervous passenger, to which I replied no. He then launched into a series of single–handed four–wheel drifts around one of the large roundabouts on the edge of town, whilst telling me about how the in–car computer takes care of the handling and all that gumpf. It was easy. And fast. I didn’t try anything quite that extreme when I got behind the wheel, but I could certainly see what he was on about. Amazing stuff.

However, the GTI was just too amazing for me; it was just too easy to travel at really rapid speeds. This is good, but as I like to enjoy the process of driving – I want to have to work to make a good pace. In a GTI, to feel like you're going fast, you actually have to be going seriously fast. You will have lots of fun whilst doing it, though. But since I'm stepping up from the family 306, which may as well be a wind–up toy car compared to the GTI, I can get just as much of a kick, at much more legal speeds, in a less capable car. I could always turn off the ESP to liven things up, but when there’s the technology at your disposal, it strikes me as being careless to not take advantage of it ;)

Finally we finished by trying the GT TDI. Since the 306 is a diesel, I have developed a love of low–down torque, so I had to try it to see whether it suited my driving style better. To be honest, it didn't really. It did perform extremely well, pretty much the same as the TSI 170, and the top end of the engine was amazing. However, I don't think I've ever heard such an unpleasant–sounding diesel. When you consider it's also more expensive than the TSI 170, I decided not to add it to the shortlist.

All three Golfs were fantastic. They were spacious, practical, and nicely equipped. They look ok, and in a stereotypically German manner, were full of clever little touches. I suspect that I would also find it too easy in the TSI 170 to make a rapid pace, as with the GTI. I might go back later to try the lesser TSI 140, which might be weedy enough to make driving, in a legal fashion, a worthwhile experience.

However, I did try a car today that did a much better job of satisfying that particular quality, with quite some style, and I may record my thoughts on it later in the week. I'll give you a clue though…it's French, it's small, and it’s probably on Fernando Alonso’s company car list :D


August 21, 2006

Brabus'd

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.


August 06, 2006

Enjoy it while it lasts

I never thought we would ever see this sight.

Jenson deserved the victory today, everything fell into place for him and he simply drove the best race. By and large he kept his nose clean, ran an excellent strategy, and managed to stay calm when the win was still within touching distance. He wouldn't have been the first racing driver to throw it into the wall, when their first race victory is within touching distance.

I'll be interested to see if this does have a noticable effect on him, and the team, in the next few races, as the media seems to think it will. Somehow I don't think the 'Mika Hakkinen phenomenon' will repeat itself for Jense, and I hope he doesn't come back down to earth with too much of a bang in Turkey. Surely a return to mediocrity is inevitable though…

Oh yeah, and was I the only one who almost collapsed with disgust at the sickening commentary from Allen and Davidson when Jense crossed the line :–D!?


August 2006

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